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)

Widows Movie Review

Like Michael Mann’s Heat over two decades ago, Steve McQueen’s Widows is a heist movie more concerned with the personalities of the people planning them. The similarities don’t stop there. It’s got a sprawling cast with many familiar faces and an overall somber tone. This is a genre marked mostly by its entertainment value. Heists are fun onscreen with the numeric Ocean’s being the highest profile recent examples.

Unlike Heat, its central planner doesn’t pull these crimes because he’s great at it and doesn’t have a personal life. Here it’s the personal lives that lead to the planning in the first place. And in this one, it’s “she’s”. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) works for the Chicago Teachers Union and is married to career thief Harry (Liam Neeson). What I’m about to write isn’t exactly a spoiler considering the title. Harry and his crew have a job go awry and they’re all killed. Besides Veronica, the widowed women include business owner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), abused spouse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and new mom Amanda (Carrie Coon).

Their mourning period is disrupted by their husband’s past illegal dealings. Windy City crime lord Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) was ripped off by them and he’s ready to collect. He’s running for an alderman spot against corrupt politico Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Mulligan fancies himself a man of the people and lives close to the dilapidated neighborhood he wishes to represent. He might as well live on another planet. Manning wants to enter government life to get away from a life of crime, but seems to understand that they go hand in hand in this transactional and blood soaked Chicago.

Veronica, Linda, and Alice are put in a desperate spot. A clue left behind by Harry leads them to plan a robbery of Mulligan’s dirty money while trying to keep his political opponent off their backs (Amanda chooses to not to participate). Mulligan and Manning have enforcers on their team. The former’s is his controlling and ruthless father (Robert Duvall). The latter’s is his henchman (Daniel Kaluuya), who’s sadistic and seems to genuinely enjoy his works of depravity.

There are many subplots in Widows and McQueen manages to pull it off in mostly satisfying fashion. Some work better than others. The relationship of Veronica and Harry is a complicated one that’s given emotional heft by a shared loss. The same can be said for Alice’s character. She’s been a victim her whole life it seems. There’s an empowerment element with her that makes her perhaps the easiest character to root for. Rodriguez’s story has less meat on the bones. They pick up another conspirator in Belle (a memorable Cynthia Erivo), a driven woman who serves as the driver.

You’ll not be surprised to find the performances are first-rate, particularly Davis, Debicki, and Kaluuya (there’s not a mediocre one in the bunch). The score, editing, and cinematography are also noteworthy. McQueen wrote the script along with Gillian Flynn, known for her twisty works like Gone Girl. She’s created compelling female characters there and elsewhere and she does so here. If there’s an issue, it’s that her proclivity for twists reaches a tad too far with one (which I won’t spoil). I found it unnecessary and you’ll likely recognize what I’m referring to upon viewing.

And Widows is worth viewing as it gives us some characters you want to follow. There’s nothing remarkable about the heist they’re trying to pull. The acting and technical work often does fit that description.

*** (out of four)

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…