Friday, October 12

First Man Review

First Man
Dir:Damien Chazelle
Starring:Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, and Kyle Chandler

“Where were you?” History, tragic and triumphant, can have a profound effect on how the future will look back on certain moments of change, so impactful that it becomes a date, time, or place that you will remember for your entire life. Where were you on September 11th? Where were you when Barack Obama was elected President? These are two recent moments that have that effect. However, before these recent memories, perhaps the greatest “where were you” moment was when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the surface of the moon. 

Director Damien Chazelle, who won the Academy Award for directing the musical “La La Land” in 2016, crafts a grandiose and intimate film focused on Neil Armstrong and the American space program leading up to the momentous Apollo 11 undertaking. “First Man” is an unglamorous yet beautifully depicted look at the struggles, obstacles, and catastrophes experienced in the space race in the 1960’s. 

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an ordinary man working in an extraordinary job. The calm demeanor and literal analysis of situations around him make him an unusual person working amidst engineers and pilots at NASA. But underneath this straight-forward demeanor is a man diligently striving to create an ordinary life for his kids and his loving, long-suffering, wife Janet (Claire Foy). But his occupation propels him into the national spotlight as America tries to beat Russia into expeditions beyond earth. 

As director Damien Chazelle continues to expand the size of his films, the focus remains on a singular character chasing their ambitious dreams. “Whiplash” and “La La Land” both showcase a young person struggling to establish themselves in an unknown world in pursuit of their passion. Neil Armstrong, played with intriguing softness by Ryan Gosling, is also pursuing a dream that will take him into an unknown world. Mr. Chazelle does a nice job of exploring the character, never offering much of a history lesson but rather looking into the personal afflictions, specifically the loss his daughter Karen, that would define the motivation of a man who was consistently looking towards the heavens. It’s never glamorously constructed but instead restrained in its depiction of the world around him.

This controlled perspective may not provide the splendor and awe seen in other space travel movies, where space shuttles float amidst starry filled backgrounds, but the purpose of maintaining minimal views helps in creating tension and making this well-known adventure to the moon have some kind of uncertainty associated with it. It’s a method that works early in the film, but as the historical familiarity settles in during the third act it, unfortunately, doesn’t connect the emotion as it feels like it intended and instead feels underwhelming. Still, Mr. Chazelle understands how to evoke that old-fashioned Hollywood nostalgia in moments, sometimes it’s big and boisterous and other times it’s small and composed. 

Neil Armstrong is portrayed as a mild-mannered family man who fits in nicely at the neighborhood barbeque; Mr. Gosling provides a quiet, analytical perspective for the character. Claire Foy provides the standout performance here however as Janet Armstrong. Ms. Foy is tasked with being the emotional core of the film and she succeeds on numerous levels. 

Mr. Chazelle takes a few moments to look into the American perspective of the time, with protests about the space programs exorbitant funding and one Gil Scott-Heron song that clearly identifies the race relation situation, but he never examines these aspects for long. “First Man” remains clear of its purpose of displaying the space race from the eyes of the man who would become the hero America was looking for at the time. 

Monte’s Rating
3.50 out of 5.00

Friday, October 5

Venom Review

Dir:Ruben Fleischer
Starring:Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, and Reid Scott

Joseph Campbell, author of the seminal “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, details a plotting device called “the hero’s journey”. Look at any number of films, past and present, and you can find this character structure utilized in some form especially in the cinematic world of the superhero. It’s a technique that has been done to death but when implemented properly, or when twisted in a new direction, can have satisfying effects. 

This “hero’s journey” may apply to heroic characters like Captain America or Superman, however often times the qualities associated with the “hero’s journey” shackles the characters to a moral code. When these characters start breaking away from the heroic descriptive terms that define them, they often fall into a characterization of being an “antihero”; characters like Deadpool, Mad Max, or The Man with No Name are examples. 

Director Ruben Fleischer explores the complicated nature of the antihero with the origin story of the beloved Marvel character Venom. Providing an unusual, weird, yet satisfyingly kinetic performance is Tom Hardy as the merged human/alien being. 

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a news reporter in San Francisco, providing a hard-hitting investigative reporting show. Brock’s local reputation provides him an exclusive interview with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a science mogul who has discovered a slimy alien substance, “symbiote”, and is conducting human trials in an attempt to combine the alien substance with humans. Brock’s compulsive style leads to him losing his job and his relationship with his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). In an attempt to get his job and girlfriend back, Brock breaks into Carlton Drake’s laboratory but encounters the alien symbiote. 

“Venom” is an unusual film. Like its primary character who is struggling to find balance and control of the monster inside him, the film struggles to find the same control between the indulgence to push the limits, establish an overall tone, and exist within the familiar realm found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film feels in moments influenced by the horror found in demon possession films, then transitions into a buddy comedy film that feels like a modified mainstream version of Frank Henenlotter’s “Brain Damage”, then moves into complete Marvel movie territory with a finale that is filled with all the familiar boom and bang. It’s all over the place, which makes the experience feel over long and tedious.

However, what keeps “Venom” engaging and consistently amusing is the committed performance from Tom Hardy who gives Eddie Brock a cowardly demeanor that is layered with ambitions to do the right thing and, when Venom takes over, the impulse to take over the world and feed on humanity. It’s unfortunate that the other characters surrounding Brock aren’t provided the same kind of energy. Michelle Williams is underutilized as Brock’s love interest and Riz Ahmed is given an antagonist that never feels threatening.  

“Venom”, at 120 minutes, attempts to be a different kind of superhero film. While it never successfully accomplishes the feat of crafting the super antihero that audiences can get behind, it does have Tom Hardy working overtime to make the character an oddly amusing creature. 

Monte’s Rating
2.50 out of 5.00

A Star is Born Review

A Star is Born
Dir: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, and Anthony Ramos

The first version of “A Star is Born” was made in 1937 and featured Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as two star-crossed lovers on dramatically diverse paths of fame in show business. It’s a story that no matter the time period, seems to encompass all the romantic touchstones that construct heartfelt Hollywood fables about chasing that seemingly impossible dream of finding love and making your passion a reality. That’s probably why this film has been made four times in four vastly different eras associated with the quest for stardom.

The most recent iteration of “A Star is Born” features pop superstar Lady Gaga, in good company with Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand who previously played the role, and Bradley Cooper doing triple duty as actor, writer, and director. Mr. Cooper, who seems to have deep admiration for all the previous stories, builds an earnest adaptation that is grounded by naturalistic performances and a narrative that invests in the melodrama of relationships. 

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is an aging alt-country rock star, singing boot stomping ballads while high on alcohol and pills. Jackson stumbles and mumbles through concerts, in flashes displaying why he is a rock star and in other moments why his star is fading into oblivion. While looking for a bar to go on another bender, Jackson staggers into a drag bar and encounters a singer named Ally (Lady Gaga). Her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” completely enchants Jackson, pulling him from his alcoholic spiral and into an impromptu date that will change both of their lives.

Mr. Cooper displays early in this film a keen understanding of building and manipulating the beauty involved in the Hollywood love story. With frames that linger and examine the enraptured faces of two people who are falling deeply, passionately in love with one another, Mr. Cooper displays how easily the spell of love can overtake characters and also audiences. It’s in the first 50 minutes of this film, which slowly and deliberately invests in the budding relationship of Ally and Jackson that one will effortlessly fall entranced with everything that Mr. Cooper is doing with the story. The casting of Lady Gaga is perhaps the director’s greatest achievement here; the power and screen presence of the actress is no clearer than when her character finally gives in to her fears and performs an emotionally charged duet that will have you swooning over Gaga’s rendition and also the pair's romance. 

This early romantic drama is beautifully and achingly achieved, but even the greatest of romances eventually have to deal with the perils of reality. When Ally and Jackson’s relationship encounters reality, one that is filled with the cruel sting of the music business, things begin to crumble. Jackson realizes that his career isn’t making an upward turn and Ally realizes that her star is far from reaching its peak. Jackson’s drug abuse gets worse, Ally’s career is guided in a different direction than expected, and quickly the romantic gaze disappears. 

Everything in the second half of “A Star is Born” becomes a familiar tale, one that quickly delves into the turmoil complicated relationships experience with short illustrations that don’t allow for the kind of growth and control displayed when the relationship was developing early in the film. Instead, there is a loss of time and space as the romance ages, which unfortunately dulls the experience of displaying how effortless love can transition into complicated love which is an altogether different yet equally fascinating aspect of relationships if provided the attention.

Aside from the romance is a story about two artists who care as much about their craft as they do about their relationship, perhaps more in some ways. On one side we have a story about a musician struggling to remain true to his ideals, one that is examined with sober metaphors in an empty parking lot and drunken stupors in crowded places. On the other side is the story about a musician being swept into the power of the system and their own stardom, one that features simplistic pop music sensibilities and a Saturday Night Live performance that feel less than genuine. In the end, however, it’s Lady Gaga’s character Ally that ultimately rules the show. The character is ambitious and independent, she pushes past the expectations created by those around her while refusing to succumb to the easy indulgences that have defined the two men she loves in her life. 

Amidst some minor problems with pacing and the structure of the narrative that defines two separate aspects of a romantic relationship, “A Star is Born” is still the kind of heartbreaking Hollywood tale that is easy to fall in love with. 

Monte’s Rating
3.75 out of 5.00