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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

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner came out in 1982—35 years ago. Scott has tooled around with the movie numerous times, resulting in a final cut that was released about 10 years ago.

While there was a lot of monkeying around (in a good way) with the original, it didn’t seem there was much thought of, or chance for, an actual sequel. After all, the original was not a box-office hit, and it didn’t start gaining its classic status until a decade after its release. In fact, critics beat up on it a bit.

Here in 2017, however, we actually do get a sequel. Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, the visionary behind Enemy and Arrival. (Scott remains involved as a producer.) Harrison Ford, who has classically complained about the original movie, has nonetheless returned to play blade runner Rick Deckard. Ryan Gosling steps into the starring role of K, a new blade runner tasked with “retiring” older-model replicants, the synthetic humans originated by the likes of Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah in the original.

Other than the presence of Ford in the final act of the movie, and the Pan Am and Atari logos still present in the Los Angeles skyline, this does not feel like a standard sequel. 2049 goes off on many new tangents, bending the mind when it comes to topics like artificial intelligence, what really constitutes love, and determining what is “real” in this world. Villeneuve, along with writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, have concocted a whole new world—a realistic evolution of the one presented in Scott’s original.

The film opens with a scene actually meant for the original Blade Runner, one in which a farmer (Dave Bautista) is trying to live a peaceful life before being confronted by K. K finds things at the farmer’s homestead that trigger memories, and the excavation of a body at the site triggers even more. At the behest of his boss (Robin Wright), K goes off on a mission to find a lost child and, eventually, that old, cranky S.O.B., Rick Deckard.

There are many twists and turns along the way, which is no surprise, seeing as the movie is almost three hours long. This is not a complaint; there is something to admire in every frame of this movie. Cinematographer Roger Deakins puts pure art in motion with his camerawork, giving us a dirtier, gloomier and yet still beautiful Blade Runner. K’s travels take him to the ruins of major cities, and ruined cities have never looked this gorgeous.

As in the original, there are things in this movie you have never seen before. Amazing sequences include a battle between two men in an abandoned showroom. The showroom used to house a hologram show starring the likes of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and that show gets started up again after somebody flips a switch. It’s one of the more surreal scenes you will see in any movie this year.

The same can be said about a moment when K meets Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who makes memories for replicants. Villeneuve crafts an eerily beautiful scene in which K observes her creating a birthday-party memory, which we see as a hologram. It’s one of those movie moments where you just sit there thinking: “Now that’s some hardcore, original shit right there.”

Gosling is in top form as K, a confused member of a future society in which one’s sense of identity can be a very confounding thing. His home companion is a very lifelike and cognizant hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas). Much credit goes to Armas for making Joi something far more than a glorified Siri/Alexa. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

The film has a few flaws. Jared Leto, while not awful, pours it on a little too thick as Niander Wallace, creator of replicants. While the film’s finale is fine, it doesn’t live up to the excellence that preceded it.

These are minor quibbles, because the wonders that Blade Runner 2049 delivers far outrun the missteps. Villeneuve has done the legacy of Blade Runner supreme justice with this offering. I actually doubt Ridley Scott could’ve directed this better.

Blade Runner 2049 is shown in theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Terrence Malick has shit the bed with his third consecutive film: His latest cinematic effort, Song to Song, is a joke.

I am a card-carrying, Malick-worshiping super fan who is in pain watching one of my directing heroes lose his way. After the triumph that was The Tree of Life, Malick shot To the Wonder and Knight of Cups out his film-making butt—and I hoped that would be the worst of it. Alas, Song to Song, which is supposed to be about people having love affairs amidst the Austin music scene, is Malick’s worst … by far.

For starters, I just have no idea what the fuck is supposed to be going on in this thing. Rooney Mara plays some kind of groupie who hooks up with a record producer played by Michael Fassbender. Then she starts dating wannabe musician Ryan Gosling. Then Gosling dumps her. Then Natalie Portman drowns. Then Mara becomes the guitar-player in Val Kilmer’s band, strumming away and looking like an idiot. Then Kilmer cuts his hair off onstage with a big knife. Then Mara starts dating Gosling again. The fucking end.

There’s no script; this film simply features a bunch of aimless, good-looking actors and actress walking around with nothing to do. If you can’t tell, I’m pissed about how much this sucked! And for a film about the Austin music scene … it doesn’t really have any music!

Still … I will be the first in line for the next Malick effort. He’s a master filmmaker who has already made his mark. He can screw up 100 times now, but he’s still made some of the greatest, most-beautiful films ever made. Song to Song is far from being one of them.

Song to Song is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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

I’m a huge fan of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black’s scrappy, funny 2005 directorial debut. Black hasn’t done a lot of directing in its aftermath, with his lone theatrical credit since then being Iron Man 3, the second-strongest Iron Man in the franchise.

He’s returned to grittier, film-noir mode with The Nice Guys, a grimy detective story starring a game Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. The movie is good—not great, just good—and it’s painful to witness the moments that don’t work.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a Los Angeles loser who gets paid by people to rough up child molesters, for the most part. He gets an assignment from Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who wants him to pay a visit to private-detective Holland March (Gosling)—and that visit turns out to be hilariously infused with comic violence.

Holland and Jackson wind up working on a case together, one that involves Amelia, a dead porn star, and a gun for hire named John Boy (Matt Bomer, relishing the chance to be super nasty) because he has a mole on his face.

When Gosling and Crowe are allowed to go crazy, the movie purrs on all cylinders. It’s when Black’s script (co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi) leads to a conspiracy involving Amelia’s mother, played by Kim Basinger, that it stalls out. Basinger is tone-deaf in this film; she doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie she is in, and her line delivery is woefully over-the-top. She’s terrible.

I don’t blame Black for casting Basinger in an L.A. movie with Crowe. The two, of course, shared the screen in L.A. Confidential, and the idea of them working together again is enticing. Basinger won an Oscar (undeserved) for that movie, but she won’t be getting any awards for this one.

Thankfully, the movie is more than saved by the Gosling/Crowe pairing. There’s a wonderful goofiness to many of their scenes. Crowe has a spit-take that just might be his greatest onscreen moment ever, and Gosling has a Lou Costello stammering moment over a dead body that is hysterical. Actually, this movie could almost count as some sort of 1970s-era Abbott and Costello remake, with Crowe as a twisted Abbott, and Gosling the bumbling, drunken Costello.

Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling’s whip-smart daughter, Holly, is a true scene-stealer; this will count as her breakthrough role. She more than holds her own against Gosling and Crowe, and is often the most-adult character in the movie. The young Aussie actress gets extra points for her spot-on American accent.

The visual palette is impeccable ’70s. The film captures the rundown look of L.A. with nice touches, including a beat-up Hollywood sign, and billboards for Tower Records and Jaws 2. There are lots of grays and browns in this film, with the occasional spark of hot pink and disco lights. As somebody who was a young dumbass in that decade, I felt transported watching the film.

Gosling and Crowe are great together, and they should consider pairing up again for future films. They are so good that you will forgive the film’s inconsistencies and convoluted plot. You won’t forgive Basinger, though. These cinematic crimes are unforgivable.

I would love to see Crowe and Gosling in a monster movie. Universal Studios should abandon all of those modern spins on Frankenstein and instead put these two in a period piece as a couple of bungling idiots trying to defeat the lurching beast. A great comic duo has been born!

Actually, Shane Black’s next announced movie is The Predator, a sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger monster movie. Nobody has been officially cast yet. Get offers out to Crowe and Gosling … stat!

The Nice Guys is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Adam McKay, the master behind broad-comedy gems Anchorman and Step Brothers, flexes his more-serious muscles for The Big Short, a take on the housing bubble that nearly destroyed the global economy.

An ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt makes this a funny yet scary look at how big banks nearly sent our economy back to the Stone Age. Carell is especially good as Mark Baum, a banker with a conscience who realizes a little too late that things are going down hill—and that his wealth is coming at the expense of many U.S. homeowners.

Bale is typically good as Michael Burry, a man who saw the storm coming and made a boatload of money by betting against the biggest monsters of modern finance. Pitt has fun as a financial guru who has taken to the hills in anticipation of the oncoming financial apocalypse, while Gosling gives the whole thing a nice Martin Scorsese vibe as a fast-talking banker/narrator.

This is a drama, but it’s often funny. (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…brilliant!) McKay shows that his chops go well beyond directing Will Ferrell with a fireman mustache.

The Big Short is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ryan Gosling makes a wacky, strange directorial debut with Lost River, using his own bizarre script. He’s clearly influenced by David Lynch and, most notably, frequent collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn. Unfortunately, his movie has more in common with the awful Only God Forgives than the awesome Drive.

The story involves a woman named Billy (Christina Hendricks, a co-star of Gosling’s in Drive) who is trying to protect and raise her family in a fictional city that’s falling apart. Her oldest son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), scavenges old houses for copper, and finds himself in direct conflict with an area thug.

Billy takes a job in a club straight out of a David Lynch film, where the likes of Cat (Eva Mendes, Gosling’s girlfriend) stage bloody murders onstage. The club owner is Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, the best thing in the movie), who has some evil intentions with his new hire.

Various styles conflict and crash in the film, with little of it making sense. However, the individual performances are good; in fact, Hendricks and Mendelsohn are both quite good.

The movie also looks great, which is usually what happens when you hire Benoit Debie (Enter the Void) to shoot your movie. Gosling proved he can make a nice-looking movie.

Next time out, he should leave the scripting duties to somebody else and concentrate on directing. He has potential behind the camera, but his script leaves a lot to be desired.

Special Features: What? No extras? That’s OK, because I wasn’t interested in going any deeper into this film. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Derek Cianfrance follows up his brilliant Blue Valentine with The Place Beyond the Pines, a film bigger in scope that also stars Ryan Gosling.

Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt guy who finds out he has a kid. Problem is, the kid is the product of a one-night stand, and the mom (Eva Mendes) has moved on.

Luke resorts to robbing banks, which culminates in a meeting with a rookie cop, Avery, played by Bradley Cooper. The film then focuses on Cooper’s character for a segment before dealing with the kids of Luke and Avery (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) when they are teens. The two young actors match their adult counterparts with strong performances.

The movie is long but never boring, and it crackles most when Gosling is onscreen. This is all about the sins of the fathers, and Cianfrance presents the story in a way that resonates. He interweaves a lot of characters, and they all get proper coverage.

The Blu-ray serves as an antidote for the latest Gosling film, Only God Forgives, which is terrible. (Gosling was in Gangster Squad as well, so his 2013 has resulted in more bad than good.) Apparently he’s now taking a little break from films. I blame Gangster Squad.

Special Features: You get some deleted and extended scenes, a Cianfrance commentary and a look behind the scenes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Ryan Gosling has recently re-teamed with two directors who came up aces for him on their last films.

Earlier this year, Gosling gave a magnetic performance in The Place Beyond the Pines for director Derek Cianfrance, maker of the excellent Blue Valentine. Pines is one of the year’s best pictures so far, a movie worth revisiting.

Now comes Only God Forgives from Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the masterpiece Drive. While Drive cemented Gosling as one of the better young actors on screens today, Forgives winds up being a complete nonevent.

This movie has virtually nothing to offer. Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok drug-smuggler whose brother is killed by a local cop. At the urging of his foul-mouthed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), he seeks revenge on his brother’s killer, resulting in a fight in which he gets his ass supremely kicked.

That’s it. That’s the movie: Gosling gets his ass kicked while Thomas curses up a storm. Some people get their arms cut off; some people get worse; and that is all.

Other than Thomas talking in a way that would make Harvey Keitel blush, there isn’t that much dialogue. There are a couple of dreamy karaoke sequences that feel as if they were lifted from the cutting-room floor of the last David Lynch film, and that’s it.

The word out of the Cannes Film Festival is that Only God Forgives received boos mixed with a standing ovation. Those who hated the film cited it for gratuitous violence that went beyond the realm of excusable.

The violence is pretty extreme, but most folks will handle it. The real problem is that there is no discernible story. Refn got a crew together, gave his performers little to say or do, and delivered a revenge story in which viewers will care about nobody.

This will draw comparisons to Drive, and it should. Drive was a movie that positioned Refn as a force to be reckoned with. Characters actually said things together; Gosling looked like he had a clue; and Albert Brooks provided dark humor. The shimmering soundtrack and excellent cinematography made it a complete film.

Only God Forgives, in contrast, is one of those impressionistic affairs in which a director thinks he’s made a movie simply because he went out, shot some stuff, and edited it together. There’s some sort of symbolism going on with shots of hands and touching, apparently Refn’s weak attempt to make his film “deeper.” All the hand stuff really does is help get the film’s running time to 90 minutes.

Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang, Julian’s nemesis and the person who is chopping people’s arms off. IMDB.com says that Refn directed Pansringarm by telling the actor he was God before every shot. Whatever.

I get excited when I hear that a good director is doing something experimental. Nothing had me more excited this movie year than the idea of Gosling and Refn together again. But after watching Only God Forgives, I’m thinking these two need a break from each other. All they’ve come up with is a bore fest about a mopey drug guy with serious mommy issues.

I also think Refn should go back to directing other people’s screenplays, as he did with Drive. The screenplay for this one is all his, and the blame for its profound stupidity lies squarely on his shoulders.

Only God Forgives is playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert (760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

I really hate Gangster Squad, even though it has some of my favorite actors in it.

An all-star cast including Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn and Josh Brolin play dress-up in this lame, fictional retelling of the Los Angeles war on organized crime in the late 1940s.

Sean Penn plays criminal kingpin Mickey Cohen, who had a pretty crazy life—but you won’t see that life in this dopey movie. Here, Brolin’s cop enlists a group of lawmen to go underground and beat the criminals, and it's basically all made up.

I’m OK with some artistic license, but this one goes a little too far. It wants to be new Untouchables, but it isn’t nearly as exciting or fascinating. And it boasts terrible performances from the normally reliable Gosling and Penn. They chew the scenery like it was made of their favorite chocolate, and the voice Gosling employs for his part is maddening.

Avoid this at all costs. It’s a dog.

Special Features: There’s a director’s commentary, some deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes stuff that you will hopefully never see, because you will heed my advice and avoid this at all costs.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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