Movie Review: First Man

This is going to sound stupid, but I think the Moon is the most under appreciated celestial body in the Solar System. I like Mars and all, but it is years away, and we have a perfectly decent planetoid less than a week from us. It is too bad NASA did not bother sending more missions and establishing a settlement after a handful of successful landings. What no one realizes, what we often take for granted, is how far we had to go to before getting off the ground. And First Man is about that prelude.

While working as a test pilot Neil, played by Ryan Gosling, signs up to work on NASA’s mission to the Moon. As the years go by, Neil and his crew get closer and closer to reaching their goal.

Gosling is one of those actors that has one mode, but plays it very well. Keanu Reaves, for example, is very reserved and keeps a lot of his energy bottled up for when it is appropriate. Not to harp on the man’s talent, but outside of John Wick and The Matrix, Reaves is not suited for many divergent roles. Gosling, with the exception of Nice Guys, is also reserved and methodical in 90% of his performances, even when he has to be outgoing. If you have ever heard the guy scream, it sounds like he never raises his voice outside of acting.

This made him the perfect choice for the lead. Neil Armstrong was notoriously private, refusing interviews and keeping out of the public spotlight before and after the Moon landing. A lot is not known about the guy, but given his intense reclusion you can glean what Neil was like as a person. Being a character study more than a historical piece, Gosling could not have sold the part better.

Taking note from his performance in Drive, Gosling was almost robotic. He comes off very driven in his goal to reach the Moon, but uses it to cover a ton of emotional baggage. He immerses himself in his work to avoid dwelling on the past. The very beginning of First Man starts with the loss of Neil’s daughter, an event that informs his entire character. He emotionally confines himself, becomes erratic when something triggers the memory, and never expresses his feelings. You can feel and see it on Gosling’s face with no breaks in character.

The other part of First Man is the program leading up to the landing. It does not go terribly in depth, but enough that you understand we started from square one. So much went into just figuring out how to dock in orbit. The struggle for progress further informs Gosling’s character as people are killed in accidents and equipment is destroyed. The more NASA fails, the more Neil is determined to reach the Moon, furthering the dedication to his work and emotional reclusion.

Another great aspect of the program side is the effects. I would say almost all of them are practical with CG enhancement. Given the cinematography, that was the only way to go. The camera is centered around Neil and what he is doing, creating an air of claustrophobia when it comes to perspective. Any out of place effect or fakery would have looked obvious. For the flight sequences, Gosling is shot from inside real cockpits with real exteriors captured from whatever vehicle he is flying. For added realism, the backgrounds are the result of rear screen projection with quality on par with Interstellar. The only bad effect was a shot of Apollo 11 lifting off at the end.

Being a month late I cannot imagine this review will sway you to see First Man. It is very good, but came and went like most historical films. What I think separates it from the norm is not only the subject, but also how it is presented. What Neil Armstrong was like is a mystery to many and here we get a personal view of the man from his humble beginnings to the moment that made him a legend. It is really one of the few historical movies that bucks the formula and I think you should give it a second glance before it is gone from theaters.

 

Movie Review: Justice League

So, I drastically underestimated the month of November. My vacation went longer than I planned, some stuff happened in between, and there is a lot I want to write about. I also have a Secret Black Project I am trying to push out around December. To put it simply, expect a gradual trickle of posts in the days to come. And now, here is a review I wish I could put off indefinitely.

After the death of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, played by Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot, put together a team to counter future threats. At the same time, an ancient evil scours the globe in search of artifacts that could mean total annihilation.

The DCEU was born in a state of perpetual catch-up. By 2013, when Man of Steel was released, the MCU had an ensemble of well-defined characters and a story spread across different installments. Since then, every studio under the sun has tried to emulate Marvel’s success, and Warner Brothers was the first to give it a try. However, they came out of the blocks a little too fast, and also went backwards.

Justice League suffers from the same issue that plagued BvS. It skipped over the basic foundations of a long form narrative to make that Marvel money. The philosophical underpinnings and deconstruction of a superhero in real life touched upon in Man of Steel were pushed to the background to jump-start the DCEU. I would love to have seen what Zack Snyder was trying to say about Superman, but Warner Brothers wanted its own cinematic universe as soon as possible.

The haphazard nature of the DCEU is baked into Justice League. While there is some development and depth with the three new characters it is not enough. We are given basic details about who they are from interactions with the team, but there is no foundation on which to even know them. Flash is a spaz, Cyborg is brooding, and Aquaman does not care. That is all we get. We do not have to like them, but it would be great to have a reason why we do not like them.

Is there more to Flash behind his spastic personality?

How does Cyborg feel about being brought to life as a robot?

Did something happen to Aquaman that made him a loner?

I would like to know, but there is nothing to go on. You are forced to make assumptions based on how the characters interact with each other and what is there is minuscule to say the least. No time was given to build a foundation for these characters to stand upon and the movie suffers as a result.

Then you have the rushed progression in which the story plays out. The League is quickly assembled before going off on their first mission, followed by a quick digression into an obvious spoiler, and then it ends. It all happens very fast with brief pauses in between. Typical story tropes like a Low Point or the characters having doubt were more or less nonexistent. The whole film was in one ear and out the other with a two-hour run time that felt like 60 minutes. When the credits rolled I almost forgot I actually saw the damn thing.

Another aspect of note is the change in tone. Up until now, the DCEU was established as darker and realistic compared to the MCU. Wonder Woman was bright and optimistic, but carried the series’ signature tone in the visuals and story. I have no issue with what the DCEU is trying to be, but Justice League did. This time, the movie is saturated in color and uncharacteristically happy in a lot of places. It is more an issue of consistency, like Warner Brothers was regretting their past choices, and wanted to backtrack four films in.

As strange as this sounds, the banter and jokes took me right out of the experience. Following up a deadly serious and violent study of the superhero with a movie where characters talk like they do not care felt like a punch in the face. All of a sudden, Zack Snyder walked back everything he was trying to do in the past. Then Joss Whedon showed up to drive the final nail in the coffin. I was expecting the DCEU signature and got a mediocre Avengers clone.

That is Justice League in a nutshell: Avengers if it was Suicide Squad.

These principle issues are why the film does not work, but there is more I feel compelled to discuss. For one thing, Danny Elfman took up the reins of composer in place of Hans Zimmer. The soundtrack was up beat and heroic, not unlike your typical Marvel movie, and pulled me even further out. The DCEU had a rapturous, epic feel thanks to Zimmer’s distinct, albeit annoying use of percussion and horns. Justice League might as well be a separate entity given how the soundtrack makes it stand out.

The villain Steppenwolf is dumb, but not because he is a run-off-the-mill bad dude. He is totally CG, not a guy in a rubber suit or something real. Warner Brothers was so cheap, they could not be bothered to hire someone to wear a relatively simple costume. I would do it for free if it spared audiences from watching that gaudy CG abomination. At least Marvel makes their CG characters look good before putting them on the big screen. Take the ugly Ares character from the ending of Wonder Woman, place him throughout the entirety of the movie, and you have Steppenwolf.

Not much to say about the performances. Honestly, it felt like everyone was just going through the motions, trying to get it over with so they can work on other projects. Gadot was still a great Wonder Woman, but she had a lot more to do in her own film. Affleck really hated the whole situation from start to finish. He clearly has his own ideas for Batman, a character he loves, but he is forced to stand in front of the camera instead of behind it. Despite being an obnoxious prick in real life, Ezra Miller was fine as Flash. He was genuinely funny in some places and stood out the most. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman did not have anything to do and Ray Fisher was a boring Cyborg that was also hamstrung by a bad script.

It is unfair that Justice League had everything stacked against it. I did not want to see it knowing the DCEU has been consistently bad (except Wonder Woman). Nobody wanted to give this movie the light of day and it was intellectually dishonest of me to have such low expectations. Having seen it, I was only proven slightly wrong. Justice League is not terrible or disturbing; it is just not that great. It never took its time to come into its own, to truly define its characters, and skipped all the way to the finish. It is a product without a heart, a soul to set it apart from the rest. Thor: Ragnarok has heart and soul…

You should watch Thor: Ragnarok instead.

Movie Review: Silence

Despite the bad reviews, I had originally planned to see Underworld: Blood Wars for review this week. I was going to share the pain with a friend until our plans fell through. Then I thought about doing an Editorial on “Fuck You, It’s January” before I discovered Silence was coming out on Thursday. Between seeing what amounts to a live-action version of Hellsing Ultimate (seriously, watch that instead of Underworld), writing about an entire month dedicated to studios taking out their trash, or a new Martin Scorsese film, the choice was obvious. Does Silence add to his already impressive filmography or is Scorsese too old to direct?

After finding out their mentor had committed apostasy while on mission, Jesuits Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, travel to Japan for answers. When they arrive, they and the local Catholic population are forced underground to escape persecution by the government.

Movies about Edo Era Japan are few and far between. The period is full of good material with warring families, samurai as a social class, and the rise of the yakuza in the wake of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s oppression. Remember 47 Ronin? That fantasy movie was based off a real event where a bunch of pissed-off warriors kill a guy and then themselves because it was not ada-uchi, a form a legally sanctioned vengeance. Then there is Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, 13 Assassins, Sword of the Stranger, and Samurai Champloo, each one taking place in the Edo Era.

Another aspect of the period that does not get enough coverage is the banning of Christianity. I understand why the Tokugawa were so brutal, being fervent isolationists and having dealt with a recent religious uprising. On top of that, it is impossible to deny how imposing beliefs onto other cultures is fundamentally wrong. However, it is important to acknowledge the darker side of history. Every nation is guilty of atrocities in one form or another. Japan is no different; they do not call it the Rape of Nanking because it was pleasant. While I do not care if a culture is in denial about their past (Germany), I think the more we know about ourselves the better.

While the oppression of the Christians is on full display, it is not the focus or a vehicle to shame the Japanese. You can look at it that way if you want to complain about something, but I feel the point of the violence in Silence is to examine the concept of belief. Without giving anything away, the story is the Crucifixion. Rodrigues is Jesus, Japanese officials the Romans, and there is a Judas equivalent that I will not spoil. The film uses these parallels to ask if the willingness to die for a faith is equal to wanting to live for it.

In the movie and history, suspected Japanese Christians were made to step on an image of Christ called a fumie. The characters undergo the process, but are executed anyway because Rodrigues refuses to trample the image. He has to prove his faith is so strong he will give it up to save innocents. The other side of the situation is the Japanese are trying to prove that foreign idols do not have meaning in their land. They reluctantly torture their own to force missionaries to understand that spreading a false faith is utterly pointless because they do not care. What is truth in Portugal is deception in Japan.

I hope that makes sense because I saw Silence yesterday and it requires a second viewing to fully understand. You can see it as a simple martyr movie like The Passion or Hacksaw Ridge, trying to convert the audience through sympathy. That being said, the film goes out of its way to avoid gratuity. The violence is presented as just naked force used against others. You are also not told which side to follow and given both perspectives. The Portuguese want to spread Christianity because they think they are right and the Japanese do not want any part of it because it is incompatible with their culture.

Getting to the point of the movie is a chore of epic proportions. Unlike most of Scorsese’s works, you will feel every second of the 180-minute runtime. Casino and Wolf of Wall Street were three hours and you can watch them without complaint. This is because Silence does not feel like a Scorsese film. The shot composition, editing, and score feel like they are from a different person entirely. There is a distinct personal quality where he had a lot of respect for the concept and the material being a Catholic himself. It is very similar to when Spielberg helmed Schindler’s List, a major departure from his previous work at the time. As a personal project, I admire Silence all the more, but it is a tough sit, even for a Scorsese fan like myself.

If you are also a fan, odds are you have already seen it. If you are not, seeing a Scorsese film, in theaters, while he is still making movies at the age of 74, is a requirement for anyone who can. Be ready for quite a challenge to endure.

Movie Review: Hitman: Agent 47

…I paid money to see this… I paid money, $11.58, to sit through a 90-minute waste of time, which could have been used for something far more constructive. It was not even that bad, just boring, soulless, and contrived. Is this the state of action movies? Have filmmakers become so pretentious they think they can wow audiences with their choreographed fight scenes that look so fake, it is as if the protagonist and henchman rehearsed it beforehand? Never in my life have I felt so smart in a theater than when I was watching Hitman: Agent 47.

While on a search for her father, Katia, played by Hannah Ware, finds out she is the target of Agent 47, a mythical assassin known for his efficiency in closing his contracts. While fleeing for safety, she finds there is more to the situation than she once thought.

Hitman thinks it is cool. It takes every opportunity to impress you with a lot of flash and is so transparent, it would have been offensive if it were not boring. Hitman would not have been cool 10 years ago. What it does has been done before in better movies. The close melee grappling was taken from Iron Man 2, the ballet-like gunfights from Equilibrium, and the daddy-issues story from every action movie ever. Hitman is so desperate to try and look cool it has not the spine to be its own movie. It steals from good movies because the people behind it have no sense of creativity. And do not even get me started on the use of CGI. The whole affair was anti-climatic and boring to the point I considered walking out.

Hitman is not even a good hitman movie. Having a mass murderer as the protagonist can be difficult, but even stories about killers can be interesting. The Iceman was about the most notorious hitman in American history and it is better than a lot of direct-to-video movies. Hitman is so obsessed with looking cool it forgets to try something for itself and suffers the consequences of a derivative premise and action. In the hands of the Cohen brothers, it would have made for a suspenseful crime drama similar to this.

The story is a joke. Not only was the twist spoiled in the trailers, there is an overload of exposition at the beginning that is repeated, followed by the characters meandering about before a plot convenience puts them back into it. Motivations go unexplained and plot threads left in the open with nothing to tie them up. For a film that calls itself action, there are enough calm moments of pointless drama for a Lifetime channel original movie. Between the breaks 47 and Katia constantly talk about his lack of humanity or her latent abilities. It becomes so repetitive and uninteresting I find it difficult to continue writing about it.

Even though the characters use a lot of guns, the production had no idea how they were supposed to work. There are two scenes where a pistol runs out of ammo and the slide remains forward. When a handgun is discharged, the slide pulls back to release the spent cartridge. At the last round the slide is locked back, but for some reason this does not happen in Hitman’s world. Also, the sniper rifle 47 uses is impractical. It is a long bolt action that seemed to chamber a 7.62. In the game he used a WA 2000, a bullpup with a three-foot profile that chambers a .300 Winchester, a much bigger round. The weapon was small and compact enough to fit in a suitcase. Though the rifle seen in the movie could be effective, it is far too big for subtle transportation and aesthetically unappealing.

Do not see Hitman: Agent 47. It steals from better films you should watch instead. If you want a good recent movie about killers, American Ultra is a fun choice. Death Wish 4 is what a hitman movie should be and it might have inspired the videogame series. The Iceman is another great one you can watch on Netflix.