Film Review: First Man

This film is a dramatic account of the first landing of men on the surface of the moon. It was written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land). Singer has experience writing stories based on actual events, including the excellent film about the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, “Spotlight”. He makes some interesting choices in First Man, most notable being his juxtaposition, about three-quarters of the way through, of the NASA story against the backdrop of social turbulence in the late 1960’s. The rest of the screenplay is tightly focused on the people involved in the space program, especially astronaut Neil Armstrong.

There seems to be an intentional effort at realism, both in the the writing and directing. That means there is a lot of technical jargon and details that sailed over my head, with scant effort made at exposition. This is not a criticism of the film makers. If they’d tried that they would’ve ended up with something more akin to “The Martian.” It’s just a built-in problem with the subject matter. Where they succeeded is in immersing the audience in the terrifying, death-defying experiences of the astronauts, starting with a harrowing sequence at the beginning of the film that has Armstrong bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere during a test flight. For me, the takeaway is that these early space pioneers were more than a bit crazy. In all of the launch and flight sequences, the vessels they inhabit appear like they’re about to come apart at the seams. The truth is, several astronauts died getting the program up and running. And a central point of the film is that the success of the moon landing, given all of the problems and deadly sacrifices that proceeded it, was more than a minor miracle.

The effort at realism also intruded into the direction of the film’s star, Ryan Gosling, in the role of Neil Armstrong. While I’m sure that Chazelle and Gosling did their level best to portray Armstrong accurately, the result is a repressed performance lacking in opportunities for emotion most of the time, with the exception of a key scene near the beginning involving a personal tragedy, and a beautiful, poignant coda near the end. Thank goodness for the performance of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, who steals the show in many respects, including the emotional pivot-point of the film, during which she chides Armstrong for his reluctance to address his possible demise with his children as he prepares to head for launch.

I thought this was a powerful film and a must see for anyone young enough to have not been born, or to have no recollection of, the first moon landing. It works slightly less well as pure entertainment. One more thing: some people have made a big deal of the fact that the film doesn’t include the planting of the American flag on the moon. Speaking only for myself, that would not have occurred to me as a problem if others had not brought it up. The film is about people; about pioneers; about sacrifices, and that what they did back in the day transcends boundaries and, in so doing, speaks to humanity.

Live Long and Prosper


As a fan of science fiction, I’m glad that Leonard Nimoy, otherwise known as Spock, graced us with his presence on TV and in film. He died today at the age of 83.

Spock is, of course, a character from Star Trek, and is, in my opinion, the most developed and memorable character in the sci-fi canon. I’ve often wondered to what extent Nimoy was acting when he played Spock. He always seemed to disappear into the character, like another one of my favorite actors, Clint Eastwood. It makes me think that Nimoy was just playing himself.

Nimoy is gone. Rest in peace. Spock lives on. I wait for the next Star Trek release.

The actor Zachary Quinto has proven an adequate replacement, but will never be Nimoy’s equal. Still, I should take this opportunity to say to Mr. Quinto, live long and prosper.

Urban Legend


A few posts back I wrote a haiku poem called Cranes in the Sunset and made a passing reference to the Oakland shipping cranes being the inspiration for the walking war machines in The Empire Strikes Back. My unofficial fact checker quickly replied to the post and said that George Lucas himself had denied any connection between the two.

I won’t argue with Mr. Lucas if he said that, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered that connection over the years, both in print and verbally. You can even buy a t-shirt like the one pictured above. The myth was repeated so many times that Mr. Lucas felt compelled to set the record straight.

It goes to show how something can take on the force of truth through simple repetition.

Film Review: The Interview

The Interview

Well, Sony and independent theaters finally did the right thing and allowed Americans to watch the new Seth Rogen film, The Interview. The neat thing about seeing this film is that it exists in the unique context of an international incident involving the United States, North Korea, and shadowy computer hackers.

The story about why the film’s release was delayed has played out like some bizarre performance art piece that rivals the film itself in it’s sheer absurdity. The film combined with it’s context has become a separate piece of art. I have to review that separate piece of art, because that’s what I saw, and, at least for me, it was impossible to separate the film from it’s context.

A talk show host and his producer receive an invitation to interview the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. It’s a silly premise, but removing any hint of seriousness from the get go opens up the screenplay and let’s the writers roam free in an absurdist wonderland.

There’s also plenty of funny meta-level stuff about the entertainment industry, including a cameo performance by the rap superstar Eminem as a guest on the talk show. By the way, there has been speculation about Eminem’s health based on recent photographs of him. His physical appearance in the movie will do nothing to dispel that speculation. He didn’t look well, even while wearing theatrical makeup.

The Interview has not received glowing reviews from critics, but those reviews were of the film itself, absent the contextual wrap-around of the international incident. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was very funny. The funniest thing about it is that the jokes sort of get mixed up with the over-the-top propaganda coming out of North Korea about the film. For example, the film opens with a young North Korean girl singing a patriotic song in Korean. The lyrics are shown in English subtitles and could have come straight from the North Korean government. That part was hysterical.

Another funny thing about the film (in context) is that it’s primarily a typical Seth Rogen/James Franco buddy movie that doesn’t take the subject matter seriously. The fact that North Korea got so upset about it is farcical. I can only imagine that they didn’t see it, because it actually portrays Kim Jong Un in a fairly sympathetic way, more than would be due if the subject matter was treated seriously.

I bought The Interview rather than renting it. I did that because it’s not just a film; it’s a unique piece of history, and I want to keep it for repeated viewings and future pop-culture references. If you haven’t seen The Interview you should; not out of any sense of patriotic duty, though it is a pure manifestation of the state of American culture; but because it’s a very funny comedy that will have you exiting the theater with a spring in your step.

The independent theater owners who screened it, and Sony Pictures, should be applauded for doing the right thing, albeit belatedly.

Film Review: The Babadook


I just saw the new film, The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is her first major film, and if her subsequent films are of the same quality, she can look forward to a long and successful career.

Having said that, this is a grim, trying film. It works as a piece of cinematic art, but I must say that, for me, it works less well as pure entertainment. Had it been released the day after Halloween instead of the day after Thanksgiving, I might have a different opinion.

A widow and her six year old son are confronted with a metaphysical threat when they find a children’s book in the boy’s bedroom and read it together during story time. This is the unique part of the film and it provides a lot of good tension and dreadful good fun. The rhymes in the book are very inventive and creepy. Ms. Kent should be applauded for that, since she wrote the script.

The performances are very good by all the cast members, although I reserve comment on the child actor who plays Samuel. If his performance tracked the director’s vision, then he was amazing. If not, then his performance detracts from the film. The first third of the film is mostly exposition on the relationship between a single mom and her son. The son has issues, but it’s not really clear from the performance whether the issues are inherent, or a function of the particular circumstances faced by mother and son. You never get the sense that they are on the same side. The character of Samuel is portrayed in a very unsympathetic manner for most of the film.

If that was the director’s intent, then it came off beautifully. But that was also, for me, the problem with the film. Without a rooting interest, you’re put through a series of frightening and dreadful scenarios, lacking in emotional balance. The cliché for horror movies is “Get out of the house!” But in those scenarios, you want all the good guys out of the house.

In fairness, the film avoided standard horror techniques in favor of a slow burn. But the lack of a rooting interest, for me, negated the artistic accomplishments. And the slow burn never had a satisfying resolve, in my opinion.

It’s hard to write a compelling story without a protagonist (a good guy, or a good girl). This film comes close to proving that wrong. There is no character in the film that comes across as more than marginally likable.

I’m sure there will be many people who will watch this film and love it. My review is just my opinion.

Oh, and don’t take young children to this movie. It is unrated and would be very disturbing to young children, especially those who are in non-traditional family situations. This film, if viewed by young children, would generate nightmares for years to come.

Film Review: Big Hero 6


I just saw the new film Big Hero Six, co-directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. It is a fairly satisfying animated family film the likes of which you would expect from Disney studios.

There were a lot of young kids in attendance. If you have young children that you want to see the film with you needn’t worry about any objectionable material. In fact, one of the best aspects of the film is it’s promotion of science and technology as something fun and adventurous. There will be a few kids who will see the film and become inspired to study the sciences.

The film is imaginative and humorous. To me, it seemed like a mash-up of Japanese anime and an episode of Scooby Doo. Even the fictional locale is a mash-up.

The animation is bright, cheerful, busy, and evocative of anime. The film jumps right off the screen with heavily saturated colors and a 3D feel, though it is not actually 3D.

A boy named Hero is entering puberty as he’s thrown into a conflict involving robots, a science professor, and a tech sector industrialist. The plot definitely reminded me of a Scooby Doo episode, with a group of friends working together to battle a villain. The best part of the film is the main robot character, who is given all the good lines and creates the most humorous elements.

Humor is definitely the biggest emotional component, though the directors try mightily to tug the heart strings as well. I would say that if there’s one place where the film falls flat is in that department. It never achieves the emotional heft of a film like Pixar’s Up, or Toy Story 3.

That said, it’s an enjoyable family film that will please adults as well as it’s target audience.