First Man

Neil Armstrong was from Ohio.  Consequently, he was one of my heroes when I was growing up in—you guessed it—Ohio.  I saw him speak once.  He was the commencement speaker at my sister’s graduation from Miami University.  Since I was young at the time, I don’t remember much about it other than it was a thrill to be in the same room as the first man on the moon.  It was, however, a very big room.

Armstrong was different from the other astronauts.  Although, he had been in the military and had flown 78 missions over Korea, he had resigned his commission in 1960, and was one of the few astronauts that wasn’t actively serving.  In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager made it plain that he didn’t care for Armstrong, finding him cold and un-communitive.  Armstrong’s relationship with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the two men he went to the moon with on Apollo 11, seemed to be complicated.  There was respect there but not much affection.

In short, Armstrong wasn’t the outgoing, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, alpha male type astronaut.  He was reserved, and while all astronauts take training seriously, he took it to another level, wanting to run through all possible contingencies.  He could be a perfectionist and a task-master.

No one could deny that he was a great pilot, though.  He’d gotten out of several close calls in Korea as well as during his test pilot career.  During Gemini 8, his capsule developed a bad thruster leading to an uncontrolled roll.  He got it under control.  In all these situations, he remained cool and un-rattled.  The moon landing itself, was a very close thing.  There were seconds left before they would have had to abort, when he finally found a suitable landing place.  In fact, the whole mission was far more dangerous than anybody outside of NASA knew at the time.  Years later, Armstrong revealed that he had put their chances of surviving at 50/50.

First Man, based on the Armstrong biography by James Hansen, is about that risk and how Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, and his family dealt with it.  The plot confines itself to the period between 1960 and 1969.  Armstrong is selected in the second wave of astronauts, after the original Mercury 7.  This period covers the ill-fated Gemini 8 mission, the fatal Apollo 1 trial accident and of course preparation for the Apollo 11 moon landing.

It also covers Armstrong’s family life, mainly his relationship with his wife, Janet, played by Claire Foy.  You can imagine at least one of the issues the couple faces; the worry to the point of panic on the part of Janet for her husband’s life as he pursues one of the world’s most dangerous professions.  But that’s not all of it.  Armstrong is almost as closed off to his family as he is to his co-workers.  Early in the movie, the couple loses a toddler-aged daughter to cancer.  Armstrong almost never talks about it, certainly not to his fellow astronauts and very rarely to Janet.  He only breaks down when he’s alone in his office and no one can see him.  The climax of the domestic plot is when Janet makes him explain to his two sons on the eve of his leaving for the Apollo launch that there’s a good chance he won’t be coming back.  He has to be forced to do that.

The bipolar nature of the script, which was written by Josh Singer, works for the most part.  That is due to the leads.  Acting is often about playing contradictions.  Gosling has a monumental task, playing an essentially stoic man, while somehow communicating the swirling morass of emotions going on underneath the calm exterior.  Every time an astronaut dies during the training process, he takes it hard, even as he buries himself in work.  The filmmakers draw a parallel between the dichotomy and Armstrong’s ability as a pilot to bring out of control vehicles back under control and his emotional gyrations which never seem to phase him.

Claire Foy is also brilliant at playing a woman who knew what she signed up for when she married a test pilot.  She must be almost as stoic as her husband, while inside she worries about him dying at work and also about what’s going on inside his head.  This in addition to the usual concerns about children and family.  She also takes a lead role in the effort to comfort the widows, many of whom have become close friends.  Who else is going to understand what she’s going through.  Janet is a very strong woman.

The camera work is dynamic.  First Man is a dark film, shot mostly in natural light with handheld cameras that shake like crazy during launches.  Even in the domestic scenes the camera is always moving.  This depicts the world of aerospace at the time.  We were in a perceived race to the moon, and everything was rushed.  It is also reflective of the times in general.  In the sixties, history seemed to be moving at an accelerated pace.  There were several scenes where Janet is puttering around the house with the news on, listening to stories about anti-Vietnam protests and even protests about the Apollo program.

The two leads are surrounded by solid supporting performances.  The reliable Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, the man who decides who goes on which mission.  It’s not really a stretch for Chandler but he is always enjoyable to watch.  Jason Clarke shines as Ed White, the co-worker that Armstrong becomes closest with.  His death hits Armstrong the hardest.  And Olivia Hamilton plays Pat White, Ed’s wife and who is in reality the director Damien Chazelle’s wife.  Her grief is devastating, proving that she didn’t get the role just because of her relationship with the director.

Hollywood has done an exceptional job over the years at chronicling the early years of the space age.  The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are almost perfect films.  I’m not sure that First Man comes quite up to that level but it is worth seeing, especially in the theater.

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A Star is Born

A Star is Born has been made four times.  I thought this might be a record but Little Women has been made at least five times, not counting TV mini-series and foreign productions.  What A Star is Born has going for it is that every production of it has been well produced with A list casts and production values.  And they’ve all created major Oscar buzz.  The old story of an established but alcoholic and fading star, taking on a young female protégé, who quickly surpasses him in fame is one that is clearly close to Hollywood’s heart.  Ego, jealousy, and substance abuse are things that Tinsel Town knows well.  It tries to put its best foot forward when bringing out this chestnut.

So, confession time:  I have never seen any of the previous versions of A Star is Born.  When I was a kid I saw a few minutes of the James Mason/Judy Garland version on TV one afternoon but it didn’t hold my interest and I switched the channel.  Frankly, as fascinated as the rest of the world is with this seemingly archetypical story, it’s never really appealed to me.

Therefore, I come to the latest iteration with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga with no preconceptions and nothing to judge it against.  I knew the basic plot but that’s about it.

There are two big surprises in this movie.  One is that Lady Gaga can act.  She plays Ally, a talented singer who is afraid to go for the bigtime and sing her own songs until Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character convinces her to try.  Ally has a good head on her shoulders and can quickly figure out what’s going on in her unfamiliar new circumstances.  I suspect that Ally’s personality is pretty close to Lady Gaga’s but it was still a compelling performance.

The other surprise is huge.  Bradley Cooper is a really good singer!  He belts out these rockers and singer/songwriter confessionals like he’s been doing it all his life.   And the songs are really good as well.  They were written by Lady Gaga, who I assume wrote her own stuff, and Lukas Nelson, who I assume wrote Cooper’s.   They are much better than anything heard in La La Land.

As for the film…There are pacing problems.  I don’t mind them stopping the plot to insert a nicely performed song.  But those weren’t the only times I was checking my watch.  The regular drama scenes, especially at the end, are somewhat perfunctory and mostly had little emotional impact.  And this is a movie that takes about half of its two-hour plus length to get to the plot.  You can imagine how slow things get.

Still, I would have to say that it is a promising beginning for first time writer/director Bradley Cooper.  It’s probably not essential that you see it in the theater but it is a pretty film and worth paying for.

You may want to buy the soundtrack, however.

Blackkklansman

Spike Lee is totally unafraid to make movies about race.  Needless to say, he’s one of the few successful Hollywood directors who is.  And most directors who do make that kind of statement are black.  Obviously, it’s a delicate subject.  Well-meaning white people are afraid of saying something stupid or unintendedly condescending or offensive.

Unfortunately, that reluctance is in itself counterproductive.  There is an awkward and painful debate that has to be gone through.  The longer we delay it, the more difficult it will become.  Slavery, Jim Crow, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which set the stage for the current Republican coalition, have all left deep scars in the African-American population of this country.  That’s not something that’s ever going to be forgotten.  But with this film Blackkklansman, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, it may be that the debate is finally beginning.

Blackkklansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department.  After a few months in the file room, taking crap off racist officers, he decides to go to his superiors and volunteer for undercover duty.  At first, they deny the request.  Stallworth is a mere rookie.  But when Stokely Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins, comes to the city to speak, the police feel that they need a plant to see if Carmichael is stirring up the African-American population too much.  By this time Carmichael had changed his name to Kwame Ture.  The police apparently didn’t know that.

The assignment doesn’t sit well with Stallworth, but he does it.  In the course of it, he meets Patrice Dumas, played by Laura Harrier, the president of the Black Student Association at the local college.  This is the group that brings Ture to speak.  Stallworth begins a relationship with her.

Nothing really comes of the operation.  They just wanted to monitor Ture, while he was in town.  But Stallworth does a good job and they move him into the Intelligence division.  Here he is assigned to go through the local paper in order to glean anything of interest.

What he finds is an ad from the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, asking for recruits.  He calls the number and begins his infiltration of the Klan.  Unfortunately, he makes the rookie mistake of using his own name.

When it comes time to meet the members of the Klan, he needs the help of Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, an ethnic Jew, who’s never practiced.  Zimmerman learns to approximate Stallworth’s imitation of a white dialect and inserts himself into the organization.

At first it seems like they’re just a bunch of losers, who get together once in a while to talk hate and pretend to be bad asses, plotting insurrection.  Eventually, though Stallworth and Zimmerman do uncover a violent scheme.

There are some very good performances here.  At the center, of course, is John David Washington, who convincingly portrays an ambitious detective, a man who always wanted to be a cop, but who is also concerned with civil rights.  Adam Driver is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.  He always gives a great performance.  Jasper Paakkonen, plays Felix Kendrickson convincingly, as a vicious and suspicious Klansman.  And special mention goes to Ashlie Atkinson, who plays Kendrickson’s wife, Connie.  Connie seems like a perky housewife, always offering cookies and dinner invitations, until she starts using the N word.  Still it’s a little tragic because her body language indicates that she’s doing all this to please her husband, rather than out of sincere hatred of other races.  This leads to disastrous consequences for her.

Spike Lee is a great director, fluent in all aspects of filmmaking.  He does, however, stray into the polemical side of things.  He depicts Kwame Ture’s entire speech, while showing the faces in the audience in multiple closeups.  These are people being exposed to new ideas and drinking them in.  Also, at the end of the film, he shows news footage of the incidents in Charlottesville last year, when there was rioting during a Klan rally and a counter protest by equal rights groups.  There were injuries and one death.  This connects the issues of the film’s plot to what is going on today.  Progress is made but it’s slow and sometime it regresses.  It seems to me that Lee’s strategy is to put out provocative statements and wait for a response.  And yet he also shows black and white police officers working together to thwart the Klan’s murderous plot.  He dedicates the film to Heather Heyer, the 32 year old white woman who was killed in the Charlottesville riot.

Race relations is a complicated issue most of the time, but when the Klan comes to town, the evil is easy to spot.

Mission Impossible: Fallout

The summer carnage continues.  This blockbuster season has been particularly good, delivering excellent entries into the usual franchises.  But don’t expect any deep soul-searching when you go to the multi-plex this weekend.

The adventures of IMF agent Ethan Hunt and his team began in 1996.  From the beginning they turned their backs on the premise of the TV series, which was basically a team of con-men who worked undercover and used trickery and deceit to gain confessions and undermine dictators and stuff.  Their goal was to get in, do the job, and get out without anybody knowing they were there.  It was all about meticulous preparation and suspense.

The movies are basically about stunts.  If I had been a bigger fan of the series, I would probably have been very upset about that first film, in which the main character of the series, Jim Phelps, turns traitor.  A lot of people were, including the original cast, and especially Peter Graves who played the role in the series.

That was over twenty years ago, more than enough time for most people to reconcile the two approaches.  Or perhaps you just believe that they are separate realities.  They are not related in any way.

Fallout is a pretty good movie, actually. They have backed off from the stunt work both in quantity and spectacularness.  In that way they may have eluded the trap of having to top themselves every time out.  This is a good thing for the longevity of the franchise.  There are still enough car chases and hanging off of flying vehicles to keep you on the edge of your seat for a marathon two and a half hours, so no fear.

There’s really not a whole lot to say about the movie.  The maguffin is three metal spheres containing weapons grade plutonium.  Ethan has not one but two old flames come back into his life.  And the fight scenes are great.

There’s a lot of stuff that approaches a theme if you don’t examine it too closely.  In the beginning of the film Ethan is blamed for losing the plutonium because he didn’t want one of his team members to die.  By the end of the film, they are saying that his compassion for his team is one of his strengths, the thing that saves the day.  But of course, millions of people come within one second of dying horrible deaths because Ethan lost those spheres.  The bureaucrats were right the first time.

But hey!  Who cares?  It was still a good movie.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Summer is the traditional season for lighter fare at the cineplexes. Ever since Jaws the hotter months have seen thrills, scares and cheap laughs.  This year seems to have gone further in that direction than usual.  The installments of long-running series, pass entertainingly but fleetingly before our eyes, with no weightier themes than “Dinosaurs! Run!”

I wouldn’t have thought that they could make a sequel to Ant-Man that would be lighter and less substantial than the original.  That film was pretty lightweight to begin with.  It put the emphasis on comic in the genre of comic book movies.  Looking back at my review of the first film, I find that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results.

I have no such problems with the sequel.  It is big stupid fun, gliding on the surface of your thoughts and barely raising a wake.

When Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, decided to side with Captain America in the Avengers’ split over the Sokovia Accords, he did so on his own. Unfortunately, Scott’s actions affected the fortunes of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly.)  They are on the run from the FBI.  While at the same time trying to rescue Janet Van Dyne, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, from quantum realm.  Scott’s return from there in Ant-Man, convinced them that she may still be alive.

Scott is under house arrest, with only three days to go before his ankle bracelet is removed.  He is barred from having contact with the Pyms, and is concentrating on being a good father to Cassie, his daughter, played by Abby Ryder Fortson.  He is also helping his former associates, Luis, played by Michael Pena, Dave, played by T.I. and Kurt, played by David Dastmalchian, set up a security consulting company.

Then there is Ava, played by Hannah John-Kamen, also known as Ghost.  She can make herself invisible and walk through solid objects and is intent on obtaining the high-tech component that the Pyms need to return to the quantum realm.  This they are trying to buy from Sonny Burch, played by Walton Goggins, a shady tech dealer.  The deal goes south when Burch finds out who the Pyms really are and how badly they are wanted by the FBI.  Then Ghost comes in and tries to steal it.

This all leads to big and inventive chase scenes, fantastic special effects and some hilarious dialog.  I gather other reviewers are objecting to the fluffiness of Ant-Man and the Wasp, but I actually think that one of Marvel’s strengths is the willingness to vary the tones of its installments.  The Avengers: Infinity was a (relatively) heavy entry with universe shaking consequences.  This is the story of man trying to save his wife.  Marvel can do both with seeming ease.

This is a fun film.  You should see it.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

So, it turns out that Isla Nubar is a volcanic island and the volcano become active.  So active, in fact, it’s about to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs that were abandoned there after the events of Jurassic World.  Claire Dearing, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, wants to save as many of them as possible.  The United States government turns her down but then she gets an offer from Benjamin Lockwood, played by James Cromwell to save as many dinosaurs as she can and put them on another, more remote, more sheltered island.  Lockwood is John Hammond’s old partner, a co-founder of Jurassic Park and a co-inventor of the genetic process that brought back the dinosaurs.  He’s old now and entrusts the day to day running of the corporation to Eli Mills, played by Rafe Spall.  Mills explains to Claire that Lockwood’s organization wants to do this purely for the sake of the dinosaurs.  But they need her handprint to activate the computer system that tracks every dinosaur on the island.  They are all chipped.

Mills is especially eager that she enlist Owen Grady, played by Chris Pratt, who is, for the second time, her ex-boyfriend.  He agrees because his favorite velociraptor, Blue, is still alive.  But he’s suspicious.

Of course, they find out that Mills actually doesn’t have the best interests of the dinosaurs in mind and is looking to exploit them.  I hope you were sitting down for that revelation.  And maybe this is a spoiler but things go terribly wrong.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a film that takes fewer risks.  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom adheres almost religiously to the Jurassic Park formula.  It’s all here: long loving shots of CGI dinosaurs, inspiring awe, corporate shenanigans, dire warnings about the folly of this whole idea, delivered by Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum no less, smart, fast, scary dinosaurs menacing children, and probably some stuff that I’m missing.  The characterization is about an inch deep but it really doesn’t need to be any deeper.

And yet the film is enjoyable.  J.A. Bayona, the director, puts these well-worn elements into a package, that while not challenging, is entertaining.  It runs over two hours and I didn’t look at my watch once.  The pace never flags.  There are moments of humor; and of course, it is a gorgeous film.  The computer-generated dinosaurs are blended into the live action scenes seamlessly.  The action scenes are tense and well-edited.

Also, it is immense fun to see Russian gangsters, officials from outlaw countries and other one percenters getting torn apart and eaten by dinosaurs.

So, you should see this film.  You should see it in the theater and probably in 3D.  Ten minutes after you get out you won’t be able to pass a quiz on the film’s plot but you will remember that you had a good time.

Incredibles 2

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog before that The Incredibles is my favorite Pixar movie, and actually one of my favorite movies period.  It has the exact right mix of satiric and serious tones, which it needed to be both a parody of spy movies and a surprisingly sophisticated exploration of family dynamics.  The writer and director Brad Bird fulfilled the promise he showed when he directed The Iron Giant.

If there is a criticism to be made of Incredibles 2 it’s that it’s a little too much like the first film.  It deals with many of the same issues of family dynamics, and its look is the same retro sixties style and also some of the humor.  Really, does anybody get “new math” jokes anymore?

But you know what?  I don’t care.  Incredibles 2 is a great movie and a welcome return to form for Brad Bird, after a couple of sub-standard outings in live action films.

The plot picks up right where the first movie’s left off.  Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson, Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter, Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and the two kids, Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) try to stop The Underminer, voiced by John Ratzenberger, who uses his tunneling vehicle to rob a bank and create chaos and destruction in the city.  Unfortunately, they are unable to stop him and are arrested themselves, setting back the cause of legalizing superheroes.

Hoping to reverse those laws are the brother and sister team of Winston and Evelyn Deavor, voice by Bob Odenkirk and Katherine Keener.  They inherited a company from their father and turned it into a large powerful conglomerate, largely due to Evelyn’s inventions and Winston’s marketing genius.  Winston wants to use that savvy to convince the world to legalize supers once again.

The plan is to start small; just one hero will go out and save the day somehow.  They decide that Helen, Elastigirl, is the ideal choice, since her style of fighting doesn’t involve punching everything into submission, creating maximum destruction.  This leaves Bob alone to deal with the kids, which is arguably the more difficult task.  Dash has a math test.  Violet is mooning over the guy in her class who asked her out but can’t remember who she is now because his mind had to be wiped when he saw her in costume but without her mask.  And then there is the baby Jack-Jack who is beginning to exhibit an amazing array of powers.

Complications ensue as Bob struggles with unfamiliar domesticity and Helen is determined to show that she can handle the role of lone superhero as well as her husband.  Both grow and learn equally.

The visuals are good and the animation is up to Pixar’s standards.  This movie is cast almost perfectly with most of the actors from the first film returning.  They had to get a new Dash, presumably because the kid who played him in the first movie grew up over the intervening years.  Anyway, the performances are really good, capturing the nuances of the characters.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another fourteen years for Incredibles 3.


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