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)

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

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Gone Girl Movie Review

For better or worse.

The sacred wedding vows that couples take are taken to glorious extremes in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, based on the bestselling phenomenon of a novel written by Gillian Flynn. She also wrote the screenplay and I am pleased to report she remained faithful to her work.

While author Flynn’s faithfulness to her novel will undoubtedly make her readers happy, unbridled devotion is not a trait the principal characters of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) share with one another. Their romance starts on a positive note, but the complications of life eventually wear their union down. Jealousies arise. The everyday boredom of an existence in the Midwest away from her native New York takes its toll on Amy.

And on their five-year anniversary… Amy becomes the title character. She’s gone. There are clues to what may have happened. Blood samples. Notes left by Amy that she always made for Nick as kind of a scavenger hunt to retrace the history of their relationship. In this case, they may serve as something more.

Nick quickly becomes a suspect as the husband in these instances usually do. The tabloid media feasts on the tale of the missing woman and her significant other who dares to smile at the missing persons press conference. Along the way, Flynn’s screenplay gradually reveals more and more about this couple. For those unfamiliar with the source material, it won’t be what you expect.

Writing a review of Gone Girl is complicated, to say the least. Just as you didn’t want to reveal the many twists to one about to read the book, the same holds true for its film adaptation. So I’ll put it this way – David Fincher was the right guy for this project. Through Seven and The Game and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there is perhaps no director better at this kind of dark material. As you’d expect, Gone Girl‘s technical aspects are flawless, from the cinematography to the score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) to the production design and so forth.

There are details about Amy and Nick’s personas that couldn’t possibly be fully explored in the way the book manages, but the picture come awfully close. The casting is key here and Affleck and Pike nail their roles. Nick is neither your typical panicked husband whose wife has vanished nor the sinister monster who may or may not have done the unthinkable. And Amy is far from just the victim. Pike’s performance in particular is something else with the range of emotions she must go through. Expect her to get a Best Actress nod come Oscar time.

Fincher has a habit of unconventional casting choices and there are two here worthy of special mention: Neil Patrick Harris as a former stalker of Amy’s and Tyler Perry as a brilliant criminal defense attorney. Both shine in their against type casting parts. Carrie Coon also merits a shout out for her strong work as Nick’s twin sister.

Gone Girl, more than anything, is about the facades people put on to get into their relationships, maintain them, and possibly lose them. It’s about asking the question of whether or not you ever truly know the individual you call your soul mate. For better or worse, Nick and Amy take a journey in Gone Girl to find out. The results are often shocking and consistently enthralling to the audience.

***1/2 (out of four)

Gone Girl Box Office Prediction

It’s earning highly positive reviews and is based on a huge bestseller by Gillian Flynn. One of the finest directors working today is behind the camera. David Fincher’s Gone Girl seems poised to make a major splash at the box office when it opens this Friday.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star in this thriller where a wife’s disappearance might not be all that it seems. Costars include Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry. Upon its release just two years ago, Gillian Flynn’s book became a must-read and she herself wrote the picture’s screenplay. Fincher, the great director of Seven, Fight Club, and The Social Network, has taken up the task of adapting it. He last found success directing a beloved novel with 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher’s current largest opening of all time is 2002’s Panic Room, which made $30 million out of the gate. Gone Girl seems likely to surpass that.

As mentioned, reviews have been strong and it currently sits at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Positive word of mouth should propel Gone Girl to a nice and lengthy run at the multiplexes. I’ll predict this gets off to a very steady beginning and should easily top the charts next weekend.

Gone Girl opening weekend prediction: $39.6 million

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