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

Movie Review: Searching

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Widower David (John Cho) surfs the Web to find his missing daughter in the clever, white-knuckling thriller Searching. (Source: The Atlantic)

Having a movie set entirely from the point-of-view of a computer screen is nothing new. 2015’s Unfriended was what started it all off. The technique might sound like a gimmick, but it hasn’t been used more effectively than in Searching. The sleeper hit from Sundance (taking home the Alfred P. Sloan Award), and directorial debut from Aneesh Chagnaty, contains no supernatural beings or jump scares. Just the right amount of pure thrills and a heart at its core whether it’s from a computer screen, smartphone screen, or surveillance footage. It’s something Alfred Hitchcock would be impressed with.

David Kim (John Cho) is a widower, whose wife (Sarah Sohn, in video footage) passed away from lymphoma, loves spending time looking through old home videos and photos of her and his daughter Margot (Michelle La). Raising her into her teenage years has been difficult for David, since she is spending too much time either with her friends, taking piano lessons, or on social media. One day, David hasn’t been receiving any messages from her. He goes onto her laptop in search for clues on where Margot might have went. Along with San Jose Police Detective Rosemary Vice (Debra Messing), he becomes shocked to learn the truth of Margot’s disappearance.

According to a recent study, 95% of teenagers–aged 13 to 17–own a smartphone and more than half use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without smartphones. It’s no surprise today’s young generation is spending more time on the Internet than interacting face-to-face. Shot in 13 days and edited in two years, Chagnaty and his crew have done a marvelous job using modern technology to build up suspense. Filled with so many twists and turns, it keeps audiences guessing until the very end.

Cho is brilliant as David desperately looking for answers. It’s hard not to feel bad for him trying to communicate with the only living person he loves. Along with every character, his actions say so much even on the webcam. Messing has never been better!

Searching is an instant cult classic that everyone will be discussing for years. Such a shame it didn’t receive a lot of attention. If you missed it in theaters, it’s definitely worth checking out on Redbox.

3.5/4

Movie Review: The Nun

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Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) hears something in the darkness in The Nun. (Source: Variety) 

James Wan made two of the best horror movies in recent memory with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. He brought the true scary stories to pure life and not only scaring audiences but having them discussing the movies following Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating paranormal activity–from Rhode Island to London. It focused on the atmosphere and the risks these two characters make as opposed to cheap thrills. That’s the case with 2014’s Annabelle, a ventriloquist doll so creepy in the first film took a turn for the worse.

The Conjuring universe has decided to give another creepy entity its own spin-off. Unfortunately, The Nun, directed by Corin Hardy, is another disappointment.

The year is 1952. In a Romanian abbey, two Catholic nuns are attacked by an entity in the form of a nun (Bonnie Aarons). Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope) ends up committing suicide by hanging herself. Meanwhile, the Vatican hears about the incident and sends Father Burke (Demian Birchir), an expert in exorcism, and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, the sister of Vera) to investigate. With the help of a French-Canadian farmer (Jonas Bloquet), they arrive at the abbey unprepared for what’s in store.

This is the only film in the universe that feels brief and unfinished. It’s filled with cheap scares and forced humor. While the acting is tolerable at best, their motivations aren’t given enough depth. With a semi-promising start, it’s bogged down by a shaky third act. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography, while gorgeous, doesn’t quite give the movie enough atmosphere.

The Nun does have its moments. One of the only genuinely creepy scenes in the movie is where Father Burke is buried alive in a coffin after witnessing the strong entity. Farmiga gives an impressive performance as a rookie who has yet to receive her vows (shouldn’t she received them before going on that trip?) Her supernatural visions are the main reason she goes to the Romanian mountains. Other than that, I suggest waiting for The Conjuring 3.

1.5/4

Movie Review: The Wife

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Joan (Glenn Close) congratulates her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) in The Wife. (Source: Tulsa World)

Glenn Close has been one of the most beloved actresses of all-time. She received six Oscar nominations, including ones for Fatal Attraction, The Natural, Dangerous Liaisons, and Albert Nobbs. But–she didn’t win a single one. In The Wife, based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same, she plays the titular role who has been holding secrets for years. It’s about time for her to shine!

Joan (Close) and Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) have been happily married–and living in a gorgeous home in Connecticut–for about 40 years. They have two grown children–Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who is pregnant with her first child, and Danny (Max Irons), who is insecure for his father. They receive a phone call informing Joe has been selected to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. On their way to the big Swedish city, they encounter writer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who is a big fan Joe’s writing. Joan begins to learn about the secrets Joe has kept ever since the 1950s, where she was a young writing student (Annie Starke, the real-life daughter of Glenn Close) at Smith College, and young Joe (Harry Lloyd) was her professor. They begin a love affair, in which would eventually become a long marriage.

There has never been a performance this year more spectacular than Close’s. Joan is a woman who, like her husband, is a writer and loves to edit stories, despite living in a world where the occupation is mostly dominated by men. In one scene, she has dinner with Nathaniel at a cafe. He has an idea of writing a biography of Joe Castleman, in which Joe doesn’t approve. Take note of her subtle facial expressions. While her climactic confrontation with her husband showcases how brilliant her performance is, her body language says so much.

Pryce also delivers a strong performance as Joe, the writer who might be suffering from dementia. For instance, he doesn’t remember the name of one of his iconic characters. Like Joan, he has been holding secrets from her.  

Swedish director Björn Runge and screenwriter Jane Anderson dig deep into their long relationship. There are plenty of breathtaking aerial shots of snowy Stockholm, but what really shine is the use of the flashback. The more the audience knows about the couple’s crumbling marriage, the more they learn how and why. I particularly love the scene where a guest author (Elizabeth McGovern, of Downton Abbey fame, a small yet effective role) visits the college, and warns Joan to never get her hopes too high. It sets up the tone for what is going to come next.

While it does drag during the first half (not to mention the first five minutes being a little redundant) and it makes you want more once the credits start to roll, The Wife is worth seeing for Glenn Close alone. I’m hoping she finally wins an Oscar!

3/4