BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) – Uneven Opening Gives Way To Intense Second Half

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bad times at the el royale poster

So, are there bad times at the El Royale?

You don’t know the half of it.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), the latest film by writer/director Drew Goddard, takes place at a run down hotel, the El Royale, which sits on the border between California and Nevada, and follows the stories of several guests who all arrive there one night, each with dark secrets. When their lives intersect, all hell breaks loose.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is uneven at times, especially early on, when the stories told are somewhat disjointed, but it’s one of those movies where your patience will be rewarded. It gets better as it goes along, and it finishes strong. Still, it doesn’t entirely work as a complete package. It’s more a series of moments, and it does have some powerful moments, scenes that pack a wallop. You just have to wait for them.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast, with several players delivering outstanding performances. Jeff Bridges, for example, carries the film whenever he’s onscreen, which is a lot, and Chris Hemsworth, who shows up towards the end, steals the scenes he’s in.

It’s 1968, and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the El Royale to find a priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) standing out front looking lost. They strike up a friendly conversation and enter the hotel together to find the lobby empty except for one other person who’s helping himself to the bar, and that’s salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) who tells them he can’t seem to find any hotel staff.

This opening scene, in which the three have an extended conversation, plays like something out of a dream. The hotel seems to be deserted, yet they’re talking like that’s not so strange. It’s a weird and slow scene, not the strongest sequence in which to open a movie, but like I said, things get better.

The hotel clerk, a young man named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) eventually shows up and apologizes for not hearing the bell, and as he does so, another guest arrives, a woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Needless to say, none of these folks are simple hotel guests. They have all arrived with an agenda, a story, and through a creative series of flashbacks, we learn what they are all doing there. Yet, the flashbacks are only a small part of the story, as most of the film takes place at the hotel when these characters’ stories intersect, and the less said about their stories, the better. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.

And BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a lot of fun, in a dark violent sort of way.

Drew Goddard has written a very creative script, which is no surprise, because he’s done this before.  Goddard wrote the screenplays for such films as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), which he also directed, THE MARTIAN (2015), and one of my all time favorites, CLOVERFIELD (2008). He’s also written a lot for television, lending his writing talents to such shows as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), LOST (2005-2008), and Marvel’s DAREDEVIL (2015-2018), a show in which he also serves as the series creator.

With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, as both the writer and director, Goddard has created an enjoyable puzzle of a movie. The characters’ stories intertwine seamlessly, helped along by Goddard’s effective use of flashbacks, both from years past and just minutes before. The film shows several events more than once, as seen through different characters’ eyes.

There’s even a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a roll of film containing footage of an unnamed prominent figure, now dead, in a compromising situation. It’s an item everyone wants because of its value.

As I said, the cast is at the top of their game.

The two characters who get the most screen time are singer Darlene Sweet and Father Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is very good as Sweet, and of all the characters in the story, she’s the most straightforward. Her past isn’t so much about a secret, but about a decision to buck the system, to reject the sexual advances of her producer who promised he could make her a star. She decides to make it on her own. Her story really resonates today.

Jeff Bridges is superb as Father Flynn, who does have a secret to hide. Now, since Bridges has had a long and remarkable career, I hesitate to say that this is one of his best performances, because he’s had a lot of those, but let’s put it this way: he’s really, really good. For me, even more than the story, Bridges’ performance is the best part of this movie, and is what I enjoyed most. Bridges’ best scenes are when he talks about and deals with his bout with Alzheimer’s.

Jon Hamm is also very good as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, although his character ultimately has less of an impact than Bridges’ or Erivo’s. For me, the best part of Hamm’s performance was he was playing someone very different from Don Draper on MAD MEN (2007-2015).

Dakota Johnson is fine as Emily Summerspring, but even better is Cailee Spaeny who plays her younger sister Rose, and Lewis Pullman as hotel clerk Miles Miller.  There’s something almost hypnotic about Spaeny’s performance as Rose, a sort of flower child who becomes obsessed with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a relationship that leads her to violence and murder. And Pullman starts off as a meek hotel clerk, but his secrets are painful and deep, and his performance gets better as the film goes along.

Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, he has a field day as Billy Lee, this 1960s anti-establishment leader who sees himself as a cross between Abbie Hoffman and Jesus Christ. Throw in a little Charles Manson and you get the idea. Hemsworth fills the character with creepy charisma.

It’s on full display in the scene where he uses an allegory to share his views on war, having Rose fight another young girl while he stands back and watches, asking his followers to observe how he has made them fight while he remains far away from the scuffle and profits from it.

Hemsworth and Bridges are the two best parts of this movie, and their confrontation during the film’s climax is a major highlight.

That climactic scene where Billy Lee holds the characters hostage and uses a Roulette board to play a deadly execution game is a nail-biter and by far the most intense sequence in the film.

However, one major knock against the script, as fun as it was, and as much as I liked it, is it’s not all that believable.  Other than the Alzheimer’s subplot and Darlene Sweet’s plight with her sexual predator producer, there’s not a lot of realism here, and for the most part, I didn’t believe what was going on. For me, this usually spells doom for a movie, but that’s not the case here. I enjoyed all the clever touches used to tell this story, and combined with the phenomenal acting, it made up for the lack of believability.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE begins slowly, but it gets better, providing some potent moments while it builds to a satisfying and intense final act.

These are some bad times you don’t really want to miss.

—END—

 

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THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) – Robert Redford’s Swan Song A Good One

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Robert Redford in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is being billed as Robert Redford’s final role. He has said he’s retiring from the movies after this. As such, this light amiable movie is a fitting swan song for the venerable movie star.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is loosely based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) a bank robber and thief who escaped from prison multiple times and simply couldn’t break the habit of robbing banks. When asked if he couldn’t find a different way of making a living, he responded that he wasn’t making a living, but simply he was living.

The story takes place in 1981 and follows Tucker and his two cohorts Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) as they quietly and politely rob one bank after another. One day, they choose a bank in which police officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is there with his kids. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Hunt is astonished and embarrassed to learn that he was inside a bank that was robbed and he didn’t see a thing. To save face, he decides to make it his mission to find and capture the folks responsible.

Tucker and his team become known to the public as “the over-the-hill gang” since they are described as men well into their 60s. The media reports their exploits as almost a human interest story, and in fact the public seems to like them. More so, because Tucker is so darn polite, even those in the bank who are robbed by him report that they seemed to like him. Not only is he polite, but he always seems to be smiling and happy.

After one particular heist, Tucker hides in plain sight by pulling over to the side of the road to help a stranded motorist, a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). After she agrees to meet him for coffee, it becomes clear they like each other and a romance blooms.

Even when the heat is on, Tucker has no desire to quit his lifestyle, finding the increased police interest a challenge. In fact, once he learns that he is being pursued by Officer John Hunt, he even reaches out to him, much to Hunt’s astonishment. And Hunt finds himself liking the bank robber as well.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is blessed with a light and very enjoyable script by director David Lowery, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, fine direction by Lowery, and excellent performances by the entire cast, led of course by Robert Redford.

Now, I’ve never been a big Redford fan.  It’s not that I haven’t liked him completely as an actor, but that his performances have rarely resonated with me.  That being said, there have certainly been films of his and roles he’s played that I’ve really enjoyed, but most of these came early in his career, in films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), THE STING (1973), and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Later films like THE NATURAL (1984), OUT OF AFRICA (1985), and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1992) didn’t do as much for me.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is easily Redford’s best performance that I’ve seen in a quite a while.  I had a lot of fun watching THE OLD MAN & THE GUN.

Redford makes Forrest Tucker— no relation to the famous late character actor, by the way— a guy who’s easy to like and root for. You really don’t want to see him get caught. The character is also a gifted storyteller, and he’s someone who, whether he’s talking to Sissy Spacek’s Jewel, or his partners, or to Casey Affleck’s Officer Hunt, you don’t want to stop listening to. Some of this is the script, but most of it is Redford. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a nod come Oscar time.

Sissy Spacek is equally as good as Jewel.  She and Redford work well together.  Their scene in the coffee shop is classic. He tells her point-blank that he’s a thief. She doesn’t believe him, and he asks her what she would do if he could prove it to her, and she says she’d leave. His response is that “in that case, I’m not going to do it. Not because I can’t. But because it’s not my style.”

Casey Affleck is also excellent as officer John Hunt. His career is going nowhere, and he’s terribly embarrassed by what happened in the bank, but his quest to capture Tucker doesn’t become an Ahab-like obsession, but rather an exercise in self-respect.

Danny Glover and Tom Waits also share fun scenes as Tucker’s fellow bank robbers.

Strangely, Keith Carradine gets fourth billing, but he’s only in the movie for a couple of seconds. Evidently, most of his role ended up being cut.

David Lowery’s script is humorous and upbeat, and has a lot to say about aging with dignity, about doing what you love and not worrying about how much time you have left. When Tucker tells Jewel he wants to ride horses, that it’s on his list of things to do in his life, she says he should hurry up and do it, to which he responds, “why?” Which got a nice laugh from the audience, but also makes the point that Tucker is extremely comfortable where he is in his life.

The best scene in the film is where Tucker follows Hunt into the men’s room to introduce himself to the police officer. It’s a great moment. Tucker’s pleasant personality is on full display, but so is Hunt’s, and the scene is a gem.

The film does tend to slow a bit towards the end, which says a lot since it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Admittedly, it felt longer.

There’s also a neat montage late in the film chronicling all of Tucker’s prison escapes which makes use of some Redford clips from yesteryear.

I really liked THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Its charming story, although slow-paced, is a crowd-pleaser. It features strong performances throughout, especially by Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck.

But this is Redford’s movie, to be sure.  It’s evident he had fun playing this role. If it’s true that this is indeed his final performance, it’s a worthy finale to a long and distinguished movie career.

—END—

 

HALLOWEEN (2018) – Jamie Lee Curtis Returns With a Vengeance, But Rest of Horror Flick Pretty Bad

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

The Jamie Lee Curtis story arc in HALLOWEEN (2018) is so good it almost saves the rest of the movie which sadly is rather— well, there’s no other way to say it, awful.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is the latest chapter in the Michael Myers saga, and before this film was released, I found myself shaking my head at the title. This is the eleventh film in the series and the third to be called HALLOWEEN. Granted, the second film entitled HALLOWEEN (2007) was Rob Zombie’s flawed reimagining of the original, but still, to call this movie HALLOWEEN seemed rather lazy.

However, when I saw the film’s trailer, which I really enjoyed, I decided to reserve judgement on the title because what I saw in the trailer looked so good.

HALLOWEEN (2018) completely ignores events in any of the sequels and re-imaginings and exists in a universe where only events from the original HALLOWEEN (1978) have occurred.

And so it has been forty years since Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) survived the brutal attack by masked killer Michael Myers on Halloween night, a night that saw three of her high school friends murdered. She has spent her remaining years dealing with the trauma, preparing for Myers’ eventual escape from the mental hospital, as she says here in the movie, so she can kill him.

And of course, Myers does escape and does return to Haddonfield, Illinois, to kill more teenagers on Halloween night, and to go after Laurie Strode once more, who after forty years of preparation, is more than up to the task of taking on the masked madman.

The best part of HALLOWEEN is the Laurie Strode story arc, and in fact it’s the only part of this sequel that’s worth watching. Her story is first-rate, as is Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance. It’s a shame the writers couldn’t come up with equally impressive stories for both Michael Myers and any of the other new characters.

But back to Laurie Strode. She’s agorophobic and lives in a secluded fortified compound. She’s estranged from her adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), but she has a better relationship with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who’s now in high school and along with her friends are the new natural targets for Michael Myers. But even Allyson implores her grandmother to “get over it” and get on with her life.

But Laurie is wise not to, as Michael Myers returns to start another murder spree. The story told from Laurie’s perspective is completely believable, and her scenes where she takes on Myers are the best in the movie.

Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent here, and she pretty much alone saves this movie from being horrible.  She does this because the rest of the movie is pretty bad, and with Curtis’ effective performance and watchable storyline, things balance out.

So, why is the rest of the film so awful?

Let’s start with the Michael Myers character. If only the writers had spent as much care crafting Myers’ story as they did Laurie’s. His story here makes little sense. One of the biggest problems is the constant need by several characters in this movie to know more about Michael, in effect teasing the audience with their questions, and then the film gives us absolutely nothing for answers.

In John Carpenter’s original classic, we knew nothing about Michael Myers other than he was, as Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis constantly reminded us, “pure evil.” Myers was somehow for whatever reason the embodiment of evil. Not knowing more about him worked here because frankly it didn’t matter.

In the sequels, we learned all sorts of laughable reasons for his existence, from he was Laurie Strode’s brother to he was controlled by an evil cult going back to the time of the Druids. None of these plot points did the series or the character any favors. In short, there has never been a decent explanation for who Michael Myers was or what he did other than he was “death on two legs.”  And in Carpenter’s original movie this worked just fine.

Actually, the best explanation may have come in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reimagining, which revealed Michael’s traumatic childhood. What that flawed film failed to do however was connect the dots from bullied child to supernatural killer.

The problem with Myers in this new HALLOWEEN is that everyone and his grandmother keeps asking “what’s Michael Myers’ secret?” “What’s it like to be Michael Myers?” “Why won’t he talk?” And for answers, the film gives us nothing. If you’re going to give the audience nothing, don’t ask the questions!

That being said, I did enjoy how Michael Myers walked in this one, as he had a little more skip in his step—even at his advanced age!— than he did in the older films, where he would have lost a race to Kharis the Mummy!

The other huge problem with HALLOWEEN is the supporting characters are all for the most part, dreadful. It’s as if the writers spent all their time writing Laurie Strode and had nothing left in the tank for anyone else.

Judy Greer, a fine actress, who I’ve enjoyed in such films as CARRIE (2013), the recent PLANET OF THE APES movies and the ANT-MAN films, is wasted here in a whiny role as Laurie’s adult daughter Karen who criticizes her mom for obsessing over Michael Myers but herself can’t stop obsessing about her own childhood or lack thereof.

Newcomer Andi Matichak is okay as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson, but it’s not really her story, and even though at times it seems as if she’s going to become a central character, she never really does.

I like Will Patton a lot and pretty much enjoy everything he does, and his performance here as Officer Hawkins is no exception.  Patton is very good as an officer facing his own demons, as we learn that he was one of the officers at the scene of the original 1978 Michael Myers murders.

But the writers botch this character as well, as he simply is not in this story enough to make an impact.

All of the teen characters are negligible and forgettable.

But the absolute worst character is Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) who is Myers’ current doctor and who calls himself a protegé of the deceased Dr. Loomis. Sartain’s motivations make no sense at all, and the plot twist involving his character is one of the most ridiculous plot points in the entire series. It’s awful.

The only other character who fares well is young Jibrail Nantambu who plays 10 year-old Julian who’s being babysat by Allyson’s friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner). Nantambu is only in a couple of scenes, but he steals them all, and is the only other lively part of this film other than Jamie Lee Curtis.  That being said, Virginia Gardner’s best scenes are the ones she shares with Nantambu.

Director David Gordon Green and Danny McBride wrote the deeply flawed screenplay. They get Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode right, but that’s all they get right. The other characters and the rest of the story is a mess.

The same can be said for Green’s direction.  Truth be told, I did enjoy all the scenes where he pays homage to the original HALLOWEEN. For example, the scene where Allyson sits in her high school class listening to a teacher— played by P.J. Soles, who played Laurie’s friend Lynda in the original—  drone on about fate is exactly like a similar scene in the original where Laurie sits in class listening to a similar lecture. Laurie looks out the window and see Michael Myers. Here, Allyson looks out the window and sees her grandmother.

Laurie falls from a balcony the same way Myers does at the end of the original, and likewise, just as Donald Pleasence’ Dr. Loomis looks down to see that Myers has disappeared, here, Myers looks down to see that Laurie has disappeared.

These scenes work well, However, the gas station scene which is supposed to pay homage to a similar scene from HALLOWEEN 4 – THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988) simply comes off as too derivative.

And what’s with Myer’s obsession with wearing a garage mechanic’s uniform? He wore similar garb in the original because he happened to kill a random man for his clothes, but in the sequels he seemingly has to find a way to wear the same kind of clothes all the time. Rather silly when you think about it.

The film tries to make a big deal about Myer’s mask. Everyone in the movie wants to know: What is it about this particular mask that sets off Michael Myers? Again, the film offer no answers.

Green also doesn’t give the film any decent pacing or true scares. It simply plays like your standard— and oftentimes bad— slasher horror film, complete with characters making bone-headed decisions.

John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN was ripe with suspense, including a final twenty minutes which was sweat-inducing. There’s no such suspense here.

Speaking of John Carpenter, he’s credited once more with scoring the music, and that is certainly a plus. His HALLOWEEN theme has never sounded better.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is a mixed bag of trick or treats. I loved the Laurie Strode storyline and Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance, but the rest of the film isn’t any better than HALLOWEEN’s worst sequels.

Somewhere druids are celebrating.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BABYSITTER (2017)

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Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving in THE BABYSITTER (2017)

I had so much fun watching THE BABYSITTER (2017) I almost watched it again immediately after finishing it.  It’s that good!

The best part of THE BABYSITTER is the script by Brian Duffield. It’s hilarious. Think SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) meets STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) with a sprinkling of 80s slasher horror.

THE BABYSITTER is the story of twelve year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) who like other middle schoolers is dealing with issues of self-confidence and bullying. But he has a super hot babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving), who is a very popular high school student. She treats him well, and they enjoy spending time together.

Cole’s friend and neighbor Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind) dares him to stay up and spy on Bee after he goes to bed, to see what she really does late at night, the implication being that she invites friends over and has wild parties. Curious, Cole does just that, and when a bunch of friends do come over, and he spies Bee making out with one of them, he smiles thinking he is going to watch a fun time, but when Bee suddenly drives two knives into another teen’s skull, Cole discovers that Bee and her friends have an entirely different agenda, and it involves a cult, a sacrifice, and the blood of a young boy— Cole’s.

THE BABYSITTER starts out fun and never lets up. As I said, the script by Brian Duffield is nonstop funny.  The dialogue is fresh and lively, full of pop culture references, and the characters of Cole and Bee are developed long before the horror elements kick in.

Add some very creative direction by McG and you have an instant winner. McG uses clever touches like superimposing words on the screen for comedic effect, first person camerawork, and during the film’s second half plenty of blood and gore. None of it is all that scary, but it is very entertaining. That being said, the initial murder scene with Bee and her first victim is rather jarring.

McG has directed a lot of movies, including the standard Kevin Costner actioner 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) and the lowly regarded TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009), the one with Christian Bale and without Arnold, a film that in spite of its bad reputation I actually liked quite a bit. That being said, THE BABYSITTER is by far the best film I’ve seen that McG has directed.

It was filmed in 2015 and was intended to be a theatrical release until it was bought by Netflix for a 2017 release on its streaming service.  Like other Netflix originals, the colors are exceedingly bright and vibrant. There’s a clean, crisp, look to the film which goes a long way towards making it watchable.

I loved the cast.

The two leads are perfect. As Cole, Judah Lewis is a nice combination of dorky and heroic. He’s a middle schooler without self-confidence, but he’s a nice kid who’s more mature than he thinks he is. And later when it’s up to him to save the day, he’s more than up to the task.

Samara Weaving steals the show as Bee, the babysitter. Early on she’s the ultra cool and sexy babysitter who really treats Cole right and does well by him. But when she becomes the cult killer, she’s all vamp and evil, and she pulls off both sides of Bee with relative ease. She’s very convincing in the role.

Weaving was also in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) and the TV show ASH VS. EVIL DEAD (2015-16), and I’ve enjoyed her most of all here in THE BABYSISTTER.

The other reason THE BABYSITTER works so well is the chemistry between Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving. In spite of the humor, the film portrays a very real relationship between Cole and Bee. They really do like each other, and the emotions felt between the two of them later when things go south, are genuine and real. The story works as more than just a lighthearted farce because Cole loves Bee and feels betrayed by her. These feelings come out loud and clear, despite the film’s over the top style.

Lewis and Weaving are also helped by a strong supporting cast.

Robbie Amell has a field day as Max, the ultra handsome friend of Bee’s who wants nothing more to personally end Cole’s life. Hana Mae Lee and Bella Thorne round out the cult team, and both turn in strong performances.

Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino do a fine job as the cliché clueless and syrupy sweet parents, looking and acting like they walked off the set of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986). Their performances work because it’s all played for laughs.

My second favorite performance in the film behind both Lewis and Weaving belongs to Emily Alyn Lind as Cole’s friend Melanie. She obviously has a crush on Cole, and her scenes with him are some of the best in the movie.

So, THE BABYSITTER is light and funny, but how does it hold up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well! The film doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore, and the humor never becomes dumbed down or stupid, and so it never detracts from the story, which ultimately is about a group of cult members who want to harvest the blood of a young teenager.

At least that’s the plot. The theme is much more in line with needing to stand up for oneself, which is something that Cole never does early on, but that all changes later on in the film.

But make no mistake.  This one is played for laughs, so don’t expect GET OUT (2017). That being said, the humor is so sharp and the script and direction so imaginative, you’d be hard-pressed not to totally love this movie.

I know I certainly did.  In fact, THE BABYSITTER is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror film in a long time. And while I’ve never encountered a babysitter like Bee, everything else about this story, in spite of its over the top humor, rings true.

This Halloween, as you’re heading out to a party or to a haunted house tour or to a night of just plain old trick or treating, make sure—even if you don’t have kids— you hire THE BABYSITTER.

—END—

 

 

FIRST MAN (2018) – Serious, Somber Look at Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil  Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.

The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.

Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.

When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.

Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.

As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.

FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.

With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.

This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.

The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.

It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.

Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.

The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  It’s a painfully poignant moment.

And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.

Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.

That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.

I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.

There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).

I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.

There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.

The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.

History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.

FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.

In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.

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VENOM (2018) -Tom Hardy Carries Lighthearted Superhero Flick

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Venom

VENOM (2018), the latest Marvel superhero movie, stars Tom Hardy and is a fairly entertaining superhero flick even if it doesn’t always play out like one.

It’s not for a lack of trying, with its witty one-liners and slick action scenes, but at the end of the day this tale of a man dealing with a symbiotic alien life form known as Venom feels more like a 1980s John Carpenter or David Cronenberg movie, only not as dark.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative TV news reporter, and for his latest assignment he’s been asked to interview the controversial scientist and businessman Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) but it’s supposed to be a soft interview. No difficult questions. But Eddie isn’t having it, because he believes Drake is a bad man, and so he takes off the kids’ gloves and asks Drake the tough questions. As a result, Drake cuts the interview short.

Not only that, but the next thing he knows, Eddie is fired, his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) breaks off their engagement and leaves him, and he pretty much hits rock bottom. But his instincts about Drake were right. He is a bad man. He’s been conducting experiments with alien life forms that need human hosts to survive. Trouble is, the human hosts keep dying, and Drake keeps bringing in more and more unknowing “host” people who continue to die.

When Eddie decides to investigate Drake’s lab, he finds himself face to face with one of these life forms, and for reasons not clearly explained, when it enters Eddie’s body, unlike so many other hosts, he doesn’t die.

This life form is Venom, and it turns out he doesn’t like Drake all that much either, and so he and Eddie work together to take down the villainous scientist.

Yup, it’s all kinda stupid when you think about it, so don’t think about it too much.

The best part of VENOM is clearly Tom Hardy. He pretty much carries the first half of the  movie, which can be slow at times, and he does this by making Eddie less a jerk and more a lovable loser. Hardy also provides the voice of Venom, and  when the two join forces in the film’s second half, things are far more entertaining.

Where does this stack up among Tom Hardy performances? Well, truth be told, I liked Hardy better as Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) and as Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). And I enjoyed him more in THE REVENANT (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017), so it’s not the most amazing role he’s ever taken, but that doesn’t mean he’s not very good here. He is.

I’m also a big fan of Michelle Williams, but sadly her role here as Eddie’s love interest Anne isn’t much of a role.

Riz Ahmed is okay as the villainous Carlton Drake, but like so many other Marvel movie villains before him, he’s rather boring. As good as these Marvel movies have been, the majority of them haven’t had villains who have been on par with the heroes. Ahmed was much more memorable as Bodhi Rook in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

I did enjoy Reid Scott as Anne’s new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis. He wasn’t the typical cliché annoying new boyfriend. In fact, he likes Eddie a lot, having been a fan of his TV work.

And Jenny Slate is also up to par as Dr. Dora Skirth, one of Drake’s scientists who develops a conscience.

VENOM was directed by Ruben Fleischer, and he does an okay job.  The look of the film is dark and edgy, yet the tone and the script are light and funny. It’s an odd mixture at times.

Part of this, I think, is that VENOM was originally going to be an R rated superhero movie, but plans changed and it was released as a PG-13 vehicle. It may have worked better as more of an adult tale.

The action scenes are okay, but none of them blew me away, and the special effects which created Venom were also just okay.  Nothing here really stood out, other than Hardy’s performance.

Fleischer also directed ZOMBIELAND (2009), a zombie horror comedy that had more bite— heh heh— than VENOM, as well as GANGSTER SQUAD 2013), a good-looking gangster film which ultimately didn’t have much of an impact.

The screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel mixes goofy humor with its darker tale and the result as you might expect is a mixed bag. It also leaves some key points unexplained, like why Eddie doesn’t die once Venom enters his body. Also, Venom says he likes Eddie because back on his home planet he was kind of a loser as well, which is a funny line, but the trouble is Venom doesn’t really act like much of a loser here, so that revelation didn’t exactly ring true for me.

All this being said, I had fun watching VENOM and was glad I went to see it.

Where does it rank with the recent Marvel films? Well, clearly it’s not as good as the Marvel heavyweights which came out earlier this year, BLACK PANTHER (2018) and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). Nor is it on the same level as DEADPOOL (2016).

But for what it is, a lighthearted superhero caper starring Tom Hardy, it does what it sets out to do. It entertains.

As long as you’re not expecting comic book genius, you should enjoy it just fine.

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A STAR IS BORN (2018) – Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga Sizzle in Remake

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a star is born 2018

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A STAR IS BORN (2018).

If A STAR IS BORN (2018) is anything, it’s a showcase for its two performers, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who share strong chemistry throughout and lift this film at times to something quite special.

It also happens to be a remake.

A third remake, to be exact.

And so originality is definitely lacking. I’ve seen this story told three times before, in 1937 starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, in 1954 with James Mason and Judy Garland, and in 1976 with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. As good as this new version of A STAR IS BORN is, and it is very good, it really can’t get over the fact that it’s telling the same story the fourth time around.

Famed musician and performer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) while riding high on the celebrity charts is struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. One night, after a show, he visits a bar and happens to catch the performance of a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga). Jack is instantly impressed, and he basically asks her out on the spot. She initially says no, but Jack persists, and Ally gives in and agrees to go on a date with him.

They hit it off immediately, and Jack encourages Ally to pursue her songwriting career. In fact, one night at one of his concerts, he invites Ally on stage to sing with him, and the rest is history. Ally makes a big splash, and as her career is born and takes off, Jack continues to struggle with his addictions, leading the two, in spite of their romantic relationship, on opposite life journeys.

So, there’s the story, and if you’ve seen any of the previous film versions, it’s one you’re familiar with.  Now, I liked this 2018 version of A STAR IS BORN, but I would have liked it even more had I not known exactly what was going to happen.

The best part of this new A STAR IS BORN is the performances by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. They are completely believable in their roles and as I said they do share tremendous chemistry onscreen. It’s not an exaggeration to say the two sizzle as a couple, which makes their characters’ ultimate fate all the more tragic.

Cooper, who is also making his directorial debut here—more on that in a bit— is excellent as Jackson Maine. For starters, I believe he did his own singing and guitar playing here, which is pretty awesome, considering how good he sounds. He makes Jack an authentic music star. And he’s likable. When he’s on top of his game, he’s generous enough to help Ally get started and more so he falls completely in love with her.

As Jack’s addictions grow worse, Cooper makes his pain so palpable you almost feel as if you’re drinking too much along with him.

Jack tells Ally that success is fleeting, and the world is full of talented people, but the ones who make it are the ones who have something to say, and he advises her to tell the truth, because truth is what compels audiences to show up. It’s perfect advice and reflects one of the secrets to good writing: keep it truthful. This theme resonates throughout the movie.

Lady Gaga is just as good if not better than Cooper. At first, she shows us Ally’s vulnerabilities and her lack of self-confidence, which is one of the reasons she’s so hesitant at first to spend time with Jack, as she fears he may only want to take advantage of her. But she soon realizes that’s not the case.

And of course, once she starts singing, being Lady Gaga, her voice takes on a life of its own and obviously makes her newfound fame completely credible. More impressive, though, aside from her singing, is that she shows off some first-class acting chops. I liked Ally and wanted to see her succeed, and more so, I was pulling for Ally’s and Jack’s relationship to succeed as well.

It’s also not lost on me that there is an added layer to this movie regarding the real life performers. We have Bradley Cooper, an actor, playing a famous singer, and Lady Gaga, a famous singer, making her acting debut, playing a newcomer to the entertainment scene.  As I watched their early scenes together, where Jack advises Ally how to handle her music career, I couldn’t help but think it’s Lady Gaga who knows the ins and outs of the music industry, and in reality she’s the one who could be doing the advising.

As I said, A STAR IS BORN is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, and it’s a strong one.  His work behind the camera shows that he’s a good storyteller, as the film conveys its emotions at all the right places.  The story moves at a decent pace with the possible exception of the third act which drags a bit.

Cooper also wrote the screenplay along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. Roth has a ton of writing credits, including FORREST GUMP 1994).

A STAR IS BORN also features a strong supporting cast. Sam Elliott, in spite of the fact that sometimes his muttering is difficult to understand, does a fine job as Jack’s older brother and some-time manager Bobby. The two share some emotional scenes together, in particular one where Jack says some pretty hurtful things to his older brother, and later, the opposite, where Jack tells Bobby the truth about how he has always looked up to him.

Andrew Dice Clay gives a nice subdued performance as Ally’s dad Lorenzo. And Dave Chapelle enjoys some key scenes as Jack’s buddy George “Noodles” Stone.

Overall, I liked A STAR IS BORN, mostly because I really enjoyed watching Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga together on screen. The film also has something to say about success, the entertainment industry, and alcohol and drug addiction.

However, I would have liked it more had I not known exactly how this ill-fated love story was going to end.

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