This Is a Movie Review: ‘First Man’ Captures All the Stresses of Neil Armstrong’s Trip to the Moon

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CREDIT: Daniel McFadden/Universal

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Wigham, Brian d’Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Hamilton, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running Time: 141 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Psychological Fallout of Preparing for Space Travel

Release Date: October 12, 2018

There are a few things I want to say about First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic. First of all, it’s the best I’ve ever seen a film portray the stresses of going up into space. That certainly is not to say that the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 have made takeoff and its aftermath look like a cakewalk, but in focusing on one individual, First Man burrows in and exposes so many extra levels of intensity. We’re right there with Neil as he staggers to the bathroom following a stint in a g-force simulator, and when he endures multiple tragedies. This is a man who must deal with the accidental deaths of multiple colleagues as well as the loss of a young daughter from disease. Accordingly, Ryan Gosling plays him as a man wearing the weight of the world on his face for basically 2 hours straight.

Next, I have plenty to say about Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet. She gives a hell of a performance, displaying the sort of fiery emotion and desperate toughness that you can’t look away from. She is definitely enough of her own person that we can clearly see her as more than just a wife and mother. But this is very much Neil’s film with everyone else orbiting around him, and as such, Foy is playing The Wife. One example of such gender disparity between lead and supporting roles is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it is part of a Hollywood history that favors men’s over women’s stories. This is an issue that is better discussed than pontificated upon, so please, let’s continue to have these conversations. And let’s not place too much blame on First Man in the meantime, but instead work to expand what stories are valued by the historical record.

Finally, a note on some technical matters. Composer Justin Hurwitz triumphs with a quiet, but forceful score that gives First Man the stamina it needs to maintain its intensity over 2-plus hours. It is a bit of a lullaby that plants the expanse of space right into our souls in a way similar to how it surely felt for Armstrong. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, on the other hand, while similarly technically accomplished, is more than a little exhausting. A constant (subtly vibrating) handheld setup is just too much to bear for such a significant running time. That’s just one little bit of too much intensity in a film that’s otherwise so acutely calibrated.

First Man is Recommended If You Like: Intimate Biopics

Grade: 3.75 of 5 G Forces

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Molly’s Game’ Has Jessica Chastain Deliver What Must Be a Record-Setting Amount of Dialogue in Aaron Sorkin’s Directorial Debut

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CREDIT: STX Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, J.C. MacKenzie

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for the Vices That Surround Poker and a Brutal Assault Scene

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)

Effective poker strategy usually involves plenty of silence, so a poker film would seem to be an odd fit for the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, one of the most verbose screenwriters of all time. But don’t fold on him just yet, because Molly’s Game isn’t about the poker but rather the woman running the game. And a lot of talking has to be done behind the scenes to get to the point where you can stay silent behind the cards. And let’s just say Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) talks (and does) a lot to get to be the big kahuna running a high-stakes underground poker ring. From near-Olympic skier to lowly assistant to self-made millionaire, she lives quite the whirlwind. The tabloids call her the “poker princess,” but give a queenpin the respect she deserves and don’t saddle her with a patronizing nickname.

The players at Molly’s games consist of Hollywood hotshots and Wall Street bigwigs, and that high-profile money moving has the FBI thinking she might be involved with drug running and tax fudging. So she turns to smooth-talking but upright lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her. He’s a bit pricey, though, and her assets are not exactly currently liquid, so she appeals to him on the basis of personal credit. Much of the film is a frame story of Molly filling Charlie in on the details of her life. Because they are reading dialogue written by Sorkin, Chastain and Elba have to deliver about four times as many words as they would in an average movie. Both are more than up to the task, Chastain especially, as she also has to deliver a ton of voiceover narration on top of her on-screen dialogue. It’s an electrifying story, but with nary a second of silence, plus frenetic editing on top of that, it is a bit exhausting, or at least it was for this viewer.

While Molly’s story will take you through the gauntlet, you can also vicariously thrill to the stories that her players bring to the table. Several of them basically have their own mini-movies going on (that Molly narrates, natch). You end up feeling that you know enough about their tells and pressure points that you could come in and win a few hundred grand against them even if you’re a complete novice. Especially memorable is Michael Cera with an effortlessly cool vibe unlike anything he’s ever given off before. He fully inhabits “Player X,” an anonymized version of an actual famous actor. (Some quick googling reveals he is essentially playing Tobey Maguire, or some amalgam of Maguire, Matt Damon, and maybe a few others.) It’s a career highlight for him and representative of the film’s emphasis on affirmatively filling out the clothes you wear in poker and in life.

Molly’s Game is Recommended If You Like: Poker movies, Poker competitions, Women Taking Control of Their Own Narrative

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spreadsheets

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ is a Minor Addition to the Watergate Canon

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CREDIT: Bob Mahoney/Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Ike Barinholtz, Tom Sizemore, Julian Morris, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kate Walsh, Maika Monroe, Bruce Greenwood, Brian d’Arcy James, Noah Wyle

Director: Peter Landesman

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for FBI Agents Yelling When Suspected of Leaking

Release Date: September 29, 2017 (Limited)

Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt has been portrayed or parodied in plenty of movies and TV shows, his presence an easy source of tension, frequently cloaked in the shadows of intrigue and mystery. When Hal Holbrook set the template for all Felt performances in All the President’s Men, he literally remained in the shadows. Of course, for decades, the role was not “Mark Felt” but “Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant who provided The Washington Post with key details about the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Now that Felt (here played by Liam Neeson) has been revealed as Deep Throat, a fascinating film about the man behind the informant is ready to be made, but The Man Who Brought Down the White House is too erratic and overstuffed to be that film.

The story of the Watergate break-in and its fallout is familiar to basically every American who has lived during the last 45 years. It is an ur-scandal, providing a lens through which all governmental scandals – really all public scandals – are interpreted. We don’t need Mark Felt to re-tell that story, and yet it does. To be fair, seeing everything through Felt’s perspective – the channel through which all information in this affair goes through – is fascinating, but not so fascinating to make the familiar exciting again.

As far as I can tell, Mark Felt’s main purpose is to draw back the curtain on all the hoopla that springs up around any person who exists anonymously for so long. There is plenty of material to mine for a rich domestic drama. Felt’s wife Audrey (Diane Lane) is alcoholic and shares much of the stress he’s under, but her story seems like it could be that of any FBI agent’s wife and not Deep Throat’s specifically. The film’s other major point is that for all the good Felt did as an informant, he was not exactly a hero through and through. He was as guilty as (perhaps more so) anyone else in the FBI who violated American citizens’ civil rights. But save for one compelling scene snuck in at the end, that aspect is merely glossed over.

The major shortcoming of Mark Felt is all it attempts to stuff into just a little more than an hour and a half. Every name in the impressively sprawling cast list brings their bona fides, but nobody has the space to carve out a memorable character. Mark and Audrey reunite with their daughter (Maika Monroe) at a hippie commune in a third act twist that plays like it is so supposed to put everything that came before in perspective but mostly feels like it comes out of nowhere. If Mark Felt makes any cogent point, it’s that you always need folks like Woodward and Bernstein to compile everything together cogently and lucidly.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is Recommended If You Like: Watergate completism

Grade: 2 out of 5 (Nonexistent) Secret Files

This Is a Movie Review: Spotlight

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SpotlightNewsroom

There is an inherent drama and urgency in the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal that a film about it does not need to do any work to tease out. But just perfunctorily putting the Boston Globe’s investigation of this story does not automatically make for a great movie. Luckily, director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer make plenty of astute filmmaking decisions alongside their similarly tuned-in cast and crew.

Recognizing that the story itself is plenty powerful (the epilogue text detailing the extent of the abuse is perhaps the most overwhelming moment in any movie this year), the actors on the Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) keep it understated. As victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, Stanley Tucci is labeled eccentric, but he is actually also low-key. The production design, cinematography, and costumes are all also appropriately drab.

The plot manages to legitimately earn the descriptor “action,” with the editing favoring cross-cutting between various story threads. This plays out as such: Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) tracks down evidence at the courthouse, and before we find out if he uncovers the right puzzle piece, we check in on Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviewing a victim, but before she gets out all her questions, it cuts back to Mike, and then it cuts around to the rest of the team. This is just Filmmaking 101, creating tension and establishing engagement. Spotlight makes a difference, and it is thrilling.