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Never Look Away (2018)

This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).

Nate’s Grade: B+

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If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Serving as a feminist reclamation project, Mary Queen of Scots attempts to re-contextualize “Bloody Mary” in the royal dispute for the English throne. As played by Saoirse Ronan, Mary is portrayed as an empathetic, open-minded but strong-willed ruler looking to make peace between the two nations, and Elizabeth is portrayed as a flinty, scared, aloof woman that literally tells her younger cousin that she is her better in every manner. It’s a flip of how the two women are often portrayed throughout history, which raises the question of whether history has been twisted from centuries of revisionist and political obfuscation. There are definitely elements in this movie that I know are historically questionable, like Mary accepting a gay man into her royal court of ladies with open arms and a dismissive view of his sexual leanings. I find it hard to fathom that a devout Catholic woman who ordered heathens burned at the stake would be so anachronistically tolerant of homosexuality. If there’s a new theme for this costume drama it’s that women, even those in power, even those who were deemed wicked or corrupt by historians (universally men for centuries), were hemmed in by scheming men who were trying to usurp their power, undermine them, and manipulate them. Mary is thrown into one faulty suitor after another, positioning her as the victim of a patriarchal society. Again, I suspect there is validity to this context but it treats Mary with kid gloves, denying her righteous impulses. Ronan (Lady Bird) delivers a fine performance of grit and grace, but it’s Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth that really misses the mark. She is sadly miscast and seems to shrink in the role. The depiction of Queen Elizabeth is also a disservice for drama and the concluding makeup reminded me of the Queen of Hearts from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderand. Mary Queen of Scots is an acceptable costume drama told with a little more heat (it’s R-rated for some reason) and a little more consideration to its subjects, but Mary Queen of Scots made me question the voracity of its portraits and made me really wish I was watching the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie instead.

Edit: There are two Marys at this time, Stuart and Tudor, and I have conflated them. In my defense, it seems like there shouldn’t be more than one Mary by name when you’re talking about a Catholic rival who is related to Elizabeth. I’ve left my review uncorrected to further own my ignorance.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuaron won a bushel of Oscars for his last groundbreaking project, 2013’s lost in space epic, Gravity, and one of the most daring and innovative filmmakers working in cinema had what every artist craves — cache. He could do whatever he wanted with his earned credits. And so Cuaron told a personal story about growing up in Mexico City, a love letter to his own nanny. Roma follows the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) for most of the year 1971, through her ups and downs and the loping rhythms of domestic life. This review is going to come across sounding far more critical than I intend. It’s mostly because I’m trying to deduce why my own experience with Roma was not the rapturous, transformative experience that my fellow film critics have sang. It’s a good movie but I’m trying to pinpoint why it kept me from fully engaging, or what within me stopped from engaging further. I think it stems from the central intent of the film and its overall perspective that proves too limiting for my tastes.

But first the good and the exquisite. Roma is a lusciously photographed and composed movie that brilliantly recreates the time and place of Cuaron’s childhood with stunning black and white photography (Cuaron serves as his own cinematographer for the first time). There are moments that are stupendously put together, pulled directly from Cuaron’s impeccable memory. Sometimes these even stem into the surreal, like a forest fire that features a man in holiday costume singing to himself while life and the flames rage on behind him, the chaos of the moment centered on a beautiful focal point. There’s an extended sequence of a car trying to park down a narrow driveway that becomes a symbol of unchecked manhood. There’s a riot that feels like it is being captured live, even though your brain tells you it’s the work of hundreds of people all coordinated to bring about Cuaron’s vision. There’s even a subtle (maybe not so subtle) nod to Gravity at the local movie theater. There is one family relative who garishly hangs the heads of dearly beloved dogs from the past as if they were hunting trophies. It’s a peculiar and striking detail and something that carefully tells you more about a side character. Then Cuaron cleverly cuts to the current canine being pet, establishing the connection of present and future as well as past and present, an achingly affecting theme throughout the film, trying to better understand our beginnings and the people who impact us.

You can tell he has great affection for the women often responsible for the upbringing of children in rich homes. Cleo is the main character of Roma and given humble life by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. She’s very passive and selfless to a fault, but her actions demonstrate the care she has for the family she works for, especially the younger children. The emotional thrust of the film is Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy. She’s single, young, and worried it might cost her employment. It’s a difficult decision and the would-be father, a friend of a cousin, seems to want nothing to do with this new responsibility. There’s a moment late in the film, filmed in Cauron’s signature long takes, that breaks your heart, forcing the audience into Cleo’s position where she is struggling for meaning as an agonizing reality sinks in. Aparicio shows that she is more than capable of communicating larger emotions when given the opportunity.

And yet, I kept waiting to be truly transfixed, and waited, and ultimately I found myself enjoying Roma but more as a lyrical long form memory piece from someone else’s life than as a functioning drama. This is a love letter to Cuaron’s childhood nanny (it’s dedicated to her by name) and it’s a recreation of his childhood memories, which makes it deeply personal and lovingly realized from the basis of plucking fully formed moments and bringing them to startling life. The visual arrangements, movements, and bustling activity of life feel beautifully reconstructed. The problem starts to be that the movie feels like a series of moments rather than a larger story, and the argument for many will be that this is by grand design, that Cuaron is intending to comment upon the nature of life and memory through the smaller details, the kind that find their sticking places in our senses, and I do not dispute this intention. However, the end result can approach feeling like watching someone else’s dream of their past, a collection of home movies. The entry point for an audience member is going to be narrower because we didn’t live these memories.

Roger Ebert said that cinema was an empathy machine and with the right storyteller an audience should have no problem being able to experience a plethora of emotions and experiences from a wealth of characters in an array of circumstances and settings. The added problem with Roma is that Cuaron purposely chooses an outsider perspective but also choosees to film it as an outsider. Cleo is an outsider presence, which is a good starting point for drama and contrasts. She’s an indigenous Mexican, working poor, and the family member who isn’t really family. She floats through different communities feeling like she doesn’t fully belong, reminded of what sets her apart and unable to fully immerse herself in her surroundings. She’s left her family, her old way of life to move into the city and be a surrogate parent, and when she becomes pregnant she has to question her commitment to having her own child. The character of Cleo has great potential for human drama, though Cuaron seems to idealize her and hold her as a romantic symbol of his childhood, like he’s trying to do right by her legacy and memory. She’s a little too simplified, a little too selfless, and a little too opaque for the lead of a movie.

Being an outsider is a good starting point for a story, allowing insight and criticism. This perspective is nullified by Cuaron’s storytelling and filmmaking choices to make the audience feel like a passive observer. Cuaron favors long wide shots that keep the viewer at a relative distance, both literally and figuratively. We’re soaking in all the details of the scene but those details are set dressing and visual compositions (Cuaron even imported his family’s old furniture). We don’t delve deeper into this realm because we are observing it from afar, from the added distance of time. It’s like a museum piece of a middle-class Mexican family’s life, safe for consumption and minor consideration before an audience is free to move onto the next exhibit. There’s a compassion that almost feels clinical, like the artist too afraid to spoil their art. I have no doubt how meaningful the movie is personally for Cuaron but he curiously forgoes the tools to make it more accessible, more open to others to empathize, and more meaningful for people who unfortunately didn’t have a Cleo.

Roma is a gorgeous movie that is handsomely made and lovingly dedicated to the people who often go unseen and undervalued in a lifetime. It’s elegantly photographed and often has the feel of a living dream built from Cuaron’s childhood memories. It’s well intentioned and with obvious artistic flair. However, when it was all done, all 135 minutes, I felt surprisingly unaffected. It’s a movie of moments, some of them vivid and others lyrical, but the outsider perspective and filmmaking choices made it hard to find an entry point and to fully engage in Cleo’s plight and the characters as a whole. So much more attention seems to be placed upon recreations of time, place, and people that were meaningful to Cuaron, but that doesn’t make them meaningful to me without added efforts. Roma is a quality movie with quality production and an okay story that holds back the intended reach.

Nate’s Grade: B

Green Book (2018)

Green Book plays like a twenty-first century rendition of Driving Miss Daisy, a well-meaning and relatively gentle movie about race relations where a prejudiced white person comes about thanks to their firsthand friendship with an African-American male. It’s reportedly inspired by the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a nightclub bouncer, driving around a famed pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), as he performed throughout the South in 1962. The best part of the movie is the character interaction between this odd couple, and you’ll get plenty of it too. The actors burrow into their very distinctly conflicting characters, so it’s a natural pleasure to watch them eventually bond and learn from one another. This is the kind of racism that doesn’t make people feel too uncomfortable, and you could say that about the film as a whole. It’s a bit safe and has its intentions set on being a big, inclusive crowd-pleaser, and it plays like one. There are moments to make you laugh, moments to make you cheer, and moments to make you tear up. Morstensen and Ali are terrific together and find dignity and humanity in characters that could have easily become one-note stereotypes. The more we learn about Dr. Shirley the more interesting he becomes, a man used to feeling like an outsider no matter the company he keeps. Watching the two men grow and open up to one another can be heartwarming and deeply satisfying. Remarkably, the film is directed and co-written by one half of the Farrelly brothers, the pair responsible for ribald comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. It’s an easy movie to fall for, with its winning formula and enjoyable actors, but there’s a little nagging concern I have that Green Book is too safe, too straight, and too pat in its life lessons. Despite its Best Picture win, it’s not like Driving Miss Daisy has any lasting cultural impression, and I wonder if maybe Green Book is destined for the same. Still, the acting and writing is enough to bring a smile to your face and remind one’s self about the power of kindness.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Melissa McCarthy adopts the Oscar bait route of pre-approved credibility, which usually means playing a tragic, self-destructive real-life figure, stripping away any sense of vanity, and working with an up-and-coming indie film director (Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller). The recipe is alive and well in the consistently entertaining, but only for so far, Can You Ever Forgive Me? which traces the life of literary author Lee Israel, a biographer who nobody wants to read, that is, until she starts “discovering” lost letters from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other famous authors. In total, Israel forged 400 letters and sold them to private collectors and archivists until the FBI charged her with fraud. Because of the relatively low-stakes nature of her accidental jaunt into criminality, the “how” is less interesting than the budding friendship formed between Israel and a malcontent bawdy barfly/partner in crime (Richard E. Grant). Their rapport is wonderful and they truly seem to be having a ball with their ill-gotten gains, yet they still maintain a vulnerability even to the very end. In many ways this film does for McCarthy and her standard barrage of caustic, anti-social characters what Punch-Drunk Love did for the Adam Sandler introverted goofball sad-sack barely concealing his explosive rage. It’s a grounded deconstruction on that familiar movie archetype we’ve seen from a popular comic actor. There are some interesting aspects about Israel’s lonely life, like a timid female bookshop owner who circles around a potential romance with Israel, but it’s really a two-hander of a movie between Grant and McCarthy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a slight character-driven drama with comedic elements, but McCarthy shows that she has the acting chops to play multi-faceted characters in any genre if given the right opportunity.

Nate’s Grade: B

First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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