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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‘Blade Runner 2049’ is Astonishing, Glorious and Mesmerizing

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster

Many words come to mind when describing “Blade Runner 2049.” Among them are mesmerizing, amazing, glorious, beautiful, and astonishing. I put special emphasis on the word astonishing because it is almost unbelievable to see what director Denis Villeneuve and company got away with here. Not only have they conceived a sequel which does its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner,” proud, but they also got away with making an art house film with a budget of over $150 million and a running time of almost three hours. What were the studio executives thinking? Well, it doesn’t matter as this eagerly awaited sequel proves to be well worth the wait.

Taking place thirty years after the events of the original, the sequel introduces us to a new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, and he comes to be known by a pair of names for reasons best left unsaid here. After enduring a brutal battle as he attempts to retire rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he becomes aware of a long-buried secret which is overdue for a thorough investigation. In the process, he tracks down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been off the grid for many years as he seeks answers only Deckard can give. What results is a form of evolution no one could have seen coming.

Telling you more about “Blade Runner 2049” will prove to be detrimental to your viewing experience as you should only know so much about its plot before going into the theater. What I can tell you is the future world portrayed is even more beautifully bleak than the one Scott gave us 35 years ago, something I didn’t even think was remotely possible. The colors are vibrant, but everything is still subject to a never-ending rainstorm, the kind we needed in California for the longest time. And in this fictional universe, Pan Am is still a corporate giant even though it ceased operations in the real world back in 1991.

While I was bummed to learn Scott would not be directing this sequel (he serves as executive producer instead), they couldn’t have found a better filmmaker here to fill his shoes as Villeneuve takes on what must have been a truly daunting challenge here. “Blade Runner,” despite being a critical and commercial disappointment, has long since been considered one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and it certainly is. Making a sequel to it interested many including myself, and yet it could easily take away from the original as nothing easily compares to what came before. But Villeneuve is the same guy who gave us “Arrival,” another sci-fi masterpiece which invited and deserved comparison with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this gave me confidence he could bring something special to “Blade Runner 2049.” Indeed, he has made a sequel which will prove to be every bit as memorable as its predecessor as the years go by as he expands on the themes and delivers a cinematic experience which is equally profound.

Furthermore, Villeneuve allows things to go at the same methodical pace Scott went at back in 1982. If you go into “Blade Runner 2049” expecting something along the lines of “Star Wars,” you will be seriously disappointed as the original defied sci-fi conventions with a vengeance. What was unique about “Blade Runner” is how it enthralled audiences with big ideas more than with wall-to-wall action sequences. The same is true with “Blade Runner 2049” as it probes the idea of what it means to be human, and it deals with characters searching for something which doesn’t feel the least bit artificial in a world dominated by technology. For me, the key line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) tells Gosling’s blade runner, “We’re all just looking out for something real.” This is certainly the case here, but as we catch up with these characters, their chances of finding anything real seem very small.

By the way, if Roger Deakins does not get this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, I will be seriously miffed. For far too long, this man has been the Randy Newman of the cinematography category, and this feels criminal as has given us beautiful and extraordinary images in “Sicario,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” to where it is not easy to compare his work to others. Deakins, however, really outdoes himself here as he gives each scene in “Blade Runner 2049” a stunning look which shows both the beauty and the emptiness of the world these characters are forced to inhabit. What he has accomplished here is simply extraordinary as it all feels incredibly unique.

Gosling has long since proven to be as good an actor as he is a tremendously sexy one, and he is superb in a role which is very tricky to pull off. Again, I can only say so much about his character as it is too easy to spoil certain aspects of this movie, but once you understand who this blade runner is, it becomes clear as to the kind of balancing act Gosling has to play here. While life in the rainy and futuristic city seems to have burned this blade runner out completely, there are still glimpses of humanity to him which come out in a way which feels spontaneous and never forced. As a result, the “Drive” actor proves to be a genius at playing someone who is no longer certain as to how he should feel about the discoveries he has made.

Harrison Ford doesn’t show up as Deckard until the movie’s third act, but he makes it worth your time to wait for his first appearance. After watching him have tremendous fun playing Han Solo again in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s great to see him bring another of his iconic characters back to life. Ford makes Deckard into a burned out shell of a man who is forced to hide not just from those threatening his existence, but also from the things he yearns to connect with most of all, and he illustrates the character’s never ending internal conflict without ever having to spell everything out for the audience.

The rest of the cast is superb as they bring a unique quality to roles which have them acting in both human and inhuman ways. Robin Wright kicked ass earlier this year in “Wonder Woman,” and she does it again here as Gosling’s superior officer who is a no-nonsense Lieutenant and eager to keep a war from being ignited. Ana de Armas, whom you might remember from Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock,” is perfection as Joi, Gosling’s hologram girlfriend who is definitely even better than the real thing as she comes equipped with a humanity which strikes at your emotions. Sylvia Hoeks is riveting as Luv, a replicant who can appear charming at one moment and incredibly lethal in the next, and she makes this character vicious and frightening as she is determined to make discoveries before others do. Jared Leto and Dave Bautista have essentially cameos here, but they make the most of their time onscreen and show the depth they are willing to give to even the smallest of roles.

My only real disappointment with “Blade Runner 2049” is we will never get to hear the music score by Villeneuve’s regular composer, Johann Johannsson. For some odd reason, he was removed from this project and is contractually forbidden from talking about why he was let go. His score to “Sicario” is one of my favorites, and it would have been great to hear what themes he could have brought to this sequel.

Having said that, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the latter who recently did the music for “It,” is excellent as it captures the vibe of Vangelis’ score from the original without simply updating it for a new audience. It doesn’t even sound like the typical Hans Zimmer score as his music is usually pretty easy to recognize, although the last few cues do have a bit of “Dunkirk” in it. I feared “Blade Runner 2049” would get a more conventional score than the great one Vangelis composed years ago, but Zimmer and Wallfisch bring something wonderful, beautiful and thrilling to everything we see and listen to here.

The original “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, one of the greatest years for movies and one which many have called the year of the nerd. In addition to “Blade Runner,” we also got “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Tron” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” among many others. “Blade Runner” was not a commercial hit and critical reaction to it was sharply divided, but like “The Thing” and “Tron,” its stature has grown over time to where it is now revered as the great motion picture it always was.

“The Thing” and “Tron” managed to generate a prequel and a sequel more than 20 years later, but neither could equal the power of their predecessors. This makes the achievements of “Blade Runner 2049” all the more profound as it equals the original film and digs even deeper into its theme which Scott explored to brilliant effect. What Villeneuve and company have come up with here feels as unique in today’s cinematic landscape as “Blade Runner” did in the 1980’s. I had every reason to lower my expectations on this one as sequels which come out decades later are typically doomed to failure, but this one defies the odds and I am so thankful everything worked out so well. It may not have Rutger Hauer, but very few movies can ever be perfect.

And for God’s sake, give Deakins the Cinematography Oscar! No excuses!

* * * * out of * * * *

Movies Which Explore the Reality of White Supremacy

American History X Edward Norton

The tragic and horrific events which came about during a white supremacy rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia were a sad reminder of how hate can ever so easily take over the weak-minded. But moreover, it has shown how the power of white supremacists has grown over the years. While the current Presidential administration has allowed this movement, whether they admit or not, to gain strength, this network of racism has been growing for far longer than most people realize. While politicians continue to exploit our fears of international terrorists, it should be clear by now that domestic terrorism is an even bigger threat than what we are dealing with overseas. The question is, can we get more Americans to realize this sooner rather than later?

For years, we believed the white supremacy movement was one which was dying a much-needed death, but this is not the case. It got me to thinking of movies released over the years which dealt with this particular form of racism head on. While many saw Neo-Nazis and Anti-Semites as mere fringe groups on their way out, the filmmakers here saw them as still powerful as their leaders were skillful in gaining new recruits and keeping them on board even if they wanted out.

Higher Learning movie poster

Higher Learning

This was John Singleton’s third film following his Oscar-nominated “Boyz n the Hood” and “Poetic Justice,” and it takes place at the fictional college of Columbus University where people from different walks of life and races are forced to deal with one another in different ways. One particular subplot has a freshman named Remy (played by Michael Rappaport) having trouble fitting into his new environment. One night, while sitting alone on campus, he is approached by Scott Moss (Cole Hauser), a white supremacist who invites him to hang out with his friends for a drink. From there, Remy finds a sense of belonging he initially had trouble finding, but the other skinheads begin to wonder if he is all talk and no action, and this leads to a devastating climax which has him committing an act of violence he will never be able to take back.

When “Higher Learning” was released back in 1995, many critics did not take the white supremacy storyline all that seriously, thinking it was dated or dealing with something which no longer seemed like much of a threat. But watching this movie now in 2017, the actions of Scott Moss and Remy feel more real and scarier than ever before. Scott senses Remy is capable of violence from their first meeting, and he exploits this knowledge at every given opportunity. The last time we see Scott in the movie, right after Remy has shot at people with a high-powered rifle, he stares at the camera and smiles in a way which is truly chilling. Looking back, I think Scott saw this as the start of a new wave of white supremacy power, and the realization unnerves me to where I can’t get this movie out of my head.

American History X poster

American History X

Tony Kaye’s powerful 1998 film is impossible to forget about once you have seen it. Edward Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, a young man who becomes a member of the white supremacist gang called the Disciples of Christ following the murder of his firefighter father who was killed by black drug dealers. “American History X” follows Derek as he grows in power as a Neo-Nazi, goes to prison after he kills thieves trying to steal his truck, the abuses he suffers while in prison which make him rethink his racist philosophies, and his efforts to keep his brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following this same misguided path.

“American History X” is a fascinating study in how someone becomes enamored with a racist movement which he later seeks to abandon upon realizing the cost is greater than his soul can bear. Norton has given many great performances, but this is one of his best as he convincingly takes Derek from being a hateful individual to one who is compassionate and eager to escape the racist realm he has ensnared himself and his brother in. Furlong is equally effective as Danny, a young boy eager to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but who is dissuaded by him to follow such a path. Danny’s last lines in the movie, as he recites the final part of a paper he has written for school, ring true: “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”

The Believer movie poster

The Believer

This 2001 film was written and directed by Henry Bean, a Conservative Jew from Philadelphia who was the screenwriter behind “Internal Fears,” “Deep Cover,” and, yes, “Basic Instinct 2.” It stars Ryan Gosling, in what proved to be his breakout performance, as Daniel Balint, a brilliant but troubled Jewish yeshiva student who becomes a fanatically violent Neo-Nazi in New York. The story is based on the true-life story of Dan Burros, a member of the American Nazi Party and the New York branch of the United Klans of America who committed suicide after a New York Times reporter revealed he was Jewish.

What’s particularly fascinating about “The Believer” is how its main character of Daniel is so deeply conflicted over his own identity. He presents himself as a Neo-Nazi skinhead capable of vicious violence, but he cannot escape the fact he is Jewish and is still respectful of this religion’s history. When Daniel and a group of skinheads vandalize a synagogue, they trample on a copy of the Torah which he later takes home and carefully repairs. Like “American History X,” “The Believer” shows how someone can be easily swept up into a realm of hate, but we also come to see how Daniel believes hate is the Jews chief defense against utter annihilation.

Imperium poster

Imperium

One of the more recent movies on this list, it stars Daniel Radcliffe as Nate Foster, an FBI agent who is recruited by Angela Zamparo (the infinitely cool Toni Collette) to infiltrate a white supremacist group. Nate is eager to prove to himself and others he can be an excellent undercover agent, but as he gets deeper into his role as a Neo-Nazi, he becomes unsure if he can escape it in one piece.

In some ways, “Imperium” is a routine undercover cop movie as the protagonist goes through the conflicts of becoming someone he is not outside of work, but it also shows how much of a threat white supremacy has become in America. There’s a montage near the beginning which shows images of racial hatred in America and of Neo-Nazi groups coming together, and it gets to where you cannot dismiss white supremacists as being a part of a mere fringe group. Seeing those images makes this movie worth the price of admission as they show much of a threat they are against the values this country was founded upon.

This is England movie poster

This is England

Of all the movies on this list, it is the only one which doesn’t take place in America. “This is England” was written and directed by Shane Meadows who himself was involved in white supremacy groups as a kid. The movie takes place in 1983 and follows 12-year-old Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose) as he gets picked on by bullies at school, and we learn his father was killed in the Falklands War. One day, he comes across a gang of skinheads led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) who sympathize with his struggles and invite him to join their group. From there, Shaun finds himself a part of a family which gives him a sense of belonging and a rise in his own self-esteem. But then Andrew “Combo” Gascoigne (Stephen Graham) returns to this group after serving a prison sentence, and he proves to be a charismatic personality as well as a sociopath. Andrew’s eagerness to take leadership over the group causes many of its members to jump ship, but Shane stays on as he is too much a part of this family to simply abandon it.

“This is England” takes an incisive look at how this skinhead subculture had its roots in the 1960’s West Indies culture and later became adopted by white supremacists. This movie shows this leading to a division amongst skinheads, and of the ways they could attract new members to their movement. It received tremendous critical praise upon its release in 2006, and it inspired a spin-off television series which took place three years later.

Seeing the disgusting rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its aftermath reminded me of an episode of “Law & Order” entitled “Charm City” in which Detectives Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) investigate the murders of several subway riders who were killed by a poisonous gas bomb set off on a train. Eventually, they find and arrest Brian Egan (Kevin Greer), a white supremacist who is later convicted for the crime. Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) informs Brian, “You’re a racist and a murderer, and you just found out your country won’t tolerate it.” To this, Brian says the following:

“You mean your country won’t. Mine is growing. You think you can stop it? You can’t stop anything.”

This “Law & Order” episode aired back in 1996, but these lines of dialogue now seem more chilling than ever before.

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.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Ides of March

the-ides-of-march-poster

This movie’s title refers to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his role as a dictator would forever destroy their constitutional government. Some of these senators were close friends of his which make their actions all the more shocking. In the political arena, then and now, you would think those running for office would have their friends and loyal advisors to instill their trust in. But as history shows, the quest for power can tear friendships apart and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. In William Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer warns him before he is stabbed to death:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

George Clooney’s film is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, and it looks at how dangerous a political campaign can be for all those involved. They may not get stabbed in the back literally, but there is a lot of backstabbing to go around figuratively speaking. It all makes for an intense political thriller which never lets up.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Norris (Clooney) who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the movie opens, Norris is campaigning in Ohio where a win there will all but guarantee him the nomination. Meyers is a strong believer in Norris and what he stands for, but his belief in him and the world of politics is in for a rude awakening. After a secret meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), trust becomes a precious commodity in very short supply. Meyers also stumbles on an even bigger situation which could destroy the campaign to where it can never recover.

This is Clooney’s fourth movie as a director, and the abilities he shows behind the camera are never in doubt. “The Ides of March” doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the political movie genre, but Clooney does great work in generating tension throughout as characters suddenly find themselves on a precipice which threatens to fall out beneath them with little warning. He also gets great performances from the entire cast as they face off against each other as if they are playing a game of chess. Everyone is holding their cards close to their chest, and only the eyes can give them away in showing where they are most vulnerable.

Gosling had a heck of a year in 2011 with this, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “Drive.” As with the latter, he brings a smoldering intensity to his performance as he takes Meyers from a political idealist to one who sells out his values when things get rough. With one look, he can let us inside his thoughts without saying a single word.

Two of my favorite performances in “The Ides of March” come from two of the best character actors ever: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Playing campaign managers for their individual candidates, they brilliantly bring out the moral complexities of each person as their agendas become clear as the story continues to unfold. Both of them also make what could have been seen as convoluted actions or maneuvers completely believable as they try to get the upper hand in a fragile political environment. They essentially represent the cynical side of politics where idealism vanished a long time ago and the path Meyers may be forced to go down if he wants to continue working in this realm.

The fabulous Evan Rachel Wood is great as always as Molly Stearns, a campaign intern whose confidence collapses when her secret is realized. Seeing her go from a sexy seducer to the campaign’s most vulnerable employee is handled by her like a pro, and she makes us see Molly as a person while others view as a crippling concern which needed to be quickly and quietly removed. The cruelty of politics comes to hit her character the hardest.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Marisa Tomei who portrays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz. She enjoys a friendly banter with Gosling from the start which draws us in on a more personal level. It’s there where Tomei traps not just Gosling, but the audience as well. She provides us with a friendly face, but she is later revealed to be a manipulative journalist who wields more power than you might expect a journalist to have. I have yet to see Tomei give a bad performance in anything she does.

What I really like about the screenplay of “The Ides of March” is it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s all about shades of gray and how the hope in politics can be easily and quickly worn down to a cinder of what it once was. Some of the actions in the movie almost feel like something out of the “Saw” movies as they almost seem illogical and impossible to put together, but it makes sense in regards to the political realm it takes place in. This would make a great double feature with Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” as both movies deal with the moral compromises made in getting your candidate elected. But while “Primary Colors” sees a light at the end of the tunnel, “The Ides of March” doesn’t let the viewer off as easy.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys poster 1

After exploring the superhero genre with “Iron Man 3,” writer and director Shane Black returns to the one he mastered years ago: the buddy cop movie. Black is the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” which he also directed. Now he gives us “The Nice Guys” which takes us back to the 1970’s and teams up Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as men involved in a murder mystery only they can solve.

“The Nice Guys” takes us back to 1977 and even features the “Big W” Warner Brothers logo Ben Affleck used to great effect in “Argo.” We even get some nice retro credits presented to the tune of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” so it doesn’t take Black long to transport us back to a time where laws against smoking were nowhere as strict as they are today. Black gives us some wonderful introductions to enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and down-on-his-luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling), men who are not at their peak of their lives and are looking for reasons to justify their existence.

Like Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans in “The Last Boy Scout,” Jackson and Holland do not get off to the best start, and this is especially the case after Jackson breaks Holland’s arm with what seems like little ease. But the both of them come to see they need each other to discover the whereabouts of Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), a missing girl who may be connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Actually, describing the plot of this movie is a bit complicated as it is a little hard to follow, but perhaps a second viewing will help to answer questions viewers had the first time around.

Black, along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, still knows how to create potent dialogue with a kick to it, and it makes the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe all the more palpable. After all these years, Black can still deliver a number of zingers few other screenwriters could pull off with as much success. As a director, he captures the mood of the 1970’s with a lot of flair and panache, and he makes the audience feel all the kicks and punches which come at them with fierce brutality.

Gosling nails the vulnerabilities and complications of Holland with a fearlessness, and he renders certain moments like when he suddenly discovers a dead body with an originality which makes them all the more memorable. As for Crowe, he has never had much success with comedy judging from his failed turn as a romantic comedy leading man in “A Good Year.” But here he fares much better as Jackson as this role plays on his strengths as a tough guy while at the same time playing around with this image of his. When he stares down a suspect he’s about to give a serious beating to, it makes you wonder why he even bothers wearing brass knuckles. His demeanor should be more than enough to intimidate anybody foolish enough to cross his path.

I also have to single out Angourie Rice’s performance as Holland’s daughter, Holly, as she more than holds her own opposite Gosling and Crowe. She also reminds us of how the younger generation is quick to call out their parents on the baloney they feed them on a regular basis. Rice makes Holy into a young girl wise beyond her years as a result of watching her dad fumble about much too often in life. She also reminds us of how we eventually become too benumbed by the unfairness of life as she holds a high moral standard that we have long since given up on out of hopelessness, and it makes for some powerful scenes in which she reminds the adults of why they are flat out wrong on certain issues.

“The Nice Guys” provides audiences with the opportunity to seek out a movie not populated with superheroes, and it is unafraid to brush political correctness aside without a second look. It’s giddy fun as it doesn’t conform to the cinematic norm which is overly influenced by corporations and needless test screenings. This one is its own beast, and taming it does it no justice. Either enjoy for what it is or see something else.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *