First Man Movie Review

Perhaps the largest overarching theme of Damien Chazelle’s First Man is control. Mission control of the world famous Apollo 11 flight, yes. There’s also a mission in which Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) tragically cannot control with the death of his young daughter to a brain tumor. In Gosling’s face as he lands for the first time ever on the outer reaches of our solar system, we sense his myopic focus on this historic assignment. It is coupled with a sense of loss of what he experienced a few years prior with a task he couldn’t achieve in saving her life.

That, more than anything else, is where the power of this picture lies. Yet these moments are not particularly frequent. We all know how First Man is going to end with Armstrong’s first footprint on a never before stepped upon surface. There is little dramatic tension there, though the booming musical score helps a little bit. Chazelle’s film takes the moon landing and shows it through the eyes of the man who did it. That means we see the extraordinarily small spaces he trains and rides in. And in the years prior to success, we see a string of losses from his daughter to several coworkers who perish along the way.

This is not the space saga I expected from Chazelle. It’s entirely different in tone from his previous efforts Whiplash and La La Land. Armstrong was a famously low key figure and First Man takes cues from his personality. The saga begins eight years prior to his claim to fame. Armstrong is a test pilot with a devoted but strong in her convictions wife Janet (Claire Foy) and two children. With two-year-old Karen, Neil treats her illness as a mathematical equation to be solved, like his daily work. He can’t solve this problem.

His piloting career coincides with his nation’s fervent desire to beat the Russians to the moon after being beat out by them in earlier missions. As we know, he’s eventually given captain status with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) alongside him. Before that occurs, we see Neil’s friendship with another famed astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke) and others. All of these innovators reside in Houston and develop a close community where the wives are constantly living in fear of whether their husbands will come home.

First Man often focuses on that sense of dread and the fact that, in the 1960s, NASA was a program often running blind. Ever hopeful, but with rickety rockets and a cross your fingers and hope for the best attitude. It takes a toll on Neil’s marriage. Foy is excellent as Janet and she’s given a scene or two to shine.

Gosling’s work is, like his subject, tougher to nail down. It’s not a showy role. However, in the moments where he must convey Armstrong’s laser concentration, Gosling flourishes. I admired Chazelle’s tactic of making this tale that goes outside our galaxy a small and personal one. First Man is ultimately an experience that easier to appreciate than be grandly entertained by. Neil Armstrong worked in his own way and so does this for the most part.

*** (out of four)

Oscar Watch: The Report

The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing this weekend and feature films and documentaries are premiering that could factor into the Oscar race a year from now. One such effort is The Report, a true life political drama from director Scott Z. Burns. He’s best known as a screenwriter as he penned The Bourne Ultimatum and Steven Soderbergh’s pics The Informant!, Contagion, and Side Effects.

Adam Driver (currently nominated in Supporting Actor for BlacKkKlansman) stars as a Senate staffer investigating the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Annette Bening plays one of his superiors, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Others in the cast include Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Maura Tierney, Ted Levine, and Corey Stoll.

Early reviews are positive and suggest it’s a throwback to 1970s movies with a message. Driver and Bening are both enjoying kudos for their work. What’s currently unknown is whether this will register with audiences. Political works based on real and touchy events can often have a difficult time at the box office.

If The Report manages to become as high-profile as its subject matter, it might be worth keeping an eye on for awards consideration, especially for Driver and Bening. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

First Man Box Office Prediction

With awards buzz lifting its potential box office prospects, Damien Chazelle’s First Man debuts next weekend. Ryan Gosling headlines as Neil Armstrong in the story of the journey that led him to walk on the moon. Costars include Claire Foy (in a role garnering Oscar chatter), Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas.

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival, First Man has received positive word of mouth with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 88%. Like Chazelle’s last two pictures (Whiplash and La La Land), a Best Picture nomination is expected. Older audiences should turn out (and Gosling fans), but it could be a film that plays well for weeks as opposed to a huge opening.

October has been kind to space flicks, most notably Gravity and The Martian. They both launched to over $50 million out of the gate. First Man is not expected to achieve those numbers. Competition is serious with the second weekends of Venom and A Star Is Born in particular.

I’ll say this manages a low to likely mid 20s start with solid grosses continuing beyond.

First Man opening weekend prediction: $23.5 million

For my Goosebumps 2, Haunted Halloween prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/03/goosebumps-2-haunted-halloween/

For my Bad Times at the El Royale prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/03/bad-times-at-the-el-royale-box-office-prediction/

Oscar Watch: First Man

The Venice Film Festival has kicked off today with Toronto coming next week. That means you can expect two dozen or more Oscar Watch posts coming your way on the blog over the next few days!

The opening film from Venice is a big one – Damien Chazelle’s First Man. The story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey to the moon has screened for critics and the early verdict is quite strong.

It should come as no surprise that Man is considered a potential serious awards contender. Director Chazelle has seen both of his previous works – 2014’s Whiplash and 2016’s La La Land – land Best Picture nominations. The latter infamously lost to Moonlight. Additionally, both pictures resulted in Oscar wins for their performers (J.T. Walsh for Supporting Actor in Whiplash and Emma Stone in lead Actress for La La).

So where does this stand based on early buzz emanating from Italy? It would appear First Man is highly likely to be director’s third effort in a row to be recognized in Best Picture. Chazelle also stands a great chance at a directing nod (he won for La La and was the youngest filmmaker in history to do so).

As for the actors, critical notices have heaped praise on Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Jan. Her inclusion in Supporting Actress is probable. Of the many recognizable male supporting players, it appears Jason Clarke is receiving the most attention. It’s possible that Universal’s Oscar campaign’s focus could primarily center on Gosling and Foy, but I wouldn’t count Clarke out.

Which brings us to Gosling. Critics have been very kind in praising his understated work. I don’t think it’s yet a guarantee that Gosling lands his third Best Actor nod (after Half Nelson and La La Land), but he’s absolutely in the mix.

In addition to Best Adapted Screenplay, First Man should definitely find itself under consideration for numerous tech races including Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Production Design, and Original Score.

Bottom line: First Man is the first fall festival picture to be screened… and it’s established itself as a major player.

First Man opens domestically on October 12. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Gold Movie Review

Stephen Gaghan’s Gold tells another fairly recent “inspired by true events” tale of excess and greed. Instead of nefarious Wall Street types (though they’re here), our story takes place in the gold mining industry. Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is a third generation prospector trying to keep his business Washoe afloat.

A prologue shows happier times for the company in 1981. At that juncture, Kenny’s dad (Craig T. Nelson) is running it successfully and his offspring is merrily working at it. Seven years later, dad has passed and son isn’t so lucky. He runs Washoe from a bar where he indulges in their key product heavily.

Kenny has a dream that leads him to Indonesia to seek out Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a geologist who’s also run into lean times. They believe there might be gold in them Indonesian mountains. Finding it isn’t easy and Kenny even catches malaria, but eventually their fortunes turn.

As the company becomes an extremely hot commodity, Kenny must stave off the vultures of the corporate world, his competitors, third world governments, and the FBI. He also must battle his own issues, which includes the fact that he’s way out of his league suddenly running an operation of its size.

Gold is McConaughey’s show and we get the full Matthew here. That means effective dramatic moments mixed with comedic and quirky ones. He goes through a physical transformation here as he’s done before. Here, the effects of Kenny’s constant boozing shows. Magic Mike physique Matthew is nowhere to be found.

There’s plenty to admire about the lead actor’s work here. The problem is that none of the other characters are very interesting. Bryce Dallas Howard is Kenny’s wife and their relationship goes through the familiar ups and down that massive success brings. Ramirez’s Michael is a bit of a blank slate for most of the running time.

There are a couple of legit crises after Kenny hits its big. One is quite a surprise in the third act and it left me wishing the screenplay spent more time on it. Another involves shady Indonesian politicos and it might have been another subplot worth exploring. It could have provided a chance to give us characters matching the dynamism of what McConaughey brings.

Yet the screenplay doesn’t go there. While its star provides some memorable moments, too much of the rest of Gold feels standard.

**1/2 (out of four)

Gold Box Office Prediction

Matthew McConaughey packed on some pounds for next weekend’s Gold, but whether it manages to be a heavyweight at the box office is very much in question. The pic casts the Oscar winner as a hapless businessman who strikes you know what in the jungles of Indonesia. Stephen Gaghan makes his first directorial effort since 2005’s Syriana and costars include Bryce Dallas Howard, Edgar Ramirez, Corey Stoll, Stacy Keach, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, and Bruce Greenwood.

The early 90s set adventure comedy/drama faces some obstacles in breaking through. First, while it received a very late 2016 limited release for Academy consideration, that didn’t bear fruit. Gold stands at only 43% currently on Rotten Tomatoes. While McConaughey has been a draw in various genres, this may not stand out enough to strike… you get it.

I believe a decent comp for this could be the star’s previous headlining role – last summer’s Free State of Jones, which managed only $7.5 million in its premiere. Bottom line: I don’t see audiences rushing to it and I’m not totally convinced it even reaches the Jones number.

Gold opening weekend prediction: $5.4 million

For my A Dog’s Purpose prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2017/01/18/a-dogs-purpose-box-office-prediction/

For my Resident Evil: The Final Chapter prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2017/01/18/resident-evil-the-final-chapter-box-office-prediction/

Black Mass Movie Review

Scott Cooper’s Black Mass features a remarkable performance by Johnny Depp in a rather unremarkable telling of a fascinating true life gangster tale. Taking place over a number of years starting in the mid 1970s, Mass concentrates on the Boston reign of James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious crime kingpin who was able to evade the law due to his status as an FBI informant. Much of his leeway is due to his friendship dating from childhood with agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Their union allows Bulger to roam the Bah-ston streets freely while giving up info that has the added benefit of eradicating his North Side Mob enemies. Connolly’s longtime connection leaves him either oblivious to who Whitey really is or perhaps a willful co-conspirator.

The film is told in a predictable flashback style as Whitey’s former associates are being questioned by authorities. For anyone who’s watched the news in the last few years, you’ll probably know the real Bulger successfully was a very wanted fugitive for quite a while. We don’t really become acquainted with these witnesses or the law enforcement agents outside of Connolly, but there’s lots of familiar faces playing them. On the good guy side, we have Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, and David Harbour (who is afforded a chilling dinner table scene with the star). Whitey’s henchman are played effectively by Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons. Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Whitey’s politician brother is also underwritten and Dakota Johnson has a brief role as the criminal mastermind’s first wife. The best bit part belongs to Peter Sarsgaard as a coked out associate mixed up with Bulger’s corrupt involvement in World Jai Alai. That subplot, by the way, practically begs for its own feature if done right. Edgerton’s work is commendable and convincing as we slowly learn the dynamics of his relationship with the informant he’s known for decades and the ties that bind them.

Yet this is unquestionably the Johnny Depp Show. His menacing performance, with his giant baby blues and slicked back receding mane, reminds us of just how terrific this man can be. Depp’s trademark eccentricities are on display, but they feel necessary in service to the role he’s playing and not just present for the sake of being weird. It’s something that downgraded recent performances from him and his intense persona here is a breath of fresh and scary air. Truth be told, though, the moments here when Depp’s Bulger is terrorizing his associates are often the only scenes that generate real excitement.

That said, true story or not, little else feels fresh about Black Mass. We’ve seen a number of similar genre tales (some set in Boston) mingling the worlds of crime, law, and politics with greater effectiveness. One that immediately springs to mind is Scorsese’s The Departed, in which Jack Nicholson plays a more fictionalized version of Bulger. Many of the plot points that show up in Mass are contained in The Departed and it’s far more fascinating in the latter. That Boston gang drama earned Best Picture. Black Mass earns credit for allowing Depp to make this role a memorable one. For that reason alone, it’s probably worth a look for his many fans even if the material surrounding it is familiar and a little tiresome.

**1/2 (out of four)