Captain Marvel (2019)

CaptainDirectors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, and Lashana Lynch

Ever since that cryptic page sent by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the post-credit scene from Avengers: Infinity War, people have been saying…”Who’s Captain Marvel?” That is an epic question in itself. Those familiar with the Marvel Comics origin of Captain Marvel know it is a strange one. The first Captain Marvel dates back to 1939 as a fictional comic book superhero from the now defunct Whiz Comics. Whiz and Captain Marvel were put on the back burner after DC Comics sued the publisher over Captain Marvel’s similarity to Superman in the 1950s. Marvel Comics eventually developed a trademark on their own character named Captain Marvel in the 1960s with the caveat that in order to retain the trademark, they’d need to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years, leading to DC eventually rename their iteration Shazam, a character that is also getting the cinematic treatment this year. But that’s not all! Marvel’s Captain Marvel went through 6 different versions before finally arriving as the Carol Danvers version that we have now!

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way, who’s Captain Marvel and what is this movie all about? Captain Marvel is centered around Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who through a series of events is recruited to an elite team of alien warriors called the Kree on the planet of Hala. Danvers develops superpowers under the tutelage of her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). With the Kree, Danvers (known as Vers to her Kree comrades), helps fight in an ongoing war against a group of alien shapeshifters known as the Skrulls. The tricky bit is somewhere along the line, Vers (Danvers) has forgotten any and all of her life on Earth save for some disturbing nightmares featuring a woman (Annete Bening) she recognizes but cannot place. During a botched rescue operation, the Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) capture Vers and tortures her for answers about the Kree as they make way to Earth with the plan to find a scientist who may be the key to helping them develop a quantum drive that would give them the edge in the battle against the Kree. Vers manages to escape only to crash land in Los Angeles. It is here that we discover that it is the 1990s, and Vers’s spectacle of an entrance draws the attention of (much younger) S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Now it’s a race against time as Vers teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop the Skrulls from obtaining the quantum drive. Another battle – one of identity – also ensues as Vers’s sudden appearance on Earth begins to uproot some repressed memories of her previous life on Earth, some of which may affect the future of the universe! So the stakes are high.

Captain Marvel is a very fun movie, and much credit for its success goes to Larson, who really carves out a character here that could fall flat with the wrong performer in the role. She is charismatic and all-in on this performance, which is no surprise given she’s an Oscar winner for her work in the intensely gripping film Room. Captain Marvel certainly is a pivot from Room, but Larson’s versatility shows here that she’s a bankable and playful actress who will elevate a film. Her chemistry with Jackson, Mendelsohn, and Danvers’s best friend Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch) is contagious, helping the audience feel much more connected to the film’s events.

In addition to the performances, the action and story are on point as well. I think there were some heightened expectations that this film would provide more clues and explanations associated with the fateful climax of Avengers: Infinity War, but Captain Marvel is an origin story film and it takes place well before Thanos started outfitting that gauntlet with infinity stones. That being said, Captain Marvel is not without some nuance in providing a few answers to some questions within the MCU. Several of which can be attributed to the scene-stealing break-out star of the film, Goose. I’ll say no more. If there’s one other scene-stealer of note worth mentioning, it’s the late, great Stan Lee. 2019 will mark the last year of Stan Lee Marvel film cameos. Captain Marvel, Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home all feature appearances by the comic legend, and this one from Captain Marvel is a real gem.

Finally, for some reason, there’s an unfair amount of pressure on this movie due to its milestone status of being the first MCU film with a woman in the lead. This kind of treatment is the ignorant equivalent of saying, “Wait, women can be superheroes too?” The subversive and powerful impact of Black Panther is not part of the mission with Captain Marvel, nor should it be. Of course art is reflective, and so releasing a giant film like this will be part of a cultural conversation, but it really should only be a positive one. If the movie was not good, it should not be used as some kind of barometer test for a larger gender-based agenda. Fortunately the movie is good, and Captain Marvel is cool, so girls and women will be proud and inspired by that. No need to harp on it or heap tons of pressure on it. Ok, end of moderate politically correct rant.

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s the challenge of balancing the Earth story with the Kree story. Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg is somewhat squandered and lost in the sauce once Vers leaves Hala. There’s an obvious desire to tap into some of that Guardians of the Galaxy space opera cache, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie really soars with its Earth storyline, and when it soars it is a blast! A-

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes.

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2019 Oscar Prediction Ballot

nohost.jpgIt’s nearly Oscars Week! That’s right, next Sunday, February 24th at 8:00 PM EST, there will be a 91st Academy Awards and it will be bonkers. There is no host, and the controversial decision to hand out several awards during commercial breaks has raised even more eyebrows. Nonetheless, this is always an exciting time for The People’s Critic, and as always, I welcome you to join in on the fun by filling out an official People’s Critic Oscar Predictions ballot (use this link if on mobile). I have made my predictions, so now it’s your turn.

The ballot below contains the nominees for all 24 categories! On Oscar night, feel free to review the Summary of responses page for live updates on how your picks are doing, as well as view the live analytics (available only after you’ve submitted a response) for each category throughout the week!

Also, to make your Oscar night as lavish as possible, feel free to grab a copy of this blank Oscar ballot for your Oscar party, and if you’re looking for a feast sure to be a favourite, please enjoy our carefully curated 2019 Oscar dinner menu (printable version). Good luck and enjoy!

2019 Oscar Predictions

oscars91For those of you eagerly awaiting my annual predictions, your wait is over.

Like I do every year, my 2019 Oscar Predictions include all 24 categories and their nominees along with my humble (yet educated) opinion and commentary on who will bring home the gold at this year’s ceremony, held Sunday February 24th, hosted by… NO ONE!?

I will say that having no host under the pretext that there were no quality choices is just, plain lazy! I present to you, exhibit A:

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That’s right, The People’s Critic tossed his hat into the ring a full two months ago, and nary a jingle has he heard from the Academy. So there it is: laziness. So on we go, hostless, but the show must go on!

Visit my Awards Spotlight Page for links to Oscar Predictions and Menus past and present as well, and be sure to check out the highly anticipated 2019 Oscar Dinner Menu.

So make yourself a Spiked LeeMonade, and check out my predictions for the 2019 Oscar winners! I know it’s a long post, but it’s only 500 words longer than than last year!

2019 Oscar Predictions
2019 Oscar Dinner Menu
2019 Printable Oscar Ballot
Awards Spotlight Page

2019 Oscar Nominations [FULL LIST]

16-oscar-nominations.w700.h700We may not have a host, but we do have nominations. I will of course have my overly analyzed, long-winded predictions shortly, but for now I will let the nominations speak for themselves. The Oscars will air live February 24th on ABC.

Best Picture

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star is Born
Vice

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlackKKLansman
Sam Elliot, A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Director

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
BlacKkKlansman
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star Is Born

Best Original Screenplay

First Reformed
Green Book
Roma
The Favourite
Vice

Best Foreign Language Films

Capernaum
Cold War
Never Look Away
Roma
Shoplifters

Best Documentary Feature

Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

Best Animated Feature Film

Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Live Action Short Film

“Detainment”
“Fauve”
“Marguerite”
“Mother”
“Skin”

Best Documentary (Short)

“Black Sheep”
“End Game”
“Lifeboat”
“A Night at the Garden”
“Period. End of Sentence.”

Best Animated Short Film

“Animal Behaviour”
“Bao”
“Late Afternoon”
“One Small Step”
“Weekends”

Best Original Song

“All The Stars” – Black Panther
“I’ll Fight” – RBG
“Shallow” – A Star Is Born
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” – Mary Poppins Returns
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Best Original Score

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
If Beale Street Could Talk
Isle of Dogs
Mary Poppins Returns

Best Film Editing

BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
Green Book
The Favourite
Vice

Best Production Design

Black Panther
The Favourite
First Man
Mary Poppins Returns
Roma

Best Cinematography

Cold War
The Favourite
Never Look Away
Roma
A Star Is Born

Best Costume Design

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Black Panther
The Favourite
Mary Poppins Returns
Mary Queen of Scots

Best Sound Editing

A Quiet Place
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma

Best Sound Mixing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

Best Visual Effects

Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Border
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice

 

The People’s Critic’s Best and Worst Films of 2018

2018 was a weird year for movies. Overall, while the box office was huge with major earning tentpole films, the quality on average was not so great. The good news is, when you boil everything down to just ten films, what you are left with is actually very strong. In fact, in the five years that I’ve been putting out this list, the movies that make up my best list for 2018 make the strongest statement for where the future of great movies is going. Read on to see what I mean.

The Best

Eighth_Grade10. Eighth Grade – Eighth Grade is one of the most surprising films of the year for me. This little film cost $2 million to make, and made 7 times that at the box office. It was also released way back in July. This is an important detail because like last year’s Get Out and several other films later on this list, producers are realizing that people are smart enough to like a good movie and remember it all year. Gone perhaps are the days of dumping ground months and crowded December releases to just qualify for awards consideration. Good movies can come out all year! Eighth Grade was directed by comic-musician Bo Burnham who has been on my radar for the last ten years, but certainly not as a filmmaker. However, Burnham’s wit and lyrical precision is on full display in his directorial debut, Eighth Grade. The film follows Kayla, an eighth grade student, during her final week of middle school. It is simple in its design, but cutting, heartfelt, and most of all relatable. I sat down to watch this with my wife who within five minutes promptly stood back up and walked out as she said, “I don’t need to watch this; I lived it.” Now that may sound like a criticism, but it’s actually the highest of complements in that the film nails the anxiety, nerves, and pitfalls of adolescence in such a way that it is too real to bear.

BlacKkKlansman9. BlacKKKlansman – BlacKKKlansman is another visionary and ambitious film from veteran filmmaker, Spike Lee. BlacKKKlansman, like Eighth Grade, was also released in the dog days of summer to great word of mouth and a box office just south of the $100 million mark worldwide, making it one of the biggest financial hits of his career. That being said, BlacKKKlansman is a movie with a message, and not just a simple heroic tale. It follows a Black detective named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he sets out to infiltrate a local and violent chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As a Black man, he recruits his white coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to assist him in any face to face interactions that are needed, the two of them acting as one: Stallworth corresponding by phone and written word, Zimmerman (a Jew by the way) appearing in person. This is an enjoyable film and funny at times. It is also a thought provoking and frightening one. Some criticisms have been made about its accuracy, but none of those take away from some of the uncomfortable truths it exposes about racial tensions.

The_Incredibles_28. Incredibles 2 – Don’t sleep on Incredibles 2. The sequel to the 2004 original is bigger, better, and brighter than its predecessor in every way. Supers are still disdained by the public, but a tech billionaire wants to change this. Using Elastigirl to spearhead a publicity campaign to regain public support, a new adventure emerges as does a new villain by the name of Screenslaver. There’s far more to this film that a simple redemption story, and the animation and story are top notch. This is another brilliant addition to the illustrious series of Pixar films, also a summer release.

RBG7. RBGRuth Bader Ginsburg, or “The Notorious RBG” as she’s come to be known, is just the documentary subject we need right now. The documentary is quite linear, and nicely arranges the details of Ginsburg’s life beginning with her childhood and spanning her legal career to the present. Of course, much time is spent exploring Ginsburg’s cases and her ascension to the Court (and her love for opera), but the high points of the film for me are the scenes with her first love and husband, Martin. Their relationship is one for the history books, not that there’s anything about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is not for the history books. Political leanings aside, this is an inspirational film that champions ambition, hard work, and love, and a summer release.

220px-Searching6. Searching – Here’s a movie that may have benefited from low expectations. Once in a while I stumble across one of these first-person narrative films where the action is through the eyes of one character. Searching represents the finest accomplishment in the genre. It is also apparently the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian in the title role, which is surprising and welcomed. When a father’s (John Cho) daughter goes missing, he begins investigating her disappearance mostly via her online presence. The film is told entirely through a unique visual presentation of the father’s interactions with various computer devices. We only see and hear him through web cams, computer screens, and other audio and video gadgets. The gimmick of the film’s direction would be enough to make it worth watching, but the story is thrilling and twisted in some outstanding ways, making it one of the year’s best films (and a summer release).

Star5. A Star is BornReleased in October, A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a massively popular musical act who is over the peak of his fame. His fans are fervent, but his shows are routine, his hearing is going, and let’s just say he has a bit of a drinking problem. Inspired by a singer he hears in a bar, he invites her to perform with him, catapulting her from an unknown club songstress to a mainstream sensation. A Star is Born is a good movie with an excellent first-directional effort by Cooper, and an exceptional use of talent. There is a lot to appreciate about the film, and with the added layer of the music, the film rises above the rest.

First4. First Man – First Man is a moody film full of emotion and grit. Ryan Gosling gives another brooding yet powerful performance worthy of the man he plays: Neil Armstrong. Additionally, Claire Foy is the source of most of the film’s real impact. Her scenes transcend the “poor astronaut’s wife” tropes aspiring to something far more revealing. While this is a film that profiles the man who eventually becomes the first man to walk on the moon, it is not the traditional biopic that one may expect. Once one understands that this film will not hit the notes you most likely were expecting, First Man works very well. Its disarming use of camera to focus on the human element of the action, and not the detached traditional view of things that we are used to is both uncomfortable and powerful. Overall, a poignant and dramatic exploration of a major historic event without the all too common escapist quality generally associated with this type of entertainment (October release).

MI63. Mission: Impossible – FalloutOne of the rare film sequels that is better than any of its previous installments. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is both an excellent film and a true sequel. It is one of the finest action films I have ever seen and respectfully builds from its predecessors with selective and critical details that weave the film nicely into the mythology that has developed over six films. In this big summer blockbuster, Ethan Hunt once again finds himself in a race against time to save the world from the clutches of a new terrorist group known as the Apostles, who are planning to create a new world order through a series of catastrophic terrorist events. Two key thematic elements within Mission: Impossible – Fallout are time and destruction for the sake of improvement. The film seems to use these themes to meta-style reference itself in that Fallout, while representing the culmination of a trilogy, feels like the beginning of something else.

large_roma2. Roma – Roma is the most beautiful film of the year. It captures everything I love about film by capturing a beautiful and personal story with stunning detail and told well through visually immersive camera work. Alfonso Cuaron’s memoir of his boyhood in Mexico City is a breathtaking, personal, and sentimental masterpiece. Not a frame of film is wasted, and Cuaron appropriately assumes not only the role of director and writer, but also director of photography as his trusted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable. The result is a deeply emotive drama about the importance of family in all senses of the word as even the most shattering human experiences can be mended by family. Cuaron accomplishes what only the best filmmakers are able to do: show the majesty and beauty of the typical, and he does so masterfully. Theatrically released in November, Roma is a triumph and a gift to film fans in both its greatness and its availability, being the first great film nearly immediately available to all audiences via streaming on Netflix by early December. I hope Roma blazes a new trail for art films and prestige pictures in that they do not need to waste time and effort on limited releases when they can just instantly open in every home in the world.

avg-teaser-final1. Avengers: Infinity War/Black Panther – Is this cheating? I don’t think so. If so, then Avengers: Infinity War is my official pick for best film of the year. That being said, these two films, released only two months apart (February and April) combine to form the best cinematic experience of the year. Black Panther serves as the model for how these stand alone superhero films can work. Vibrant new characters branching off of a known entity, widening the scope of the universe without cheap references to previous installments, oh and a kick-ass soundtrack. The character Black Panther is the least interesting thing about the movie Black Panther, and that’s saying something. It also effectively serves as a nice palate cleanse before jumping right back into the fight with Infinity War. Avengers: Infinity War is the best of the three Avengers films, just barely edging out the original. The immenseness of the stakes in this film are only rivaled by the vastness of its scope. Everything you loved about The Avengers is here in this third film along with the vast epic nature of a Star Wars film. The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely flawlessly balance the top-heavy cast by somehow giving us more than we expected of our favorite characters and still leaving us wanting more. Here we are 10 years into this MCU thing, and not only has it not lost any steam, for the first time, one (or two) of these films has actually topped my list as the best of the year!

So there you have it. And if you did not catch on to the ongoing trend in my countdown of listing the release dates for these films, go back and take a look. Most of them were released during the summer months or before. Those released in the fall/winter were either released early fall or available for streaming at home. One of my major criticisms this time of year is the onslaught of limited releases trying to vie for awards consideration only to release wide after the new year. This year, that list is much smaller, the main culprit being The Favourite. It is great to see production companies realizing that great movies can make money all year round and still be remembered come awards time. In fact, as of the release of this post, eight of the films I have listed in my top ten are up for at least one Golden Globe nomination. We’ll see if Oscar recognizes this trend as well when nominations are announced January 14th.

The Worst

I refuse to rank these because there’s not real quantifiable way to determine which is truly worse than the next. Just call it a tie.

p13937884_v_v12_aaVenom – The lobster scene is the one where I scratched my head and then realized, I’m watching a terrible movie.

 

 

Fifty_Shades_Freed_poster50 Shades Freed – Congratulations! The third (and hopefully final) installment of this mess of a series makes it a perfect sweep. All three of these films have made my “Worst of the year” list for their respective years. Not one could scrape by as just passable or forgettable. They all are equally terrible.

 

Red_SparrowRed Sparrow – I still don’t know what happened in this movie. Mindlessly silly and needlessly complicated, Red Sparrow takes the “girl on fire” and douses her flame in a boring, confusing espionage thriller with cardboard performances and lazy production value.

 

 

Creed II

Creed_II_posterDirector: Steven Caple Jr.

Screenwriters: Che Hodari Coker, Sylvester Stallone, and Juel Taylor

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteau, and Brigitte Nielsen

I’ve said before that great sports movies are more about life, passion, talent, and determination, and less about “the game.” This statement applies to the 2015 film Creed and even more so with its sequel, Creed II. However, that does not necessarily make it better.

Creed II opens with Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) “riding high now” achieving the level of World Heavyweight Champion, beating Danny “The Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward) for the title, and propelling him to the highest echelon of the sport. This accomplishment coupled with Creed’s mentor and trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in his corner, attracts the attention of disgraced former World Heavyweight contender Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Drago, whose loss to Balboa 33 years earlier resulted in a life of ignominy back in Russia and abandonment by his wife has been training his son Viktor (Florian Munteau) and sees an opportunity to regain his glory by pitting Viktor against Adonis for the title. Viktor, it goes without saying, is a threat in every sense. He’s enormous, fast, and has been conditioned for years by his father to crush any opponent. Ivan, of course, notoriously murdered Adonis’s father Apollo in the ring, and so any fight billed as Creed v. Drago sells itself in its sensationalism. The problem is, Rocky senses that this fight is happening for all the wrong reasons and if Adonis wants to go through with it, he’ll have to do it without him.

creed_iiDrago

So there it is, the setup for the film is Rocky IV, revisited. And the similarities do not end there. Creed II is very aware of itself, and this works both to the film’s advantage and disadvantage. Director Steven Caple Jr. makes subtle and overt references to just about every other film in the franchise in this film, which is at times rather endearing and at other times a bit too familiar. An example of the latter comes in the form of the conditioning montage. Rocky IV’s cross-cutting training sequence is pretty iconic, depicting Ivan Drago training conventionally (and juicing up with some roids) while Rocky trains in the Siberian wilderness, carrying logs in the snow and pulling sleds. An identical scene is present in Creed II, which is a tad too “on the nose.” On the other hand, some call-backs are crafted with just the right amount of nuance, like the way Caple Jr. takes the conflict of excess versus grit, flamboyantly displayed in Rocky IV, and tones it down to something more palatable for Creed II.

Of course it is easy to get caught up in the familiarity of Creed II, but there is plenty of unique material here as well. Michael B. Jordan continues to put out great and memorable performances, and man is this guy jacked! Creed II is also one of the more dramatic films in the eight Rocky-franchise films. While Creed was very character driven, it was still mostly a redemption story for its pair of protagonists. With Creed II, we get a chance to explore some generational themes that open the story up a bit, especially in regard to Adonis and Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) relationship.

drago

Still the obvious focal point of this film is the return of Drago, and while there’s plenty here to enjoy and experience, Creed II is missing that signature moment that we want, and perhaps we have to fault Caple Jr. for that. The fight sequences and the drama overall is missing the sting, choreography and ambition that Ryan Coogler was able to achieve in the previous film. The technical brilliance of Creed no doubt is what caught the eye of Disney executives, leading them to hand him Black Panther, which as we all know became the biggest comic book superhero movie ever and highest grossing movie from a Black director ever. In that regard, congrats to Caple Jr. for stepping up in the first place! Still, Creed II does “throw in the towel” so to speak when it comes to giving us any surprises or something lastingly memorable. Overall, this is a decent entry into the franchise that while not a standout, will keep things fresh enough to make us want to see more. B

Creed II is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes.  

First Man

FirstDirector: Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter: Josh Singer

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll

How do you follow up a movie that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (for five seconds), and then lost it. What kind of film do you make after having your hopes dashed at the last possible second, just short of experiencing the glory of a mission accomplished? You make a movie about the first god damned guy who went to the god damned moon and stood on the Moonlight itself, that’s what you do! Did Damien Chazelle make a movie about Ryan Gosling standing on a vacant non-musical moon to lament La La Land losing Best Picture to Moonlight? Of course not. There was no love lost between them, and Moonlight was the better film. But if he did, that’s poetry right there, a pure, uncut, mass media movie battle. Your move Barry Jenkins. I’m looking forward to your movie about a jazz drummer who doesn’t need an abusive music teacher to self-realize.

Anyway, First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land, and it is a departure for him compared to his previous work, and mostly a good one. First Man is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the astronaut who became the first man to walk on the moon. However, a word of warning follows. If you are looking for another story of American ingenuity that results in a heroic and feel-good sense of accomplishment, look elsewhere. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer chose to adapt James Hansen’s authorized biography of the life of Neil Armstrong, which – spoiler alert – is not all moonwalking and giant leaps. Armstrong’s life encompassed some of the highest highs as well as some of the lowest lows imaginable, and Chazelle and Gosling bring these emotions to life with vigor.

This tense balance of highs and lows is apparent right from the start when the film opens on Armstrong as a young aeronautics engineer for the NACA, piloting a North American X-15 right into the edge of outer space, and then promptly back down to earth. It’s an intense and disoriented sequence of film.

FM2

Soon Armstrong’s ambitions bring him to the NASA Astronaut program forcing him to uproot his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and family from California to Texas to join Project Gemini as part of the team of astronauts pivotal in putting the United States in the lead during the Space Race against the Soviets.

First Man, however, develops as a human drama rather than simply a biopic. Yes, the journey to the moon is central to the movie, but it is not essential to its impact. Objectively, this film could be about any person stifled by tragedy, loss, and cultural boundaries, who loses himself in the process. The journey to the moon is but an instrument to reveal his catharsis. Speaking of “instruments,” while First Man clearly lacks the musician aspect that has been front-and-center in Chazelle’s previous films La La Land and Whiplash, it is not without music in its core. The editing, orchestration, arrangement and choreography of surroundings is quite rhythmic. This element adds to the immersive quality of the film that continues to be a signature of this young director (although I was hoping that signature would also include another J.K. Simmons cameo).

First Man is a moody film full of emotion and grit. Ryan Gosling gives another brooding yet powerful performance worthy of the man he plays. Additionally, Claire Foy, an actress I admit I’m rather unfamiliar with, is the source of most of the film’s real impact. Her scenes transcend the “poor astronaut’s wife” tropes aspiring to something far more revealing. Her ability to emote anxiety, stress, and struggle under the guise of composure is remarkable. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with recognizable faces playing many of the familiar figures you’ve seen before including Ed White (Jason Clarke), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), but this film is very much a character piece examining Neil and Janet.

Once one understands that this film will not hit the notes you most likely were expecting, First Man works very well. Its disarming use of camera to focus on the human element of the action, and not the detached traditional view of things that we are used to is both uncomfortable and powerful. Overall, a poignant and dramatic exploration of a major historic event without the all too common escapist quality generally associated with this type of entertainment. A-

First Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.