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

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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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WHITE BOY RICK (2018) – Somber Authentic Tale of Family, Drugs, and Guns in 1980s Detroit

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Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey in WHITE BOY RICK (2018).

Matthew McConaughey is a helluva an actor.

I like to poke fun at his Lincoln TV commercials, but in the movies, he’s the real deal and then some.

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) which stars McConaughey is one of the most somber, depressing movies I’ve seen in a long while. It may not be an enjoyable film, but it is certainly an authentic one. At times I thought I was watching a documentary. It does an exceptional job capturing the depression of 1980s Detroit, and its story, while slow, is delivered without fanfare, led by two powerful performances, one by McConaughey, and the other by newcomer Richie Merritt.

WHITE BOY RICK opens at a gun show where Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) purchase semi-automatic weapons because that’s how Rick Sr. makes a living, by selling guns on the black market. Rick and his son live in Detroit. It’s the 1980s and the economy there is deplorable.  They are dirt poor and things are only getting worse. Rick talks optimistically about opening a video store but he never seems to get around to it.

They live alone in a run-down house, as Rick’s wife left them years ago, and Rick Jr.s older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a junkie, moved out because she can’t stand her dad’s restrictions. Rick Sr.’s parents live next door, his cranky dad Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and his more soft-spoken mother Grandma (Piper Laurie).

Rick Jr. hangs out with his best friend “Boo” (RJ Cyler) whose dad Johnny (Jonathan Majors) operates the local drug trade. As Rick Jr. becomes closer to this seedy side of Detroit, he’s nabbed by FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). They give Rick an ultimatum: if he sells drugs for them, in an effort to infiltrate and help them arrest the local drug pushers, they won’t arrest his dad for selling guns to drug dealers. Seeing that he has no choice, Rick Jr. agrees, and suddenly he’s playing a very dangerous game.

Eventually, as things continually get worse financially for Rick’s family, Rick Jr. decides to take matters into his own hands and use his drug contacts to sell drugs on his own. While Rick Sr. protests, arguing that selling drugs is bad news, he can’t deny that the money they could make dwarfs what they make selling guns, and they are desperately poor.

As I said, this is not a happy movie.

One of the main messages in WHITE BOY RICK is that under the drug laws of the 1980s it was actually worse to get caught selling drugs than it was to murder someone. Several characters mention this in the movie, and ultimately this is what happens when Rick Jr. is arrested. He receives a life sentence, And he was just a teenager.

It provides one of the more emotional moments of the film where Bruce Dern’s grandfather character cries out in court room, “He’s just a boy! How can you do this to just a boy!”

Not only can they do it, but they did do it, in real life, as WHITE BOY RICK is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. who did indeed receive a life sentence in 1988 for selling drugs.

There is nothing flashy about the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. It goes about its business telling its story without frills. As such, the pacing is slow as often the audience feels like a fly on the wall to some of the conversations and situations, but it does do a remarkable job fleshing out the its characters. You might not like these people, but you will feel for them, mostly because they come off as real.

Director Yann Demange captures poverty-stricken Detroit perfectly, in spite of shooting the film in Cleveland. The story he tells is raw and gritty, the characters unrefined and pungent, and the overall feeling of the film is somber and depressing.

Demange also gets the most out of his actors, as there are strong performances throughout.

Matthew McConaughey, as he almost always is, is excellent as Rick Sr., and newcomer Richie Merritt, who’s making his film debut, is just as good as Rick Jr. The two really seem like father and son.

McConaughey is near-perfect as the dad who just wants to do right by his family, but wouldn’t know a good idea if it knocked on his front door. Stuck selling guns, unable to help his drug-addicted daughter, and out of the loop regarding his son’s drug dealings, he nonetheless refuses to quit, even with all of life seemingly working against him. Eventually, he does go after his daughter and help get her clean, he does step up to help his son, but unfortunately, the need for money proved too great for him to tell Rick Jr. not to sell drugs.

The scene near the end of the movie where Rick visits his son in prison and sees that Rick Jr. is giving up, and he begs his son not to quit, knowing that there’s nothing he can do to help him, is one of the film’s best. When he cries out to his son that “he’s his best friend. You’re my only friend!” It is such a powerful realistic moment.

McConaughey fares much better here than in last year’s THE DARK TOWER (2017). This might be my favorite McConaughey performance since DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013.)

And Richie Merritt doesn’t seem like an actor playing a role at all. He seems like he is Rick Jr. It’s one of the more authentic performances I’ve seen this year.

Bel Powley is also very good as Rick Jr.’s sister Dawn, who like Merritt and McConaughey, doesn’t seem to be acting.  The trio come off as a real family, albeit a messed-up one, but a real one just the same.

Then you have veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as a pair of FBI agents. Both RJ Cyler as “Boo” and Jonathan Majors as his drug dealing father Johnny are excellent, and character actor Eddie Marsan enjoys a couple of memorable scenes as drug dealer Art Derrick.

Not to mention cinema greats Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents of the family.  Dern gets to do more, as Grandpa is the more outspoken of the two and gets to utter some explosive lines here and there, but it was still good to see Laurie as well.

The cast in WHITE BOY RICK is really a plus.

And the film gets its title from Rick Jr.’s nickname. Since Johnny Curry and his gang were primarily black, and Rick Jr. was often the only white person in their inner circle, Johnny got to calling him “White Boy Rick.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from WHITE BOY RICK. But when all was said and done, and the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a potent movie.

This one is about as fun as a traffic accident, but there is not a shred of fluff to be found here. It plays as authentic as a documentary, and with a talented cast of actors, it does one better, as the characters it creates, while not likeable, are real and sympathetic. I didn’t like these folks and wouldn’t want to know them, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the injustice of Rick Jr.’s fate and the heartbreak of Rick Sr. when he realized he was never going to spend time with his son again.

WHITE BOY RICK has a lot to say about the motivations of people who just don’t have money to live their lives, and speaks to the imbalance of drug laws, how the punishment may not fit the crime.

You may not be hearing much about WHITE BOY RICK, and even if you are, it may not sound like something you want to see. But if you do see it, you’ll be in for a no-nonsense movie that speaks the truth about some unpleasant people, the choices they make, and the situations they find themselves in, people who ultimately you will feel empathy for.

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A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

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SEARCHING (2018) – Missing Daughter Thriller Nearly Done In By Ridiculous Ending

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SEARCHING (2018), a new thriller about a man named David Kim (John Cho) searching for his missing daughter, hooked me in immediately and never let go— until its ending.

The gimmick in SEARCHING is that all of its action takes place on a computer screen, which is similar to the same gimmick used in the horror movie UNFRIENDED (2014), a film I thought I would hate, but I didn’t, as I found its computer use surprisingly refreshing. I found the same here with SEARCHING. In spite of the fact that everything that happens in this movie is seen through a computer screen, it all works. I believe this is so because we are all so familiar with personal computers that looking at them for the duration of a movie seems both comfortable and natural, which I know sounds weird, but I think it’s a major reason why the tactic works.

SEARCHING opens with the familiar Windows screen from a decade ago, and in an opening computer montage, we learn all about David Kim’s family. We see footage of his daughter Margot’s first day of school, and fun videos of him and his wife raising Margot. But then things get serious as his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) learns she has cancer, and we follow her struggle to beat back the disease, achieve a victory with a remission, only to ultimately lose the battle and die, her death depicted on a computer calendar marked with the words “Mom comes home,” the phrase copied and pasted to a later date, before it is quietly deleted.

This opening montage, completely told from images on a computer screen, emits more emotion in five minutes than a lot of traditional movies do in their entirety.

After this montage, the action settles on David communicating via Face Time to Margot (Michelle La) who is now in high school, as she’s rushing off to a study group which she says will go late.  The next day, David awakes to find a couple of missed calls from his daughter. His attempts to contact her the next day go unanswered.

As the entire day and night pass without word from Margot, David suspects foul play and calls the police. He’s put in touch with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) who’s the lead detective on the case.  She promises David she will do her best to locate his daughter, and what follows, as David continues to track down leads himself using his daughter’s computer, searching her contacts and friends, is a series of twists and turns that will keep audiences off-balance and guessing until the final reel.

It’s all riveting and exciting, until the end, which provided one twist too many. This final revelation is rather ludicrous and for me ruined what ultimately would have been a very credible thriller.

But before that final twist SEARCHING is a first-rate thriller.

It also has some things to say about families and computer use.  David is shocked to learn once he starts looking into his daughter’s contacts that he really didn’t know his daughter, that there was so much in her life that they never talked about. The film serves as a nice reminder for parents to remember to take the time to talk to their kids.

David is able to learn so much about his daughter once he starts searching her computer because everything is recorded. That’s one of the more fascinating parts to the story, that he can learn as much as he does by researching Margot’s online connections. The electronic stamp we leave with our online use is both fascinating and somewhat scary.

John Cho gets most of the screen time in this one as frantic father David Kim, and Cho is more than up to the task of carrying this movie. He’s excellent throughout.  We get to see a lot of emotions from David, from when he first fears his daughter is missing, to learning that she probably ran away, which goes against everything he knows about her, to other evidence which supports foul play.

Cho, who plays Sulu in the new STAR TREK movies, and who played Harold in the silly HAROLD & KUMAR movies delivers a top-notch dramatic performance here.

Michelle La is also very good as Margot, although since her character is missing she’s really not in the movie all that much and makes less of an impact that Cho.

As Detective Vick, Debra Messing, who plays Grace on TV’s WILL AND GRACE (1998-2018), is okay, but there was something grating about her character. The film continually hammers the point home that for Vick family is everything, and so she is extra driven to help David find his daughter.

A stronger performance was turned in by Joseph Lee as David’s brother Peter, who like any good brother is there for David both as support and to help search for Margot. Until there are some sketchy revelations regarding Peter that suddenly cause David to question his brother’s character.

Director Aneesh Chaganty has made a very entertaining thriller.  I really enjoyed its creative style of storytelling by only showing events on computer screens. This gimmick didn’t detract from the story at all.  On the contrary, it somehow made it even more compelling.

Chaganty also wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian, and it’s a good one.  The mystery of Margot’s disappearance is strong, the characters three-dimensional and fleshed out, and the dialogue very sharp. I completely bought David’s relationship with his daughter, and it played out like an authentic father-teen daughter relationship.

I also enjoyed the various twists and turns this one had to offer.

Except for the last one.

Just how bad was that last twist?

It was so bad. How bad was it?

It was so bad it came close to ruining the entire movie for me. It didn’t. But it came oh so close.

It reminded me, for those of us who used to watch soap operas back in the day, of one of those really bad soap opera plots. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Where someone disappears and the clues lead everywhere, and then there’s that one person who should be the last person who is a suspect, but since this is a soap opera where anything is possible, it turns out that yes, that’s the person who committed the crime!

It’s one of the more ridiculous endings to a movie I’ve seen in a while, which is too bad, because everything that came before it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I enjoyed SEARCHING.  It held my interest throughout, all the way to its very disappointing ending, where it offered one twist too many, a twist that comes oh so close to ruining all that came before it.

If only the writers had spent more time searching for a better ending.

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OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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operation-finale

Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

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CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) – Romantic Comedy More Interested in Wealth Than Asian Culture

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Crazy Rich Asians poster

The “crazy” in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) refers to just how “crazy rich” the main character’s family is in this movie. Aside from that, there’s not much “crazy” in this well-meaning romantic comedy which has more to say about wealth than Chinese traditions or falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedic love story.

It is.

It’s just— unless you’re planning to marry royalty— not all that relevant.

In CRAZY RICH ASIANS, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a young economics professor at NYU, and she’s involved in a happy relationship with the handsome and easygoing Nick Young (Henry Golding). When he invites her to Singapore to meet his family at his best friend’s wedding, she happily accepts, and since she knows little about his family, she assumes they are very poor since Nick rarely talks about them. Boy, is she wrong.

It turns out, that not only is Nick’s family wealthy, they’re crazy wealthy!  As in near royalty! As in Nick being the most eligible bachelor in all of Southeast Asia!

At first, this poses little or no problems, because for Rachel, it’s almost as if she has entered a fairy tale realm of princes and princesses. But this euphoria is short-lived, as it becomes increasingly clear that Nick’s family, especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does not see Rachel as the right fit for Nick. In Eleanor’s case, she sees her son as taking over the family business, something he will not be able to do properly if he marries “beneath his status.”

And thus the battle lines are drawn, as Rachel decides to fight for the man she some day hopes to marry, but can she stand up to the impossible wealth wielded by Eleanor and her dynasty?

This may sound serious, and this part of the story is, but on the whole CRAZY RICH ASIANS is light and fun, with a heavy emphasis on romance.  The film definitely plays more like a fanciful love story than a straight out comedy.

The most impressive thing about CRAZY RICH ASIANS is its all Asian cast, which for a Western-produced film is something that hasn’t happened since THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Let’s hope it’s not twenty-five more years before it happens again.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS reminded me of another recent romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK (2017). That film was a love story between a Pakistan-born man and an American woman, and it both highlighted and poked fun at the differences between cultures. That story worked better than the one told here in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, as Rachel doesn’t face cultural differences— as in the difference between a Chinese American and a Chinese—as much as she faces monetary differences, and in this regard, the story simply doesn’t resonate as well. Understanding the very rich is less engrossing than understanding another culture.

The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, works for the most part. The comedy is light and amiable, and the romance irresistible. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the opulence of the Singapore settings. And the two leads are certainly likable.

Constance Wu delivers a strong performance as Rachel, the young woman who at first goes along with the revelation about her boyfriend’s rich family until she finds herself on the receiving end of ugly words and innuendos. She remains likable throughout, so much so you’re almost wishing she’d just up and leave this annoying family behind her.

Henry Golding is sufficiently handsome as the dashing Nick Young, and he makes for a sincere and honorable boyfriend who believes he can shield Rachel from his family.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s powerful mother Eleanor. She has a way of being both dignified and icy cold, and as such, gets some of the best dramatic scenes in the movie.

Likewise, Gemma Chan is excellent as Nick’s sister Astrid, who Nick describes as having the biggest heart in the family.  Chan’s supporting storyline, about problems in her own marriage, is as interesting as the main plot.

In terms of comedy, Awkwafina delivers a scene-stealing performance as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s college roommate who lives in Singapore with her family.  She gets some of the best comedic scenes and lines in the movie. I enjoyed Awkwafina a lot here, more so than her recent role in OCEAN’S 8 (2018).

And Ken Jeong shows up as Peik Lin’s father, and he of course has some comedic bits as well, although they’re not quite on the same level as Awkwafina’s.

Nico Santos is also memorable as Oliver, a flamboyant member of Nick’s family who, unlike Nick’s mother, is always there for Nick and Rachel.

Director Jon M. Chu fills this one with eye-popping rich parties and weddings, and he takes full advantage of Singapore and its surrounding islands. The film is beautiful to look at, full of both beautiful locales and people. There are also plenty of mouth-watering foods. Don’t see this one on an empty stomach!

For the most part, the pacing is good, although the film is long, clocking in at two hours, and towards the end things do slow down a little bit. Chu previously directed the lowly G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013) and NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016). Needless to say, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is his best film yet.

I enjoyed CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It was fun to immerse myself in Asian culture and be part of the crazy rich wedding. I also liked Rachel and Nick and were rooting for them to be together, and better yet, I laughed a lot at the lighter parts of this movie.

That being said, it didn’t completely resonate with me because the incredible wealth of Nick’s family played more like a romantic fantasy than a true life story. It also just didn’t interest me all that much. Plus, I reached the point in the story where I felt Rachel would be better off without Nick and his family, which is I’m sure not what the writers had in mind. As such, the ending of the film didn’t completely work for me, as I could easily have imagined better fates for Rachel.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, especially those which emphasize romance over comedy, you’re sure to enjoy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The film pushes all the right buttons with its rich boy meets poor girl storyline, with the possible exception of its ending, as it may have overplayed its mean rich family hand. But if you like stories about the girl going after her handsome prince, this is the movie for you.

For the rest of us, it’s an amiable tale, helped by gorgeous locales and a very talented cast.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS is lighthearted entertainment.  I enjoyed watching it, even though its “crazy rich” lifestyle is far less interesting to me than the other parts of Singapore culture I wish the film had explored.

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