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: ‘Skyscraper’ is at Its Best When It Keeps It Simple

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Richard Møller, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, Hannah Quinlivan, Matt O’Leary, Byron Mann, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Tall Building on Fire, But Mostly the Gunfire

Release Date: July 13, 2018

One of the many revolutionary joys of Die Hard was the motivation of the villains. They presented themselves as terrorists, but they were really just simple thieves. There are several reasons why Skyscraper, which is basically “Die Hard, but in the tallest building in the world,” is not as entertaining as John McClane’s original exploits. The premise is now far from unique, obviously. Plus, any character played by Dwayne Johnson, even an amputee in this case, is already too larger-than-life for any of his heroics to be surprising. But the most fundamental mistake is that the villains’ purpose is never clear. I’m pretty sure they’re not after money, but if they are terrorizing, it is never clear what point they are trying to make, if any. It is possible this was all explained at some point while I was momentarily distracted, but if it was that hard to miss, then that’s a problem.

Thus, then, just about the only reason to check out Skyscraper is to see Johnson pull off some gravity-defying stunts. If you suffer from acrophobia or vertigo, you will definitely want to stay away, whereas if your favorite action scene ever is Ethan Hunt on the Burj Khalifa, then you will find some thrills. Johnson does not quite reach Tom Cruise’s poetic heights, but he is not far off from them. It would just be nice if the whole affair were undergirded by more of a purpose.

But there is one piece of Skyscraper that I can endorse wholeheartedly, and that is its use of the old “turn it off and turn it back on again” trick. Seriously, that is the solution that solves the day, and it is actually quite satisfying. Bringing it back to Die Hard: brilliant in its simplicity.

Skyscraper is Recommended If You Like: Die Hard “on a whatever” (minus the memorable villains), Death-Defying Stunts

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Prosthetic Legs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Den of Thieves’ is a Warmed-Over, Mush-Mouthed Michael Mann Impersonation

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CREDIT: STX

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

Starring: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Evan Jones, Cooper Andrews, Dawn Olivieri

Director: Christian Gudegast

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Cacophonous Continuous Gunfire, a Strip Club Detour, and Way Too Many F-Bombs

Release Date: January 19, 2018

According to the opening titles of Den of Thieves, Los Angeles is the “bank robbery capital of the world.” I do not know if that title is actually true, partly because this movie does not make me care enough to confirm or debunk the claim. Besides, it is essentially immaterial to the plot. This is not about an epidemic of robberies, but one specific crew, who could be pulling off their big heist anywhere so long as the cash is present and an escape route is available. As for Gerard Butler’s performance as the cop doggedly tracking them, it does not scream “L.A.” so much as “nutso actor sheds any semblance of sanity.”

Den of Thieves is the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast, who previously scripted the likes of London Has Fallen (which I have not seen, but I have heard it is just as dreadful as its predecessor Olympus Has Fallen). Michael Mann’s influence on him is obvious, but not fruitful. Gudegast clearly wants this to be a sprawling crime saga on the same level as Heat or Miami Vice, but that would require characters who deliver personality instead of an endless string of groan-inducing f-bombs.

As Merriman, the leader of the den, Pablo Schreiber mostly relies on bulging out his facial muscles. As his right-hand man, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson basically stands off to the side and looks vaguely threatening. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as the team’s driver and newest recruit, is able to infuse the proceedings with a few amusing moments. (There is a running gag with a couple of randy female customers when he moonlights delivering Chinese food.) Meanwhile, the rest of the guys in the den are either too beefy or too masked to convey any tangible emotion.

But for better and for worse, this is the Gerard Butler show. His “Big Nick” is not so much corrupt or “flying off the handle” so much as he is filled with constant, fidgety, bizarre tics that do not resemble any sort of recognizable human behavior I am familiar with. I cannot say that any of his performance adds up to anything “good,” but I must admit that I could not look away.

Ultimately, the scheme wraps up with a series of twists that mostly serve to frustrate, not because they cheat with any internal logic, but because they require a great deal of patience to sit around before anything meaningful happens. At nearly two and a half hours, there is precious little to make that journey bearable. To be fair, the crowd I saw it was hooting and hollering throughout, so there clearly is an audience for this sort of muscled-up, unsubtle affair. But from my perspective, this is a dithering cacophony that drives me batty.

Den of Thieves is Recommended If You Like: Michael Mann’s crime sagas but without the visual and formal experimentalism, Training Day but with an unfathomable amount of scenery-chewing

Grade: 2 out of 5 Automatic Rounds