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.

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Café Society

CafeDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, and Blake Lively

So I preface this, as I do all of my Woody Allen reviews, with a statement of assured objectivity.  Yes, I am a self-proclaimed Woody Allen fan, but I am not above delivering a negative review to projects that are worthy of one.  It just so happens that there are few projects of Allen’s without redeeming quality. The trend continues with Café Society, Allen’s 41st film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film.

In his 81st year of life, the director shows no sign of slowing down. His new deal with Amazon may be a catalyst, as Café Society is his first to be produced by the Internet giant, and it is his best film since 2013’s Blue Jasmine. It also arrives on the heels of his new Amazon produced television series, Crisis in Six Scenes, premiering this fall.  Who would think the hardest working man in show-business would be 80?

For Café Society, Allen (who also narrates the film) takes us back to 1930s Hollywood where an agent named Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is at the top of his game, representing all of the legendary talent of the time.  Stern’s success is as massive as the distance he puts between himself and his family. Stern’s sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) lives in Brooklyn with her husband Marty (Ken Stott).  When Rose contacts Phil with a favor that he give her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Einsenberg) a job in his firm, Phil reluctantly agrees to at least meet him, resulting in a familiar Woody Allen plot construct – “a tale of two coasts.”

Like every good Woody Allen movie, familiar plotting must be countered with memorable and well-designed characters.  The lavishness of the Stern life is beautifully contrasted with the working class Dorfmans. Rose’s daughter Evelyn (Sari Lennick) maintains a middle class life with her philosopher husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), and her oldest son Ben (Corey Stoll) quietly runs a pretty active mob syndicate (Bullets Over Broadway-style) unbeknownst to the rest of his family; his scenes are outstanding.   That just leaves Bobby as the lost soul looking for his slice of happiness, and he quickly finds it in the form of Vonnie (Kirstin Stewart), his Uncle Phil’s beautiful assistant. Bobby falls for Vonnie at first sight and his advances towards her do not go unnoticed, although Bobby does have competition as Vonnie has a boyfriend. What follows is a more or less traditional exploration of whether all is truly fair in love and war but with some twists along the way. The predictability is nicely offset by the solid performances.  Look out for Blake Lively in a small role later in the film that channels Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Performances aside, Allen has also made a visually gorgeous film with some beautiful scenery. Café Society marks Allen’s first digitally shot film, and he makes good use of the technology capturing some vintage Allenesque shots but with a new vibrant quality.

One criticism that is often laden on Woody Allen films is that his pace of production can throttle the work, preventing good films from being great due to time constraints.  That may factor in with Café Society, but certainly not to the degree that I’m willing to part with the annual Woody Allen film.  His cinematically nomadic spirit is something to appreciate, and it warms my heart to know that the moment Café Society premiered, his 2017 project was already announced, cast, and in pre-production.  B+

Café Society is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. 

Ant-Man

Ant ManDirector: Payton Reed

Screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly, and Bobby Cannavale

Na-na na-na na-na na-na… ANT-MAN?  You read that right.  Stan Lee’s 1962 comic book character, Ant-Man gets the Marvel cinematic treatment with Paul Rudd as the microscopic maverick.  This film concludes Marvel’s “Phase Two” that started with Iron Man 3 back in 2013.  Rumblings of an Ant-Man movie date back at least fifteen years when radio personality Howard Stern claimed that he tried to buy the rights to the character.  By 2003, British director Edgar Wright pitched an Ant-Man film to Marvel that was in perpetual development for eleven years before “creative differences” between Wright and Marvel’s parent company Disney eventually resulted in Wright’s departure.  Director Payton Reed would step in to finish the project, and while production was troubled and buzz was non-existent, Ant-Man, like its namesake, is stronger than it looks.

As I mentioned, Paul Rudd plays Ant-Man and his alter ego, Scott Lang.  Rudd also serves as a co-screenwriter on the film, making him the first star of a Marvel film to serve as both lead actor and screenwriter.  The film opens in 1989 where a furious Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) argues in front of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including Agent Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell) that his breakthrough on reducing the distance between atoms, nicknamed the Pym Particle, is too dangerous to hand over to them.  Fast forward 26 years and Pym has been effectively voted out of control of his own company by his own apprentice, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).  Cross has been working on recreating the Pym Particle and appears to be on the cusp of doing so, the consequences of which worry Pym.

Don't shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Don’t shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Cross is a bad dude, and if you weren’t sure…there’s a scene where he evaporates a cute, little lamb in his testing trials to shrink organic matter. But this film is not called Lamb Man, so I’ll move on.

It turns out Lang, an electrical engineer, caught the attention of Pym when he was arrested for “burgling” his employer, a cyber-security conglomerate, because they were overcharging their customers.  After serving three years in San Quentin, Lang was released and Pym, in a rather unorthodox[*] fashion, recruits Lang to wear a secret particle suit that would allow him to shrink to the size of an ant in a plot to overthrow Cross.

Lang’s place in the conflict between Pym and Cross does seem artificial at first.  Enter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Lang’s six-year-old daughter.  Lang’s main motivation is to be a man Cassie can be proud of, and Pym is offering him a chance to do just that.  It also doesn’t hurt that Pym’s beautiful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is assigned to work closely with Lang in his training.

And there is a lot of training.  Not only does the Ant-Man suit allow Lang to shrink in size, but he retains human strength in his miniature form.  Pym also provides Lang with a neurotransmitter that allows him to communicate with actual ants making him the weirdest movie superhero to date, in my opinion.

However, weirdness works in the case of Ant-Man, mostly because of Paul RuddRudd has been slowly “breaking out” over the past 20 years.  His everyman approach and his bravado sense of humor make him impossible not to root for, which is precisely why he is effective as a superhero.  Like all of the best Marvel films, this one is not just a superhero film, but it is a genre film as well.  Ant-Man plays out like a “caper,” complete with safe cracking, data stealing, and elaborate breaking and entering schemes.  There’s even a sort of Ocean’s 11 vibe when Lang recruits has band of misfits including Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I. to help with a big heist.

On a surprising note, I was underwhelmed by how mediocre the effects seemed in this film.  I saw Ant-Man in the traditional 2-D format, and some of the scenes where a shrunken Ant-Man navigates his miniature world echoed far too closely to Honey I Shrunk the Kids than should be the case in this post-Avatar day of computer effects.  Most of these effects were clearly staged and shot for 3-D, but they do seem clunky in the 2-D form.  Fortunately for Ant-Man, the script is fun with plenty of action and enjoyable dialogue.  The film is also woven nicely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to a fun scene between Ant-Man and a special Avenger cameo (On your left!). The crown for the goofiest Marvel movie that once sat on the head of Thor: The Dark World only to be claimed by Guardians of the Galaxy now firmly sits atop Ant-Man, but that continues to not be a bad thing!  B+

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  Unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron, this film does have additional scenes after the film.  There is one about a minute into the credits and another after the credits.

[*] I sat and pondered how to write a plot summary for this film for over twenty minutes.  I considered adding the detail about how Lang can’t find a job because of his criminal record, so he and his friend Luis (Michael Peña) plan another robbery, which turns out to be Pym’s house, which is how Lang first comes in contact with the Ant Man suit, which wouldn’t be that strange except that Pym had orchestrated the robbery anyway from the start!  But I decided to just call Pym and Lang’s meeting “unorthodox.”

This is Where I Leave You

This is Where I Leave YouThis is Where I Leave You is one of those movies that feels like it would have been better off as a television series rather than a movie. First of all, there are simply too many characters to develop over the running time of a feature film, resulting in a film that feels very shallow. Secondly, it just so happens that every featured actor in the film, minus Jane Fonda, earned a reputation as a television actor. The high profile cast is certainly the story with this film, but when you take that out of consideration, there is not much left over to get excited about.

Jason Bateman plays Judd Altman, a radio talk show producer who gets a one-two punch from life when he discovers that for the last year, his wife has been sleeping with his boss and then that his father has suddenly died. Judd’s mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) tells him that his Atheist father’s dying wish was that his wife and four children sit Shiva, a Jewish mourning tradition where immediate family of the deceased spend a week at home all together receiving visitors. This becomes the impetus for the rest of the film. For the first time in years, Judd now finds himself face to face with his uptight older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), his careless younger brother Phillip (Adam Driver), his sassy sister Wendy (Tina Fey) and of course his over-sharing mother Hillary.  Fonda does get to have fun in her role as a mother who cares about her kids but not enough to not expose all sorts of embarrassing details from their lives in her best selling guide to raising children.

With all of this talent assembled, it’s a shame that most of what follows is one cliché after another. Timothy Olyphant does manage to evoke some real heart with his role as Horry, a brain injured neighbor and ex-boyfriend of Wendy’s. His scenes and those about him are the truest and strongest in the film even though he is a very minor character. In contrast, the budding relationship between Judd and a former high school squeeze, Penny Moore (Rose Byrne) becomes the focal point of the film and yet feels deeply artificial.

Director Shawn Levy is no stranger to films with lots of characters and no character development; he also directed the Night at the Museum films, the third installment of which is due out this December. Levy reduces This is Where I Leave You into a series of romantic follies where every character is in a relationship but suddenly wants to be with someone else. That would be fine if we were watching a Shakespearean comedy, but This is Where I Leave You has no satirical layer that makes this absurdity meaningful. These people become sitcom characters at best, and that’s why the small screen may have been a better destination for this story. C-

This is Where I Leave You is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.