Movie Review: First Man

Film Title: First Man

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) takes one step closer to enter the Apollo program in Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Man. (Source: Time Magazine)

In 1961, JFK announced before Congress a goal. A goal to send American astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent satellites into orbit before everyone else, not to mention Sputnik becoming the first ever satellite going around the Earth. They sent their first man to the moon that same year. Years after numerous failed missions, Neil Armstrong stepped into make history in 1969 with Apollo 11.

Almost 50 years after the historic landing on the moon, it’s brought to the big screen. Director Damien Chazelle has directed two of the best films so far this decade with Whiplash and La La Land. He showcases his talents as a filmmaker with both films about the protagonist’s anxieties of going to new heights. His latest film, First Man, with a screenplay written by Josh Singer (the Oscar-winning Spotlight), continues this streak.

Based on James R. Hansen’s biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the movie opens in 1961, with the NASA test pilot (Ryan Gosling) flying an X-15 into space. We get a beautiful, quiet moment in space, with Justin Hurwitz’s amazing score playing the background, until Armstrong heads back into the atmosphere with nerve-wracking, shaky camerawork making the audience feeling as if we are in the cockpit with Armstrong (same when he’s in the spacecraft).

Set from 1961 to 1969, Armstrong is depicted as a devoted father and husband to the loving Janet (Claire Foy). Along with their children, they move to Houston as Neil is offered to be in space programs, such as Gemini 8 and Apollo 1, after impressing everyone at NASA including Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). It’s not until the historic day in 1969, where Neil joins Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) to be a part of the Apollo 11 program.

First Man has received controversy for its political stance and, more importantly, a scene where the American flag being planted on the moon not included in the film. Chazelle wanted the movie to focus on the emotional journey of Neil Armstrong. It might throw people off, but I don’t think it’s fair to miss out on an excellent, visceral biopic of an American hero for that particular reason (because of this, it only earned $16 million in the box office over the weekend). It’s a character study about entering into the unknown and the hardships of going the extra mile.

From Half Nelson to Drive to La La Land, Gosling proves he can portray nuanced performances. Leading a terrific cast, his performance as Neil Armstrong is the best performance of his entire career. He and his family make the ultimate sacrifice when he is offered to go into space. He loves his job so much that he wants to prove the Soviets their rival can bring a man safely on the moon. Look at his face during the scene where he watches a recording of JFK’s speech about sending a person to the moon. Foy is a tour-de-force as Janet, the housewife who roots for her husband every step of the way. She gets just as enough screen-time as Neil. Their scenes together will make you weep.

It’s refreshing to see a movie where the scenes in space are filmed with practical effects as opposed to CGI. It adds more to the film’s realism. The climactic moon landing sequence is like a dance, kudos to the cinematography by Linus Sandgren, who also collaborated with Chazelle in La La Land. It’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life.

There is never a dull moment in First Man. Gosling and Foy deserve attention this awards season. While it might have a tough run this past weekend, I hope more people will see it with an open mind and not worry about the controversy. It’s one of those movies where it should be seen on the biggest screen possible!

4/4

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Movie Review: Apostle

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Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) attempts to rescue his sister from the evil Malcolm (Michael Sheen) in Apostle, Gareth Evans’ first English-language film since 2006. (Source: IMDb)

Welsh director Gareth Evans made a big name for himself when he moved to Indonesia to direct The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2. Starring Iko Uwais among other native actors, these martial arts films both opened to critical acclaim (except for Ebert, who panned the first film describing it as “a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it”) and have gained a cult following. Now– he makes his first attempt into Victorian horror with Netflix original Apostle, which influence The Wicker Man, The Witch, Silence, and The Village. It’s just as unnerving as one would expect.

In the 1900s, ex-priest Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) travels to Erisden, a remote island off the Welsh coast, to save his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) from an evil religious cult, led by the prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen). During his investigation, he learns about the island’s dark secrets from its residents, including Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton, Sing Street). Thomas must rescue his daughter before Malcolm puts him under his wing.

What fascinates me about this movie is the complex nature of the island and its residents. It questions the existence of God and whether He is poisoning the minds of its followers. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, Thomas discussed about a painful memory of getting a cross burnt into his back. “The promise of the divine is but an illusion,” he says. “Nothing in the world is pure. God is pain. God is suffering. God is betrayal.” Stevens’ performance as the charismatic Thomas with a violent side is one to cherish.

Evans gives his movie enough time to develop its characters; giving them a sense of dread. Sheen’s Malcolm will stop at nothing to execute his people who disrespect his religion, especially if someone fails to memorize his verses. They are punished by grisly torture devices. Those with a strong stomach will be on the edge of their seat during the brutal second act, accompanied by a suspenseful score by Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi. Matt Flannery’s cinematography captures the beauty and insanity of the island to perfection.

Apostle might be too complex at times, but it still manages to shock and captivate its viewers. While not for the faint-of-heart, this is a refreshing return to the English-language for Evans. It might be fair to watch it more than once.

3/4

Movie Review: A Star is Born (2018)

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Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady GaGa) hit the high notes in the third remake of A Star is Born. (Source: Philly.com) 

Once the talkies have come into play, there have been three different versions of A Star is Born. The 1937 version, starring Janet Gaynor; the famous 1954 version, which it received six Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Judy Garland and Best Music; and the 1976 version, starring Barbara Streisand, which didn’t receive a positive reception.

A fourth one was in production hell since 2011. Clint Eastwood was originally going to direct with Beyoncé as its star. Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Cruise were among the actors in talks to play the tortured musician. Eventually, Bradley Cooper not only took the role, but he also made this as his directorial debut. The new version can’t come out at a better time.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a popular musician with a big problem with drugs and alcohol, who offers support from his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). One day, at a bar, he meets Ally (a barely recognizable Lady GaGa), an aspiring singer/songwriter who quits her job as a waitress. As they develop a relationship and start writing songs together, problems begin to get in the way.

A Star is Born is the most impressive directorial debut by an actor since Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age story Lady Bird. It’s a film about the hardships of making it big in the music industry while facing personal demons. There has never been a more dynamic duo than Cooper and Lady GaGa. Jack is drinking himself to death until sparks fly when he meets Ally, who is hesitant to perform her own songs. They begin performing together–all the songs are all originals; no covers of songs from the previous films. However, they slowly face the consequences of their relationship. Its portrayal of Jack’s drug addiction and alcoholism is not easy to watch. It’s still captivating, poignant, and never once drags. I’ll lose my faith in the Academy if Lady GaGa doesn’t earn her long-awaited Oscar (either for Best Actress or Best Original Song). One of 2018’s best films!

4/4

Movie Review: Venom

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Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) prepares for a joy ride in Venom, the standalone featuring the iconic antihero. (Source: IMDb)

Remember Topher Grace’s rendition of Venom, the black-gooed villain, in Spider-Man 3? Remember how disappointed comic-book fans were on how limited his screen-time was? Is it hard to believe it would take this long for a standalone film featuring Marvel’s most iconic villain? Maybe so.

However–neither Sam Raimi nor Marc Webb took it into account. Ruben Fleischer (Gangster Squad, Zombieland) and three screenwriters decided it would be a good time to bring him back into the spotlight, with Tom Hardy playing the titular role while leading an excellent cast in a film so derivative, dull, and preposterous that an R-rating wouldn’t have made any difference.

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is San Francisco’s most successful journalist. He has his own show called The Eddie Brock Report, where he attempts to tackle the city’s most corrupt corporations, and a beautiful fiancee named Annie (Michelle Williams). Everything seems to be heading in the right direction. Right?

After an interview with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of the Life Foundation, goes horribly wrong, Brock loses his job and the love of his life. He later learns from Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) about Drake’s experiments with symbiotes, a form of black alien goo taken from a crashed spaceship, to bond with humans. When Brock becomes infected with the symbiote, he gains super-strength and healing powers, as well biting people’s heads off (of course, they occur off-screen).

Hardy is one of Hollywood’s toughest actors. Whether he’s a con-man entering the subconscious in Inception, fighting against Joel Edgerton in the ring in Warrior, a survivor saving six women after the apocalypse in Mad Max: Fury Road, or fighting off German bombers in Dunkirk, he can do it all! He is–without a doubt–familiar with the superhero genre, not to mention playing the villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to The Dark Knight trilogy. He has barely starred in a bad movie. In Venom, he does his best with his American accent. But–he’s trying too hard. When Brock keeps hearing voices in his head once the symbiotes take over his body, it goes into Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mode; resulting in some unintentional hilarity.

Marvel has had a fair share of bland villains over the years. Few of them have been effective. Ahmed’s Drake is nothing but the same stereotypical villain whose discovery of the symbiotes might destroy humanity. It doesn’t do any good by the end when he and Venom have their climactic fight by the bay. Williams, Slate, and the rest of the cast feel absolutely wasted.

Speaking of action sequences, the movie contains one of the most thrilling chases through the streets of San Francisco early on. Afterwards, everything begins to fall apart. The tone goes all over the place, the humor–either intentional or not–feels contrived, and there are enough plot holes to drive a cable car through.

It’s a shame since Marvel has been on a roll this year–from Black Panther to Deadpool 2. Venom is easily the worst of its kind since the infamous Fant4stic. It’s worse than Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Spider-Man 3 (to be fair, this makes the Venom in the latter look intimidating). With it ending on a cliffhanger, we might get more from the antihero after all. Woo-hoo.

1/4