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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Space-exploration movies based upon real events, not surprisingly, have usually made “the mission” the thrust of the plot.

First Man goes a different route. It dares to focus on a man rather than a mission—Neil Armstrong, the man at the center of the Apollo 11 mission, and what made him tick. It shows the familial struggles the man dealt with leading up to the mission and, most strikingly, his viewpoint as a bunch of white-clad workers packed him into sardine-can-like compartments and blasted him off into space. It’s an amazingly intimate movie, considering the subject matter.

Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) doesn’t ignore the details of NASA’s buildup to Armstrong’s arrival on the lunar surface. In fact, the film is one of the most scientifically intriguing films I’ve seen regarding what astronauts go through, and the mechanics of a space launch. However, it also manages to be a moving, often haunting study of the sacrifice and pain Armstrong went through to beat the Russians to the punch.

Before this film, I did not know that Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling, in top form) lost his young daughter to cancer in 1962, seven years before his legendary flight. Appropriately, that event is as central of an occurrence as the moon landing in this movie. This film is about Armstrong’s sacrifices and hardships, as well as the enormous psychological and physiological tortures he went through in that decade leading up to Apollo 11. In turn, it’s a testament to every man and woman who risked their lives in the name of the space race.

Claire Foy is the epitome of patience as Janet Armstrong, who must tend to her mischievous son as the sound from a NASA intercom drifts through her house—a sound letting her know her husband is surviving his latest mission.

Chazelle brilliantly stages the launches from Armstrong’s point of view. The camera violently shakes, with the view from a small window being the only thing we see—as if we are watching from inside Armstrong’s helmet.

The final moon landing has Armstrong immersed in total silence as he watches Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) hop away from the lunar module. The film cost about $60 million to make; that’s like an indie budget nowadays. It’s to Chazelle and his crew’s credit that it looks like it cost at least twice as much.

You might find yourself justifiably bummed out for much of First Man’s running time. Besides the death of his daughter, Armstrong lost some good friends at NASA, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who all died horrific deaths during an Apollo 1 test. There was also Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), who died in a test-flight crash preparing for Gemini 9.

Armstrong was well-known for his quiet and stoic demeanor. Gosling, working with a script by Josh Singer, shows us a calm, quiet and focused man who kept looking forward, no matter what forces tried to drag him back. The film depicts a trio of near-death experiences, including the film’s opening sequence involving a test flight in space that almost took Armstrong out. No matter how many times he had to crash or eject, Armstrong endured with almost-impossible strength and reserve—which Gosling depicts perfectly.

First Man forgoes much of the obvious patriotism and international competition that marked the space race in favor of simply showing what a dude had to endure to get lunar dust on his boots. Going to the moon was a messed-up, crazily dangerous endurance test—and this movie succeeds in making that abundantly clear.

First Man is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

For the second time within a year or so, a Gillian Flynn novel has been made into a movie. While David Fincher’s Gone Girl was a masterpiece, Dark Places, based on Flynn’s second novel, is bloody awful.

Even though Oscar-winner Charlize Theron is its star, Dark Places never rises above the level of a Lifetime movie. The storytelling is ham-fisted, and the stars, especially Theron, look absolutely lost. It also boasts shoddy production values that give off the vibe of a subpar episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit—and that’s a show I hate this much. (I have stopped typing, and I’m stretching out my arms, palms parallel, as far as possible.)

As with Gone Girl, Flynn’s story is inspired by real news events. Gone Girl was an obvious nod to wife-murderer Scott Peterson, while Dark Places draws its inspiration from ’80s and ’90s cases involving alleged Satan worshippers (including Ricky Kasso, as well as the Robin Hood Hills murders). Fincher took Gone Girl (with a screenplay penned by Flynn herself) and went for something darkly satirical and outrageous; meanwhile, director and screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner plays Dark Places straight, with a far-inferior script.

Theron is Libby Day, a bitter woman who witnessed the murder of her mother and sisters when she was a child in 1985. Her brother, Ben (played by Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life in 1985, and Corey Stoll of Ant-Man in the present), is sitting in prison for life, based on her testimony. It was suspected the murders were fueled by Ben’s love for all things Satan.

Libby has been living off the spoils of unwanted celebrity, having received money over the years from sympathetic check-senders. The book she wrote, however, did not sell all that well, and the checks are drying up, so she’s a bit desperate. She gets a weird letter from Lyle (Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Nicholas Hoult), offering her a few hundred bucks to appear at a weird meeting for some sort of “murder club.”

The “murder club” is a sort of miniature macabre comic-con at which people dress up as murderers (yes, the John Wayne Gacy clown is in attendance), and people involved in infamous cases make appearances. Libby thinks she’s just a guest of honor, but soon discovers the murder club also looks to solve murders—and they believe her brother is innocent: They think Libby lied in her testimony. After being initially pissed off at this accusation, she joins forces with the club to solve her family’s murders.

The film becomes two stories in two different times, with Libby and the murder club investigating the killings in the present, and the actual build-up to the murders in the past. The 1985 cast includes Sheridan; Chloë Grace Moretz as Ben’s Satan-worshipping, cow-slaughtering girlfriend; Christina Hendricks as Libby’s noble mother; and Sterling Jerins as young Libby.

Paquet-Brenner doesn’t navigate between the two periods well, as his film features sloppy editing to go with some bad acting. While Hendricks delivers a decent-enough performance, the normally reliable Moretz goes overboard in her bid to be bad. Sean Bridgers plays Libby’s dad in both periods, and is trying to do his best Charles Manson impersonation. A scene Theron shares with Bridgers—whose character is coughing from progressive arsenic poisoning—is unintentionally hilarious.

As for Theron, she often looks confused and frustrated, as if she regrets taking the role. It’s very difficult to make Theron hard to watch, yet that’s what happens here.

Flynn didn’t have a hand in the screenplay; perhaps that’s one of the reasons Dark Places is so flat and putrid. Or perhaps Flynn only has one great story suitable for the movies in her—because this one is an undercooked dud.

Dark Places is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430). It’s also available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

After a shocking directorial exodus and a series of rewrites, Marvel’s Ant-Man has finally made it to the screen—and it’s a reasonably enjoyable piece of summer fare, thanks to the total charmer playing the title character.

Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, the professional, wisecracking thief who’s given a new lease on life when Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) shows him the wonders of his incredible shrinking suit.

Rudd was given the job by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who left Ant-Man as its director after working on the project for years. While Wright still gets an executive producer credit and a writing credit, Peyton Reed (Yes Man), a virtual stranger to big-budget blockbusters, wound up at the helm with a script rewrite from Adam McKay and Rudd himself.

Reed does a good job—but not an outstanding job—in Wright’s place. The movie plays it mighty safe, with an emphasis on family viewing and few of the offbeat touches that are the hallmark of a Wright affair. A wonderful moment involving The Cure is as strange as this movie gets.

After a setup that involves Lang’s release from prison, some business with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter (Abby Rider Fortson), and a short-lived job at Baskin-Robbins, he winds up in the company of Pym, who is concerned that his technology has fallen into the wrong hands. Pym’s concern is justified, as sinister business partner Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has uncovered Pym’s shrinking technology, and has created his own suit (becoming a character known to comic fans as Yellowjacket) for nefarious purposes.

Lang is handpicked by Pym to break into his own company headquarters and steal the new suit. Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily), who wants her own suit, reluctantly trains Lang in the ways of punching, shrinking and conversing with insect friends.

Rudd is so good as Lang that I’m convinced the film would’ve been a dud without his presence. He’s a naturally funny guy who can play schmaltzy drama and make it look cool. The soap-opera stuff with his daughter winds up having a silly edge and actually becomes almost heartwarming.

Michael Peña is consistently hilarious as the perpetually smiling sidekick Luis; in fact, he keeps grinning even when he’s revealing family deaths and marital strife. Peña is often cast in dramatic roles (Fury, End of Watch), but he’s proven in the past that he has major comedic chops, in films like Observe and Report. Douglas brings a nice dose of class and wisdom to the proceedings.

The special effects, mostly CGI, are well-done. The first shrinking sequence, which involves a bathtub and eventual placement on a crowded dance floor, is a true stunner. Lang’s interactions with insects reminded me of another shrinking movie, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which an ant was treated like a pet horse. It’s a little cutesy, and the kids will dig it.

Ant-Man acknowledges the Avengers universe in many ways, including a prominent appearance by Anthony Mackie as Falcon, and John Slattery as Howard Stark. The film, wisely, takes a tongue-in-cheek approach with the Avengers, playing things mostly for laughs. It will be interesting to see how Lang fits into future Marvel movies, like the next Captain America film. As always with Marvel movies, stay through the entire credits, folks.

Ant-Man is fun, if not remarkable, on par with the likes of Iron Man 2 and the first Captain America. It plays it safe; I imagine that’s why Wright left the scene. Knowing his work, I’m thinking he may have been shooting for something that was funny and outrageous—and that just won’t do in the firmly established, tightly knit Marvel world. Still, those who have followed the project from its beginnings will find some relief in the fact that it’s not a tonally messed-up disaster.

Ant-Man is not going to leave you breathless with delight, but for my money, it’s still a better all-around movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Ant-Man is playing in various formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews