First Man: Movie Review

“We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.”

In the span of four years, Damien Chazelle has gone from a wunderkind to a legitimate force to be reckoned with. His last two features Whiplash and La La Land are masterful cinematic works that fully realize the potential of their topics, themes, and characters. With both of these films being my favorite of their respective years, I was instantly on board for whatever Chazelle would do next. Would he make another musical? Go back to the jazz scene? Will JK Simmons destroy the moral and dreams of the main character? In short, the answer is no. First Man is Chazelle’s follow up to his Oscar-winning La La Land, on the spectrum of variety, it seems that he has no intent on slowing down. He has given us a picture that shares completely different DNA from what has come before, delivering an intensely intimate, personal and melancholy character study of Neil Armstrong.

First Man depicts the life and times of Neil Armstrong, beginning from 1961, culminating into the fateful Apollo 11 moon landing. We follow Armstrong through every mountainous high along with every devastating low. First Man very much lives up to its title as it almost focuses solely on the trials and tribulations Armstrong had to endure, as well as his then-wife Janet getting the brunt of it.  Some viewers may expect the film to center around the Apollo crew or NASA as they prepare to take on an immensely dangerous space mission, and those viewers may end up disappointed. This isn’t a modern telling of Apollo 13 or an ensemble piece of the crew. The film focuses on the man, and the turbulent journey he took to be the first man to ever walk on the moon.

In spite of a laser sharp focus, the same cannot be said for its storytelling. First Man takes place over the span of eight years, and despite a lengthy 140 minute run time, the passage of time isn’t done with the care and focus that other aspects of the film are given. There are time stamps that give the audience an idea over how much time has passed since the prior scene, but hardly anything else is done to show how the characters have changed in the span of that time. That certainly may have been the intention given Armstrong’s perceived indifference to the world around him, but the execution can hinder the film’s pacing; and for a near two and a half hour film, that can be severely damaging.

With the narrative focusing primarily on one character, it is imperative to have an actor who can not only be compelling enough to justify their being there, but also bring humanity to a person who has always been described as a reluctant celebrity. Ryan Gosling shines as Neil Armstrong, bringing his trademarked stoicism and quietly fierce demeanor to the role. First Man does not paint Armstrong as an overtly patriotic or grandiose presence. There is a subtlety to Gosling’s performance that brings awareness and attention to whatever is happening to him at a given moment, but also an odd emotional detachment from the rest of the cast that can be initially frustrating for the viewer, but later becomes one of the Armstrong’s defining features. The lack of explosive acting is not to be confused with disinterest or indifference. This is a damaged and emotionally torn man who is tasked with completing what is arguably the greatest human achievement in history. There has to be some sort of reservation within the man.

As expected, Damien Chazelle directs this film with the confidence and prudence that has won over a legion of moviegoers. Stylistically, First Man is head-to-toes different from anything in his filmography. Music is hardly the focus this time around, and on top of this being a biopic, anyone hoping for an encore of Whiplash or La La Land will be left as cold as the blackness of space. There is a handheld, documentarian feel to the movie that legitimately feels like we are watching archive footage from Neil Armstrong’s life. The constant use of closeups, crash zooms and purposeful shaky cam over its grainy color palette ensures a level of realism and intimacy that is lacking in even some of the best biopics. Also, it is nearly impossible to tell what effects were practical or digitally done. The crashes, the soaring of the spaceships, and the lighting transitions from Earth’s blue to the blackness of space is immensely well done and seamless. This is less a cinematic presentation as it is a recreation of what it would actually feel like to be in what is essentially a metal trash can being launched into space. The launch scenes can range from being awe-inspiring to suspenseful to nausea inducing to absolutely terrifying. There is a large abundance of spontaneity and unpredictability to these scenes, which is quite an achievement since this is one of the most documented events in human history.

The moon landing itself, done with IMAX cameras is the true selling point of the film. Gone are the grainy and amateur feel of old. I dare not go into detail as to what happens during the sequence, but it acts as a beautifully done and powerful payoff to the film’s central arc. The omission of an American flag being planted into the moon’s surface has been absolutely blown out of proportion in favor of political speak and the need for a headline. In the context of the film, and the storytelling that is in effect, every shot, cut, use of silence and sway of the camera is done to absolute perfection. In a visual perspective, and as well as a narrative conclusion, the lunar sequence is a near-perfect and satisfying culmination of this incredibly personal story.

First Man is not anti-American. It does not paint a liberal’s paradise or is overtly politically correct. Director Damien Chazelle showcases the humanity and internal conflict of the man who is centered around the moon landing. It is so easy, tempting even, to fall into the media wonderland that was present in covering this event. Political ideologies and patriotism could have easily drowned out the human component of this story. Though not as finely tuned as his prior work, Chazelle has once again given us an experience so special and engrossing, bringing a mastery and wisdom to his craft well beyond his years.

Final Grade: A-


Solo: A Star Wars Story: A Review

God, there’s too many colons.

When it was announced that Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars, with the intention of making new films for a new generation, I reveled in the endless possibilities as to the stories that can be told. What happened after Return of the Jedi? What was Obi-Wan doing for all that time in Tattoine? What new characters are we going to meet? On top of that, I dreamed over the idea that new filmmakers were able to put their spin on a franchise of this magnitude. Names like Joss Whedon, Brad Bird, JJ Abrams, even David Fincher were at one point linked with a new Star Wars film. I never loved the idea of a Han Solo film, but to have Phil Lord and Christopher Lord (21 and 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) at the helm? Count me in.

Alas, amidst production drama, Lord and Miller got the boot and were replaced with the always reliable Ron Howard, and here we are. Solo: A Star Wars Story is out, and the final product is an adequate, if uninteresting film. I say adequate, because on a technical level, the film is perfectly fine. The special effects are stellar, as expected. The action scenes are very fun, and Howard does his absolute damnedest to prevent this from being a complete disaster. Not to mention, I am very relieved to say that the performances are good. Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson do what they can with the material given, turning stale characterizations into, at the very least, entertaining Star Wars characters. Childish Gambino himself, Donald Glover is effortlessly charming and joyous to watch as Lando Calrissian, perfectly complimenting the role Billy Dee Williams made iconic nearly four decades ago. He’s breezy, cool and relaxed as Lando. However, even if this film serviced Oscar winning performances, the failure of the title character would be the failure of the film entire. With the being said, Alden Ehrenreich is perfectly serviceable as the famed scruffy looking nerf herder. Ehrenreich doesn’t try a Harrison Ford impression, almost as if he played the part as if there was no precedence before, which is great. The worst thing that he could have done is change the register of his voice, or smirk at the end of every sentence like many impressionists do. In that respect, Ehrenreich gets the job done.

The predominant issue of this film, however, is its very existence. Han Solo is one of the most beloved and celebrated characters in cinema history, but mostly as a side character. To put him front and center should take heavy consideration and thought, since you’re running the risk of having too much of a good thing. Solo does not suffer from this, but it hardly does anything new, fresh or inventive with the title character. Han Solo is being Han Solo, which is better than bastardizing the character, but the film comes off as uneventful and at times, boring.

We will never see Lord and Miller’s intended vision for this film, but knowing their high energy, spontaneous and unpredictable tones that their films adopt, a Han Solo film would have benefited exponentially from their technique. Their films are chaotic, fast paced, and heartfelt: traits that encapsulate the character of Han Solo. I have favored the Disney Star Wars experiment thus far. Yes I liked The Last Jedi. Say what you will about TLJ, and there is a lot, but at it least it took chances with Star Wars lore and felt like an original piece of work, compared to the nostalgic pandering that the other films are, in some way, guilty of. If Lucasfilm wants their films to succeed, they must be comfortable with taking risks. Lord and Miller could have been that risk that paid off, but that discussion will always conclude within the realm of the hypothetical. There are young, hungry filmmakers that have the potential to make the next great Star Wars movie. The MCU have had a wealth of success because they instill trust within their filmmakers, like Joss Whedon, Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and James Gunn (Edgar Wright notwithstanding). Those films are changing the state of blockbuster cinema, and though Ron Howard does a perfectly adequate job at the helm, knowing that Solo could have been different, and potentially better film is a hard pill to swallow. There’s a line in the film, “Stick to the plan, and do NOT improvise”, which perfectly encapsulates this film, as it’s a standard, inconsequential affair that frights at the idea of becoming something better.


Grade: C+

Review: Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs (Source:

He’s done it again. Wes Anderson is easily the most visually unique filmmaker in this day and age. The quirky dialogue, distinct visual pallets, and beautifully framed shots have become a thing of legend each and every time Anderson adds to his filmography. I sincerely believed that he checkmated himself with The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I’ve been happily proven wrong. His new picture, Isle of Dogs, is a feast on the eyes as much as it is a storytelling triumph, and easily the best film of the year thus far.

To divulge any part of the story would do a film a disservice; there is a story to be told, and the film is hell bent on telling it, surprises and all. Just know that there is a literal island of dogs, and a pact encounters a boy determined to find his estranged pet. What follows is a hilarious, touching, and visually astonishing achievement of stopmotion animation.

Easily the selling point of this film is the animation, and the stop motion aspect only accounts for half of its brilliance. There are tons of paintings, drawings and other visual motifs throughout with such an incredible attention to detail, making the Japanese archipelago setting much more unique and alluring to the viewer. Anyone familiar with Anderson’s filmography will feel right at home. Every set is made with meticulous detail, and there the camerawork perfectly equals that sense of precision. What comes out of that effort are beautifully symmetrical frames of film that can easily be screencapped and be set as desktop wallpaper. This feels like a place that the characters truly inhabit and call home. Even though the film is animated, the world is considerably more realized and immersive than the plethora of universes and worlds other films depict, and Wes Anderson makes it look effortless. This is a director at his absolute best, a master at the height of his powers.

Isle of Dogs follows suit with Anderson’s other films in that there is a sarcastically huge, star studded supporting cast that portray these larger than life characters. You’ll recognize the familiar Anderson favorites such as Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Edward Norton (and waaaaaay more), but it’s the criminally underrated Bryan Cranston who leads the pact (pun shamelessly intended). His voice is instantly recognizable, especially if you’re familiar with his work, but over time, and I’m not sure if it’s just me, the celebrity of the actor fades into the background. Maybe it’s the writing, considering each character is given a distinct personality from another. The actors are practically blessed with a script that knows how to play on each performer’s strengths, leading to an array of characters without a single, solitary weak link. Every character is written to narrative perfection, and given this is a cast that can rival Infinity War, this is no small feat.

This is a film that, like dogs, has infinite charm. The characters are so well written, and the situations depicted develop them in such a satisfying fashion. There is a sense of humor here that, if done by a lesser writer or director, would have disastrously awkward results. Wes Anderson is the king of making the awkward funny, to make the uncomfortable charming. Isle of Dogs is a testament to Wes Anderson’s knack for storytelling. There is a language barrier aspect of the film that I wouldn’t dare spoil here, but know it plays to the characters and the audience in a strikingly effective way that doesn’t seem forced or overtly obvious. That is a trait of a genius storyteller, and blessed are we to be in the presence of one.

Final Grade:  A+