This movie caught me by surprise. I went in expecting to feel again some of the exhilaration and joy I felt when I witnessed live television feed from the moon on that July day decades ago–a human being actually walking on the surface of another world. I knew nothing of Neil Armstrong’s personal life, and if this movie is accurate, its portrait of the man is unflattering. Broken by the death of his daughter, hollowed out by the deaths of fellow pilots and astronauts, Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is the mere shell of a man, unable to grieve, emotionally unavailable to his wife and children. In fact, he would have left for the moon without saying goodbye to his children had his wife (played by Claire Foy) not intervened. Of course, the difficulty for audiences is that when a main character plays an automaton, we are left without an emotional connection to him. We are bereft, as his family was.
Is it a good film? Yes. The acting is excellent, the space sequences are utterly convincing. But for me, the experience of seeing it was sad. Perhaps it burst an old illusion of mine–that the trip to the moon was a grand adventure. According to the film, it was closer to his wife Janet’s critique: “You’re just boys playing with balsa wood toys.”
I came away haunted by the final scene–Armstrong and his wife unable to touch each other through the glass of the quarantine room, a sobering image of their marriage. Sadly, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the empty, airless moon was a metaphor of his life on earth.
We all know the story of Chappaquiddick, but to see it told on the screen in such a low-key fashion, examining the facts as we are aware of them, certainly dims whatever light survives of the Kennedy mythos. Jason Clarke portrays Ted Kennedy as a seriously flawed man, ready to abuse political power and privilege to maintain his position in the Senate. That he did survive and go on to be described as “The Lion of the Senate” rather boggles the imagination. We so want to believe Camelot and everything connected to it. I grew up on the East Coast in Connecticut–I was one of those who wanted to believe he was a good man, despite the damning facts. Although the movie is good, something did not quite gel for me–I felt several paces removed from the drama. Because of that, I’ll give it 4 out of 5 stars.
And then there’s A Quiet Place, far and away the best monster movie I have seen in a long, long time. I usually shy away from horror movies because so often they are either violence porn or blood and guts orgies. This film is neither. It earns its suspense and terror honestly. There is no back story–the movie begins with “Day 89.” All we know is that the monsters are among us. They are fast and vicious and locate us by sound. So we cannot speak, cannot play music, cannot bump around the kitchen. If we play Monopoly, we have to use felt playing pieces so we don’t tap around the board. For one family in an isolated farmhouse, it’s an excruciating ordeal. I was reminded of the first time I saw Alien in 1979, when my friend asked me if I realized I had run out into the parking lot when the credits began to roll. When this film ended, my grandson and I both exhaled and began chuckling, unaware we had been holding our breath through the final scenes. This is a truly terrifying film and I give it my highest recommendation.
Maybe I was having a bad day. Maybe we both were. My daughter and I went to see The Shape of Water expecting great things, especially with all the Oscar buzz and ratings of 93% and 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. We were underwhelmed. Instead of coming out of the theater thinking, “That’s on the way to Oscar night,” I looked at my daughter and we both said, “Well, that was a weird movie.” Now don’t get me wrong–I enjoy weird movies, but a love affair between a mute woman and a sea monster (think Creature from the Black Lagoon)? Is it an extreme parable condemning racism and xenophobia in our society? Perhaps. Neither of us are prudes with regard to films, but we weren’t prepared for the graphic nudity/sexuality and violence. Watching a woman masturbate in the bathtub or a man shove his finger into the bullet hole in a man’s face to torture him relegates this film to no more than “B status” in my opinion. But who am I? According to movie news it’s gleaned 7 Golden Globe nominations. Yes, it is entertaining–an exciting story, good actors, excellent monster effects. But for me it was more a guilty pleasure than the stuff of awards.
To cleanse my mental palate, I then went to see Darkest Hour. I liked this film so much more than I thought I was going to. It is far and away one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Gary Oldman gives a virtuoso performance as Winston Churchill, determined to prevent the British people from caving in to Hitler and accepting the terms of a surrender brokered by Mussolini. He is vilified by his opponents and tortured by his conscience, recognizing that a great number of people will die, but also knowing “You can’t negotiate with a tiger when you have your head in its mouth.” Director Joe Wright can be forgiven for having one of his characters paraphrase JFK’s tribute to Churchill at the end of the film, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Darkest Hour is riveting entertainment–an intelligent and thoughtful alternative to the special effects movies that fill our theaters. I am happy to say that this film reminds me why I love cinema.
Netflix has given us a Christmas present, and it just might be better than a tax break. Set in an alternative L.A., populated with orcs, elves, fairies, and human beings, Bright is a fresh take on the buddy-cop movie: Ward (Will Smith) is paired with Jakoby, an orc (played brilliantly by Joel Edgerton). Despite the nods to diversity training and racial profiling, all is not well. Scars from a 2,000 year old war have left a very uneasy truce between men and orcs, and all of Ward’s fellow patrolmen want Jakoby dead. Into that heady mix falls Tikka, a young elf bearing a magic wand she is desperately trying to keep from those who would bring back the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, everyone and his brother wants the wand, which one character describes as “like a nuclear weapon with a wish list.” Foremost among those are the elves in the group known as the Inferni, led by a deliciously evil and unstoppable Noomi Rapace. No, Dorothy, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore!
With all the production values of a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, the film moves like gangbusters. The action is fast, funny, violent and at times, even John Wickian. (Can I say that?) So if you like your entertainment loud and lurid, put another piece of holiday roast on your plate, freshen your drink, sit back and enjoy. I give Bright an enthusiastic five stars.
Have you wondered why 93% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but only 57% of the general audience did? I have my own hypothesis. Do you remember what Daniel Craig as the new James Bond said to the bartender who asked him if he preferred his martini shaken or stirred? He replied, “Do I look like someone who gives a damn?” That iconoclastic moment defined his take on the role. So, too, the new Star Wars film is filled with iconoclastic moments that have jarred dyed-in-the-wool fans. Those who go in to the movie with preconceived notions as to how things should turn out would best follow the warning Luke gives to Rey toward the end of the film: “This isn’t going to turn out as you expect.” The new director, Rian Johnson, takes a much freer approach to the mythos, and I’m afraid this disappoints some viewers. I was not one of them. I feel The Last Jedi delivers on all levels: compelling characters, engaging story, eye-popping action, and a very satisfying conclusion. Not to be crude, but I was tempted to light up a cigarette as I walked out of the theater.
On a different spectrum entirely, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a visceral, gut-wrenching tour de force for veteran actors Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Borrowing from the Coen brothers playbook, Martin McDonagh has crafted a sometimes darkly comic and always ferocious film about a mother’s grief for her murdered daughter. I confess that I was afraid the film would end with a graphic depiction of that grisly rape and murder, but it does not–thankfully that remains off-screen. That’s not to say the film isn’t violent, but it’s the violence of savage fist-fights between men. What is unique about this film is the attention to character: even the most minor character is nuanced, complex, more than what is immediately visible. Because of that, a gesture as small as offering someone a cup of orange juice with the straw pointed in the right direction can be redemptive. I do recommend you see it with a friend so you can discuss it afterward. I found I enjoyed it more as I got some distance from it and had a chance to process it with a friend. I will be very surprised if McDormand and Rockwell don’t get Oscar nods for their performances.
I took my nine-year-old granddaughter to see Coco last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised. I went in not expecting too much (from what I had seen of the trailer), and was treated to a richly and beautifully animated film with extraordinary depth. Happily, it is devoid of the potty jokes that have become the staple in recent animated films. Instead, it explores family loyalties, personal identity, ambition, and betrayal in a thoroughly engaging way, and yes, mush that I am, I was pretty choked up by the end. This movie has Oscar written all over it. That said, my only disappointment was the animated short that preceded it. We’ve come to expect little gems from Pixar–smart, quirky shorts that burst with creativity. Instead, we get an Olaf the Snowman (yes, from Frozen) cartoon that was dull and unimaginative. But don’t walk out! Stay for the feature! It’s more than worth the price of admission. I’ll be going to see it again.
Then I took my daughter to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. This is a delightful Christmas confection, purporting to be the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. I’m quite sure they played loose with the facts, but for any fan of Dickens, the film is pure pleasure. Dan Stevens as Dickens and Christopher Plummer as Scrooge could not have been better cast. We see Dickens haunted by his characters, who refuse to behave as Dickens would have them. As a writer, I especially liked the way Dickens is portrayed as “trolling” for ideas, paying attention to the people and conversations around him, writing down names that he likes in his notebook, jotting down turns of phrase to use later. Reading A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition for me, along with watching an assortment of Christmas films. (How can it be Christmas without Chevy Chase and Ralphie and the Muppets?) Anyway, I’m sure I will add this film to my collection for viewing again next Christmas.
If you’ve had any doubts about seeing the new action film Baby Driver, leave them all behind. This movie delivers in spades. No, the trailer didn’t contain all the good parts. This is a thrilling film from start to finish. The casting of Ansel Elgort as the driver was inspired–yes, he has a truly baby face, and to see him drive like a bat out of hell is a delight. Kevin Spacey is a menacing puppet master, and both Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx are deliciously evil bad guys. And did I mention the killer sound track? All of the delirious action is driven by the tunes that play in Baby’s ears, music he listens to in order to drown out his tinnitus. Just when you thought the movie was exciting, it careens toward a climactic battle that will leave you gasping for breath and thoroughly satisfied. Sick and tired of your stupid boss? Kids driving you crazy? Demoralized by your impotent road rage in your wimpy Toyota? Check in to your local cineplex for the ultimate catharsis. Just make sure to fasten your seatbelt.