Now Playing — First Man

first man

Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a remarkable technical feat. The filmmaker takes the unofficial once-per-generation challenge to intensify the verisimilitude in the cinematic depiction of space travel and rises to it. The title refers to the historic 1969 touchdown on the Earth’s moon realized by Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the crew of Apollo 11, but the film painstakingly traces the ordeals NASA went through in order to complete that improbable mission. Chazelle emphasizes the clunky mechanics of the early spacecraft, all thudding doors, rickety joysticks, and clicking dials, none of it inspiring immediate confidence that it is prepared to cut across galaxies. Tension arises from the plainest observation of astronauts and other NASA employees doing their jobs, calculating miracles with math sketched out on graph paper. The editing, cinematography, art direction, and sound design combine to place the viewer right in the confined capsules, where wonderment and dread intertwine trembling fingers.

Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a sad dramatic failure. Working from a screenplay credited to Josh Singer (and officially adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong), Chazelle ticks off all the necessary details and remains doggedly true to the spirit of the times and the dignity of the people involved. He also can’t past the surface of the story. In part, this at least feels right, aligning the fiction with the famed reticence of the man it depicts, who was loathe to capitalize on his place in the history books. Gosling does commendable character work as Armstrong, but he struggles to find inner life behind the engineer’s stoicism. Claire Foy fares better as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, benefitting from the moments of emotional fire built into the script. And the one attempt to give Armstrong a lengthy emotional arc culminates in a lunar surface moment of transparent falsehood. It doesn’t call anything the precedes it into doubt. Instead, it stands out in damning contrast to the film’s prevailing exactitude.

Since Chazelle has made his name with films about music, it feels appropriate to rely on a metaphor from that world. First Man is all rhythm, no melody. It makes an impression, but it doesn’t linger.

From the Archive — Night of the Living Dead

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Fangoria did captions right.

It was tricky producing a weekly movie review radio program in Central Wisconsin in the early nineteen-nineties. There were nine screens in our town and a decidedly unaggressive approach to bookings. Especially at the time of the year, we’d watch as early Oscar contenders showed up in larger cities and our local options remained fairly static. One thing was certain, though. We got all of the horror movies. Many of those fearsome features were eager attempts to launch slasher series, a quest to establish the next Freddy Krueger. And, as always, brands sprang eternal. So in the first year of the radio program, a remake of Night of the Living Dead arrived. I don’t think I’ve seen a bit of this film since I watched it for review purposes in the fall of 1990, so I can’t provide fresh perspective. But I do think (and even mildly fretted at the time) that I was too generous in my relatively kind assessment, an effect of my founding principle of film criticism — long since abandoned — that I should assess every feature strictly on its own terms, with no surrounding context or knowledge of cinematic history shading my opinion. In effect, I rounded up in an effort to not make the newer movie suffer in comparison to its superior original iteration. That was a misguided approach. Fifty years after the release of the original Night of the Living Dead, I can say with confidence that’s the only version that’s necessary.

In 1968, George Romero created what will undoubtedly go down in film history as one of the best horror movies ever: a bleak, black-and-white feature about a group of people barricaded into an old farmhouse who are trying to defend themselves from zombies with a desire to eat human flesh. Of course, that film was Night of the Living Dead. Some twenty-odd years later, Mr. Romero has decided that it’s time for a remake of his classic film, this time with special effects wizard Tom Savini in the director’s chair.

Now the film is in color, with an all new cast and some rather interesting variations on the original. One of the main characters of the film is Barbara, played by Patricia Tallman. In the original, the character was nearly catatonic, so distressed by the unsettling sight of the walking dead that all she could do was sit in the farmhouse and whimper. Now that we’ve reached the nineties, though, Barbara has thrown off her passiveness and become a regular sharpshooter, gunning down zombies like the easiest targets in a carnival game. She’s the one who insists they can get past the undead adversaries and they’re foolish for staying locked up in the farmhouse. It’s not too hard to figure out why Romero, who wrote the new screenplay, added the anti-stereotypical touch.

And if you’re a fan of the original and are leery about throwing down your money for something you’ve already seen, fear not. The end is now very different from that of the 1968 version.

The performances are all passable, though Tom Towles occasionally goes over the top with his turn as one of the members of the group in the farmhouse. Besides some slow-moving exposition early on, the film usually succeeds at being entertaining. The addition of color does detract from the grim nature of the film. It’s almost too bright at times.

It’s certainly not the equal of the original, but that would be asking a lot, after all. On its own merits, Night of the Living Dead, the 1990 version, is just fine.

3 stars (out of 4).

From the Archive — The Last King of Scotland

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I don’t have much to add about this review, originally written for my former online home. I’m a little surprised it’s as long as it is, given this is a film I’ve barely spared a thought for in the years since, even if it was responsible for Forest Whitaker winning an Academy Award.

I would argue that film has a greater capability than any other medium to forcefully depict the unthinkable acts perpetrated by humanity against itself. The shock of visually seeing something awful can transcend even the most intricate descriptions of the same act, and the immersive quality of film — that settling into a theater seat and allowing the images to create an overwhelming experience — can lock out distractions that would otherwise blunt the impact. Whether in a documentary or a fictional depiction of actual events, filmmakers can make the desperate horrors of the world more real to those of us removed from them than they would be otherwise.

Idi Amin was took power in Uganda in 1971 and remained the president until deposed in 1979. During that span, as many as 500,000 were murdered under his regime. In the new film The Last King of Scotland, those deaths are reduced to a few photographs scattered onto a table in front of the the protagonist. The movie is about Idi Amin and his rule, but the missed opportunity to make us feel the damage of his rule, perhaps even the abdicated responsibility to bring us the emotions and fear and terrors of that time and place, suitably encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film.

Strangely enough, director Kevin Macdonald’s previous film, the reenactment-aided documentary Touching the Void, was all about recreating and conveying the emotions of the story he depicted. That film related the tragic consequences of a duo’s mountain climbing adventure in the Andes, and every agonizing bit of their dilemma is there on the screen. With more freedom in Last King, Macdonald counter-intuitively winds up with a final product that is far less impactful.

The film is based on an award-winning 1998 novel by Giles Foden. The story centers on a fictional Scottish doctor who impulsively journeys to Uganda for relief works, and finds himself drawn into Amin’s circle as a personal physician and political confidant. Not only does this follow in the sorry filmmaking tradition of examining the history of Africa through the eyes of white lead characters, but it ostensibly provides a conduit to reasonably accessing any facets of Amin’s rule that the film wishes to examine. If the character is completely invented and established as close to Amin, he can get anywhere, see anything the filmmakers want him to see. He is also, theoretically anyway, always in danger. The film decisively establishes Amin’s volatility, but there’s little tension. Moments that should be harrowing are instead distant. James McAvoy does a passable job with the role of the doctor, but he’s given little to do beyond pine after married women and spiral into guilty despair over the history he’s witnessed. His character is there to build some contrived conflict into the film (a largely unnecessary conceit given that the region itself is already rife with conflict) and spiral into guilty despair when a third act is needed.

Forest Whitaker is admittedly a powerful presence as Idi Amin. Whitaker captures the swagger in Amin’s self-composure, the boldness in his public pronouncements of dedication to the people. Without every compromising the undercurrent of madness in the dictator, Whitaker manages to demonstrate how he could be a compelling figure. He shows why Ugandans would initially cheer for this man. He digs as deeply into the character as the film and the script will allow, but when he largely disappears for significant stretches — at one point doing little more than play the accordion during a crucial stretch in the middle of the film — it’s hard to buy into the enveloping quality the man had, and harder still to understand him as a full-blooded character. It’s nice work by Whitaker, to be sure. It’s just a shame that the film builds in so many buffers to keep us from feeling the performance and the horrible touch of the man he portrays.

Now Playing — Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s feature directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, has aged very nicely for me. The film’s impish deconstruction of the horror genre was fun from the start, but the layers of cunning stirred in me a long-lasting appreciation for the ways in which Goddard embraced the inherent power in well-worn tropes while also giving them a knowing tweak. The delighted meta shenanigans give the whole enterprise a winning intelligence and low-sizzle current of insightful commentary.

The follow-up has been a long time coming, in part because Goddard got waylaid by Sony’s bumbling management of their Marvel properties, working for ages on a Sinister Six project that was eventually scrapped. An Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian kept Goddard somewhat in play (and he deserves extra credit for directing the wildest episode of The Good Place), but it’s taken too long for the latest film to bear his full authorial signature.

Bad Times at the El Royale is another genre exercise, albeit one less ruthless in its demolishing of established narrative devices. Set in the late nineteen-sixties, the film brings together several disparate characters in a border-straddling motel that’s seen better, far more glamorous days. As they check in, it’s clear that all carry heavy, tricky secrets, and Goddard’s ingenuity is in the way he systematically reveals all, holding back key details until the most opportune time to foist them on the audience, like bursts of confetti that just may carry toxins, or maybe wisps of psychotropics. All the ingredients of twisty thrillers are in place — kidnappings, gunplay, missing stashes of stolen money, sordid doings of all stripes — and Goddard absolutely revels in the grand excess he’s created.

And Goddard has assembled a band of game collaborators. The art direction, production design, and costume design are all dazzling, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. And the assembled actors tackle their complicated roles with verve. Jon Hamm continues his stretch of roles that reward (and benefit from) his robustly playful instincts, Lewis Pullman somehow keeps finding new pockets of internal turbulence as the sole employee of the motel, and Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of sensational as a girl group singer trying to eke out a living in a hard business that rejected her. The actors have the enticing but tricky task of using bold strokes while also keeping the characters grounded enough that there are real stakes to the mounting mayhem. Largely, they succeed admirably.

The film loses its way somewhat in its final act, in part because Goddard allows one particularly character to push too far into outright villainy, at odds with what’s been previously established. Following the intricate care of the earlier portions of the film, the descent into simply drawn conflict seems too pat, even as Goddard stages it energetically. Bad Times at the El Royale misplaces some of its inventiveness when it’s arguably needed the most, when a sharp ending could have served as the perfect bookend with the film’s crisp, shrewdly conceived opening sequence. It’s a touch of disappointment that isn’t likely to linger. As I’ve come to realize about Goddard’s work, it’s the strengths that endure.

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

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Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.

From the Archive — Lars and the Real Girl

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As Ryan Gosling blasts into theaters as Neil Armstrong, I’ll take advantage of this space to look back to when he was still venturing on occasion into a different kind of character role. I think this might still represent his strongest acting to date. The review here was originally written for my former online home. 

Lars and the Real Girl has an absurd premise. Withdrawn to the point of being socially maladjusted, Lars is an office drone in a small Wisconsin town. He’s paralyzed by the plainest pleasantries from his coworkers and practically runs away when his sister-in-law tries to coax him from his tiny garage apartment to a family dinner in the main house. He begins to open up a bit when he gets a new girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets her by ordering from a Website. She’s a life-size plastic doll that he’s dubbed Bianca. To Lars, Bianca is completely real. She communicates with him, often showing a hearty inquisitiveness about him, and has a full life story that precedes the time she came into his world via a packing crate.

It is a delusion, but it enlivens Lars and the local doctor advises his family to play along. Eventually the entire community has willingly bought into the illusion of Bianca, showering her with appreciation and affection as a means to embrace Lars.

For any of this to work at all dramatically requires delicate, thoughtful work from all involved, and that’s exactly what’s on display in Lars. The actors have a particularly heavy load. It must be tempting to approach this material with an air of condescension, pushing the comedic elements. It’s easy to imagine this transformed into a broad, hateful Adam Sandler comedy, and what a woeful beast that would be. Instead, everyone onscreen makes a supreme effort to find the emotional truth in the scenario. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, adeptly play the frustrated caring that would reasonably lead them to accommodate the delusion. The integrity of the performance in the lead role is even more important, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Gosling is absolutely stellar. He burrows into the physicality of Lars, capturing the sorts of pained, twitchy movements that are a signal of extreme discomfort in the company of others. He makes Lars a touching portrait of someone lost in pain and finding an unlikely path to emerge from it. To Gosling, it seems, the character is as true and potent as any you would find at the center of a heavy drama.

The script by “Six Feet Under” writer Nancy Oliver is shrewdly constructed, not only mixing its comedy with warmth and pathos, but also building in a psychology that makes sense. With a few deft scenes, it becomes understandable how Lars could reach this strange point, how his only way to reach out is through an inanimate companion. She “tells” him the things he cannot tell himself, that he has never mustered the strength to hear from anyone else. That none of this ever comes across as contrived is an astonishing accomplishment. The script is incredibly kind-hearted and director Craig Gillespie captures and accentuates that tone.

In a way, Lars and the Real Girl is everything last year’s beloved misfire Little Miss Sunshine was striving to be: charming in its very goofiness, affectionate towards the idiosyncrasies of its characters and finding unexpected comedy in the details (the heinous winter coats that cocoon the characters are sadly accurate). While Sunshine was in love with its own offbeat sensibility to an unappealing degree, Lars and the Real Girl is in love with every person, even the plastic one, that populates the film. It’s a far healthier affection, and it definitely led to significantly better movie-making.

Now Playing — Private Life

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I haven’t dug into any interviews with Tamara Jenkins to learn the insider story of why over a decade passed between her last film and her latest, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the reason serves as narrative fuel for that new cinematic offering. It’s not simply that Jenkins prior two features — Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — had the unmistakable weight of autobiography to them. Private Life, the new film from Jenkins, has the rawness of brutal, brave truth. Someone still could have drawn such a story purely from their imagination, but the details sting with authority that suggests rueful reminiscing is the more likely source.

Private Life focuses on Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), married New Yorkers who have spent years trying to conceive a baby. The film begins with them taking what appear to be weary, final swings at the problem, like a battered boxer in the late rounds of bout that has long been lost. Nearly everything has already been tried. Even adoption proved to be such an arduous process that they’ve circled back to medically enhanced methods, such as in vitro fertilization, which adds a whole other set of tasks to their routine. The relationship is clearly buckling, stressed beyond capacity by the fact that their shared identity is one of futility.

Matters are further complicated by the arrival of their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), who’s taken a sudden leave of absence from college. She is taking respite with her cool city relatives in part because they move in the lower tier bohemian artist circles Sadie sees as a hopeful destination, but also because of the emotional skirmishes she gets into with her own mother (Molly Shannon). Sadie’s presence gives Rachel and Richard a diversion from their interpersonal struggles, simply by providing another person to focus on in their cramped apartment. But she may also provide some assistance with the larger problem, as the couple has reached the point where the possibility of an egg donor has been broached.

Jenkins tilts the material towards wry comedy, albeit of the gut-punch variety. Of course, her lead performers are particularly skilled at maneuvering the narrow pathways between humor and pathos. Hahn is uniquely capable of keeping brash expressiveness firmly tethered to intricate characterizations, and Giamatti’s gift for the slow burn has evolved to a point at which it’s really more of a pilot light dimming to infinity. They give dignity to every tremor of emotion in the roles, showing how these people make their way, sometimes delicately, sometimes bravely, sometimes humbled by the inescapable grind of defeat.

Jenkins assembles the film with a keener eye than I recall from previous films. She crafts visuals that tell compelling stories all on their own and generally assembles the film with the spartan certainty of Woody Allen in his cinematic prime. These qualities also give Private Life a disarming lightness that cuts across the darker subject matter. It has the feel of something that came easily, which isn’t meant to diminish the evident work that went into it. Quite the contrary, a film that can be pointed, precise, and loose all at once is likely the product of a director who knows without a doubt what they want to do, what they are ready to convey. It’s as if Jenkins spent those many years between films envisioning Private Life to the seams in the corners, and only when it was fully formed did she gift it to the rest of us. It should be received with the deepest gratitude.