First Man–Not Over the Moon

 First Man movie

First Man is a movie  biopic about the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, in the years 1961 to 1969 .   We are introduced to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his days before being selected for the dangerous mission of first “Man on the Moon.”

Armstrong is involved in  a series of errors while flying experimental missions,  in training for  the NASA moon landing. While he is undergoing the rigors of flight simulation, his two-and-a half-year-old daughter is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.   Despite the couple’s  best efforts, the child dies, leaving the parents and their young son to deal with the  tragedy.  To compound Neil Armstrong’s difficulties, a series of aborted efforts and deaths occur  during trial beta-testing for the moon mission.

Apollo 11’s crew is selected and  Armstrong is surprised to find he will be in charge.  Now with two young sons who may lose their father on this spaceflight,  his wife Janet (Claire Foy)  insists that Neil inform  his sons about the real  risks  and that he may not survive the mission.

The enigmatic relationship between Neil and his wife, on the one hand, and his two children, on the other, are not fully developed but are the emotional core of the film.  Despite the rather peripheral role Claire Foy is given as Janet Armstrong,  her understated  performance  reveals the steely strength and  confronts the demons of a family’s sacrifice for the sake of the heroic (and narcissistic) impulses of her husband.  The “stand by my man” attitude of the selfless wife does not hold true for the actual Janet Armstrong  and with little dialogue to work with,  Claire Foy in First Man still manages to show her resolute reserve in order to protect her children.   First Man would have been even stronger with more backstory about Neil Armstrong’s   motivation to prove himself at the expense of his own family.  This film could have been so much better.

La La Land–Insipid But Entertaining

 

La La Land

This 2016 Academy Award nominated musical (a record-tying 14 nominations), written and directed by Damien Chazelle (the wunderkind creator of the astonishing Whiplash, see my December 8, 2014 review) is this year’s can-do-no-wrong rom-com starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

La La Land is a bold resurrection of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1940-50s musical with a blend of nostalgia (using filtered-lens cinematography and costumes) mixed with the novelty of contemporary millennial life in Los Angeles. A flip-book of competing images of vintage and modern LA with twirling skirts and old-fashioned dancing, La La Land is all about dreaming for the big break in Hollywood.

An undeniable paean to the joy and ecstasy of following your passions, La La Land also touches upon the sacrifices to one’s personal life, to missed human connections and to other dreams that will never come true. Part “Never-never Land” and part “Singing in the Rain”.   The conventional storyline –love vs. ambition–never really rises above the forgettable.

Perhaps the most interesting interlude in the film, however, is Mia and Seb’s friend, Keith (John Legend) whose relaxed approach to the commercial aspects of being a musician challenge Seb’s dogmatic “purist” views of selling out to music venues. The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise. I loved this observation.

The cinematography and special effects are the best part of this movie. Except for the song “City of Stars”, the music is more competent than dazzling. You’re more likely to remember what you saw than what you heard.

Where is La La Land going? Is this L couple going to make it after all? Should we care? La La Land suffers from what it is supposed to parody: Hollywood’s addiction to artifice and self-congratulation.By the end, La La Land is an imperfect film that entertains, partly because it is a pleasant surprise to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing.

Sometimes a movie comes along that is entertaining and refreshingly light when we desire that intensely. Right for this moment, viewers can happily forgive La La Land for not being very good but a deliciously tasty confection of sound and color. I really expected more given all the awards and accolades.

“The Big Short”—We Were All Duped

The Big Short
The Big Short

“The Big Short”, based on Michael Lewis’s book, is a film that wildly fluctuates between comedy and deadly serious criticism of Wall Street.

The producers, shouting out “Finance For Dummies”, follow a group of outlier financial analysts who predicted and bet on the fall of the U.S. housing market. 2011’s “Margin Call” told a similar story. “Wolf of Wall Street” also focused on investment banking as one excessive party, with attempts at humor.

The Big Short, a true story, feels like a lecture with subtitled definitions of arcane financial acronyms like CDO in PowerPoint slides. The tone becomes wearying, even nonsensical. For example, placing the beautiful Margot Robbie of “Wolf on Wall Street” in a bubble bath to explain what a “subprime” loan is. Laughable?

More a powerful expose of the securities market and how Wall Street bet against the ignorance of the average investor, “The Big Short” sometimes does entertain the viewer as we laugh at ourselves for our guileless trust in those folks who duped us out of billions of dollars of our hard-earned money. We feel the horror of understanding that on Wall Street greed trumps common sense. The film shines light on the backrooms of the financial meltdown and collapse, bringing self-interest and corruption into the stark light of the banking and financial world.

The cast, particularly Steve Carell and Christian Bale, own “The Big Short”, channeling the “Boiler Room” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” as whistleblowers who realize that gaming the system can’t last. Playing a changed man whose brother paid the ultimate sacrifice in Wall Street battles, Mark Baum (Carell) vows to uncover the corruption that allowed the system to become rogue.

Bale’s Michael Burry, a doctor turned broker, has an analytical brilliance about the pending financial doom which goes unrecognized, even thwarted, when his bosses are threatened. Annoyingly, his character beats on drums in his basement while projecting when the housing market will crash.  Reflecting  on subprime loans and duplicitous securities created to bundle high-risk mortgages in such a complicated way, Burry understands  that professionals as well as the average investor have no clue what the mortgages represent or who owns them.

As the debacle is in free-fall, Baum is incredulous that his team has bet against their own umbrella entity, Morgan Stanley. The imploding financial system caused by corporate greed and deceit has even fooled him.

Both Carell and Bale give some of the best performances of their careers. Yet cinematic clips jump from one scene to the next, attempting to evoke the financial crisis of 2008, with rap and other distracting scenes overlying the depressing subject of capitalism gone amuck. Ryan Gosling narrates by talking directly to the camera a la Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”, one of my least favorite film conceits.

The demented and corrupt circus of Wall Street can only exist based upon a society which blindingly trusts them. Even the “good guys” (Baum and Burry) are ultimately motivated by making obscene amounts of money. Isn’t that what society tells us we have to do, in order to be valued? It’s sick and the whole thing has started up again, “The Big Short” informs us before the ending credits. Neither regulators, nor banks, nor the public seem to care enough about the damage of a cycle of boom and bust to really do anything about it. They – we – smell money. Ultimately a bleak repeat of history.

Not as good as “Wolf on Wall Street” or the superior “Margin Call” but we need reminding: we are all being duped.

 

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!

“Blue Valentine” –Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This critically acclaimed Sundance 2010 darling features Michelle Williams (in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Ryan Gosling in a Generation X’s portrait of a marriage from hell reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”.

Blue Valentine’s story is simple and straightforward. A young nurse, Cindy Heller (Williams) lives with an abusive father, an adrift mother, and cares for her ailing grandmother. She has endured a violent relationship with a high school boyfriend and has given up her dream to become a doctor. She meets Dean (Gosling) at her grandmother’s assisted living center and they end up rushing into marriage, knowing next to nothing about each other. They are both excruciatingly wounded and searching for an escape. Soon after her young daughter, Frankie, is born, they begin to lose their way.

From the opening scene in which Dean plays with spilled oatmeal, licking it off the kitchen table with his five-year old daughter, we are acutely aware that he is stunted…not quite an adult, but a playmate that his daughter adores. Tellingly, he is siding with his child at the expense of the mother who has wearily thrown together a breakfast for them. With flashbacks between the romantic years and the desperate ones, “Blue Valentine” takes us on a journey of their rapidly accelerating heartbreak.

Not altogether a misfit, Dean is a young high school dropout, working for a New York City moving company and later as a house painter. He is a kind, keen observer, especially toward the elderly and the beloved family dog. Dean’s also a drunk. He tries to make a living, but mostly enjoys being with Cindy and their daughter, his only meaningful goals in life. But he gets it so wrong!

Cindy is trying to keep their family on more firm ground financially. She’s still attractive to other men and Dean can’t contain his jealousy. In the hope of rekindling their sexual life, Dean brings Cindy to a motel with a kitschy, pseudo-sci-fi decor, but there is no intimacy. Their marriage has collapsed in on itself and the sting in their relationship is visceral.

A previous scene, in which Gosling sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and Williams dances, foreshadows the wrenching pain to come. Bravely, they both struggle to keep their relationship together in spite of their own best interests. While Dean desperately desires to hold on to his family, his only keystone, he doesn’t know how and neither does Cindy.

Marriages are difficult, precarious, and stressful, and each has its own rhythms and secrets. Not even a deep knowledge of each other can guarantee a long and happy marriage. “Blue Valentine” sometimes succeeds in taking us to this far more honest – and less comfortable – place. One partner’s “best” may simply not be “good enough”.

The wounded and defensive natures of both main characters are powerfully portrayed: Gosling, when his anger is unleashed,–the self-protecting male fighting for what is “his”,–and Williams for the abandonment of her dreams. But these performances do not save this film. Even though their relationship feels real, the story needed to be more specific.

“Blue Valentine” ultimately misses the mark for not revealing both Cindy and Dean’s background. What happened to them in their pre-adulthood years? Why does neither of them have a safety net? These are two young people, tattered and torn, lunging for love as if they were gasping for air. I wanted to know why.