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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.

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La La Land is an all-new, original musical from director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) that is surprisingly low on melodrama while full of vibrancy, beautiful tunes, outstanding set pieces and a stunning sense of realism—that is, for a movie in which the characters bust out singing.

This is the best “original” movie musical ever made. I’d put it up there with Les Miserables, the best adapted movie musical I’ve ever seen. In short: This baby is a masterpiece, and a complete joy to watch.

The story follows wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz composer Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they try to make it in crazy Los Angeles. They meet and don’t like each other much at first, but then they fall in love, which provides Chazelle and his performers with ample opportunities for musical numbers that surprise at every turn.

In what will go down as one of the year’s greatest scenes, the film opens on an L.A. traffic jam that evolves into a full-blown dance number featuring top-notch editing and camera work that make the whole thing look like one shot. In a year when a lot of big blockbusters swung and missed, this relatively low-budget venture delivers some of 2016’s best money shots.

This solidifies Ryan Gosling as one of the best actors of his generation. He can wow you in insightful indies (Blue Valentine, Drive) and carry big-budget blockbusters (the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 … let’s hope it’s good). However, with La La Land, he’s taken his game to a new level. He proves he can pretty much do anything when it comes to movie characters. He can sing with the best of them; he’s definitely no slouch when it comes to dancing; and, by God, he sure can play the piano, after a few months of intensive training for the movie. (Those aren’t stunt hands playing the keys … those are his.) Just like that, Gosling is a full-bodied star of the musical genre.

As for his co-star, Emma Stone is a mind-blowing revelation. Her look is going to draw a lot of Ann-Margret comparisons here; she also boasts a similar comic/musical energy. Stone doesn’t just make her mark with a beautiful voice and expert footwork; she embodies her character with the honest and almost tragic drive to “make it” in the business. Mia feels like a real person rather than your typical movie-musical cardboard character.

Gosling came up in the same Mickey Mouse Club that touted Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Watch some of his Disney antics on YouTube—not only because they are hilarious, but also because they show the kid had music in him from the start. He also had an interesting music project a few years back called Dead Man’s Bones which showed off some serious musical chops.

As for Stone, the most I saw her do musically before this was sing Blues Traveler’s “Hook” during what was supposed to be a lip-synch contest on The Tonight Show. She kicked ass.

The past musical work by Gosling and Stone does not prepare you for what they do in this movie. They not only sing with full confidence; they dance in some killer numbers as if they’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. They have a sequence in which they rise into the ceiling of a planetarium that is pure movie magic. I know—that’s a cliché, but it’s the only real way to describe it.

The score is completely original, with memorable tracks like “City of Stars” and “Audition” which are sure to be in the running for Oscar glory. Heck, many aspects of this film are in the running for Oscar glory.

If you have a hatred for movie musicals, La La Land might be the movie that will warm you up to the genre. Gosling and Stone are one of the all-time best screen pairings, and this film is going to stand alongside the greats. Yes, it’s that good.

La La Land opens Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Century La Quinta and XD (46800 Washington St., La Quinta; 760-771-5682).

Published in Reviews

And I thought my high school band teacher was tough!

There are natural musicians on this planet—people who pick up a guitar, drumsticks or a saxophone, and play with an enviable ease. Then there are other musical geniuses, extraordinary musicians in training who require some sort of extra push to put them over the top.

Whiplash, the second feature from director Damien Chazelle, is about a young man who needs that extra push—a push that, to an extent, equates to a form of masochism.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring drummer at a musical conservatory in Manhattan. He practices late at night when nobody is around, which catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s most-elite jazz-music teacher. He immediately begins to torture the music out of Andrew. It’s apparent that Fletcher sees something in Andrew early on, even though he’s terrorizing him. Andrew winds up trying out for Fletcher’s band—tryouts which involve verbal emasculation and chairs being thrown at his head.

The torture doesn’t stop during Andrew’s private practice time. We see him beating on his drums until blisters form, and blood spouts from his hands. In his drive to be the best, he puts himself through a hell almost worse than the punishing regimen inflicted upon him by Fletcher. Almost.

Those who watched HBO’s Oz know that Simmons is capable of playing the most heinous of human beasts. Fletcher is an amazing creation, an above-the-law terror who believes great musicians come from great suffering. As horrible as he is, he truly thinks he is doing his students a great service by withholding the reward of teacher approval. There will be no gold stars from him.

Doing much of his own drumming, Teller opens himself up in an astonishing way, both physically and emotionally. Whether he’s taking legitimate cracks to the face from Simmons, or screaming at his sweat-drenched self in a tiny practice chamber, Teller leaves it all on the drum kit, including his own blood.

Together, Simmons and Teller are the stuff of movie legends. Fletcher tears into Andrew like a crow ripping the flesh off of roadside carrion, and Andrew often convinces us that he is down for the count. He rises again and again.

Watching musicians kill each other in Whiplash makes you wonder if Mozart eviscerated himself while learning his piano parts, or whether Lennon and McCartney threw mic stands at one another when putting together “The White Album.” Great artistry can command unholy discipline, and unleash ungodly tempers. Fletcher makes the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket look like Pope Francis.

Paul Reiser gets his best role in years as Andrew’s loving father, a man who wishes he could protect his son from life’s monsters, yet knows that he can’t.

I thought Edward Norton had the Best Supporting Actor Oscar wrapped up for his Birdman performance until I witnessed Simmons in this film. This is going to be an awards-season battle for the ages. As for Teller, he deserves a Best Actor nomination to go with his destroyed hands. He pulls off a physical and emotional demolition on par with that of De Niro in Raging Bull.

Whiplash was filmed at breakneck speed, and Chazelle is a director of amazing precision. This is an all-time-great movie about music, as well as a great character war. It’s not to be missed.

Whiplash is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews