First Man

Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in First Man, an emotionally enthralling and sensorily spectacular account of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Moon landing. Not only is this a fitting biopic for an American hero, it’s also an ode to the men and women who dared to do the impossible and made incredible sacrifices so that we could extend our reach in the universe. What’s distinctive about Chazelle’s vision of space travel is how he tethers the hopes and dreams of NASA’s brightest to the overwhelmingly dangerous operations necessary for Apollo 11’s success.

Opening in 1961 with a thrilling sequence in which Armstrong (Gosling) heads up an atmosphere-piercing flight test gone awry, we’re introduced to his wife Jan (Claire Foy) as the two are coping with the loss of their young daughter. Upon moving to Houston for a fresh start, Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and is soon involved in the Gemini program, during which critical tasks are mastered for use in the Apollo missions. With pressure mounting from the Space Race, Apollo 11 is carried out in the summer of 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) becoming the first two men to walk on the Moon.

As much as this is a film about the space program and the incredible amount of work that it took to get America to the Moon, it’s also an engaging personal story about the toll those efforts took on the people involved. Screenwriter Josh Singer balances the no-nonsense mechanics of the missions with intimate sequences of home life between Armstrong and his increasingly alienated family. Foy is particularly good portraying a wife wracked with anxiety over the new perils that face her husband with each new development in his profession. Gosling also turns out to be an excellent fit to play the titular character, stripping away his typical levels of charm to play an engineer whose head is always in his work.

In addition to casting Gosling again, Chazelle has also re-teamed with the technical leads from La La Land and achieves a similar level of success with them in this film. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is tempered with a beautiful combination of worry and wonder, led by a mournful and spellbinding theremin that recalls sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. It took a little time for me to get on board with the look of the film, but cinematographer Linus Sandgren does find a rhythm after a few initial missteps to produce plenty of indelible images. But the MVP from a technical standpoint is editor Tom Cross, who won Best Editing for Chazelle’s Whiplash and does a stunning job of piecing together some extremely tense setpieces.

Of course it all comes back to the vision laid out by Chazelle; in keeping the action focused on the point-of-view of the astronauts as they’re crammed into their spacecrafts, he has created an experience that’s as claustrophobic and intense as any of its kind since Apollo 13. IMAX is becoming more of a gimmick than a necessity for most movies released these days, but seeing this film in IMAX is necessary not only for the enhanced picture but for the dynamic sound design that accompanies it. First Man is a first-rate docudrama about the spirit of innovation that led to triumphs in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer, is a direct sequel to the 1978 horror classic that finds serial killer Michael Myers escaping prison once again to wreak havoc during the titular holiday.
The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas about a teenager whose life is shattered after her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer.
The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, is a Western dark comedy that follows a pair of assassins as they track down a notorious gold prospector (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) during the California Gold Rush.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Venom

There is a time in which Venom, the new Sony-backed superhero movie featuring a popular character from the Spider-Man comics, could have likely passed as a decent entry into the genre. If it had arrived prior to 2008, the year game-changers like Iron Man and The Dark Knight hit theaters, then it’s possible that its muddled blend of faux-gritty realism and buddy movie antics could have played as novel or even subversive. The problem is that we’ve since had 10 years of seemingly innumerable superhero films and it’s more than a bit puzzling that Sony thought they could release something this flat and uninspired in 2018.

Tom Hardy bumbles his way through a thoroughly gonzo performance as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter whose unethical practices lead to him lose both his job and fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams) in the same day. After trying to exact revenge on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the head of a shady bioengineering company called the Life Foundation, he gets tangled up with an alien entity called a symbiote and is subsequently “taken over” by the foreign creature named Venom. Now sporting a new set of superpowers that allow him to mow through henchmen left and right, Brock vows to stop Drake before he unleashes his dangerous symbiotes into the world.

The big problems with Venom start with the bone-headed script, which not only regurgitates tropes that are well past exhausted by now but also bounces around from one plot point to another without a shred of logic attached. It doesn’t help that it also includes dubious lines of dialogue like the supposedly menacing “have a nice life” and the downright bizarre “ain’t nothing change but the weather”. Save for some of the bi-play between Brock and Venom, particularly one exchange that occurs at the top floor of a high building, most of the comedy falls flat and feels completely at odds with the dark and moody tone that director Ruben Fleischer is attempting to establish.

Hardy, who also voices the carnivorous Venom creature, is perhaps the only person trying to do something interesting but different doesn’t always mean better. Lurching around like the alien-possessed farmer from Men In Black, he chooses to voice Brock like a marble-mouthed buffoon who can rarely stay ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, fantastically over-qualified supporting players like Williams and Ahmed are hindered by inconsistent and generally dopey characters that don’t add any dimension to the already lackluster story.

Like the inky substance that overtakes the film’s protagonist, Venom also has an especially murky and lifeless look to it. As is becoming more routine for blockbusters these days, the majority of the scenes take place at night to disguise sloppy CGI and editing. The film’s final fight scene, which looks like it’s set in an exploding silly string factory, is both visually incomprehensible and unappealing. It’s another swing-and-a-miss by Sony, who leased the rights for some of the Spider-Man characters to Marvel Studios but obviously retained control of Venom on the hopes that they could score a hit sans the web-slinger. Unfortunately, I fear they will indeed have financial success with Venom, which means we’ll have plenty more cash-grabbing superhero ventures for years to come.

Score – 1/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
First Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, is a Neil Armstrong biopic covering the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission and is the latest from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.
Bad Times at the El Royale, starring Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson, follows seven strangers as they begin to uncover each others’ secrets during their stay at a novelty southwest hotel.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, starring Jack Black and Wendi McLendon-Covey, looks to cull chills once again from the popular children’s horror book series by R. L. Stine.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Night School

From the Adam Sandler-centric Billy Madison to the one-two combination of 21 and 22 Jump Street, the idea of grown adults returning to high school is a concept that has played out in plenty of comedies over the years. Returning to the well once more is Night School, the new Kevin Hart vehicle (or HartBeat Production, according to a pre-credit logo) that does precious little to distinguish itself from the class. Along with co-star Tiffany Haddish, Hart brings his typical level of charm and dedication to the film but even with six credited writers on board, there just aren’t enough laughs built in to the script to make this trip back to school worth taking.

Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a barbecue grill salesman looking to move into a career in finance to keep pace with his successful fiancé Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), despite the fact that he lacks a high school diploma. With the hopes that he can charm his way into a work-free GED, he attends night school classes at the same school he dropped out of years prior but is met head-on by the no-nonsense instructor Carrie (Tiffany Haddish). Together with his eccentric group of classmates, Teddy must learn to overcome the same obstacles that precluded him all those years ago.

The film gets off to a promising start, as director Malcolm D. Lee sets Teddy up as a likable guy who seems to have peaked early on in life, but each subsequent character is given less and less dimension by comparison. By the time we get to the first night school class, supporting players like Rob Riggle and Mary Lynn Rajskub are relegated to one or two introductory lines that don’t create enough of a foundation upon which to build clever jokes. The movie’s would-be climax, a late-night school break-in to steal answers to a practice test, spreads its humor thin across half a dozen characters and ends with a gross-out gag that feels out of place and off-putting.

Most of the laughs that land come from the verbal sparring between Hart and Haddish that’s established during their first scene together, in which she refers to him as a “burnt leprechaun”. As is typical for most Hart comedies, his diminutive stature is the center of quite a few jokes; I also appreciated the imposing low angles that cinematographer Greg Gardiner used to juxtapose the height difference between Hart and the film’s more domineering characters. This is especially evident in an early scene with the strict principal played by SNL‘s Taran Killam, whose bat-touting antics seem to be a riff on the Morgan Freeman character from Lean On Me.

Like its main character, the biggest problem that Night School faces is a critical lack of focus. Clearly the film is going for a Breakfast Club vibe where each character has their own dilemma to solve but with two major comedic talents at the forefront, there isn’t enough screen time for a whole class of students. Perhaps if Teddy had been paired with just one classmate, like the one played by Romany Malco (the two shared a hilarious scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), then there could have been some tighter comedic writing. Night School is good-natured and has an endearing message at its core but as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it doesn’t quite make the grade.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Venom, starring Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, is the latest Sony-backed Marvel superhero movie that focuses on a journalist who gains superpowers after coming in contact with an extraterrestrial parasite.
A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is the third remake of the 1937 original film that follows the romance that develops between a road-worn country musician and an up-and-coming singer.
Also opening at Cinema Center this weekend is Blaze, starring Ben Dickey and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, which is a new biopic directed by Ethan Hawke that covers the life of country musician Blaze Foley.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #16 – 4th Quarter Rundown

On this solo episode, I run down some of the most notable releases coming out the next few months: