Apollo 11

Though there have been plenty of other movies and TV specials about the first moon mission, we haven’t seen anything quite like the wondrous new documentary Apollo 11. Utilizing previously unseen footage from the 8-day period during which the mission took place in July 1969, director Todd Douglas Miller has crafted a meticulous and often thrilling recreation of mankind’s most daring feat. Unlike last year’s excellent First Man, which tells a more personal story centered around lead astronaut Neil Armstrong, this film is much more straight-forward about the specifics of the spaceflight.

Miller, who is also credited as the sole editor, eschews typical documentary conventions like having the events explained to us by historian talking heads or a narrative voiceover. Instead, he cuts the footage in a way that even people who don’t know the ins and outs of space travel would be able to understand. When the astronauts are discussing upcoming tactical maneuvers with NASA headquarters, we’re shown diagrams that clearly demonstrate what the crew is about to attempt. What’s most impressive about this aspect in particular is that even though these visual depictions mirror what a teacher might draw on a chalkboard, the film never feels like a boring school lecture.

Given that all of the documentary’s footage is taken from 50-year-old film, one may expect that the look of this movie would be quite dated but the images are full of new life with the aid of digital restoration. Thanks to Miller’s direction, the film has a cinematic immediacy to it from the first frame, which begins by highlighting the massive scale of the operation as the camera glides up the 6-million pound rocket ship. There are also gorgeous shots, like one from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet awaiting the trio of astronauts, that feel both incredibly modern and indelibly timeless at the same time.

With the aid of Matt Morton’s majestic musical score, unbroken shots of the crew completing the most challenging portions of the mission are made even more awe-inspiring than they would be otherwise. When the frame is divided into several split-screens that feature various teams working within mission control, the pulsing synth-driven soundtrack gives appropriate urgency to their efforts. The rest of the audio is filled out expertly by sound designer Eric Milano, who poured through thousands of hours of uncatalogued audio recordings to capture the most essential pieces of dialogue from this landmark event.

When we think of the moon landing, typically Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come to mind first but this documentary is a reminder of the hundreds of talented individuals whose hard work made this dangerous mission a success. One such example is found in an early tracking shot that depicts the seemingly endless rows of computing equipment and scientists dedicated to achieving the impossible. Thanks to the efforts of Miller and everyone behind the production of Apollo 11, their work can now be seen through a new lens of clarity and preserved for future generations looking for inspiration once again.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, is a new horror film from Get Out director Jordan Peele about a family of four whose vacation is upended by a diabolical group of home invaders.
Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, tells the harrowing true story of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks from the perspective of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Back in theaters for its 20th anniversary is Cruel Intentions, the romantic teen drama starring Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon about a pair of wealthy step-siblings who make a lascivious wager.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Captain Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes room for yet another superhero in Captain Marvel, an action-packed addition to the gargantuan series which is noteworthy for its female lead but not for much else. It’s a perfectly acceptable product from Marvel Studios, which has produced an average of 2 comic book movies a year for the past 10 years, but it rarely distinguishes itself enough to transcend that dubious designation. For a film that revolves around its superheroine searching for her true identity, it’s painfully ironic that the film itself doesn’t break with the “Marvel formula” long enough to establish an identity of its own.

Set in the mid-1990s, the story centers around Vers (Brie Larson), a member of the alien race known as Kree who trains under the mentorship of the revered warrior Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). During a battle against their shapeshifting foes known as Skrulls, Vers escapes to Earth and is discovered by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) after she crash lands inside a Los Angeles Blockbuster store. On the run from Skrull soldiers led by the treacherous Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the two follow clues that point towards a hidden past that Vers had on Earth and advanced technology that may end the intergalactic alien feud once and for all.

The best elements of Captain Marvel revolve around the chemistry between Larson and Jackson in a storyline that feels like it’s ripped straight from a ’90s buddy-cop movie like Die Hard with a Vengeance. Thanks to some utterly convincing digital de-aging in post-production, Jackson even looks like they pulled him right off the set from one of those films and placed him in this fish-out-of-water tale. The banter and comedic timing between the determined Vers and the incredulous Fury lead to the biggest delights of the film and offer respite from the tiresome space conflict that drives the majority of the narrative.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known for crafting intimate character studies like Half Nelson and Sugar, would seem to be a great fit to tell an origin story with an amnesiac at its center. Sadly, the investigation of Vers and her backstory is relatively shallow and lacks the type of nuance that we’ve come to expect based on the directors’ previous work. Their lack of experience in the action genre is apparent from the numerous setpieces that are somewhat enjoyable but lack the visual flair of other entries in the Marvel canon. There’s also no doubt that some of the more rambunctious musical cues are incongruous with the rest of the film’s general tone.

The cast certainly does the best that they can with the material and most of the actors and actresses are given at least one scene in which they really shine. Despite portraying a woefully underwritten central character, Larson is able to balance snark and stoicism to mostly make up for the script’s deficiencies. Newcomer Lashana Lynch is terrific in her limited role and her scenes with Larson are hands-down the most human moments in the entire film. There just aren’t enough of them to give Captain Marvel the kind of emotional heft that it needed to stand out from the increasingly homogeneous superhero landscape.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Wonder Park, starring Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong, is the latest offering from Nickelodeon Movies about an imaginative young girl who creates an amusement park filled with talking animals and fantastical rides.
Captive State, starring John Goodman and Ashton Sanders, depicts a world in which an uncompromising extraterrestrial force has fractured humanity into two opposing sides.
Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, adapts the young adult novel about pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses who fall in love after meeting in the hospital.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Greta

Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz play a dangerous game of cat and mouse in Greta, a campy thriller with a pair of memorable performances that is critically compromised by a cliche-ridden screenplay. Cut from the same cloth as 90s stalker movies like Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, the film cycles through conventions of the sub-genre with relative ease but does so without making much of an impression on its own terms. Irish director Neil Jordan, probably still best known for his Oscar-winning The Crying Game, is able to generate some suspenseful scenes in the third act, even if it takes a little too long to get there.

Moretz stars as Frances, a young waitress living in New York with her street-smart friend Erica (Maika Monroe), who finds a deserted purse on the subway one evening after her shift. Wanting to do the right thing, she follows the address on the driver’s license inside and subsequently meets the titular character played by Huppert, a widowed piano teacher who seems plagued by loneliness. The two soon become close but after Frances finds evidence that suggests their initial meeting might not have been as serendipitous as it seemed, Greta becomes obsessed with preserving what she views as their mother-daughter relationship.

It’s vital for a movie like this to have a central character with whom we can empathize as she goes through an increasingly alarming scenario and thankfully, Greta undoubtedly excels in this area. Moretz does a fine job at imbuing Frances with grace and likability right off the bat, while Monroe also continues a nice string of work as a more cynical and savvy counterpart to the naive Frances. But as you may expect, it’s Huppert as the unassuming but deranged Greta who steals the show as she tiptoes and terrorizes her way through a story that isn’t quite deserving of her abundant talents.

The script, co-written by Jordan with Ray Wright, does not feel as fresh as it should for a film of this genre and creates moments that inspire dubious questions in the minds of audience members. For example, if one was alerted to being watched in a crowded public area, why would he or she leave that area to walk alone down a dark alley? Also, if a kidnapper restrained her captive in a bed, why would she place the bed post up against a wall so that visitors could hear the commotion from said bed post? It’s a shame that the plot folds under basic scrutiny from common sense questions like these because a little fine tuning could have eliminated these errors.

Aside from the reckless plotting and glaring issues with many of the decisions made by the characters, there are small delights from a technical aspect that piqued my interest at various points. I appreciated the way Javier Navarrete interpolated the familiar tune of Lizst’s “Liebestraum,” which is played by Greta during her first meeting with Frances, into his tense musical score. Jordan also captures a side of New York that feels more isolated and lonesome than the bustling metropolis we typically see on-screen. Unfortunately, touches like these are simply grace notes to a melody that feels all too familiar and make Greta a fluffy and forgettable thriller.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, is the latest Marvel movie about an Air Force pilot who gets caught in an intergalactic conflict between two alien worlds.
Arctic, starring Mads Mikkelsen, tells the harrowing story of a man stranded in the Arctic after an airplane crash who must decide whether to remain in his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown.
Opening at Cinema Center is Song Of Back And Neck, starring The Office’s Paul Lieberstein and Rosemarie DeWitt, in which a man with chronic muscle pain begins to find relief when new romance enters his life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup