Ryan Gosling Flies to the Moon in ‘First Man’ Trailer

First Man first poster

After getting all musical with “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” Oscar winning director Damien Chazelle now travels into outer space with “First Man.” Based on the book of the same name by James R. Hansen, it stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man ever to set foot on the moon, and it depicts the years leading up to his mission aboard Apollo 11. With this movie, Chazelle appears to be stepping outside his comfort zone as “First Man” does not look at all like a musical, and it represents his first directorial effort where he is working from a screenplay he did not write.

From the outset, this trailer looks amazing as the visuals it shows us are stunning, and this makes me believe the filmmakers really did their research here as this is not a story you can portray without any realism. Seeing Armstrong travel into the atmosphere and beyond is exhilarating, and the moment where the hatch is closed on the Apollo 11 capsule as the crew are left alone in darkness with only their thoughts and the sound of their own breathing is enough to illustrate their isolation. While those who watched breathlessly on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong made that “one small step for man” and felt very much a part of this amazing mission, I imagine he felt like one of the loneliest people in the universe even with the eyes of the world on him.

At the same time, I wonder how “First Man” will compare to other films which have captured an astronaut’s journey into outer space in unforgettable ways. The first film which comes to my mind is Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” still his best work to date. Howard took the events of this particular space mission which we all knew the outcome of, and he turned it into a most riveting cinematic experience that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. Furthermore, Howard filmed his actors working in a reduced gravity aircraft to realistically depict the weightlessness astronauts experience in outer space. Did Chazelle do the same? Well, we will eventually find out.

Then there is “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman’s cinematic adaptation of the late Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction novel about the test pilots chosen to be part of Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight in America. I still have vivid memories of seeing this movie as a kid when it came out back in 1983, and the scene where the capsule containing John Glenn (played by Ed Harris) descended into the atmosphere like a meteor remains forever burned into my consciousness. Can Chazelle match the attention Kaufman paid to even smallest historical details?

And let us never forget Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” in which he made us see the real perils of being in outer space to where James Cameron had to admit someone made a truly realistic film on this subject before he did. For those who watched this Oscar-winning film and remembered its opening titles which exposed us to certain facts about outer space, we could not walk out of the theater and say we did not know what it is like to be up there.

So, while this trailer shows us how “First Man” looks to be very promising, I wonder if can stand up to those three movies as each set the bar high for filmmakers in capturing the reality of outer space and space travel. Well, we will all find out if it does when it is released on October 12, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: La La Land

La La Land movie poster

I cannot believe how ridiculously long it took me to watch this movie which won Best Picture for about three or four minutes at this year’s Oscars. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “Whiplash,” my favorite movie of 2014. Due to not being invited to any press screenings for it, working to pay my bills, buying Christmas presents for my family and working to pay them off as well, taking care of the rent and my overall sanity, I could never make the time to see it. They say life happens when you’re busy making plans, but I’m too busy to even make any kind of plan.

Well, I finally had the opportunity to check out “La La Land” and it is, in a word, superb. From its opening sequence all the way to the end titles, it is a wonderful homage to the movie musicals of the past, and it serves as a dedication to all the dreamers out there who dare to make their passions their livelihood and are willing to make fools of themselves in the process. Just like Akira Kurosawa once said, “In order to survive in an insane world, you have to be crazy.”

The movie starts off on a typical sunny Los Angeles day on the LA freeway of your choice with cars at a complete standstill. It could be the 110, the 105 or the 405 we are watching, but it doesn’t matter because they all turn into used car lots once rush hour hits. Next thing you know, everyone is bursting into the song “Another Day of Sun,” and it’s Chazelle’s way of showing you how exhilarating “La La Land” will be to watch. It starts off with an infectious energy, and it never loses it once the song is over.

We are introduced to Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who auditions constantly, shares an apartment with several female roommates, and works as a barista at a café located on a studio lot. She does the best she can at auditions, but some of them last only a few seconds before she is thanked for her time and escorted to the door. Soon afterward, we meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician who yearns to see this art form live on instead of being ruined by current forms which manipulate into something very artificial. Eventually, we know these two will hook up.

Like the most romantic of couples, Mia and Sebastian do not get off to the best start as she gives him the finger after he honks his car horn for an insidiously long time (I hate it when people do that) at her when she keeps him waiting on the freeway. Even after Mia walks into a jazz bar upon hearing Sebastian play an impassioned improvisational riff while being forced to play classic Christmas songs, he is quick to brush her off as he heads for the door. But the two eventually consummate their budding romance after a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and from there we watch as their romance goes through exhilarating heights and emotionally draining lows.

Watching “La La Land” reminded me of how singing can be the most emotionally challenging art of all as it forces you to be open in a way we typically are not in everyday life. You can be a brilliant singer, but all the technique you bring to it won’t mean a thing if you don’t bring any real feeling to the song. When it comes to many movie musicals, they can feel emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental to where you find yourself cringing like you did when Darth Vader yelled out “nooooo” in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” But every single moment in “La La Land” feels earned as the cast makes it all feel truly genuine, and I never came out of this movie feeling like I was played like a piano. Everything in this movie felt earned, and I was enamored by everything I witnessed.

Also, Chazelle gets everything about Los Angeles down perfectly. Whether it’s the standstill traffic on the freeways, the street signs we never pay attention to until it’s too late, the incredible view of the city from the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, the single screen movie theaters or even those auditions where an assistant just has to walk into the room while you are doing your thing for the casting directors, he gets at all the things a struggling artist is forced to endure while fighting against stiff odds. This is not the kind of musical which takes place in some fantastical world, but instead in a reality we all know and understand.

Of course, to many, Los Angeles is still a fantastical place, and it certainly shows here thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren. “La La Land” almost looks like something from the 1950’s with Sandgren’s use of many beautiful colors, and we get caught up in the magic this crazy city has to offer after all these years. I have lived in Los Angeles for a number of years now, and I can tell you honestly that it is not as glamorous as it is often portrayed in the media. Still, it is a place for creative minds to come up with something extraordinary, and this movie reminded me of this.

Emma Stone is simply sublime as the aspiring Mia as she captures all the heartache, joy and persistence any actor has experienced in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Her face is luminous and can say so much without her having to say single a word at times, and she makes you feel Mia’s every emotion as she suffers every triumph and career setback. But her biggest show-stopping moment comes when she sings the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which the camera stays on her for several minutes. It’s an incredibly captivating moment and makes me see why she could have won an Oscar over Isabelle Huppert who was nominated for “Elle.”

As for Ryan Gosling, he still remains a sexy son of a bitch whom the ladies swoon over every single minute of every single day, and I guess I just have to live with that. But seriously, he perfectly embodies the dreamer who is forced to compromise his passion for the sake of survival, and he communicates the aching confusion Sebastian feels as he desperately tries to rationalize his choices as a means of convincing himself that he is not selling out. Whether you think Sebastian is selling out or not, Gosling makes you sympathize with him as we come to wonder what we have done to convince ourselves of the actions we take in life.

Yes, I think “La La Land” more than lived up to the hype, and it establishes Damien Chazelle as one of the most promising film directors working today. It could have easily been a silly trifle of a musical, but Chazelle’s heart and soul shine through every frame as he pays tributes to all those who dared to dream and constantly risked failure at every turn. Like the best movies, it stays with you long after it has ended, and it takes you on a wondrous journey I feel I haven’t been on in a very, very long time.

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Whiplash

whiplash-movie-poster

Yes, I have had teachers in the past who succeeded in shattering my ego to where it took me an incredibly long time to build my confidence back up to where it once was. I think it’s safe to say we all have had at least one vindictive instructor at one time or another who made our lives a living hell and robbed us of our morale to where the emotional scars we received never fully vanished. But the experience does leave us with an important question; did we improve as students under that teacher’s tutelage, or were they just determined to make us feel infinitely miserable to satisfy their own ego? I’d like to think I got something from the most brutally honest teachers I have studied with because it will, at the very least, keep me from spitting in their faces with a bitter vengeance.

I think it’s likely you will be reminded of those teachers when you watch “Whiplash,” a perfectly titled movie which features the anti-Glenn Holland of music instructors, Terrence Fletcher. Played by J.K. Simmons in an utterly brilliant performance, Terrence is as talented a teacher as he is a terrifying one, and hopefully you have never had to deal with someone like him. But if you have, you have my deepest sympathies and I hope you have found a way to move past such a traumatizing experience.

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer who is more than intent on becoming one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Andrew studies at an elite music conservatory in New York and is working his way up through the ranks when Terrence comes upon him playing one day. Terrence says very little to Andrew and seems eager to see what the young man has to offer. But soon after, Terrence invites him to join his class which has the top jazz ensemble in the conservatory, and this gives Andrew’s ego a major boost to where he finds the courage to ask out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl who works at the concession stand at his favorite movie theater.

Before the start of class, Terrence encourages Andrew to enjoy the process of playing and not to worry too much. But after class begins, Terrence quickly turns into a nasty SOB as he hurls insults as well as furniture at his students if they’re even the slightest bit out of tune. It takes almost no time for Andrew to incur his wrath, and Terrence shows no limit as to how far he will go in verbally abusing a student. He is determined to push Andrew beyond his limits and then some, and this leads to nights when the aspiring drummer becomes a water fountain of sweat and leaves with some nasty cuts on his hands to where band aids cannot stop the bleeding.

The effect Terrence has on Andrew is incredibly profound on him not just as a musician, but as a person as well. While he may be improving as a drummer, Andrew becomes an increasingly difficult person to get along with. At family gatherings, he comes to insult others who look down on his drumming aspirations, and he coldly dumps Nicole when he feels their relationship will get in the way of his mission to become the greatest drummer who ever lived. By the time “Whiplash” reaches its thunderous climax, you’ll be wondering who the victor of this tumultuous teacher/student relationship truly is. When you look at it closely, it could be either of them.

It doesn’t take much to see that “Whiplash” is a very personal story for Chazelle as he himself was a drummer in a high school music conservatory who lived in fear of his teacher and of screwing up a single note. Right from the start, he does an excellent job of setting up just how feared Terrence Fletcher is long before we see him viciously berating his students as if they have no reason to exist. Students stand rigidly at attention whenever he enters the room, fellow teachers don’t even hesitate to step out of his way when he bursts into their classrooms to find new musicians, and heaven forbid if you misplace your music or your drum sticks as you will suffer the man’s wrath in a way which makes you feel like you had it coming.

Now any actor can play a screaming jerk, but it takes a great one to make a jerk of a character into a fascinating and complex human being. This is what makes Simmons’ performance as Terrence Fletcher so damn good; he lets you know what he’s thinking without having to spell it out for the audience. Despite his brutally draconian ways, you can see he is searching for someone truly great and will do anything to get it. Seriously, he will do anything.

This all leads to the “good job” story Terrence tells Andrew, and I’m still thinking about what Terrence said long after the movie ended. On one hand, we cannot condone the way Terrence treats his students, but “Whiplash” has you wondering if being too nice to an aspiring student does them more harm than good. Sometimes brutal honesty is called for to get someone to learn, especially one who is determined to be the best at what they do. Still, there’s got to be a limit to how harshly you can treat a student before they suffer a horrific nervous breakdown.

Miles Teller’s star has been on the rise for a while now, and he’s turned in fantastic performances in the “Footloose” remake and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller was also in “21 & Over,” but the less said about that one the better. As Andrew Neiman, he gives one of the most exhausting performances any actor could have given in 2014, and there is absolutely no doubt he put his entire heart and soul into this character. Teller keeps pounding at those drums as if his life depended on it, and that really is his blood spattered all over the drum set (imagine how much money the studio saved on makeup and special effects). Teller shows a true fearlessness as he takes Andrew from being an easy-going guy to one who reaches his breaking point and then goes beyond it to where Terrence’s intimidating ways will not hold him at bay.

Writer/director Chazelle takes us on a journey which is as cathartic for him as it is for the rest of us, and “Whiplash” stirred up emotions in me I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s an amazing achievement especially when you take into account he had only 19 days to shoot this movie in. Few movies these days take you on such an emotionally pulverizing ride, and this is one of them.

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Please feel free to check out the interviews I did with Simmons, Teller and Chazelle on “Whiplash” on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is an Infinitely Intense Thriller

10 Cloverfield Lane poster

A few hours after watching “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I found my nerves were still fried by what I had just witnessed. It feels like it has been ages since a movie made me feel that way, so that’s quite the compliment. Billed as a “spiritual successor” and a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield,” this one works best if you know very little about it when you go inside the theater. Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten a kick out of this as the filmmakers play with your expectations and leave you in a suspended state of suspense throughout. It would be wise to see the movie before reading this review because it is that riveting.

The movie opens on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things and moving out of the apartment she shares with her fiancé Ben. While driving through rural Louisiana, she ends up getting into a very serious car accident which renders her unconscious, and she later wakes up to find herself in a concrete room chained to the wall. Eventually she meets Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who tells her he saved her life and is nursing her back to health. However, Howard also tells her that a deadly attack has taken place and that everyone outside is dead or dying.

They end up occupying an underground bunker which Howard built himself as he always suspected that America was going to be attacked somehow, and along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) they try to live normally by watching videos, doing puzzles, playing board games and occasionally playing a song on the jukebox. But things are never what they appear to be, and soon the bunker won’t be big enough for the three of them.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” marks the feature film directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg whose previous work includes a short film entitled “Portal: No Escape” which caught the eye of producer J.J. Abrams. It’s a heck of a debut as Trachtenberg puts us right into Michelle’s shoes as we come to have as much an idea of what’s going on as she does. Was there really an attack? Is Howard really worth trusting? Should they stay in the bunker until it’s alright to come out? Questions keep coming up as we try to stay one step ahead of the characters, but anything is possible and nothing can be left to chance.

Trachtenberg is also well served by a strong screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and “Whiplash’s” writer/director Damien Chazelle which gives us characters who are complex and easy to relate to. These three people are not cardboard idiots out to make the dumbest mistakes possible but instead complex individuals trying to navigate through their own personal issues while attempting to adjust to a possibly post-apocalyptic world. This only adds to the very palpable tension which escalates throughout as does the sharp cinematography by Jeff Cutter, the efficient editing by Stefan Grube and the pulse-pounding music score by “Battlestar Galactica” composer Bear McCreary.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven to be a terrific actress thanks to her unforgettable turns in movies like “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and in the criminally underrated “Smashed.” She is a revelation here as Michelle as her character goes from running away from trouble to being forced to confront it head on. It’s great to see Winstead portray Michelle not as some ordinary action heroine, but instead as someone trying to stay one step ahead of those who might not have her best interests in mind.

John Gallagher, Jr. is perhaps best known for his work onstage in the rock musicals “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” as well as for appearing on “The Newsroom.” For a moment it looks like his character of Emmett is going to be some clichéd southern dude, but Gallagher never falls into that trap as he reveals Emmett to be a man whose best days may have passed him by, but who is not about to give up on life and those he cares about.

But after coming out of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I kept wondering if audiences realize just what a great actor John Goodman is. He has delivered one terrific performance after another for years, but has his talent been taken for granted? After serving time on “Roseanne,” he delivered a stellar performance as the seriously disturbed insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. I was reminded of that performance while watching him here as Howard as this is a character who cannot be simply described as a good or bad guy. Goodman makes him into a complex human being and one who is driven by fear more than anything else, and this makes the actions he commits all the more unnerving.

It may still be early in 2016, but Goodman most definitely deserves Oscar consideration here. He proves what a masterful actor he is in that he never has to move a muscle in certain scenes to generate severe unease in the other characters as well as the audience. Just a glare from his eyes will have you on edge as Howard is a man desperate to control his surroundings as well as the people living with him. It’s a frightening performance as Goodman makes Howard terrifyingly unpredictable in his actions. At one point Howards seems agreeable, and in the next he finds himself in a rage. If you are not convinced that Goodman is one of the best actors working in movies today, watching him here should change your mind.

Like I said, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has been described as a “blood relative” or a “spiritual successor” to “Cloverfield.” Those descriptions are very appropriate as it differs quite a bit stylistically to the 2008 movie. None of the characters from “Cloverfield” appear here, and this one is not a found footage film which means no shaky cam. In fact, it’s highly likely that “10 Cloverfield Lane” doesn’t even exist on the same timeline as “Cloverfield.” Still, this movie does share a number of thematic elements that were prominent in its predecessor. To say just how many of them it shares, however, would ruin many of the surprises in store for the audience.

While most sequels or follow ups try to outdo their predecessors by giving us something even bigger, this follow up is instead more simplistic in its approach and shows how less can be more. Trachtenberg makes you experience every claustrophobic and nerve wracking moment to an infinite degree, and it makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow “Cloverfield” right out of the water.

2016 has so far given some good movies and others that will be forgotten in no time at all, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is one of the first great movies I have seen so far in this early year. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride filled with sharp turns, and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

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