First Man

* * 1/2

Technically, there is no faulting First Man, Damien Chazelle’s portrait of Neil Armstrong in the 1960s leading up to his landing on the moon. The production design and VFX are astonishing, the acting is proficient, and the musical score, from Chazelle’s Whiplash and La La Land collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is appropriately monumental and moving. Dramatically, however, things are a different story. Like the NASA program itself, First Man is punctuated by exciting moments of achievement, but vast swathes of time are spent on the kind of work that is simply unexciting. Ultimately, engineering took us to the moon.

Neil Armstrong was an engineer, and, stereotypical to that profession, was stoic, level-headed, un-emotive. Again, these are not attributes well suited to drama, and Ryan Gosling doubles down on them, giving us one of the blankest, driest, quietest lead performances since Steve McQueen in Le Mans. The resulting film has long stretches of deep tedium.

Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, but unfortunately their relationship boils down to a re-tread of the worried wife trope from both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and does not do well in the comparison. I loved those movies, and I adore 2001 and Gravity, which First Man nods to as well, but this astronaut drama left me very cold. Besides the story’s inherent wonkiness and Armstrong’s taciturn blankness, the film can’t avoid how well we know the ending. All the shaking camerawork in the world (and there’s a lot of camera shaking in this picture, as Chazelle keeps us inside the cabins for each of Armstrong’s atmospheric entries and exits) can’t fake suspense where there is none: Armstrong got to the moon, we all saw it, and he came home to see his wife again.

Thankfully – dramatically, that is – there was a deeply traumatic event in the Armstrongs’ lives that gives the film some emotional heft at the beginning and the end. But the long second act is a long second act, full of astronauts looking vaguely doubtful while keeping their chins solid. It’s hard to see what drew Chazelle, he of such musical exuberance, to such a dour subject, and such a dry film.

Blade Runner 2049

Impeccably, masterfully crafted; somewhat confusingly told.

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* * * *

Visually, sonically, thematically and tonally, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece is absolutely spot-on, mimicking the very particular look, sound and feel of the earlier film with eerie specificity. As with J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which felt like Star Wars: A New Hope, this absolutely feels like Blade Runner, including buying into that film’s more ponderous aspects, and certainly into its very lofty ruminations. It’s a serious cinematic work, Villeneuve’s best film, and generally hugely enjoyable.

This is the third major (read: expensive and Studio-backed), “hard” sci-fi, intellectually ambitious examination of cybergenetic A(rtificial) I(ntelligence) this year. As such, it trumps Alien: Covenant and Ghost In The Shell. Both those films were rather terrific in their own ways – and both certainly were not afraid to wade deep into questions of where real life ends and artificial life begins – but Blade Runner 2049 is simply a bigger, bolder work of art. This is the one of the three that will be nominated for Oscars, and it will win Cinematography for Roger Deakins. His work here is sublime, masterful, faultless, jaw-dropping, incredible. It’s the most beautiful film of the year bar none. (It will also be, a la Mad Max: Fury Road, a potential Oscar sweep winner in all of the design categories.)

It is not the easiest film to follow; the story-telling is its weakest aspect, and the long third act (of a very long, though never boring, film) has elements that are simply incomprehensible. It’s a big problem, or was for me, because despite the way the film had ravished me with its visuals, its phenomenal production design, and its uncompromisingly elegant mise-en-scene, I walked out of my screening confused rather than sated. One character – played by Jared Leto, sprouting some seriously fruity dialogue – had me flummoxed and frustrated. Blade Runner 2049 admirably raises big, big questions, but less admirably refuses to provide some simple answers.

La La Land

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**** (out of five)

La La Land arrives with a lot of hype. If you’re in the business of Oscar prognostication, it’s in a 50/50 race for Best Picture with the very different kettle of fish Moonlight. (Neither of these, of course, might come to pass; momentum could easily arise for such bigger fare as Sully, Arrival, Fences, Live By Night or the tiny and bleak Manchester By The Sea.)

It is Damien Chazelle’s dream project, the script he already had in his drawer when his film Whiplash was not only made, but became an Indie hit, a critical darling and a Best Picture nominee. J.K. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Chazelle had his moment, his blank cheque, and he cashed it on his Dream Project, an old-school musical he had been developing for years with his musical collaborator (and old school chum) Justin Hurwitz. He’d originally hope to make it for less than a million dollars; ultimately, he had at least thirty times that.

It shows. The opening number, a (perhaps digitally aided) one-take wonder involving an enormous amount of singers, dancers, cars and an LA freeway, is jaw-dropping, a statement of intent that fills the viewer with trust: This is gonna be great! For much of the film that trust is constantly rewarded. Emma Stone, tasked with carrying the film emotionally, appearing in about eighty percent of the scenes, singing, dancing and stealing your heart, is sensational (she must be the Oscar Best Actress front-runner, along with Isabelle Huppert for Elle). Ryan Gosling, very much supporting her, does so with characteristic grace – and a lot of heart. They’re a terrific team.

She plays Mia, an aspiring (and perhaps talented) actress in Los Angeles; he plays Sebastian, an aspiring (and definitely very talented) jazz musician (Chazelle’s signature motif). They fall in love, manage their careers and partake in a stack of original musical numbers along the way.

It’s a true musical, in that characters break out into song and dance when they’re feeling big emotions, and when a musical number is on, anything goes: shoes can appear out of nowhere, skies can lighten or darken, walls can disappear. Certainly the lighting can get jiggy. And, in its depiction of a dame and a dude up against the bright lights of show business in Hollywood, it’s utilising tried-and-true musical formulae, constantly. What’s fascinating is that it’s totally contemporary; the style may be 1953, but the potholes in the freeway are 2015. LA has been art-directed to look magical (there aren’t that many old-school street lamps, I know it) but it’s still modern, lonely, dusty, car-cramped LA, and the casting directors suck.

The original songs by Hurwitz are very good and some are great (if you’ve seen it, I bet you’re humming City of Stars right now). They express the characters’ inner thoughts, they allow them to comment explicitly on their frustrations and longings, they speak of hopes and dreams and, of course, of love. They’re at times plaintive, at times bold and brassy; motifs shimmy throughout. Indeed, it’s a little jarring when Hurwitz’s compositions are supplanted by known music (a sequence at a party incorporating a swathe of famous ‘80s hits) and deliberately different-sounding music (the songs attributed to and performed by a colleague of Sebastian’s, played excellently by John Legend). Stone and Gosling both have fine pipes, Stone in particular, and something about their singing sounds authentic, as though if it were more perfect, it would be less real.

At 128 minutes, the film does feel a little long, and the story definitely slows and muddies in the second act. Because it’s a story based on a thousand others, a story that is part of our collective moviegoing DNA, we’re generally ahead of it, which contributes to the problem. But the ending – and it’s an extended one, a big, ambitious epilogue – is tremendously satisfying. I could feel the large group of critics at the screening I attended sitting on their hands, resisting the uncouth impulse to applaud.

The Nice Guys

 

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*** (out of five)

Shane Black keeps writing the same movie over and over, but he’s very good at it. Indeed, no-one writes Shane Black movies as well as Shane Black does. The considerable charm of his latest, The Nice Guys, is that – while set in the ’70s – it gives you the warm fuzzy feeling of 1987, and specifically, the first time you saw Black’s magnum opus (as a screenwriter), Lethal Weapon.

Black directs in – channels – the style of late ’80s Hollywood big-studio product: everything – the shots, the editing, the music cues, the lighting – reminds you of the filmmaking of that period, Black’s golden era. It’s strange, as though he studied Richard Donner’s direction of Lethal Weapon as his own film school. Which, I guess, he kind of did.

This time around, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play Black’s two mismatched wild cards. Gosling’s a boozy private dick, Crowe a lumbering (read: very overweight) literal hit-man, in that he hits people you pay him to hit, usually as a quick sucker punch as the target opens their door. Neither are sterling citizens, but they suit the milieu, which is LA at its smoggiest.

That smog is a great detail but also becomes central to the plot – which is surprisingly tight, and which makes up for the lack of actual jokes. After a while, when you’ve given up on laughing out loud, you start smiling for those old-fashioned reasons: you’re enjoying the characters and the scrape they find themselves in.

Obviously a film of this scale can’t be shot in sequence, but it feels like it was, because Crowe and Gosling’s chemistry really does develop and grow over the course of the film. Gosling does some juicy physical comedy including a fair amount of decent drunk acting. Crowe unfortunately reaches for laughs that aren’t there; he should’ve played it straight and mean. He also looks not tough but unhealthy, puffy and doughy. It works for the character, I suppose, but I was worried for the man.

Not half as much as I was worried for Kim Basinger. The Oscar winner (for LA Confidential, opposite Crowe) gives a performance so inept I couldn’t help but wonder if she was extremely drunk the entire shoot. She also looks hideous, in the way that only bad facial surgery makes one look hideous. I have no idea why she wasn’t sent home and her role re-cast on day one, as it is highly apparent she was in no state to work.

Black may be a one-trick pony, but that pony is still cute, and I enjoyed the ride. The ending is a blatant set-up for a sequel; I’ll be there.

The Big Short

image****1/2 (out of five)

Assured, brash, loud and very, very funny, The Big Short makes thrilling entertainment out of indescribably complicated financial shenanigans using any means necessary – such as offering up Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, by having a voice-over announce chirpily, “To explain it to you, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”

It’s that kind of irreverence that keeps this story of louts in suits powering ahead. Despite being loaded with lingo, drenched in jargon, it’s the most energetic movie outside of Fury Road this year. The cast, of course, help: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and particularly theatre luminary Jeremy Strong all know how to serve dialogue straight and hard towards the base line. The voice-over comes from Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling, himself no slouch in the machine-gun delivery department, and Brad Pitt takes a small but luxuriant role as a billionaire with a green streak. They’re all excellent.

Most impressively, director Adam McKay juggles our sympathies as well as he does the machinations of the convoluted (true) story. These guys are all essentially jerks but they’re juxtaposed against (mainly unseen) much bigger jerks, emerging as (dubiously) loveable underdogs. Michael Lewis wrote the book on which McKay and Charles Randolph’s zippy screenplay is based; he was the guy who wrote Moneyball, which was turned into a film that tonally echoes this one. Just like you didn’t need to know your fastball from your highball to enjoy that terrific film, so too The Big Short lets you in even if you can’t tell your Collateralised Debt Obligations from your Credit Default Swaps. Don’t miss it.