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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

The King Kong cinematic machine is cranking again with Kong: Skull Island, an entertaining-enough new take on the big ape that delivers action, but lags a bit when the titular gorilla isn’t onscreen smashing things up.

Of the Kong incarnations, this one has the most in common with the 1976 take on the classic story, basically because it’s set just a few years before, in ’73. While there is a beautiful girl on whom the big guy gets a small crush (Brie Larson as a photographer), the story eschews the usual “beauty and the beast” Kong angle for more straight-up monster vs. monster action. Unlike the past American Kong films, this one never makes it to Manhattan, and instead stays on Kong’s island—thus the title of the film.

Kong himself is portrayed by motion-capture CGI, and he’s a badass. He’s also tall enough to be a formidable foe for Godzilla, a mash-up already announced for 2020. In the few scenes in which he interacts with humans, Kong seems like an organic creature rather than a bunch of gigabytes. He blends well with his human counterparts.

There hasn’t been much mention of those human counterparts yet, because, with the exception of John C. Reilly as a fighter pilot stranded on the island during World War II, most of the humans are bland. Tom Hiddleston might make a decent James Bond someday, and he’s a lot of fun as Loki, but he just doesn’t work here as a rugged tracker/action hero. His presence constantly suggests that his character might turn bad mid-mission and feed his friends to the monsters—or, alternatively, that he might stop for tea and biscuits every 5 minutes. He’s too much of a pretty boy for the role.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film the bursts of humor it needs. His castaway is a wild card, like Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. Actually, the whole movie, with its post-Vietnam setup and Nixon-era themes, plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong. When Reilly is onscreen, it plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong meets Talladega Nights.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the psycho military commander who still holds a beef about the war, while John Goodman is on hand as the explorer who thinks “something” is on this strange, uncharted island. He’s essentially this film’s Carl Denham (one of the main characters from the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake) without being named Carl Denham. The likes of Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and Richard Jenkins round out the cast.

As for Hiddleston and Larson, one gets the sense their parts were supposed to be bigger, but then director Jordan Vogt-Roberts looked at a first cut and realized they sucked, so he replaced a lot of their screen time with Kong action. Indeed, Kong gets plenty of time to destroy things. He battles helicopters, strange dino creatures and, in one of the film’s greater moments, a giant octopus that results in an eating scene that’s a direct homage to Oldboy.

How does this stack up against past Kongs? I’d say it’s the weakest of the American Kongs. (I am a sucker for the ’76 Twin Towers/Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange one.) Oh, wait, it’s better than King Kong Lives, the ’86 sequel to the ’76 Kong, during which he got the heart transplant. That’s actually one of the worst movies ever made. It’s so bad that I’d mercifully forgot it existed until this paragraph of this very review. Kong: Skull Island is also better than the loopy, strangely enjoyable Japanese Kongs, although it owes much to those films in spirit.

As you must do with Marvel films now (with the exception of Logan), stay through Kong: Skull Island credits. There’s an initial sequence during the credits that I won’t give away, and a scene after the credits that I also won’t give away.

Kong: Skull Island is a shallow enterprise, but a fun one. It’ll be interesting to see how they bridge the time gap between this excursion and the present-day Godzilla. Kong ages well, so they’ll probably just leap over a few decades and get to the good stuff.

Kong: Skull Island is now playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews