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: Blade Runner 2049

I just want this to be good. Nothing else matters. For obvious reasons, I am going to omit the usual plot summary after the introduction.

Trying to succeed Blade Runner is like justifying the existence of Big Bang Theory. It never needed to happen, it should not happen, but for some reason (you know why) it happened. The original Blade Runner is one of the most important science fiction movies ever made. It more or less created cyber-punk and showed sci-fi could be more mature and capable of telling a deep story. Of all the classics it did not need a sequel. Nobody, including other hardcore fans, asked for this. The original was just fine on its own and somehow we got 2049.

Like Force Awakens the deck was always stacked against it. Being better than a bad movie is as easy as punching a blind toddler, but being better than a genre-defining classic is next to impossible. With Force Awakens, callbacks and references aside, it succeeded by being great. As I said in the beginning, all 2049 needs to be is good and watchable.

I would have ignored it had Denis Villeneuve not been involved. So far he has yet to make a bad film with Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival to his name. Rather than buckle under pressure he grabs the reins and leads the way in his most ambitious project yet. Being a visual director he takes full advantage of the world’s unique style. Blade Runner is saturated in neon with lived in and weathered sets, packed to the gills with people and detail. It is surprising how such elements were standard practice back in the day look like pieces of art in a time of overwhelming CG.

2049 maintains the aesthetic of decay while looking updated, being 30 years after the events of the original. It is also darker with light doused in a perpetual haze or relegated to certain areas of the setting. You really feel the world standing on the edge of total collapse, fitting perfectly in line Villeneuve’s signature. He puts the desolation on display with beautifully bleak and imposing landscapes. Most of the interiors are well lit, but emphasize the ever-present grime of the world. Being a noir, Villeneuve makes great use of the darkness to supplement the atmosphere of decay and mystery of the narrative. It helps that the practical and visual effects used in these shots are stunning.

For spoiler reasons I am going to avoid talking about the writing or acting. The latter is obvious, but judging the performances could lead to unintentional revelations. I will say that Sylvia Hoeks was the stand out as Luv, a replicant dedicated to her job, and it was nice to see Harrison Ford care about his role. The man is 75 and a cultural icon, so I understand when he wants a break. Actually, I will give away one spoiler:

The trailer for Pacific Rim: Uprising was shown and it looks like hammered shit.

A couple negatives of note are the music and the placement of a particular scene. The issue of score may have more to do with the theater in which I saw the movie. Whenever a French horn or loud synthesizer would blare, it literally shook the auditorium with a loud creaking noise. I would say about half the tracks in 2049 have this sound and it was irritating. Even Hans Zimmer would tell the composer to tone it down. As for the faulty scene, it comes out of nowhere, like it was from an older draft of the script. The lead up did not fit or feel natural given the tone. Maybe I am missing something, but that scene should have been moved or reworked.

This does not feel like much of a review with everything I left out. Without the name Blade Runner in the title, 2049 is just another great film from Denis Villeneuve. On its own merit it has enough going on that keeping you in the dark is the only respectful thing I can do. A lot of my reviews of good movies are short because why ruin something you should see for yourself? 2049 may not be groundbreaking, but it is well worth the nearly three-hour runtime. It is a great film and that is all that counts in the long run. However, I would advise watching the Final Cut version of the original before buying a ticket.

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

The buddy genre is dead. Bret Ratner more or less did it in with Rush Hour 3 and since then, I have yet to see a proper resurgence. The genre was very much of its time with a lot of success like Blues Brothers and Dumb and Dumber. Today I cannot recall any new buddy films that have the same notoriety. Director Shane Black comes from that background as the writer of Lethal Weapon and I could not think of a better choice for Nice Guys. Has the buddy genre risen from the grave or is the corpse too far rotten?

To track down a missing girl Healy, played by Russell Crowe, teams up with a private investigator named March, played by Ryan Gosling, to help him with the search. As the two look closer, they discover a conspiracy involving government officials and pornographers.

The only thing you need to get right in a buddy movie are the characters and Nice Guys is a perfect example of how to write and cast a good pair. What makes Healy and March work is the juxtaposition of how they appear versus how they act. The former looks like a man you send to kill somebody, but has principles and is honest. While the latter is handsome, he is also a scumbag that drowns his problems in liquor.

In action, Healy’s experience and skill show as he handles situations in an efficient manner. He is very nice and approaches others with a kind demeanor. March is the exact opposite where he is a coward that cannot do anything without causing serious personal injury. Being a dejected scam artist, he exploits situations for his own benefit and hates himself.

The difference between Healy and March is what makes Nice Guys work. Both bring their own ideas and methods that bounce off one another to varying degrees. March is a bumbling narcissist, but he balances out Healy’s stubborn insecurities. These conflicting traits make up the comedy where Healy struggles to deal with March’s incompetence. One gag is March cutting his wrist after breaking some glass to open a locked door. Later he tries to toss a weapon to Healy and chucks it out a window. The two work in tandem with each other and without the unlikely chemistry of Crowe and Gosling, Nice Guys would have failed.

The two main characters make the movie succeed because the rest is not as impressive. The story is predictable and the real villains very obvious. I will leave it at that because the twist is hard to not spoil. The pacing was slow in some places. At one point Healy and March are questioning people at a party that goes on forever, then they are driving to a hotel, and the rest periods between the action feels slow. Granted, as long as the buddy pair was well established, the rest of the film could have gone either way. It is like complaining about the minimal plot in Doom (2016); you do not need context to shoot demons.

On the merits of Crowe and Gosling’s chemistry, Nice Guys succeeds where buddy movies used to excel. It sets the standard for how to write characters and cast actors that work as well as their parts do on paper. While the actual story leaves a lot to be desired, Healy and March make the film enjoyable because of who they are. If Civil War is a character driven superhero drama, Nice Guys is a character driven buddy comedy.

Give it a look.