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I’m a nut for science fiction as well as science fact — and so I was instantly excited when I heard that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) was directing First Man, a film telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s first landing on the moon.  The film’s trailers, when they arrived, got me even more excited.  I am pleased to report that the film does not disappoint.

When First Man is at its best, it is a spectacularly visceral recreation of the Neil Armstrong (and his fellow space pioneers in the Gemini and Apollo programs)’s experience leading up to, and during, the incredible feat of journeying to the moon and returning safely to the Earth.  Time and again, the film is remarkable in the way that it is able to put us right into the lap of Neil Armstrong, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he might have felt.  We’re right there in the cockpit with Neil at the start of the film when, testing a X-15 rocket plane, he accidentally bounces off of the atmosphere and almost drifts away into space.  In an incredible sequence in the center of the film, we’re right there in the space capsule with Neil and David Scott during the Gemini 8 mission, launching into orbit, successfully locating and docking with the Agena vehicle, and nearly losing their lives when the spacecraft begins to spin out of control.  And, of course, we are there in the Eagle with Neil and Buzz Aldrin when they make their historic landing on the moon.

I have seen a lot of wonderful films about the American space program and the lunar missions, but I’ve never before quite had the discomfiting feeling of claustrophobia and fear of actually strapping into a tin can on top of a rocket, as these brave men did.  First Man was able to pull me from my theatre seat into those experiences.  Mr. Chazelle and his team have impeccably recreated these moments with an extraordinary eye for details that prior films have overlooked.  We can see and feel the tactile reality of the switches in the spacecraft control panels.  We hear and feel the swaying of the platform Neil and Dave Scott walk across in order to board the Gemini 8 capsule.  We hear the groaning of the metal on the spacecraft as it launches, and the booming explosions of the rocket fire that is propelling them airborne at an incredible rate of speed.

I saw First Man on an enormous Imax screen, and I encourage you to do the same.  The visual force of the film is tremendous, and it’s rendered even more effective on the … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2016 — Part Two!

On Wednesday I began my list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016! Let’s continue:

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15. Weiner It’s remarkable that this film exists.  For some reason, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner allowed a documentary crew full access to himself, his family, and his political team during his campaign for the Democratic nomination to be the Mayor of New York City in 2013.  Weiner’s attempt at political resuscitation came crashing down around his ears in spectacular fashion when, a few weeks into the campaign, new sexting scandals came to light.  The film is a you-can’t-look-away story of personal and professional catastrophe, and there’s something mesmerizing about it.  It’s a fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made look behind the scenes of a modern political campaign, and a devastating story of a very flawed man destroying himself.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying, funny and deeply sad.  Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a remarkable film that has so much to say about the political and human realities of our current age.

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14. 10 Cloverfield Lane Somehow J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was able to create this film almost entirely in secret, only announcing it’s existence a few months before its release.  That’s an incredible magic trick all its own in today’s internet spoiler era, but even putting all of that aside and judging the film strictly on it’s own two feet, this is a great movie that really hit me in my movie-going sweet spot.  For much of the film’s run-time, it’s a gripping character piece and exercise in escalating tension.  Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) wakes up after a car accident to find herself locked in an underground bunker with Howard (John Goodman) and a young man, Emmett (John Gallagher).  Howard is a survivalist who tells Michelle that a deadly virus or nerve agent has been released by a foreign attack and that, if she leaves the bunker, she will die.  Is he telling the truth or is he lying?  Is Howard Michelle’s savior or a terrible villain?  Dan Trachtenberg’s film (written by the great Drew Goddard) keeps turning the screws on Michelle and the audience, and it’s a magnificent thing to watch.  All three main actors are fantastic, 100% invested in this story and these roles.  Then there are the film’s final twenty minutes, which are absolutely bonkers and yet absolutely perfect.  I love the idea that Bad Robot will be periodically releasing Cloverfield films, creating a movie anthology series of weird and suspenseful tales.  I loved 2008’s Cloverfield, and this new film — which totally stands on its own and yet also feels 100% “of a piece” with the first Cloverfield[continued]

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Josh Reviews La La Land

In La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his marvelous and intense film Whiplash, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as two young artists struggling to make it in Los Angeles. Ms. Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista, while Mr Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz musician who, soon after we meet him, gets fired from his demeaning (at least that’s how he views it) job playing popular ditties on piano at a restaurant. Mia and Sebastian’s first two interactions don’t go well, but when they meet for a third time, something sparks.

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La La Land is a musical, a rare thing in cinema these days.  A musical is certainly a retro style of film, and Mr. Chazelle leans into that, with aspects of the film such as the opening credits and the closing “the end” title card having the look and feel of Hollywood films from days gone by.  I loved those touches, they work together to help set a tone for this film as something different, something set apart in style from so many of the other movies crowding our multiplexes these days.

The film also has an earnestness that feels retro in this modern cynical age.  This is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve.  Some might find that corny, but I found it to be enormously appealing.  Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling are able to sell the film’s big emotional beats completely, drawing the audience into their story.

The music in La La Land is great. Right away from the joyous opening number I was captured by the film’s effervescent tone, not to mention the extraordinary film-making skill on display as that complicated opening number, set in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam, appears to unfold in one unbroken take.  That was impressive!

But La La Land works because, even if you were to take all of the wonderful musical sequences out of the movie, you would still be left with a compelling story. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling’s shared chemistry and movie-star wattage make you care about these two characters and their relationship. But more than that, I was taken by the film’s meditations on creative struggles, the hardship of the quest for artistic success, and the heart-rending soul-searching that must be done when one has to weigh giving up on one’s artistic dreams for a chance at more attainable every-day goals. Anyone who has ever tried to make art surely knows these struggles. I was captivated by the way in which Mr. Chazelle explored these issues on-screen.

Although I like them both individually, I was not that interested in Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling’s prior two … [continued]

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Catching Up! Josh Reviews Whiplash, The One I Love, and A Million Ways to Die in the West

I’m catching up with reviews of movies I’ve seen over the past several months!  Onward:

Whiplash (2014) — Every bit as compelling as I’d heard.  Miles Teller first came to my attention in the excellent film The Spectacular Now (click here for my review), which made me eager to see his follow-up work.  He shines in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s film, playing Andrew, a drum student looking to stand out at an elite music conservatory in New York.  Andrew catches the eye of the brutally tough instructor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who invites him to join his studio band.  What seems at first like great fortune for Andrew sours as we the audience experience, along with Andrew, the vicious way in which Fletcher pushes the student musicians who idolize him.  The film is a fascinating exploration of a teacher-student relationship and the tough questions of where is the line between a teacher taking someone with the potential for greatness and pushing him/her hard to achieve that greatness, versus crossing the line into abuse.  These are thorny questions, and the film leaves a lot of room for an audience to reach their own conclusions, which I enjoyed.  There is some spectacular music in the film, which is a delight.  But the real reason to see this film is to relish J. K. Simmons’ barn-busting performance.  Mr. Simmons grabs every iota of the viewer’s attention every second he is on screen.  It’s a bravura performance and deserving of every ounce of praise that Mr. Simmons has received.  This is a great film.

The One I Love (2014) — This is a delightfully weird film, an indie relationship film with a sci-fi twist.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play Ethan and Sophie, a married couple having trouble in their marriage.  Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends that they visit a place he knows, where they can have a romantic weekend together.  When they arrive there, they find the estate has a mysterious cottage in which they each encounter what appears to be an idealized version of the other.  But these doppelgängers only appear when either Ethan or Sophie are in the cottage alone — they vanish if both Ethan and Sophie enter together.  While at first their instinct is to flee the estate, eventually Ethan and Sophie agree to stay for the remainder of their weekend and see where these interactions with these idealized versions of one another go.  Things get twister from there but I fear I have already told you too much.  The One I Love is an intriguing investigation of a troubled relationship, using the sci-fi device as a hook into the story.  Both Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss … [continued]