Tag: ryan gosling

First Man

First Man (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a celebration of mankind-defining achievement capable of avoiding a minefield of clichés embedded in the marrow of the movies. There is not one inspirational speech, no slow motion of men in space suits walking toward the camera, not even a single image, however brief, of worried-looking faces on Earth as Neil A. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr. (Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) land the Apollo Lunar Module on the moon on July 20, 1969. There is documentary and highly dramatized—commercialized—biographical dramas, and in between lies Damien Chazelle’s technically focused and occasionally affecting “First Man,” more interested in getting as close as possible to what was rather than providing yet another masturbation of American heroism.

Chazelle is back to the precision he exercised in the excellent “Whiplash.” Here, the tone is, like the central figure we follow, Neil Armstrong, quite cold and impersonal. A standard dramatic parabola is not utilized, nor does it need to. Traversing such a path would have opened the door for the expected beats and trappings of the genre. Instead, we follow crucial events in Armstrong’s personal life and professional career between 1962 and 1969, initially as a test pilot and finally as an astronaut who made history. And yet—just because the tone is unsentimental does not mean that it is not first and foremost a human story.

It makes the point of the numerous invaluable sacrifices just so we can go to the moon: millions of taxpayer money, countless hours and tremendous effort put forth by those working in NASA, and, most importantly, irreplaceable human lives lost due to accidents. Watching the picture, I could not help but feel angry—not at the film but at the uninformed or downright ignorant individuals who insist that the 1969 moon landing is a sham. Josh Singer’s sharp and perceptive screenplay broaches the subject of perspective, that it is important for us to reach the moon so that, we, as a species, can gain a new or different way of looking at ourselves, everything around us, and beyond. Before seeing the film, I found that conspiracy theorists who deny the fact that we ever walked on the moon are laughable. After seeing the film, I just felt sorry for them. It made me wish I knew a way to open their minds to both facts and possibilities.

Gosling is in top form as a man who has grown accustomed to hiding his emotions. A case can be made that this characteristic makes Armstrong a great leader, especially in desperate situations when lives are on the line, but this same trait prevents him from being a husband and father who is consistently warm and inviting. Particularly strong about Gosling’s performance is not the character’s lack of apparent emotions (which is agonizing when his wife, played by the equally effective Claire Foy, yearns for him to open up and communicate) but in the way the actor attempts to hide the character’s inner turmoil for the sake of the big picture, of achieving a particular goal so monumental, attaining it would mean a chance for us to try and reach for the next great objective. Gosling disappears into the role; watching him deliver such a calculated performance is such a joy. I admired that he does not attempt to mimic the way Armstrong speaks or Armstrong’s most minute mannerisms and yet he remains thoroughly convincing.

The film, too, provides a terrific aural experience. Spacecrafts with glamorous interiors are nowhere to be found here. In fact, they are so cramped most of the time that being inside one is like having to move around in a coffin. Notice how often close-ups are used when a transport is about to take off or suspended in air as it undergoes gymnastics. Being so close to a person’s face underscores the abundance of noise, especially of metal screeching due to sudden movements, various pressures, and sudden temperature changes. Being inside the spacecraft does, on the one hand, provide a sense of wonder. On the other is a horrifying experience filled with uncertainty; when one alarm goes off, it seems that every other thing that can go wrong does eventually. To say that it is a miracle that we got to the moon in 1969 is not an understatement. Our will to get there, I think, made all the difference.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

To follow up one of the most influential science-fiction pictures is no easy feat, but director Denis Villeneuve is able to meet and surpass the best qualities of “Blade Runner.” Notice how movies within the genre often forget that ideas should come first. After all, the goal of sci-fi paves the way for conversations involving humanity’s place in time, on this planet, and beyond. And so many of these films, often standard and disappointing, end up being filled with empty action, generic explosions, and senseless violence—filler masquerading as entertainment. “Blade Runner 2049” shines exactly because it offers a more cerebral experience.

The plot is filled with small but beautiful details best discovered for oneself. Instead, I offer to describe the elements which make the film so enthralling as the hypnotic plot unfolds. Perhaps most noticeable is its use of score—and at times the decision not to use anything but complete silence. We are so used to hearing a signal when an important plot development is about to be revealed. While there are moments when do hear the booming and bone-chilling score, particularly as the camera glides over futuristic lived-in metropolis, take note of instances when K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner for the LAPD, discovers bizarre coincidences that force him to question his own identity.

This strategy works because when there is a close-up, there is no music that distracts from the surprise, terror, and confusion the cop undergoes during a pivotal moment. Although the character is supposed to be professional, calm, and collected, tight facial shots with no distraction allows us appreciate Gosling’s ability to communicate paragraphs only with minuscule changes in his facial expressions. In a way, the picture is not only for the intellectual hoping for philosophical questions but also for the emotionally intelligent.

There is a variety of landscapes shown—from metropolis filled with towers blanketed in mist, communities living amongst garbage, to sun-scorched deserts as far as the eye can see—all of them beautiful in their own way even though some of them may be unappealing. Of course, the story spends most of the time in the dark, brooding, often rainy Los Angeles, but there are plenty of details worth appreciating if one chooses to look closer.

Look in the background and notice extreme fashion; how advertisements are colorful, comedic, and hyperbolic; how looks on people’s faces suggest an overwhelming unhappiness with their existence. In addition, we wonder whether a person we are looking at is a human or replicant, the latter being bioengineered humans who are created to obey at all costs, almost like slaves, yet critical to the former’s survival. And if a person is indeed a replicant, is he or she an older model that must be “retired” by a Blade Runner? The environment is alive and buzzing with energy. Imaginative viewers will not be bored.

“What does it mean to be human?” is perhaps the most important question “Blade Runner 2049” takes from its predecessor and continues to explore. Revelations in the latter half force us not only to consider what the protagonist is going through emotionally and psychologically but also rethink previous scenes presented an hour or two prior. Credit goes to screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green for creating material that is smart, rich with implications, and worth exploring, debating over.

Finally, notice how the picture ends. Clearly, there is room for further discoveries and yet we feel in our bones that this chapter is complete. Considerably less elegant films fumble and tend to do one of two things: end before before the journey of the protagonist is complete or shamelessly setting up a sequel without tying up the biggest, most glaring strands. Here is a picture that understands the spirit of sci-fi, what it is and what it can achieve.

The Nice Guys

Nice Guys, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Action-comedy “The Nice Guys,” co-written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, is inspired by classic 1970s detective pictures but one that fails to provide inspiration. What results is a moderately watchable but occasionally predictable film spearheaded by charismatic co-stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling who have good fun in their roles.

At first it appears as though the plot revolves around a dead pornographic actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whose vehicle crashed into and through a house during the first scene, but those with extensive experience with detective films, especially the great noir works of the 1940s, are likely to recognize that is merely a misdirect. This is a common problem that plagues the picture: familiar elements are exactly as they are and so there is rarely, if ever, anything surprising. One of the main targets of the material is audiences who enjoy detective stories. It fails to satiate because it offers nothing new.

Crowe and Gosling do share some chemistry, but Healy and March are written as one-note. Although they are never boring because the experienced thespians are able to tap into different notes of an otherwise standard dialogue, it would have been electric if the script were as smart or as colorful as those portraying the detectives. Gosling plays the more volatile of the pair and is able to deliver a few laughs, but Crowe is equally strong as the straight man.

There are three action sequences and they are evenly dispersed throughout the film’s near two-hour running time. I enjoyed and appreciated that each one offers a distinct feel, energy, and pace. They are executed with vision and we feel the joy of those involved. Perhaps these are the best scenes in the movie, hands down the most thrilling. What it is missing, however, is a truly memorable and/or sinister villain. Matt Bomer plays one of the formidable assassins but the character is not written deeply enough to be compelling.

A breakout star of the film is Angourie Rice who plays Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter. Rice is a name and face to watch out for because she commands the charm, wit, and presence of Reese Witherspoon from Robert Mulligan’s “The Man in the Moon.” Just about every time Rice is on screen, she lights it up. She makes slower scenes come alive. A lesser performer might have turned the character into someone annoying but she grounds Holly in such a way that the audience would want to be her friend.

Directed by Shane Black, “The Nice Guys” offers a decent time but not a good time. If the script had been tweaked a little more in order to provide more surprising details regarding the underbelly of politics, world of pornography, and the sleuthing business, it might have turned into an example to be imitated in the future rather than simply resting on being a goofy imitation.

La La Land

La La Land (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” asks a former classmate (John Legend) who has since found commercial success in the music business to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own bar one day. Although “La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is neither a revolutionary nor a traditional musical, it offers a highly watchable escapist romp and delivers a few welcome surprises especially in terms of what it wishes to say about reaching one’s career goals.

The film emits exuberance and the love for song and dance right from its opening sequence. A smile was drawn on my face because it dares to show a real Los Angeles—not simply when it comes to the level of traffic, the noise, and the heat that settles on motor vehicles but also in terms of the level of diversity we see on screen.

Mainstream pictures tend to show a version of Los Angeles that it still too bland and whitewashed in this day and age so it is most refreshing that a reality of various skin colors, body types, and hair textures are captured from the get-go despite the genre being a musical with fantastic elements. This first scene, clearly influenced by a memorable scene in the classic musical “Fame,” makes quite a powerful statement and it is something that I expect from an independent feature film, not a mainstream work with well-known stars—a most welcome surprise.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling share effortless chemistry, the former playing a barista on the lot of a movie studio. Mia, like thousands of men and women in LA, dreams of becoming a movie or television performer. Stone and Gosling have a certain rapport that is endearing—even the moments between dialogue command a certain tactile bond that works beautifully in both comedic and dramatic scenes. The two may not have the strongest voices to carry a musical but this should not be counted against them because they should be actors first and singers second.

Despite the actors’ excellent chemistry, the middle section is most problematic. Notice that when life-changing events are not front and center, the pacing slows dramatically to the point of plateau. The material is divided into five sections: winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter once again. Spring and summer is the blossoming of Mia and Sebastian’s romantic relationship which should be just as powerful—if not more—than the major life events that attempt to derail them from the paths they have set for themselves especially because these potential changes challenge them as a pair.

For instance, a most uninspiring scene, egregious in content and execution, involves Mia talking about her past, her hopes, and her dreams to a man she is beginning to like on a romantic level. What should have been a defining moment is shot instead like a throwaway scene—camera from a distance, two people walking in a shot together, not one closeup is employed. Not to mention Mia’s story is so ordinary, she might as well not have said anything because smart audiences have already made assumptions—correct ones at that—about her past and where she hopes to go. I grew bored of the character’s lack of interest in her own life and the lack of energy in making someone else be interested in her life. My sentiment lasted till the next season. Chazelle ought to have rewritten the scene.

“La La Land” is at its most compelling when it hones in on the sacrifices one must make in order to reach one’s dream—or at times settling for a version of one’s dream. It asks us to consider the following: if we choose to sacrifice bits of who we are in order to get a little closer to our goals, by the time we reach these goals, can it still be considered as a success when our core values have been inevitably changed by such sacrifices? Not a philosophical film by any means, the ideas are there if one chooses to ponder. And for those who would rather not think too deeply, there is colorful and toe-tapping entertainment to be enjoyed.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Place Beyond the Pines, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Though Romina (Eva Mendes) wishes to hide the fact that she and Luke (Ryan Gosling) conceived a child from their one night stand a year ago, the truth has a way of being discovered eventually. Luke wants to be a good father to his son and so he decides to quit his job as a traveling state fair stuntman. However, since his current source of income is not enough for him to live on as well as to give lavishly to his son, he and a friend (Ben Mendelsohn) decide to rob banks.

“The Place Beyond the Pines,” directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a mood piece, placing emphasis on delayed responses and meaningful looks, and it is entertaining to a degree because it is able to focus on the importance of fatherhood. The story is divided into three arcs, beginning with the stuntman’s storyline, and it is not short on ambition. Having said that, the middle section, especially important because it is the connective tissue between past and present, is consistently problematic and underwhelming.

The middle portion focuses on the guilt experienced by Avery (Bradley Cooper), a cop on his first year on the job, as well as the corruption within the police force. While the director is able to communicate the rookie cop’s anguish, there is not enough attention paid on Avery’s relationship with his father. The latter thinks that his son can and should be doing more with his life considering that Avery has a law degree and passed the bar. Having that relationship serve a side dish is a significant miscalculation. As a result, it diminishes the power of the first and third arcs, Luke’s love for his baby boy and Avery’s son befriending Luke’s, respectively, with both teenage boys (Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan) not having constant father figures in their lives.

It is a shame because the film is well-acted. Though Gosling’s taciturn performance does not break new ground, he allows his character to be accessible to us by not always acting so glum. Appropriately, Gosling’s best scenes are of Luke interacting with his son. Cooper, like Gosling, radiates a charm but a darkness just underneath it. I believed his character to be someone so ambitious, he would be willing to throw anyone under the bus. Both men want to achieve a status: Luke being a good dad and Avery being in power. Luke may be the one robbing banks but Avery, arguably, is the hungrier animal.

The picture recoups some of its intrigue during the third arc. There is a good level of tension because we know the boys’ connection but they do not. It is only a matter of time until one or both of them uncovers what binds them.

Based on the screenplay by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is disappointing not because it is incapable of being great. On the contrary, it so close to telling a dramatic yet entertaining story but it falls short because the bridge between the setup and the payoff is not fully defined.

The Big Short

The Big Short (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short” offers a witty, funny, intelligent, consistently shocking, and educational experience about the global financial crisis in 2007-2008 and the persons, mostly hedge fund managers, who are able to see through the fog and bet against the housing market before the bubble burst. Although there are numerous fiscal terms and acronyms that might as well have been in hieroglyphics or alien language, the screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay ensures that the information can be digested by laymen.

Explanations are often done through humor using cameos. Particularly memorable is the appearance of Selena Gomez and Dr. Richard Thaler, an economist, as they explain the term “synthetic C.D.O.” (collateralized debt obligations) at a blackjack table in Las Vegas. Notice that as information is slowly broken down, the initially amusing scenario at the table quickly turns horrifying. The volatile energy of the film maintains the forward momentum of the material and so, despite the business talk, not once does it get stale or boring. On the contrary, by the end of the picture, I wanted to know more about how things worked in that realm.

Performances are top-notch all around. Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a man who has an eye for details and numbers despite having one glass eye. He creates a character who is very intelligent and socially awkward but not one who is inaccessible. Accessibility is absolutely necessary because there are a handful of moments when we must feel the pressure he feels as his clients and co-workers begin to express their anger and frustrations on top of his own.

Ryan Gosling, who plays a trader named Jared Vennett, creates yet another charismatic, smooth talker—which is not all that different from some of his other roles. However, Gosling is so entertaining, full of verve, and so quick on his feet that we tend to overlook the familiar and look forward to how his character will respond to increasingly stressful situations.

But the best performance in the film belongs to Steve Carell, a hot-tempered hedge fund manager who begins to question the lack of morality in his line of work. Most memorable is his breakdown in a Las Vegas restaurant as he comes face-to-face with a businessman named Mr. Chau (Byron Mann) who is very proud of the fact that he is a cheat, to say the least. With every close-up employed, the tension is amplified to the point where it is almost unbearable to stay on that table. Mr. Chau is an excellent symbol of capitalist greed and it is the correct decision have him in one scene only.

“The Big Short” takes an insular topic and makes it relatively easy to understand using simple language and analogies. Equally important, it is able to summon the anger from the viewers so that we are more mindful of not only the next potential housing bubble on the horizon but also where we put our money and where we sign our names.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Liv Corfixen, wife of the man who made the critically acclaimed “Drive,” takes control of the camera and documents the creative process of her husband’s work while shooting “Only God Forgives” for six months in Bangkok, Thailand.

“My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” is a documentary that is unnecessary, unfocused, and not completely engaging. What I liked about it, however, is that it shows some of the trials of being in charge of a movie. That is, being a director is not exactly a glamorous job. It is full of stresses which involve finances, having only a limited time to shoot certain scenes depending on location, and there is always a concern about whether the final product would be received well by critics and audiences.

Director Corfixen is a passive director in that she fails to ask her subject the difficult questions. For example, Refn emphasizes that he does not want to make the same movie as “Drive” and so he tries to make a less commercial picture as a follow-up. As the director of this documentary, it is Corfixen’s responsibility to drill the subject with questions about expectations, his definition of success, or what makes a great film despite criticisms or acclaim. It is most frustrating that Corfixen always treats Refn as her husband first and as a subject second—if at all. Thus, why make the documentary at all?

We get some behind-the-scenes look of “Only God Forgives” which is neat at times because it is a chance to see how Refn works with equipments, the crew, and actors. But there is not enough of these. There are more scenes shot in the hotel which would not have been a problem if Refn had something interesting to say on a consistent basis. There is a lot of laying about in bed and shots of the children running around or playing. Once in a while we observe Refn about to break due to the stress of having to put the film together. Prior to day one of shooting, he admits to not having an idea what the movie is really about.

The saving grace of this documentary is Ryan Gosling. There is something about him that just commands attention. He doesn’t need to say anything—which actually says a lot. There is a funny bit about Refn explaining to his lead the parallels between violence and sex. Gosling looks at the camera every time there is an opportunity for a dirty joke. This film ought to have more playful moments like that—fluctuations to prevent the audience from falling asleep. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky also makes an appearance.

Bottom line: the documentary is supposed to be about Refn. Although Gosling and Jodorowsky appearing in the film is fun, I did not feel as though I got to know Refn as a person or a director in a substantial way. Based on this, the film falls short.