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: Black Mass

The Departed was the second Scorsese movie I ever saw. I knew it was a remake of a Hong Kong film, but I did not find out until recently the character of Costello was inspired by real-life Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Scorsese often takes many liberties with his work, giving actors room for improv or injecting moments of comedy to lighten the tone in some places, even though it may not fit with the events of the movie. The story of Bulger, however, is one devoid of light, as he became the most notorious gangster in America. Does Black Mass play into his dark history or forego reality for something theatrical and audience friendly?

In comic book movies, the hero is only as good as the villain. Since Dark Knight the demand for better antagonists has increased, setting high standards for all movies to come. Heath Ledger showed one must dedicate themself to the character, going so far as to change their emotional and mental state to be consistent. Skill above all determines the quality of the villain and Johnny Depp as Bulger excels as one of the best new villains in movies today.

Black Mass follows the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bugler in the 70s and 80s as kingpin of South Boston. Capitalizing on his friendship, FBI agent Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, forms a partnership with Bulger where both would help each other to bring down the dominant Italian mob. However, the plan quickly backfires when Bulger uses the opportunity to assert his dominance over the city while manipulating the authorities.

Depp is the reason Black Mass works and why you should see it. I would go so far as to say he is on par, if not better than Ledger’s Joker. Subtlety is a big part of why he is so affective. Over the course of the story, Bulger slowly becomes more unhinged with every tragedy in his life. It also plays into his developing relationship with the FBI, raising the stakes as he grows bolder in his actions and business dealings. Bulger starts out relatively likable then progresses into psychopathy, killing people in broad daylight and being genuinely scary with his newfound power. In lesser hands the character would have been no different than any other Irish gangster and Depp made him a straight-up horror movie monster. His particular whispering cadence and general appearance plays a big part in enhancing Bulger’s presence, but his eyes sell it more. Depp wears these bright blue color contacts and like all color contacts, they hide pupil dilation. As a result he looks like a predator for most of the runtime and Depp knows it, keeping his eyes wide open and hardly blinking when he is not wearing sunglasses. The image of his face alone is enough to inspire fear.

The rest of the cast was acceptable, but I do not blame them as they struggled to keep up. I am sure all of them knew they were secondary to Depp and made the most of it by dueling Boston accents. Edgerton felt a little generic as the crooked agent that has to justify Bulger’s madness. He reminds me of Matt Damon’s character from The Departed if Colin were more obvious about his intentions. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother, but he does not do much in his allotted time. A host of other known actors show up like Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll, and do nothing that warrants mention.

Black Mass had issues with its style as suspense-thrillers can be difficult to film in the wrong hands. While director Scott Cooper does a good job, there were plenty of missed opportunities to put the acting on full display and let the cast drive scenes. Between some great shots are too many cuts to different angles that would have been better served in a minimalist fashion. The long shot method is made specifically for performance driven movies and for building tension and it was used only once. If Paul Thomas Anderson were behind the camera this would not be a problem.

Regardless, Black Mass is the kind of gangster movie that does not come around too often. It shows the reality of crime and the kind of people behind it in an unfiltered light. Most of all, it is Johnny Depp’s return to making good movies with his most memorable character yet. Go see it.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

Of all the Marvel films, Ant-Man seems like the riskiest move yet. Like Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy, it is important to consider that mainstream audiences may not be familiar with the character(s) and you cannot ignore the pre-production controversy amid creative differences. On a personal note, watching the trailers gave me a feeling I cannot accurately describe. It seemed as though the studio was playing it too safe, taking the Iron Man route with a helping of self-deprecation, while not being afraid of its comic book roots. Going with a template that has worked in the past is a staple of storytelling, but still I find it unsettling what I may find upon admission to Ant-Man. Am I overreacting or is it Marvel’s Heaven’s Gate?

Playing it safe is the worst thing this movie could have done. What I thought was a retread of old ideas and a potential failure as the result of cooperate interference is instead a thoroughly enjoyable and Marvel’s most unique movie to date. If my word has any merit, you should stop reading and go see Ant-Man immediately.

In an attempt to get his life and family back together, ex-con Scott, played by Paul Rudd, does what he does best and burglarizes an expensive home at the behest of his thief friends. What he finds instead is the Ant-Man suit of former SHIELD operative and super scientist Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas. After putting on the suit, Scott experiences its shrinking capabilities and becomes the reluctant participant in Pym’s plot against his own company and former ward Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll.

Where Guardians of the Galaxy failed in my opinion, Ant-Man succeeds. Both are the same in terms of eccentricity and level of humor, and both are centered on retrieving a McGuffin to stop the bad guy. The difference between the two is a focus on story reinforcing character.

The narrative of Guardians does not change the characters, with the exception of Starlord because the main protagonist must always change by story’s conclusion. Everyone else remains much the same before and after they form the team. Gamora stays the same, Drax does not know how to change, Rocket is still crazy, and Groot is Groot. Guardians’ plot was a vehicle for its weirdness and humor, but it left its characters behind.

Ant-Man’s heist narrative affects everyone, even the villain to some degree, but when you’re a psychopath with a pseudo-Electra complex (I know that does not make sense, but see the movie and try to explain it better), you can only spiral further into insanity. Scott begins as a criminal who thinks criminality is his sole solution to doing good and becomes a genuine hero. Evangeline Lily’s Hope learns to trust others while making amends with her estranged parent. Even the minor characters that have no real involvement in the story are different by the end.

Another exceptional aspect of Ant-Man is its comedy. Edgar Wright might have left before filming, but he still wrote a script with his name on it. I have seen and own all three Cornetto movies and Scott Pilgrim and as a fan, I can safely say Wright’s latest is just as good. He makes great use of the Marvel property and the idea of a hero that can shrink in both the gags and action sequences. Even the ants are excellent as Scott’s sidekicks with their own insect-specific personalities. Ant-Man is what Honey, I Shrunk the Kids wanted to be, but did not have Wright’s talent and imagination behind it.

Everyone on the cast did well. Rudd was a nice choice for a thief seeking redemption that does not know how to handle a world of superheroes. Lily could have easily taken over the movie with her strongest performance yet. It is hard to judge if Douglas did Hank Pym justice because both versions are different. Comics Pym is naïve and unaware when his creations may do more harm than good, and movie Pym is the exact opposite. To that effect, Douglas was believable as a kind of older, seasoned Tony Stark without the sarcastic whit and playboy personality.

At this point in my critiques I usually mention the faults, but I cannot find any worth talking about. I would say Ant-Man runs a little long if the whole 117 minutes was not enjoyable to sit through. You will want all that and more from beginning to end. Were it not for Fury Road, it would be the best film I have seen this season. It is Winter Soldier perfect.

Why are you still here? Get a ticket already!