First Man review

FIRST MAN

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 18 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Call it ‘La La Moon Landing’: Damien Chazelle, the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, trains his sights on NASA’s quest to put the first man on the moon in this biopic.

It is 1961 and civillian test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, emphasises how the Soviet Union has beaten the US to every major milestone in the Space Race. This batch of astronauts, which also includes Ed White (Jason Clarke), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), among others, will take part in the Gemini Program. Gemini is NASA’s second human spaceflight program, and the tests conducted during the Gemini missions will lead to the Apollo Program, which aims to put a man on the moon.

The training is physically and mentally demanding, and the risk is high – several of the astronauts whom Neil becomes close to die in failed missions. This takes a toll on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), who fears that their children Rick (Gavin Warren and Luke Winters at different ages) and Mark (Paul Haney and Connor Blodgett at different ages) will be left without a father. NASA faces scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of their high-profile failures, as many across the nation question the cost of the Space Race in dollars and in lives. This culminates in Neil, Buzz and Michael forming the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

Following in the grand tradition of historical dramas about the Space Program like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, First Man is an awards contender that hopes to also thrill audiences. Chazelle works from a script by Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer, who adapted history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. First Man combines a documentary-like feel marked by lots of grainy verité handheld shots with grand cinematic spectacle, and it’s a balance that mostly works.

There are bits of First Man that do feel a bit dry, but the film does a fine job of covering the history and an even better job of putting audiences inside the spacecraft alongside the astronauts. Before the Gemini 8 mission takes off, we get close-up shots of all the rivets and bolts inside the capsule as it creaks on the launchpad – if just one tiny thing fails, it all goes up in smoke. First Man contains some of the most realistic depictions of spaceflight ever put on screen, and endeavours to shed light on the people who made the achievements of the Space Program possible.

Chazelle reunites with several collaborators from La La Land, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who also scored Whiplash. The 16 mm and 35 mm film stock give the film an authentic period feel, while the moon landing sequence is presented in all its 70 mm IMAX glory. There is careful attention to detail in capturing the specifics of the ‘60s NASA setting, and production designer Nathan Crowley’s reproductions of the spacecraft and facilities is entirely convincing.

The backlash against the film for omitting the moment in which the American flag is planted on the moon seems like a mountain out of a lunar molehill. The decision to leave this well-known part of the moon landing out seems to stem from a desire to pare back the iconography of this historical moment and focus the story into something personal, giving the movie an honesty and a rawness.

Gosling anchors the film with a quiet, well-considered performance. The film characterises Neil Armstrong as someone who’s intelligent and earnest, but who is not especially well-equipped to process the grief that befalls him and those he cares about all too often. He is consumed by his work and driven to succeed, while it looks like everything around him is in danger of crumbling away. There’s an earnestness and intensity that Gosling dials to just the right level.

Foy’s Janet Armstrong is stern but caring, and her take on the role is a lot more than “worried wife back home”. Her relationship with Neil underscores how the astronauts are people with their own lives, and that serving the higher call of the Space Program comes at the expense of those lives.

The film’s supporting cast, including Clarke, Chandler and Ciarán Hinds, all give serious, unassuming ‘character actor’-type performances. Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is characterised as someone who’s not exactly likeable, and this is something Stoll visibly enjoys playing.

First Man is a finely crafted serious awards season drama, but watching it still feels a little bit like homework. The attempts to juxtapose the US’ involvement in the Space Race against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle are commendable but a little clumsy. In taking a matter-of-fact approach, the film loses some of the wonderment and awe associated with mankind “slipping the surly bonds of earth”. However, Chazelle and co. largely succeed in crafting a credible account of Neil Armstrong’s journey from the earth to the moon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Mass

For F*** Magazine

BLACK MASS

Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Saarsgard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 17 September 2015
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language And Violence)

A “Black Mass” is a type of Satanic ritual, a dark inversion of the Catholic Mass. This true crime drama recounts the profane partnership between the FBI and one of the most notorious gangsters in United States history. James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) is the head of the Irish-American Winter Hill gang in South Boston. His brother Billy (Cumberbatch) is a United States senator. Their childhood friend John Connolly (Edgerton), now an FBI agent, approaches Whitey with the offer of becoming an informant in order to take down the rival Angiulo crime family. As Whitey’s clout increases, he begins to be more brazen in his criminal activities, with his fingers in everything from drug trafficking to a Jai alai betting racket to funding the Irish Republican Army, almost casually killing anyone who crosses him. Whitey and his partners Stephen Flemmi (Cochrane), Kevin Weeks (Plemons) and Johnny Matorano (W. Earl Brown) continue their criminal reign of South Boston unchecked, benefitting from a deal with the Feds that seems too good to be true. 
Black Mass is based on the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The “unholy alliance” between two childhood friends which would end up having untold ramifications is one of the most morbidly intriguing organized crime stories in recent memory. “Southie kids, we went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground to doing it for real in the streets,” Kevin Weeks says in the police interview framing device. Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, director Scott Cooper has crafted a crime drama in the mould of Scorsese’s genre-defining mob movies. Black Mass is bleak but never boring to look at, thanks to Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography which is slick but not flashy. Cooper stages several moments that are bubbling over with almost unbearable intensity. It is often downright terrifying and it boggles the mind to think how long Whitey’s criminal activities were allowed to go on for. 
Post-Jack Sparrow, it has been difficult to take Johnny Depp very seriously, even with his three Oscar nods. You know it, we know it and Depp himself knows it too. Suffice it to say that this is a far cry from Mortdecai and is the best Depp has been in years. Great acting is about disappearing into the part, and with the help of special effects makeup designed by Depp’s oft-collaborator Joel Harlow, he does indeed. Cooper hired some of Whitey’s former associates as consultants and they looked at footage of Depp as Whitey, simply commenting “that’s Whitey.” Much of Depp’s later work has been characterized by traipsing about with wild abandon, so the subtle, understated quality he brings to bear with this performance is welcome. He convincingly essays a master manipulator, a savvy criminal with an unpredictable streak and delivers searing, disturbing turn as Whitey in what is definitely a high point in his career. 
While the film is primarily Depp’s to carry, there is a vast number of supporting players. Edgerton balances out Connolly’s self-confident air with his inner conflict between loyalty to a boyhood pal and duty to upholding the law, as his turning a blind eye to Whitey’s criminal exploits eventually snowballs. Edgerton does have a tendency to play the role a little broad, but he does bring a good deal of heart to the role. Replacing the initially-cast Guy Pearce, Benedict Cumberbatch gets precious little to do as Whitey’s brother Billy, and how Whitey could get away with so much when his brother was a senator is a plot point that is never explored to a satisfying extent. He makes a valiant attempt at a Boston accent but struggles to nail it. Kevin Bacon kind of floats in and out of the film as Connolly’s boss, spending most of his screentime haranguing the agent under his charge. As is the case with many mob movies, we don’t spend a lot of time with the female characters, but perhaps that’s just a reflection of the true story. Both Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson get to share excellent scenes with Depp though, one of which is skin crawlingly creepy. 
With its framing device of Whitey’s associates being interviewed by the police years after the fact, the film can come off as episodic rather than sweeping and involving, but it is riveting nonetheless. Director Cooper is clearly a student of the mob movie subgenre and while Black Mass owes a great deal to the work of Scorsese and his ilk, it doesn’t come off as mere mimicry, the violent consequences of his “unholy alliance” laid bare. 
Summary: A true crime biopic that gets under one’s skin, Black Mass may not reach the loftiest heights of the mob movie subgenre but it boasts a stellar, terrifying turn from Johnny Depp. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Ant-Man

ANT-MAN

Director : Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Judy Greer, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian
Genre : Action/Comics/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens: 16 July 2015
Rating: PG
    

        Following the behemoth Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is undergoing a downsizing of sorts to close out its second phase. Retired scientist Hank Pym (Douglas), the inventor of the Pym Particle, has been fighting for decades to keep his Ant-Man technology from falling into the wrong hands. This suit allows its wearer to shrink down to the size of an insect while retaining his normal strength. Darren Cross (Stoll), Hank’s former mentee who has ousted Hank out of Pym Technologies, is close to perfecting the Yellowjacket, his own militarised version of the Ant-Man suit. Hank and his daughter Hope (Lilly) enlist the help of reformed thief Scott Lang (Rudd), who takes on the Ant-Man persona to put a stop to Cross’s evil machinations.



            Ant-Manarrives in theatres carrying a great deal of scepticism on its insectoid shoulders. Many scoff at the inherent silliness of the premise, and then there’s the matter of original director Edgar Wright leaving the project, to be replaced with Peyton Reed. Marvel Studios has cleverly played the underdog card, just as they did with last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, creating a fast-paced, raucously funny, very entertaining little beast. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has attempted to stave off superhero movie fatigue by dipping its toes into various subgenres, including conspiracy thriller with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and high fantasy with Thor. Ant-Man is a comedic heist caper with a healthy amount of sci-fi stirred in. The screenplay, credited to Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd, is packed with belly laughs. The light-heartedness assists in the suspension of disbelief required to go along with the premise and admirably enough, does not undermine the more emotional beats of the story.

            This is not to say the film is flawless by any stretch of the imagination. Even as it valiantly tries to offer up something fresh, Ant-Man succumbs to formula at every turn. There’s the ex-con trying to make good for the sake of his young daughter, the evil new CEO who has betrayed the man who believed in him, the tough, no-nonsense female lead who despises our hero but eventually warms to him, the comic relief trio who form the hero’s motley crew and a training montage or three to cap that off.  While most of the jokes land, some of the comedy carries with it a smart-alecky, post-Apatow affectation that comes off as trying too hard. However, Ant-Man packs in a dazzling amount of visual invention, trucking out extremely clever sequences in which the mass-shifting technology is put to ingenious use. Reed has acknowledged the lineage of “shrinking” special effects-driven films that include The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Fantastic Voyage and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Ant-Man earns its place in that pantheon. The visual effects work on the ants, who serve as Scott’s little helpers, are not hyper-realistic, but perhaps that is to help them become a little more endearing – and endearing they are indeed.

            Paul Rudd, primarily known as a comedic actor, slips into the shrinking suit with ease. After Chris Pratt’s resounding success as a leading man in GotG, casting a funnyman in a superhero part no longer seems like that much of a gamble. Rudd’s charm, charisma and mischievous streak, including his ability to play the more heartfelt moments of the film with appropriate sincerity, allow him to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the MCU’s now-venerable pantheon of leading men. Unlike several respectable big-name actors have in the past, Michael Douglas doesn’t look like he’s begrudgingly doing this big blockbuster just for the paycheck. There’s a wisdom, weariness and hint of playfulness to his Hank Pym and his presence elevates the material without seeming like he’s yelling “look at me and my prestige!”

            Evangeline Lilly has several ass-kicking female characters under her belt, coming straight off playing Tauriel in the Hobbit films. Beyond the severe bob and the proficiency in martial arts, there’s Hope’s conflict with her father. Her distaste for Scott stems from her belief that she herself is far more qualified to inherit the shrinking suit, and while the character’s arc is basic, it will make more than a few misty-eyed. The trio of misfit crooks with hearts of gold who form Scott’s team provide more than a few laughs, led by Michael Peña doing his best Luis Guzmán impression as the awkward, garrulous, earnest Luis. David Dastmalchian, hitherto known as “that creepy guy you kind of recognise from The Dark Knight”, is a revelation as Kurt, rocking an over-the-top Russian accent and ridiculous coiffeur, showcasing spot-on comic timing.

The film’s one major misstep is its egregious waste of Corey Stoll’s considerable talents, relegating him to the role of a staggeringly mono-dimensional villain. Stoll eats up the part with great relish, but the Marvel movies have mainly drawn criticism for their dearth of truly compelling villains, and unfortunately, Darren Cross is no exception. As the new CEO with evil designs on the hero’s technology, he strongly echoes Obadiah Stane from the first Iron Man flick. That said, other Marvel films have sacrificed well-developed villains for the sake of well-developed heroes, a gamble that has paid off and that does pay off here.


Ant-Manproves itself as more than just the sorbet course to follow up the big steak dinner that was Age of Ultron. It’s an enjoyable romp that stands nicely on its own but is also packed full of nods and Easter Eggs to the other MCU movies and the comics at large. A friend of this reviewer was very excited at the inclusion of Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), and a string of cameos provides connective tissue to the rest of the films. As is de rigeurwith these movies, be sure to stick around for two stinger scenes during and after the credits. Ant-Man may not break the mould, but it offers enough fresh morsels for long-time fans and doesn’t alienate neophytes by requiring the in-depth knowledge the Avengersflicks warrant to fully enjoy. Now that’s ant-ertainment.
Summary:Bet on the little guy.
RATING: 4out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Dark Places

For F*** Magazine

DARK PLACES

Director : Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Cast : Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, Sterling Jerins, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 2 July 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Some Coarse Language and Drug Use)
Old wounds are reopened and dark corners of the past are illuminated in this gloomy mystery thriller. Libby Day (Theron as an adult, Jerins as a child) is the sole survivor of a horrific, possibly cult-related killing in the small town of Kinnakee, Kansas that claimed the lives of her mother and sister. She testifies against her brother Ben (Stoll as an adult, Sheridan as a child), who has spent the last 28 years in prison. Strapped for cash, Libby agrees to entertain the request of amateur detective Lyle Wirth (Hoult), a member of the “Kill Club”, a collective of true crime enthusiasts. Lyle believes that Ben was innocent and drawing Libby into his investigation, terrible secrets and painful memories are brought into the light.




            Dark Places is based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Adapting the dense, plot-heavy book into a two hour film is a daunting task that writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner gamely tackles, but he ultimately lacks the finesse that David Fincher displayed with his adaptation of Gone Girl. The two works share certain similar themes, chief of which is the role that the mass media and public fascination plays in criminal cases. Libby is shown cynically living off the goodwill of charitable donations made out of pity, attempting to milk her own tragedy for personal gain not because she’s a terrible person, but just because it’s a relatively easy way to support herself. There is also some commentary on the so-called “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States in the 80s.


            The central case in the film, with its “small town with big secrets” intrigue, teenagers enacting dark rituals, the protagonist’s withdrawn older brother and his unstable much younger girlfriend ends up being not quite as interesting as it sounds. At the end of the day, even given the twists and turns and the emotional impact of it all, the plot feels like it might be something seen in a procedural television series like Cold Case or Without a Trace. The structure, which unfolds via lengthy flashbacks, is sometimes clumsily handled, especially during the tense climactic confrontation which feels like it has its momentum undercut.


            Charlize Theron brings a haunted, world-weary quality to Libby, calling upon her own personal childhood trauma to play the role. Like Libby, Theron grew up on a farm, and she witnessed her alcoholic father attack her mother, Theron’s mother shooting and killing her father in self-defence. Here, she is low-key and serious but one can’t help but feel she’s miscast. As good an actress as Theron is, she cannot fully pass for someone who grew up in the American Midwest, lacking the earthiness the character needs. Amy Adams, who was originally set to play Libby but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, seems like she would be a better choice. Christina Hendricks, who plays Libby’s mother Patty in the flashback sequences, is fine as a single mother at the end of her rope but her performance is ultimately somewhat unmemorable.


            Playing the earnest “kid detective” archetype, Nicholas Hoult is plenty likeable and Mad Max fans will get to see Furiosa and Nux reunite under some very unlikely circumstances. The younger actors are good but not great; they have to carry a considerable amount of emotional heft in the flashback sequences and the strain on them does show through. Chloë Grace Moretz, arguably the main star draw besides Theron, does have fun playing Diondra, a troubled, wayward “bad girl” who might or might not be pregnant with Ben’s child. Unfortunately, she does tend to go over the top, which is jarring even given that it’s not a subtle part.


            Dark Places is atmospheric and appropriately grim and its female protagonist is a multi-faceted character, but the end result is mostly mundane. Judging from the film posters and trailers, the main selling point here seems to be the association with Gone Girl, and while there are similarities, Dark Places is a far more straightforward affair and lacks the many gut-punching moments that made Gone Girl so spellbinding.
Summary: Dark Places is led by a capable but miscast Charlize Theron and ends up being a grim mystery thriller than doesn’t pack as many surprises as it promises to.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong