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.

—END—

 

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Best Movies of 2016

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La La Land (2016)Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND (2016

 

Here’s a look at my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.  Of course, while I do see a lot of movies— 58 this year, and that’s just theatrical releases—  I’m not able to see every movie that comes out, and so this list is limited to only those movies I have seen.

We’ll start with #10 and count down to #1:

 

10. THE INFILTRATOR

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Excellent performance by Bryan Cranston powers this crime drama which tells the true story of how U. S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) went undercover to take down a  Columbian drug lord.

 

9. THE JUNGLE BOOK

Loved this remake of Disney’s animated THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), and I’m a huge fan of that original 1967 animated classic.  Special effects here were amazing, and I really liked how director Jon Favreau made this family friendly film a serious hard-hitting adventure.

 

8. DEADPOOL

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The role Ryan Reynolds has been waiting for.  Sure, this vulgar, violent tale isn’t for everybody, but the humor is spot-on.  My second favorite superhero movie of the year. Best part is it is so unlike other traditional superhero movies.

 

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016.  Plays much more like THE AVENGERS 2.5, rhis exciting tale pits Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and the rift between these two friends comes off as real and believable, something that the similarly themed BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed miserably at.  The scenes with newcomer Tom Holland as Spider-Man are off-the-charts good.

 

6. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Hilarious comedy-drama starring Hailee Steinfeld as a seventeen year-old dealing with life as a teenager.  Things get complicated when her best friend starts dating her older brother.  Topnotch script and direction by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

 

 

Now we get down to my picks for the Top 5 movies of 2016:

5. HANDS OF STONE

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Critics panned this movie, but I absolutely loved this boxing pic about boxing champ Roberto Durant.  Edgar Ramirez  gives a spirited performance as Roberto Durant, and he’s supported by a fine cast which includes Robert De Niro, Ruben Blades, and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.  Excellent movie, much better than critics gave it credit for, although admittedly I am a sucker for boxing movies.

 

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Easily could be my pick for the best movie of the year, this impeccably made crime drama follows a Texas crime spree by two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) with an old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail.  Features fantastic peformances by the three leads.  Jeff Bridges is amazing as always, and the same can be said of Ben Foster, and it’s also fun to see Chris Pine get to do a whole lot more than when he plays Captain Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK movies.  Riveting direction by David Mackenzie, and a phenomenal thought-provoking script by one of my favorite screen writers working today, Taylor Sheridan.

 

3. SULLY

Easily the most efficient film of the year, SULLY, starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Clint Eastwood, clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes, and not a minute is wasted.  It tells the emotionally riveting true tale of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” and his decision to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  It’s an amazing story because all the passengers on the plane survived, and the film makes things even more compelling as it follows the subsequent investigation by officials who questioned Sully’s decision to land in the water in the first place.  SULLY features another remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, and yet another superb directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood is 86 years old, and yet SULLY plays with as much energy, oomph, and emotion as if directed by someone half that age.  I left the theater incredibly impressed.

 

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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This film could also have been my number one pick of the year.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a finely acted drama, led by two powerhouse performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, about a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation as he finds himself having to care fo for his deceased brother’s sixteen year-old son.  His life in a shambles due to an earlier traumatic event, Lee knows he’s not the man for the job, but since there is no on else, he pushes himself to live up to his brother’s wishes and care for his nephew. Atmospheric direction by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, with a script that is as honest and believable as they come.

And now, for my pick for the Number 1 movie of 2016:

 

 

  1. LA LA LAND

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My pick for the Best Movie of 2016 also happened to be the last movie I saw in 2016, LA LA LAND.  What a fabulous way to end the calendar year!  LA LA LAND is an absolutely wonderful movie.

I  loved the energy writer/director Damien Chazelle brings to this one.  The opening dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway dazzles, and the film never looks back.  Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career to date, imbuing her struggling actress character Mia with so much raw emotion and quirky pizzazz she’s one of the liveliest characters I’ve seen on screen in a long while. Ryan Gosling is just as good as jazz musician Sebastian in this uplifting almost magical musical which follows Mia and Sebastian through a romance in which they help each other achieve their artistic dreams before reality ultimately sets in, forcing them to make decisions which affect their future.  A remarkable movie and genuine crowd pleaser.

Hands down, LA LA LAND is the Best Movie I saw in 2016.

Okay, that about wraps things up for today.  Thanks for joining me in 2016, and here’s to another fine year of movies in 2017!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

LA LA LAND (2016) – The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

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It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

So says Humphrey Bogart at the end of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), words that perfectly sum up LA LA LAND (2016), but before you dismiss this uplifting musical from the director of WHIPLASH (2013) and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as pure happy fluff, there’s another Bogie quote which does this movie even more justice.

From CASABLANCA (1942):  We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we— we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Bogie’s words of wisdom, of course from a script by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, go a long way in understanding and appreciating where the plot of LA LA LAND ultimately goes.

LA LA LAND opens with a spectacular musical dance number  on a gridlocked L.A. freeway which hearkens back to the great musicals of yesteryear. In this traffic jam, the paths of two characters, a young actress Mia (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), cross in a none-too pleasant way.

After this chance meeting, the two characters briefly go their separate ways.  Mia works at a coffee shop, struggling to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress, suffering through one brutal audition after another.  Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club but struggles to hold onto any music gigs because he’s frustrated he can’t play the music he really wants to as he’s forced to play fluff and background music rather than true jazz.

When their paths cross again, and later again, Mia and Sebastian finally start paying attention to each other, and a romance blossoms. Not only do they get along wonderfully, but they also inspire each other’s dreams.  Sebastian gives Mia the confidence she needs to become a better actress, specifically encouraging her to bypass the awful auditions altogether and to write and star in her own one-woman show instead, while Mia nudges Sebastian towards his dream of running his own club, helping him find at long last a paying gig that will eventually finance his club.

But dreams and reality have a way of butting heads, and to become a success, more often than not sacrifices have to be made, something that Mia and Sebastian discover as they realize that their near-perfect relationship and their dreams of artistic success may be mutually exclusive.

I really really enjoyed LA LA LAND.  2016 has come to a strong close as the last two movies I saw this year, LA LA LAND and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) are among the best movies I saw all year.

First of all, just the energy level alone in LA LA LAND is enough to knock your socks off. Writer/director Damien Chazelle imbues this film with so much oomph, charm, and colorful charisma it’s hard to sit still in the theater.  You want to get up and dance.

The musical numbers here are really impressive and hearken back to so many classic musicals.  Specifically, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) comes to mind.  The number where Stone and Gosling literally float into the air is destined to be a classic.

And since this takes place in Hollywood and is about the whole Hollywood culture, there are plenty of references to classic Hollywood movies, like the aforementioned CASABLANCA.  It’s a fabulous script by Chazelle.  He creates a heartwarming romance, brilliant and vibrant musical numbers, and a thoughtful intelligent script that doesn’t let its audience down.  Chazelle did not win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for WHIPLASH (2013).  He may get another chance with his script for LA LA LAND.

Emma Stone is brilliant as Mia.  Hands down, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen her deliver.  She enjoys some amazing moments in this movie, moments where she completely nails it, like the excrutiatingly painful audition where she’s brushed off for a phone call, or the hilarious sequence when she spots Sebastian playing with a wedding band.

I always enjoy Ryan Gosling, and he’s great again here as Sebastian.  He’s charming, likable, and has a winning sense of humor. Best of all, Gosling makes Sebastian’s idealistic dreamer a person grounded in reality.  And that’s what I liked best about Sebastian. Other characters in the film chastize him for being an unrealistic dreamer, but just because he has dreams doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess the ability and wherewithal to achieve them.  He does, and he demonstrates this when he helps Mia with her career.

Reportedly Gosling learned how to play the piano for this movie.  After several weeks of intense piano lessons, he was able to play for his scenes in LA LA LAND without involving trained musicians for the close-up hand shots.  So, even though professionals recorded the music, when you see Gosling playing piano in the film, it’s him, and those are his hands on the keys.  Cool!

Gosling and Stone share a wonderful chemistry in LA LA LAND.  Theirs is a powerful romance in the classic tradition.  There’s not a sex scene in sight, yet the feelings they have for each other come off so strongly that I have to admit, I haven’t been rooting for a movie couple to be together as much as I was for Mia and Sebastian in years.

And LA LA LAND is definitely Gosling’s and Stone’s movie.  In spite of a huge cast of dancers and extras, in terms of characters, it’s pretty much Mia and Sebastian, and with Stone and Gosling playing these roles, that’s more than enough.

The music is also wonderful, from the dance numbers to the jazz performances.  It’s a lively score by  Justin Hurwitz.  This is one soundtrack you’ll definitely want to own.

LA LA LAND is an incredibly enjoyable movie, bursting with so much emotion you’ll be hard pressed to keep from applauding, singing along, or even dancing.  From the pure happiness of Mia and Sebastian’s early relationship, a truly magical time together, to the concern when their lives reach the point where they question what they are doing, to the inevitable ending which regardless of how you feel about it, ultimately rings true, and for me, that’s all that matters.

I loved LA LA LAND.  It’s one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.