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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“La La Land”: A Modern Musical Masterpiece

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance the night away in La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash. (Source: Esquire)

Musicals have been extremely popular ever since the Great Depression leading to Hollywood’s Golden Age. They have the power to transport viewers to a light, whimsical world as a way to forget the harsh reality for awhile. The films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, including Top Hat and Swing Time, had everyone smiling as the two stars danced as if they were weightless. After the Depression, more musical stars, such as Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris), Frank Sinatra (On the Town, High Society), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born), danced and sang their ways to the top. With West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Grease being some of the most popular musicals of the past century, only ten of them have ever taken home an Oscar for Best Picture. Most musicals of the 21st century–Across the Universe, High School Musical, and Mamma Mia!–are often harmless, but tend to be lousy and forgettable.

Enter Damien Chazelle. A 33-year-old Harvard graduate from Providence, Rhode Island, made his directorial debut with 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the black-and-white indie film he made in college following a jazz trumpeter falling for a shy girl in modern-day Boston. Following the marvelously dark story of a drummer’s road to becoming the greatest in Whiplash (2014), he would eventually use the same concept of his first film about star-crossed lovers making ends meet in La La Land (2016), winner of 6 Oscars including Best Director for Chazelle (becoming the youngest person to win such an award). However, it lost to Moonlight for Best Picture after a shocking mix-up.

One of those rare musicals not based on a novel or a famous play, the movie is rich in originality while paying tribute to musicals of the past–from the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the all-American classics mentioned above. Not only that, it stars two of the most gorgeous people working today: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

As the late Roger Ebert once said in one of his reviews, “The first time seeing the movie, I focused on the foreground, and liked it. The second time I focused on the background, too, and loved it!”

That’s the case of me seeing La La Land five times in theaters (plus many more to come). I always catch what I missed from before. It gets better with each viewing.

Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Stone, who won an Oscar for her role) is an aspiring actress working at a cafe in the Warner Brothers lot. She attempts to earn a big break, despite the numerous failed auditions she goes to. One night, after attending a party with her roommates, she goes to a nightclub and sees pianist Sebastian Wilder (Gosling), who also has dreams of his own of opening his own jazz club (“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope”). Eventually, they fall in love.

We see how their storylines unfold leading up to their first encounter at the jazz club, owned by the fiery Bill (J.K. Simmons, in a small yet effective role). Spotlights shine down on one another as Sebastian plays a beautiful piano piece that would make Frédéric Chopin blush.

Yes, Ryan Gosling is actually playing the piano here. Prior to filming, he would practice two hours each day for three months to learn the music by heart. He wouldn’t play any other song on the piano other than the songs Sebastian plays in the movie. One thing that’s impressive about Chazelle as a director is he never uses doubles or CGI for the actor whenever they are playing a musical instrument. There isn’t a single second where any of the hard work Gosling had to endure felt wasted.

Chazelle’s collaborator and college roommate Justin Hurwitz joins the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin providing a marvelous score and memorable music numbers. In a film rich in color, it pays homage to Los Angeles. Like the Oscar-winning song “City of Stars”, it’s a city filled with hopes, dreams, and disappointments. The opening music number, “Another Day of Sun”, resembles the hopes of success despite the many challenges that have yet to be faced. Set during a traffic jam on a busy highway consisting of one six-minute long take (one of many continuous, long shots in the movie), the dancers start getting out of their cars and break into song and dance, singing a chorus that goes, “Climb these hills, I’m reaching for the heights, and chasing all the lights that shine, and when they let you down, you’ll get up off the ground, ‘cause morning rolls around, and it’s another day of sun.”

In another beautifully-choreographed music number, “A Lovely Night”, we see the two lovebirds walking the Hollywood Hills on a gorgeous spring evening after a pool party (one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Mia dances and lip-syncs to a cover of Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” after encountering Sebastian–no wonder why she dominated “Lip Sync Battle” on the Tonight Show back in 2014). While they confessed they don’t have a connection, they begin teasing with each other until they put on their tap shoes and pull off a dance routine reminiscent of Astaire and Rogers. It’s entirely difficult not to smile and giggle during these scenes when they are together.

Jazz might be a dead genre, but Hurwitz brings it to pure light. Sebastian introduces Mia to his world of the genre after Mia discusses how her love for classic movies made her want to pursue acting. He mentions jazz is not just for listening, it has to be felt. “It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s new every night,” he says. “It’s brand new every night. It’s very, very exciting!”

When Seb’s old buddy, Keith (John Legend), offers him to be in his band, he reluctantly accepts to be a part of his company. However, it conflicts his relationship with Mia (more on that later). Seb is taken aback by the contemporary, electronic style of jazz while he prefers the old-fashioned style of jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. “How are you going to be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks him after rehearsal. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Another part of La La Land’s brilliance is the pure optimism these characters–especially Mia and Seb–have of going far and beyond, even though they get frustrated on how it might turn out at first.

La La Land contains the most realistic portrayal of love than any other romance film in recent memory. It also contains fantasy elements thrown into the mix, which is also a breath of fresh air. There are two spectacular sequences that contain no dialogue, and feel as if they are something out of a ballet. One is where Mia and Sebastian sneak into the Griffith Observatory planetarium after hours. They begin floating in the air and dance in the stars. It serves as a metaphor for their emotional connection with each other.

The other is the epilogue reminiscent to the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence at the end of An American in Paris. It shows what would happen if Mia and Sebastian actually ended up together. They go through numerous luscious set pieces–all painted by hand, no less!–as if they have both stepped into a dream. With Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous cinematography, this movie is like a painting in motion!

After winning audience’s hearts in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, Gosling and Stone are dynamite as the two lovers. While they wear gorgeous clothes (Gosling in a variety of suits, and Stone in a variety of dresses), their romance is filled with so much charm and humor. Not only can they dance, they can also sing well. No one can play a better dynamic duo than these two!

While Moonlight might have deserved its award for Best Picture of 2016 over this movie, La La Land will be a musical that will be discussed for years to come. It’s hard not to love an old-fashioned musical set in the present day. I hope Damien Chazelle will direct hundreds of movies after his upcoming film First Man, starring Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to ever set foot on the moon. La La Land is easily one of the best musicals of the century, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is adapted into a Broadway musical in the coming years. Mia’s song, “The Fools Who Dream”, sums Los Angeles’ portrayal perfectly:

“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem; here’s to the hearts that ache; here’s to the mess we make.”

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is on the search for some answers in Blade Runner 2049. (Source: Vox)

In 1982, Ridley Scott introduced a world unlike any other. From its imaginative sets and thoughtful allegory on life, Blade Runner is one of the best sci-fi films imaginable. It features Harrison Ford playing a quiet hero (as opposed to Indiana Jones or Han Solo) where he must get rid of a group of bioengineered people from the Earth. Since its release, people have been debating whether Deckard is a replicant or not. There’s no real answer to the debate; other than it’s up to the viewer.

Today, Scott returns to his futuristic world as producer, while Denis Villeneuve–whose Arrival has returned to the traditional, thought-provoking science-fiction–is in the director’s chair. Blade Runner 2049 is certainly up his alley!

30 years after the events of Blade Runner, newer replicant models are now becoming a part of society. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as the new “blade runner” for the LAPD. He is assigned to take down (or “retire”) older replicants. One day, he sees the remains of an adult replicant and their child. Preventing a possible war against humans and replicants, K begins to investigate the murder, which might connect to Officer Deckard (Harrison Ford), who went missing all these years.

What I love about Villeneuve’s direction is he never wastes anyone’s time relying on mindless action or manipulative emotion. With Blade Runner 2049, it keeps the similar tone and themes of the original while giving a fresh take on the futuristic world. Roger Deakins’ cinematography feels like a painting coming to life. From the 3D holograms to the impressive architecture to the scene where K walks through the ruins of erotic statues, this contains some of the most visually stunning visuals I’ve ever seen (Deakins has a good chance of winning an Oscar).

While the movie can be quite brutal at times, the movie contains the theme of nostalgia. It asks the important question: Are memories artificial memories implanted in our heads? Or is it the exact opposite? As a replicant, this is what K tries to figure out. In one particular scene, he explains his only childhood memory involves getting bullied as he plays with a toy horse.

Gosling is familiar playing characters who can be violent yet have subtle emotions (i.e. Drive). He and Harrison Ford lead a marvelous cast including Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, and Jared Leto. Let’s hope Villeneuve crafts more original sci-fi films in the near future. Not only is Blade Runner 2049 one of the best sequels in recent memory, it surpasses the original by a slight margin.

4/4

2016 Summer Movie Review: The Nice Guys

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Two L.A. investigators (Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe) are solving the case regarding a dead porn star in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.

Director Shane Black (Iron Man 3) returns to his roots of Lethal Weapon (in which he wrote the screenplay) and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. And brings the classic buddy action comedy back to the silver screen. The Nice Guys, one of this summer’s most anticipated movies, pays tribute to 1970s culture with ‘80s-style action and irony.

In 1977, Los Angeles is filled with crime and conspiracy. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a divorced, middle-aged, non-licensed private detective. His job involves beating the hell out of his client’s enemies for money. Holland March (Ryan Gosling), however, is the exact opposite. He’s an experienced PI but down on his luck. He’s a single father with a 13-year-old daughter Holly (a gifted Angourie Rice).

Unknowingly, the two private eyes team up to investigate the death of porn star Misty Mountains (as happens in the film’s opening scene). Along the way, they track down a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who might be involved. The situation begins to go all over the place.

One of the reasons The Nice Guys works is the chemistry between Crowe and Gosling. It’s hard to imagine a better duo. They are same but different. They work off each other so flawlessly as two of the worst detectives. There is one scene where a drunken March rolls down a hill and stumbles upon a dead body sitting against a tree. Healy tries to find him, and he responds with a silent scream. Then, they try to get rid of the body by throwing it over a fence and landing on a table during a wedding party. That is one of the movie’s great examples of physical comedy. Who needs an excessive amount of penis jokes if there are references to The Waltons among other original jokes? The jokes don’t stop! With all the wisecracks (“Do you know who else was following orders? Hitler!” March says as a police officer is following orders himself) and sight gags, there is also plenty of fist fights and shootouts to carry through. I enjoyed every bit of this movie.

4/4