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

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first man

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 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) Shines Light on Dark Story

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spotlight 2015 poster

 

Movie Review:  SPOTLIGHT (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) has an ugly story to tell.

 

And it doesn’t shy away from telling it.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) takes a hard and honest look at the scandal in the Catholic Church involving abusive priests and shows how reporters at The Boston Globe broke the story in 2001.  And the most disturbing aspect of it all which is clearly expressed in the movie isn’t believe it or not the staggering number of priests in the Catholic Church who sexually abused children in Boston, and as we find out during the Globe’s investigation, around the world— this alone is horrifying, absolutely horrifying, but what’s even worse, is that the higher-ups in the Church knew about it and let it happen.

 

And the movie doesn’t stop here.  It widens its lens and examines blame in the legal system and with the journalists themselves, as the reporters realize how many times the story had been brought to their attention and yet no one did anything about it.

 

“Spotlight” refers to the investigative Boston Globe column written by a team of four reporters- Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James).  When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives from Florida to overhaul the newspaper and increase readership, he turns Spotlight onto a story about a Catholic priest accused of molesting a young boy.

 

The Spotlight team isn’t keen on the story since they feel it’s been covered before.  But Marty feels there’s more to the story and advises the Spotlight team to dig into it further.  What they find is nothing short of earth-shattering.  They soon discover evidence of two more priests in the Boston area accused of abusing children, and when they uncover evidence totaling 13 priests, they feel they have the makings of a real story.

 

They have no idea.

 

One of their sources, a psychiatrist who had been studying these cases for 30 years, tells them their number is very low.  He suspects the number should be about 90 priests in the Boston area alone.  The reporters don’t believe this estimate, but when they continue to follow the evidence and discover as many as 87 priests, they begin to fully understand the horror and the scope of the issue. They also realize that it’s not just a Boston problem.  It’s nationwide and then some.

 

Marty tells his team that their work is still not finished, that the real story here isn’t just the number of cases, but that he suspects the Catholic Church knew about these priests and did not remove them.  That’s the real story, he tells his reporters, and that’s the story that will ultimately lead to change.

 

The screenplay by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer tells a mind-boggling and horrifying story, and it tells it well.  In spite of the fact that the villain in this movie is no doubt the Catholic Church, the film really doesn’t partake in religion bashing.  It simply reveals a very sad truth- that atrocious crimes were allowed to happen by people who should have known better.  These crimes were hidden in a veil of secrecy.  The Spotlight investigation obliterated this veil, and the movie illustrates with great detail and care just how they did it.

 

SPOTLIGHT also sheds some insight into how so many people allowed this to happen.  On more than one occasion, people in the film say that the Catholic Church does a lot of good for the world and that it doesn’t need this kind of scandal.  After the events of September 11, we see news coverage of Cardinal Law speaking words of hope to the nation.  It’s easy to see why people were quick to defend the Church and give them the benefit of the doubt, and how when push came to shove, lawyers and journalists would simply turn a blind eye on the situation, never guessing just how severe the problem was.

 

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who’s instrumental in supplying key evidence to the Spotlight reporters, goes even further and blames the entire city of Boston, which he views as a closed society, that if you’re not Irish Catholic, you’re an outsider.

 

Others point out that editor Marty Baron is Jewish, and that he has an anti-Catholic agenda.  Yet, in scenes where we see Marty in action, his agenda is clear:  to keep the Boston Globe afloat.  The story of the Catholic Church scandal is just that, a story that needs to be told.

 

In terms of generating emotion, SPOTLIGHT doesn’t skimp.  There are numerous painful and sad scenes where the victims tell their stories to the reporters.

 

SPOTLIGHT boasts a brilliant ensemble cast.  Michael Keaton, while not as sensational as he was in BIRDMAN (2014) still shines as reporter “Robby” Robinson.  His cool professionalism allows him to lead his team along the dark path of the investigation, even as he learns that years ago he too had once passed up a story on the scandal, a story he barely remembers writing because it just didn’t register as important to him at the time.

 

Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the up-tempo workaholic reporter Mike Rezendes who becomes more and more emotionally charged the more he learns about the case.  Likewise, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also turn in strong performances as reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll.  They too become emotionally enraged, Matt because he has young children, and Sacha because she’s Catholic and goes to church with her very religious Nana.

 

And Liev Schreiber is near perfect as the calm, cool and efficient editor Marty Baron.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has a superior slate of supporting players.  Stanley Tucci is outstanding as attorney Mitchell Garabedian.  His take on the quirky angry embittered attorney is probably my favorite performance in the movie.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucci receives a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.

 

John Slattery from TV’s MADMEN plays Ben Bradlee Jr., one of the Globe’s editors, and he’s fabulous as well.  Other notable performances include Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, Robby’s source inside the Catholic Church who resists Robby’s efforts to get him to talk for nearly the entire movie; Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, the sketchy leader of a victim’s group who seems to have an agenda to bring down the Church yet his evidence surprisingly turns out to be accurate; and Billy Crudup as Attorney Eric Macleash who by not filing cases and agreeing to private back room deals with Church leaders helped keep the scandal under wraps for years.

 

Crudup enjoys one of the best moments in the film when he’s finally cornered by Robby and Sacha.  Robby tells him that if he doesn’t talk, the story Robby writes will be about how Eric helped keep these child molesters out of jail, at which time Eric drops the bombshell that when he first received evidence about these crimes he went to the press, delivered the materials to the Globe, and he was ignored.

 

Director Tom McCarthy’s crisp editing keeps the story in SPOTLIGHT moving quickly, and even though its subject is grim and tragic, the pace never deadens under the weight of the subject matter.  The story unfolds at a near perfect pace.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has an emotionally effective music score by Howard Shore.

 

SPOTLIGHT tells an extremely disturbing story, and it’s one that everyone needs to hear.  Yes, it tells the ugly tale of abuse inside the Catholic Church.  It also tells the inspiring story how in the face of adversity a small group of reporters stuck to their guns and broke what many thought wasn’t even a story.  But most importantly the message in SPOTLIGHT is that people need to remain vigilant, and they need to speak out against the wrongs of society.  The victims here for the most part were children in underprivileged families.  They had no one to stand up and defend them from these predator priests.  Those who should have protected them, the Church leaders, did not.  And no one else bothered to pay attention.

 

That’s the story SPOTLIGHT tells, and it tells it well.

 

It joins SICARIO (2015) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) on my short list of best movies of the year.

 

—END