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By midlandsmovies, Oct 21 2018 08:28AM

First Man (2018) Dir. Damien Chazelle

For a man who is probably one of the most famous who ever lived, Neil Armstrong was sure a modest guy. Shunning the spotlight after his infamous trip to the moon and back, the human who took one small step decided to take a step back from the limelight after his legendary voyage. And it is that low-key confidence that director Damien Chazelle (of La La Land and Whiplash fame) tries to tap into in his new film First Man.

We are thrown into the cockpit in Chazelle’s opening scene as Armstrong’s pilot comes unstuck during a test flight of an experimental X-15 rocket which he struggles to gain control of during a re-entry. Chazelle’s tone throughout combines two recurring themes – the cool-as-a-cucumber Armstrong and the technical feats of NASA during the 60s. The opening is a claustrophobic and exciting action sequence where buzzing alarms, broken throttles and life-threatening science all go hand in hand.

After successfully getting back to earth, although Armstrong is not entirely seen as successful, the film begins to expose how Armstrong however was viewed as extremelt dependable in times of crisis. Ryan Gosling’s slightly one-trick “moody wanderer” shtick (see also Blade Runner 2049 and Only God Forgives) works here to show Armstrong as a contemplative and serious man whose one goal is the success of any challenge placed in front of him.

Attempting to get more emotion from him is Armstrong’s wife played by an excellent Claire Foy. After the loss of their young daughter, Armstrong adds a metaphorical distance in their relationship. Burying his emotions deep, the film follows Armstrong in times of solace – again, reiterating his lonesome and contemplative nature. Foy brings depth to what could be a “caring wife” cliché – giving her some real toughness which was also seen in Unsane and no doubt in the future Dragon Tattoo spin off.

As their family stresses adds to Neil’s woes, Chazelle uses the “space” between words to explore the difficulties they are both facing. As the Apollo missions gain pace, more and more fellow Astronauts are killed during tests and flights which constantly plays on the couple’s fragile minds.

Whilst Chazelle uses the quiet moments to say so much the film really has two sound modes: Bombastic noise with a symphonic score (excellently composed by Justin Hurwitz) but in contrast stark silence. The audience is reminded of the omission of sound in space but space is both the empty void between the stars AND the gap between husband and wife.

Chazelle’s involvement in such “sound films” like Grand Piano, La La Land and Whiplash has given him huge dexterity in using sound as another character – one that comes to the forefront when it is there and also when it isn’t. Alongside this, the acting of the support cast is great and the whole film is shot very naturally, and at times with an improvisational style especially with the child actors.Filmed on both very grainy and authentic 16mm and 35mm film stock., further authenticity is added the inclusion of real footage from the era in 3:4 ratio which alongside the subtle but well used wardrobe, further adds to its time period credentials.

As the film edges closes to the infamous Apollo 11 launch, the constant presence of death – loss of young child, loss of colleagues, loss of friends – continues to permeate throughout. In many ways, as this occurs, Armstrong experiences an increased loss of emotion. With Chazelle’s almost point-of-view shots from the astronaut’s positions in their spacecraft, their confined position is an apt coffin itself.

The film returns to his daughter’s death as Armstrong avoids people at a colleague's funeral and he tracks his daughter’s illness in a log book and is as meticulous about his work as his family – sometimes to both their detriment.

As we enter the final third, Chazelle’s great film even raises the stakes despite us all knowing the expected outcome. The noise of creaking metal and shots of shaking rivets show how these men are simply in a controlled but very dangerous explosion. The risk to life is very real and the long pauses throughout the movie create a tension that sticks during its moon landing ending – spectacularly filmed in IMAX sequences. And as the eagle lands on the surface, one of the most well-known parts of our shared history is given new life and we rediscovers its importance – to us all and to this one humble man.

First Man therefore is a fantastic voyage of both a mythical yet somewhat conventional man. Ever the reluctant hero and considering he completed one of the most, if not the most, infamous achievements in human history, his commitment to science, family and getting the job done comes across in Chazelle’s portrayal. A uniquely earnest and simple man, Armstrong may have sought a low profile later in life, but I hope First Man reignites interest in this hugely exciting period.

And Chazelle has no need to bow down to the audience to ensure everything is a projection of their experience. This is Neil’s experience. And First Man is a first-rate biography mixing an amazing directorial confidence in cinematic techniques to explore what drives us all to unimaginable personal and public feats of endeavour.


Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, Oct 5 2017 11:22PM

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Dir. Denis Villeneuve

Let’s cut to the chase but I’ve never been a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir original – even going so far to include it in my top 10 overrated films of all time back in 2012 – so I approached this film with some trepidation. I come at all films with an open mind however, and with such highlights as Sicario, Prisoners and the lauded Arrival in his catalogue of successes, director Denis Villeneuve certainly has the sci-fi and visual chops to take on the belated sequel.

Ryan Gosling (K) is now the LAPD blade runner who hunts down older artificial humans known as “replicants”. He soon stumbles upon the discovery of a skeleton which appears to be that of a replicant woman who died during childbirth, a situation until then thought impossible. Linking the bones to the missing Deckard, K is ordered to destroy the evidence by his superior Joshi (a superb Robin Wright) but soon a set of clues leads him to question his own “implanted” memories and his reality.

Blade Runner 2049 takes the themes of the first – humanity, memory, one’s purpose in life – and adds the dazzling cinematography of 13-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins who not only recreates the look of the original rain-soaked streets, but expands the digital noir influences ten-fold. Shadows lurk everywhere as Villeneuve and Deakins work together to create phenomenal shots, with some of the best of them composed simply in pure silhouette, keeping the characters (and us) ominously in the dark.

Ana de Armas provides great support as K’s artificial partner Joi – a hologram who ironically infuses Gosling’s character with the only emotional attachment and is a great addition to the Blade Runner mythos. Yet, the lack of emotional connection between the audience and the film is one of its sad flaws. To me the original had a sense of detachment but it is practically nihilistic in tone here – the future is death – to humans, to children, to androids and even to holograms.

In spite of that, Harrison Ford gives a great performance when he eventually returns as Detective Rick Deckard but don’t expect to see him in the first 2 hours. However, Sylvia Hoeks as Luv provides a feisty antagonist, much more so than Jared Leto whose Tyrell replacement Niander Wallace is underused and missing from half the movie.

An amazing first hour which sets up the tone, the vision and the look of the world works brilliantly alongside an amazing synthesiser score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch which is fantastic and truly groundbreaking. This beginning also provides us with a set of interesting characters (at first) and Gosling even throws in a joke – confirming a balance of components that works so well.

But like a malfunctioning android, the film begins to fall apart at times and although its style never falters once, it often fails to cover the cold tone and the incredibly slow pacing. At its best, its perfect visionary sci-fi yet at its worst it harks to Only God Forgives with repeatedly boring shots of a moody Ryan Gosling moping around a neon city at night in a drama-vacuum. The film makes sluggish progress and its script’s heavy-handed links to creation and A.I. are a result of further hackneyed garbage from Michael Green, the scribe of the awful Alien: Covenant.

In many ways it’s the perfect sequel – if you enjoyed the original I guarantee you’ll find the expansion and nods to it more than satisfying and for those who feel the original had flaws then this film clones them to a fault. Blade Runner 2049 therefore ends up being a truly technical tour-de-force but as cold as a glacier and moves about as fast.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Sep 21 2016 07:29AM

The Nice Guys (2016) Dir. Shane Black

Shane Black has written his fair share of witty dialogue, buddy-cop movies and his trademark flourishes are on full show in this 1977-set noir comedy about private detectives investigating a missing girl.

Based in Los Angeles, the films begins after an adult-movie star dies in a car crash and her aunt hires private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) after she is spotted mysteriously ‘alive’. As another missing girl Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley) hires Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to intimidate Gosling’s P.I., the two detectives are suddenly and reluctantly thrust together to search for the answers to each case. They are assisted/hindered by March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) and the threesome head to locations around the city to tie up the pieces – from an air pollution protest to a hilltop party where models, actresses and dead bodies are all “uncovered”.

As the confusing case spirals, Amelia's mother who is played by an always-pleasing-to-see Kim Basinger, enters to stir the pot from her position in the Justice Department. Her high-class demeanour and Crowe’s violent retribution somewhat echo their roles in L.A. Confidential. Black shies away from the seriousness of that film though as slaughter and laughter come in equal measure as the complicated double-crosses are revealed.

The chemistry between Ryan and Russell is one of the film’s main selling points. Crowe doesn’t do anything particularly new with his beefy muscle role, nor does Ryan with all his silly tics, but the two together deliver Black’s zippy back-and-forth dialogue brilliantly. The twisty narrative is slowly exposed with the audience grasping at the clues along with the two leads and the support from the young and talented Angourie Rice offsets the macho banter. Her scepticism towards her father, her sly and accusing looks at Crowe and generally innocent outlook help give the film some much needed soul where sleaze, murder and corruption are the main themes throughout.

The period fashion, locations and soundtrack are expertly realised and Black’s strong script delivers the knock-out lines the writer/director is known for. A single criticism could be levelled about originality – the set up of Black’s successes of Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are all prevalent here – but the plusses far outweigh the negatives in a film full of entertaining vignettes.

Its use of Warner Bros 70s "Big W" logo designed by Saul Bass shows that the Nice Guys is much more than nice – it’s a big slice of retro-influenced cool. With stylish direction, a sophisticated script and a set of trendy performances, Black’s latest is best enjoyed as a hip cocktail of cynical repartee and noir style.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jan 12 2016 02:49PM

The Big Short (2016) Dir. Adam McKay

The combination of financial sector nuances during the 2007-2008 economic crisis and Anchorman director Adam McKay hardly sounds like cinematic gold but the quality assets of a celebrated cast and a well-structured screenplay lift new film The Big Short from a risky proposition to a sound investment.

Based upon the novel of the same name by Michael Lewis, the film stars a bowl-cut haired Christian Bale as an eccentric investor who seemingly predicts the inflated bubble of the US housing market. Much to the chagrin of his employers. Bale bets against the affluent market which seems foolishly risky to other banks who take his money hand over fist. Also along for this fun ride is a strangely haired Ryan Gosling (the film is littered with coiffed ‘barnets’) who hears of Bale’s plan and joins in to make some money. At another firm, the ferocious Steve Carrell – who again shows his dramatic chops as Mark Baum – is a man who at first refuses to believe the impending doom but then questions the common sense of those involved.

If those weren’t enough A-listers, Brad Pitt appears as Ben Rickertt, a retired old grizzly-Adams looking banker who is taken to by a couple of eager younger investors looking to get their first big win on the markets. However, as they wheel and deal, he chastises them about the impending economic hardships that will soon face the average family.

As the film reminds the viewer, the complexity and ruthlessness of the market helped create the situation and celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie (!) are used to hilarious effect in cut-scenes where they explain the finer details of banking procedures.

Each character brings a distinctive angle to the multifaceted story yet they are inexplicably intertwined like an unravelable combination of mortgage bonds. Whilst Gosling is merciless in his money making, Bale focuses on the rudimentary logic of the system (his binary brain enjoying the rhythmic patterns of drumming throughout) whilst Pitt and Carrell are the virtuous moral centre of this comedy drama. Pitt’s character is retired – seemingly already aware of the nasty business of the fiscal industry – whilst Carrell’s Baum has the biggest journey. He moves from selfish creature to principled detective who more than once is shocked by the convoluted system that surrounds him.

McKay handles all these scenes well and balances comedy and drama with aplomb. His improvisations from comedy seem to have found a natural place in this film too with performances spiralling just the right side of unrestrained. The intricacies of the markets are teased out to allow the audience to learn – not just to wag-a-finger – and the thorny morals of the narrative are shown from a variety of viewpoints.

An epilogue sees absolutely zero lessons learnt and none of the corrupt organisations held to account for their questionable practices, which is as damning as any of the slightly heavy-handed sermonizing sprinkled throughout.

McKay has stepped up a lot in his directorial game, investing in all-star actors and introducing some up and coming talent as well. Although at times The Big Short seems a bit Wolf of Wall Street-lite, the focus on the details makes this not just great entertainment but a great education.

7.5/10 Midlands Movies Mike

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