Movie reviews: 'First Man' a small story about a giant leap
Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on three movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: "First Man" starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, the pulp fiction ensemble "Bad Times at the El Royale" featuring Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson; and survival story "Knuckleball" starring Michael Ironside.
FIRST MAN: 3 ½ STARS
We all know how "First Man" will end. No surprises there. What may be surprising is the portrayal of its titular character, American astronaut and hero Neil Armstrong. It's a small story about a giant leap.
Focussing on the years 1961 to 1968 "First Man" introduces us to Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as an engineer and envelope-pushing pilot. When an X-15 test flight gives him a glimpse of space he becomes obsessed with going further. When his three-year-old daughter dies of a brain tumour he turns his grief inward, throwing himself at work. Becoming a NASA Gemini Project astronaut over the next seven years, he fulfils the dream of U.S. President Kennedy's 1962, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth," speech. Alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), he begins a journey that will take him to the moon and back.
"First Man" is based on one of mankind's greatest achievements and yet feels muted on the big screen. Deliberately paced, it nails the bone-rattling intensity of the early flights, the anxiety felt by the loved ones left behind as the astronauts risk everything to beat the Russians to the moon, but it never exactly takes flight.
Part history lesson, part simulator experience, it doesn't deliver the characters necessary to feel like a complete experience.
Gosling is at his most restrained here, as an analytical man who loves his family but is so stoic he answers his son's question, "Do you think you're coming back from the moon," with an answer better suited to the boardroom than the dinner table.
"We have every confidence in the mission," he says. "There are risks but we have every reason to believe we'll be coming back." He is buttoned-down and yet not completely detached. His daughter's memory never strays from his mind, even if he never discusses her death with his wife, played by an underused Claire Foy. Gosling embraces Armstrong's fortitude, but has stripped the character down to the point where he is little more than a distant man of few words.
"First Man" contains some thrilling moments, but for the most part is like the man himself, stoic and understated
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE: 3 ½ STARS
Six years ago writer/director Drew Goddard deconstructed the slasher movie genre with the whimsical and exhilarating "Cabin in the Woods." A mash-up of horror and humour, of post-modern self-awareness and gruesome gags, it simultaneously adopted and challenged the conventions of the slasher genre. He returns to the big screen — his day job is writing, producing and directing TV shows like "Daredevil" and "The Good Place" — with "Bad Times at the El Royale," an inversion of a 1990s broken timeline crime drama.
The El Royale is the kind of seedy hotel that dotted the highways and byways of 1960s America. Split down the middle by the California/Nevada border, it's a perfect slice of mid-century kitsch, like the same guy who decked out Elvis' rec room designed it. When we first lay eyes on it, a shady character (Nick Offerman) with a bulging suitcase and a gun wrenches up the floorboards and hides a case of money before replacing the carpet and the furniture. It's an act that establishes the El Royale as a home-away-from-home for transients and ne'er-do-wells and sets up much of the action to come.
As for the action to come, you'll have to go see the film to find out what happens. I will tell you that the film takes place ten years after the suitcase was hidden in the hotel and begins with a disparate group of folks checking in well after the El Royale's heyday. There's slick talking vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), Reno-bound singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest with tired eyes and hippie chick Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All three pay front desk manager Miles (Lewis Pullman) the $8 deposit and take to their rooms.
Secrets are revealed about the guests and the hotel as an aura of menace clouds the sunny California/Nevada border. "We're in a bit of a pickle," says Father Flynn in what may be the understatement of the year.
Goddard takes his time setting up the narrative drive of "Bad Times at the El Royale." He bobs and weaves, playing with time, slowly revealing the intricacies of the story. For the patient — it runs two hours and 21 minutes — it's a heck of a ride, but may prove too opaque for casual viewers. Large conspiracies are hinted at, secrets are kept and no one is really who they seem to be. For those willing to submit to the grimly funny and admittedly indulgent proceedings, it's a Tarantino-esque web of intrigue and unexpected violence that plays both as a crime drama and a metaphor for the decay of 1960s idealism.
"Bad Times at the El Royale" is a good movie filled with bad people. It asks you to care about people who do terrible things and, by the end, thanks to inventive storytelling and good performances — Erivo is a standout — you just might.
KNUCKLEBALL: 3 STARS
Lean and mean, the easiest way to describe "Knuckleball," a new film starring genre legend Michael Ironside, is as a nastier "Home Alone."
Headed to a funeral, Mary and Paul (Kathleen Munroe and Chenier Hundal) leave their young son Henry (Luca Villacis) in the hands of his grandfather Jacob (Ironside). Deposited on the rural farm Henry is without the essentials of his millennial life, videogames and a working cell phone. Put to work outside, Henry begrudgingly does his chores, shows an ability with a baseball and meets oddball neighbour Dixon (Munro Chambers). Grandpa says he's "almost like family" but there is something strained between the two men. Henry's uneasy rural retreat turns to terror when he looks to Dixon for help after he is left alone in Jacob's house, miles from anywhere with a storm — literally and metaphorically - brewing.
"Knuckleball" is a story of survival pared down to the essentials. The remote setting, the icy atmosphere and Ironside's menacing presence create a sense of dread that blossom throughout. The cat and mouse story has gaps and some unnecessary twists but the undercurrent of fear, driven by a strong performance from Villacis that is both vulnerable and resourceful, prevails. It's a story of secrets and cruelty carefully crafted to accentuate the thrills and not the plot holes.
Read more of Richard Crouse's recent movie reviews:
- 'A Star is Born' hits all the right notes
- Knightley in top form for sparkling biopic 'Colette'
- 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' is good, silly gothic-themed fun for kids
- 'A Simple Favor' is a maze of good and bad intentions
- 'The Nun' is all soulless hype
- 'Juliet, Naked' a rom com for adults'
- 'The Happytime Murders' least funny comedy this year
- 'Crazy Rich Asians' an escapist fantasy that entertains