First Man

November 6, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Directed by: Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”)
Written by: Josh Singer (“Spotlight”)

To reach the pinnacle of outer space realism on the big screen these days, a lot rests on the film’s technical capabilities. From the stunning cinematography in 2013’s “Gravity,” the jaw-dropping special effects of 2014’s “Interstellar” or the impressive production design in 2015’s “The Martian,” moviegoers want to be transported from their theater seats to the farthest corners of the galaxy as effortlessly as possible.

Luckily, “First Man,” the biopic on NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who became the first man to ever step foot on the surface of the moon in 1969, is a commendable technical achievement. In the film, the anxiousness felt in the interiors of the aircraft or spaceflight simulator is pushed to the brink of chaos with handheld camerawork. It creates a dizzying sense of dread in the most intense and confined scenes.

Leading up to the successful Apollo 11 launch, “First Man” follows Armstrong as he prepares for whatever space mission he is assigned to next. Not only is it a journey of determination and strength, it’s also an exploration by Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) of the immeasurable losses that Armstrong experienced. This includes the passing of his two-year-old daughter in 1962 and the deaths of fellow space travelers (the three-man crew of Apollo 1 were killed in a fire during a spacecraft test in 1967).

Directed by Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), the first project of his young career that he didn’t actually write himself, the Oscar-winning filmmaker is at the top of his game as he takes viewers deep into the inner-workings of the space program, which at the time was beaten at every turn by the Soviets. Along with the radiant photography by Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) and the vintage visual style of Oscar-nominated production designer Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk”), it is Chazelle’s work behind the camera that will make the narrative resonate with audiences.

Like recent space films “Gravity” and “Moon,” “First Man” relies on intimate and uncomplicated storytelling. On occasion, Singer’s story feels as if it is taking place inside a silo and only breaks from those confines when we get an idea of how people outside of NASA are observing the historic events (Apollo 13 was more effective in this respect). Gosling, maybe in an attempt to balance actress Claire Foy as outspoken first wife Janet, portrays Armstrong with understated confidence. The dynamic works for the most part, although Gosling isn’t given much external range.

Still, like the best cinematic space odysseys that have come before, “First Man” brings with it a message of humanism and mortality that puts life into perspective. What better backdrop to experience an existential awakening than soaring across the cosmos?

Season of the Witch

January 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy
Directed by: Dominic Sena (“Gone in Sixty Seconds”)
Written by: Bragi F. Schut (debut)

In all fairness, when Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman called out Nicolas Cage back in early 2009 and pleaded with him in his article “Nicolas Cage: Artist or hack? The choice is his” to stop pursuing “cheesy paycheck films,” a much-needed substantial Cage performance as a coked-up cop in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was still six months from a festival premiere.

While Cage hallucinating iguanas in the Big Easy wasn’t as highly regarded as his Oscar-worthy role in 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas,” it was proof the man could still act. Somewhere beyond career choices like “Bangkok Dangerous” and “Next,” Cage still had a steady pulse. Now, with the medieval fantasy “Season of the Witch,” the first official movie of 2011, he’s flatlined again.

In “Witch,” Cage plays Behmen, a 14th-century knight fighting during the Crusades who is forced to escort a woman the Catholic Church believes to be a plague-causing witch to an abbey where she can be destroyed with a powerful book of scriptures. Coming along for the journey is Behmen’s fellow swordsman Felson (Perlman), along with a panicky priest, a brave altar boy, and a frumpy guide. We’re not asking for “The Canterbury Tales” here, but the collection of flimsy characters in “Witch” would have sent Chaucer straight to the gallows.

Sidestepping any real Holy War history, director Dominic Sena (“Gone in Sixty Seconds”) and first-time screenwriter Bragi F. Schut take a broader approach to the religious themes of the period in favor of more uninspired supernatural mumbo jumbo. Even the Man vs. God tirades it produces are as appealing as a plateful of greasy fried sheep’s feet.

The anticlimactic scenes all lead up to an inevitable CGI-heavy showdown: Good vs. Evil, featuring a clan of grotesque zombie monks and a winged demon as realistic as the one Eddie Murphy jacks up in “The Golden Child.”

It used to be that discerning audiences were the only ones disinterested in a Cage blockbuster. Now, it seems, he is too, and he is easy to criticize when he phones it in like this. From his monotonous line-delivery to his frazzled eyes, his overall aloof attitude has grown tiresome.

Artist or hack? Cage has definitely made his choice — at least for this round.