Friday, October 12, 2018

Talking moon shot, bigotry, bank heist nostalgia and low-rent criminality

Four quick takes on a quartet of films opening today on northeast Ohio screens:

"First Man" soared with audiences last month during its Canadian premiere at the 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival, but it says here that wunderkind director Damien Chazelle's third straight showcase movie isn't as thoroughly gripping as his previous "Whiplash" and "La La Land."

Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and a native of Wapakoneta, Ohio (which is never mentioned), but the casting seems a bit off. So does Armstrong, whose '60s-era minimalist emotions play about as far away as the space target that members of his now-famous Apollo 11 crew were trying to reach.

Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas are OK as Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, respectively, leaving the movie's bravura performance to "The Crown" Emmy-winner Claire Foy, as Armstrong's sturdy wife. The way it unfolds from Chazelle and screnwriter Josh Singer ("Spotlight"), the death of the couple's very young daughter plays as huge a role as the moon landing itself almost a decade later, and Foy's Janet easily becomes more there for her husband than he is for her every, uh, giant step of the way.

It's all based on the late-Armstrong's authorized bio (by James R. Hansen), which apparently concentrated on the astronaut's scientific career and breathtaking flight achievements. So, when the director and his cinematographer (Linus Sandgren) focus on all the possiblities in those visually stunning moments, their movie really comes alive -- from its grand opening test-flight sequence to the make-us-all-proud main event on our big yellow satellite in the sky.

The truth is, "First Man" is such a gem technically that it demands viewing on a big screen. Find it in IMAX if you can.

Rated "PG-13": some thematic content involving peril and brief strong language; 2:18; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5 

Amandla Stenberg
The young-adult geared "The Hate U Give," a film that floats somewhere between an after-school special and a serious look at race relations, or lack thereof, features a sparkling performance from Amandla Stenberg (most recently in "The Darkest Minds"), acting as our spot-on guide through both venues.

In fact, Stenberg actually gets opportunities to weave her skills through various scenarios and serious subjects as a 16-year-old African-American lass who lives in a ghetto, attends a mostly white private school, witnesses the trigger-happy police shooting of a close friend (Algee Smith), has a caring mom (Regina Hall) and strong, ex-con dad (Russell Hornsby) teaching her Black Panther tenets, remains close to a nice-guy uncle (Common) who happens to be a cop, is constantly monitored by a drug kingpin (Anthony Mackie), and seems genuinely taken with her whitebread boyfriend (K.J. Apa), likely the weakest character in the whole shebang.

George Tillman Jr. ("Notorious," "Soul Food") directs the screenplay -- from recently deceased Audrey Wells ("Shall We Dance"), as based on Angie Thomas' best-selling novel -- and turns it into a lengthy but watchable story of hope. It deserves an audience.

Rated "PG-13": mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language; 2:12; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5 

In "The Old Man & the Gun," Robert Redford gets a role he could sleep through (and maybe occasionally does) as the title character continually on the lookout for one more score.

Wearing a wardrobe he might have shown off in "The Sting" and a persona certainly reminscent of a younger rascal called "The Sundance Kid," Redford's reported last onscreen role has him consorting with fellow elderly cons (played by the competent likes of Danny Glover and Tom Waits) and enjoying a comfortable fling with a lovely widow (Sissy Spacek).

Redford and Spacek make a pit stop.
After a September screening at the afromentioned Toronto Film Festival, Redford explained that the role "just fits with my own sensibilities," adding that, "I've always been attracted to outlaws."

Well, imagine that. Similarly, the laid-back Casey Affleck plays the gentle police detective who takes on the challenge of capturing what he calls the "Over the Hill Gang" to end their penchant to rob banks whenever there's not much else to do.

Certainly director and co-writer David Lowery, who put Affleck through his paces mostly under a sheet in last year's beguiling "Ghost Story," takes it all slowly again in this one, a wistful, true tale that serves his fine cast well. Finding an audience might not be as easy.

Rated "PG-13": brief strong language; 1:33; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Last and probably least, "Bad Times at the El Royale" opens intriguingly enough, with a man in a hurry burying bags of cash under the floorboards of a hotel room before meeting a demise that anyone with a brain knew would go down quickly.

Ten years later, four strangers check in at the same once popular joint, which sits literally on the border of California and Nevada, a gag that allows writer/director Drew Goddard to kill too much time while setting up his long, rambling story.

Main characters played by Jon Hamm (with a bad Cajun accent), Jeff Bridges (as a priest who registers at the hotel like no man of the cloth would) and Dakota Johnson (selling herself as a total bad ass) give away too much too soon the same way that an assortment of '60s clips (Nixon, Viet Nam and some horrible stabbings, hint, hint) will introduce another major player long before he shows up on screen.

Hamm, Bridges and Ervo check into the "El Royale."
Through it all, bleak hallways and sordid peeping Tom portals give the film a creepy-crawly feel that's obviously more smarmy than smart.

Faring best of the ensemble lot is Cynthia Ervo, playing a career-long backup-singer who has learned to take care of herself after years of trying to make it big. The British Ervo, a Tony winner for "The Color Purple," sings like she really means it in a movie that merely flirts with the wealth of opportunities it had at its disposal.

Rated "R": strong language violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity; 2:21; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also opening here Friday is "Colette," a period piece starring the queen of period pieces, Keira Knightley.

Somehow we missed it in Toronto and then the local press screening, too, (when we instead opted to watch the Cleveland Indians lose the first of three straight playoff games to the world champion Houston Astros).

"Colette" is rated "R" (for some sexuality/nudity), runs 1:51, and co-stars Dominic West.

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