"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

First Man: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An unorthodox take on a “space movie” that I found to be ultimately satisfying and moving…but your mileage may vary.

First Man, written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle, is the story of Neil Armstrong and his long march to the moon. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, with supporting turns from Claire Foy, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler.

First Man is a film that, for good or for ill, defies expectations. One would expect a film about Neil Armstrong and NASA to be a “space” movie in the vein of the expansive The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, but First Man is not a conventional space movie but rather a painstakingly intimate movie that uses space as metaphor.

What makes Neil Armstrong such a compelling character not only in this film but in our culture, is that he was an exceedingly “normal” person. Armstrong was the everyman of the space program which turned him into a sort of empty vessel which the public could project upon whatever traits they wished. Armstrong was portrayed in the media as smart, strong, honorable, noble and patriotic, but what Chazelle does in First Man is make Armstrong less heroic and more human by showing him to be wounded.

Armstrong’s wound is so palpable and catastrophic that he must risk life and limb and travel 238,900 miles in an attempt to soothe it. Ultimately, Armstrong’s journey to the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, isn’t a running away from his wound, but a solemn yet desperate pilgrimage to it.

The moon in First Man is not a destination or ambition but a ghost, haunting Armstrong at every turn as he tries to take one small step for man through the fog of mourning in an attempt to regain his balance and find some semblance of normalcy once again.

By flouting “space movie” expectations, First Man can be a bit frustrating, but once you accept the premise and go along the dramatic journey, it becomes a remarkably satisfying and deeply moving experience. I readily admit that my own personal life experience made the film resonate with me and that others with a different life experience may not find it so worthwhile.

Emotional pull aside, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) shows a deft and skilled hand at the helm of First Man. Chazelle’s film wonderfully mirrors Armstrong the man and the character in that it is strictly compartmentalized. Armstrong walls off his emotions and contains his pain and Chazelle uses magnificent framing to express this dramatic reality.

Chazelle also pulls off shooting in very tight spaces, like in the cockpit of a space capsule, by embracing rather than shunning the claustrophobia of those places. Chazelle recreates the physically and emotionally suffocating experience of being compartmentalized to such a degree that you can’t even turn your head to look at the exit, never mind walk through it. Chazelle’s embrace of dramatic claustrophobia also pays off when the cinematic expanse of the moon is finally reached.

Ryan Gosling’s work as Neil Armstrong is spot on, as he keeps with the theme of the film by keeping Armstrong entirely contained. The pain pulsating through Gosling’s Armstrong is tangible, but he keeps it tightly controlled, never letting the wound gush, only fester. The final scene of the film beautifully illustrates Armstrong’s dilemma, he is walled off and isolated, if not quarantined, from the world, and even from his wife, and he is at a loss for words, but still has the desperate human need to connect, even if he is unable to.

The long journey of Armstrong to Lunar catharsis is so potent because it is so deftly and subtly portrayed by Gosling, who with First Man proves once again that he is more an actor than a movie star.

Claire Foy’s work as Janet, Armstrong’s wife, is equally compelling. Foy’s Janet is much more combustible than Neil, but that just means it takes more effort for her to keep herself together. Foy and Chazelle imbue Janet with a percolating dynamism through a focused intensity and a mildly floating hand-held camera that gives Janet the feel of being ever so slightly unbalanced and teetering out of control, like a satellite knocked off its orbit. Janet has a volcanic magnetism that is a testament to Foy’s making the most out of what, in lesser hands, would have been just another astronaut wife character, at best an adoring moon, but Foy’s Janet is a planet unto herself, spinning in a wilder orbit around a dying Sun.

The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll and Ciaran Hinds among many others, all do solid work in mostly underwritten roles. The supporting cast are most definitely very small pieces around the sun that is Ryan Gosling, who, along with Claire Foy, carry the emotional and dramatic weight of the picture.

First Man is really a story about alchemy through fire and ice (recurring themes throughout the film) and the psychological transformation and evolution that comes about through the alchemical Grail quest. Neil Armstrong’s connection to the cause of his existential anguish gets further and further away with every passing second, and he single-mindedly chases it through the fire of earth and its atmosphere all the way to the cold silence of the moon to catch up to it one last time.

In conclusion, First Man is not what you’d expect it to be, but it is all the better for it. I definitely recommend you spend your hard earned dollars to see it in the theatre (IMAX if possible). Director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling create a worthwhile and serious film of dramatic heft that turns the gigantic evolutionary moment of a human expedition to the moon into an intense and intimate evolutionary moment for a single man. When Neil Armstrong said it was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he would’ve been more accurate to say that it was “one small step for mankind, and one giant leap for his humanity”.

©2018

La La Land : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

Estimated Reading Time : 5 minutes and 44 seconds

My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars.

My Recommendation : SEE IT. Take the time and effort and go see it in the theatre as it is a very enjoyable film.

La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is the story of Sebastian, a struggling jazz musician and Mia, an aspiring actress, who meet and fall in love in Los Angeles. The film stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone with supporting turns by John Legend and Rosemary DeWitt.

La La Land is one of those movies that critics and layman alike will all undoubtedly describe as "charming and delightful". A big reason why they will describe it as "charming and delightful' is because it really is "charming and delightful". As cynical as I am, and goodness knows I am very cynical when it comes to Hollywood, La La Land with its vibrantly contagious spirit, was able to break through any resistance I had to it and will most likely breakthrough with other, less jaded viewers as well.

A major factor in La La Land's charm and delightfulness are the two leads. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are incredibly likable actors and they are at their most agreeable as Sebastian and Mia. For as handsome as Gosling is, and he is impossibly handsome, he is somehow able to play a somewhat abrasive, jazz-purist oddball with a remarkably grounded appeal and subtle charisma. Emma Stone gives an enchantingly strong performance as Mia, the under-employed actress and barista. Stone is able to exude an inner vivacious luminosity that gives her an undeniable magnetism and presence on screen. The fact is, both of these actors are so enjoyable together and have such electric chemistry, that you could watch them banter, flirt and perform with each other for days on end. 

The script and the direction are very well done by Damien Chazelle, who proved with his last film, the critically-acclaimed Whiplash, that he is a formidable filmmaking talent. Once again Chazelle has music in general, and jazz in particular, at the center of his story. Chazelle is really gifted at visually portraying music and musicians in a genuine and realist way, which many filmmakers fail to accomplish. Chazelle's camera becomes just another instrument in the band and another partner in the dance, making the entire film not just a musical, but a piece of musical art, a piece of dance art and piece of cinematic art all at once. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren  paints the Los Angeles of La La Land with a lush and gorgeous palette, creating a vivid and intoxicating dreamscape.

The dance numbers in La La Land are pretty remarkable in that they are almost all done in one take, which is no small feat with such complicated blocking. The thing to realize as you watch La La Land's musical numbers is that Chazelle doesn't use a static camera, like they did in say the Oscar winning musical Chicago, so not only must the choreography of the dancers and performers be perfect, but the choreography of the camera must be integrated as well.

La La Land is a staggering technical accomplishment when you take the intricacies of the musical numbers and the filmmaking process into account. It is also a truly unique and original piece of work that manages to pay homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of yesteryear yet also reinvents that genre with a new, sort of everyman, millennial day-dreamer musical. 

La La Land works on many levels. It is a tribute to Hollywood's distant and not-so distant past (there is a hidden homage to Boogie Nights in it that only the most eagle-eyed will catch) and is also an examination of the life of an artist in a world of commercialism. In addition, the film is a testament to keeping the faith and staying the path in terms of one's artistic purity. Both Sebastian and Mia have to suffer the slings and arrows of the commercial life in order to gather the courage to return to their artistic roots to find fulfillment and happiness which in turn morphs into commercial success, in other words, the Hollywood circle of life. But, as any struggling actor or musician will testify, the battle for artistic purity is never as cut and dried as the artist wishes it were. For example, Sebastian is a jazz purist, but is a demand for jazz purity the reason jazz is dying? Chazelle asks this same type of question of his audience regarding cinema while paying homage to the old Astaire musicals that purists adore, but he presents that tribute in a new, less purist and more populist, package, which is pretty brilliant. 

La La Land is a layered film that can be enjoyed on many levels. You can watch and enjoy it as a pure rom-com, or a love story, or a musical, or an homage to Hollywood or a mediation on the artists struggle, or a combination of all of these. It is tough to watch La La Land and not be overcome by its unrelentingly joyous energy. I recommend you spend your hard earned money and sparse free time by going to see La La Land in the theaters, I think you will find it worth the time and effort.

La La Land will no doubt win a boatload of awards at this years Oscars because Hollywood loves nothing more than movies about itself. I know, I know, you are shocked to hear that Hollywood is so rapaciously narcissistic, it is like hearing that Wall Street is greedy or D.C. corrupt, it can be jarring to realize...but I promise you that it really is true. Besides Hollywood rewarding movies that are about Hollywood, it also loves musicals, even the dreadful ones like Chicago, which means a good one like La La Land is going to be sitting pretty come Oscar Sunday. I assume that Gosling, Stone, Chazelle and a cinematographer Linus Sandgren along with a plethora of behind-the-scenes artists will be nominated and most likely win Oscars as well as the film getting Best Picture. While I thoroughly enjoyed the film, my award voting preferences trend toward more existential and substantial material, so I wouldn't necessarily vote the same way as the Academy. That said, I also won't complain when Hollywood rewards La La Land. There is no sense in complaining here in Hollywood, for as Jake Gittes' partner Lawrence Walsh so eloquently taught me in the film Chinatown, "Forget it, Jake. Its Chinatown." So on Oscar night, as Martin Scorsese and Silence, and Terence Malick and Knight of Cups get overlooked, I'll just keep reminding myself..."Forget it, Mick. It's La La Land."

©2017