Halloween – Film Review

If you go by the numbers, technically, the new Halloween is the eleventh in the series. However, director David Gordon Green wants you to forget the middle nine. Evidently, like Bobby Ewing’s wake-up call in the shower, we have to assume all those previous outings were dreams, or in this case, nightmares. Not at a difficult request considering that personally speaking, they all pretty much evaporated from memory the moment they concluded. Plus, that would help explain the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie Strode; she died in Halloween: Resurrection (2002).

It’s forty years since psychotic killer Michael Myers was captured. If you recall in the ‘78 original, there was that tense, climactic nail-biter in the bedroom scene. Teenage Laurie hid among the wire coat hangers in the closet as the creepy Myers entered, ready for the kill, only to be shot at the last second by Dr. Loomis (the equally creepy Donald Pleasence). Myers fell out of the second story window and laid flat, spreadeagled on the grass below. Yet when the doctor and Laurie went to the window and looked down, Myers had gone. Now we’re asked to accept that he didn’t actually run off, readying himself to kill again for the inevitable sequel, but was, in fact, seized and locked away.

Forty years,” explains Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), or as Laurie will later call him, the new Loomis. “He has not uttered a word.” Myers has been a patient at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, and he’s become the doctor’s obsession. “He can speak. He chooses not to.” But Myers’ days at the Sanitarium are over.

The authorities have decided it’s time to move the killer to a maximum security prison where they’ll look him up and throw away the room. But the transportation of Myers doesn’t go as planned. There’s an accident, resulting with the bus crashing at the side of the road and Myers escaping. We never find out what happened. For the economy of time and the unnecessary need to explain anything, all that’s important is that the bus crashed, the driver was killed, and the patient escaped. From there, the hunt is on. “We have one order of business,” states police office Frank Hawkins (Will Patton). “That’s to hunt this thing down.”

As it’s October 31, Halloween night, and the streets of Haddonfield, Illinois are full of costumed trick or treaters, running from house to house, knocking on decorated doors, ready to load up on candy, no one notices the tall guy in the William Shatner/Captain Kirk death mask, armed with the bloodied knife walking among them. He blends. Myers is back in town with a single-minded intention: he’s looking for the one that got away forty years ago on the same night, Laurie Strode.

I’m twice divorced, and I’m a basket case,” a gray-haired Laurie explains. For the past forty years, Laurie’s life has been a wreck. She has a family. There’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer, who curiously sports a Christmas cardigan on Halloween) and a teenage granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), but grandma Laurie is mostly ignored. Now the woman lives alone in a private gated community of one, hidden away in a rundown, heavily fortified home on the outskirts of town, preparing herself what she knows will eventually happen. “I pray every night for him to escape,” Laurie says, “So that I can kill him.”

In the original, Myers killed only five people. In this new continuation, he kills triple that, many off camera, so it’s difficult to quote a number. Most victims are only briefly seen before they’re brutalized, so there’s rarely a moment when you really feel something for anyone, other than being automatically sorry for any innocent who happens to die. However, there’s no shortage of annoying characters doing or saying annoyingly stupid things, especially some of the teenagers whose inclusion on Myers’ death list should be mandatory.  When the granddaughter Allyson dashes from a car with the slower than molasses Myers standing nearby, instead of heading along the road that would lead her to help, she runs into the woods. Let me repeat. She runs into the woods.

For convenient storytelling purposes, the slow-moving Myers is still able to survive repeated stabbings, mutilations, burnings, and being hit head-on by speeding vehicles. No matter what happens, he gets up again as if on his own supernatural playing field and continues. He’s the psychotic energizer bunny in slo-mo. And yet, like those weeping angels of Dr. Who, when you’re not looking or when the light flickers, he somehow has the ability to move at lightning speed to a different location, ready for the attack.

There’s a sense of fun in the anticipation of revisiting Halloween, but like a Christmas gift that was somehow more exciting until it was unwrapped, there’s nothing particularly fresh or even necessary in this continuation once the excitement of waiting is over and you’re actually watching it. Admittedly, unless you’re among those who idolize the original and view it as a classic, then the prospect of seeing a film that goes back to the series’ roots must be the movie event of the year. But let’s be honest and not forget, John Carpenter’s original was largely rough around the edges, and the acting among those teenagers, dire. But it built a great, tense atmosphere, and with Carpenter’s haunting theme, Halloween proved to be the perfect drive-in teenage horror movie. Plus, it established Jamie Lee Curtis as the seventies’ official scream queen.

But while this new edition appears considerably more accomplished in the making, and the acting a vast improvement, plus it retains Carpenter’s terrific theme, there’s nothing that elevates the 2018 Halloween to the level of something special. Ultimately, it’s more of the same, which might be fine if that’s all you want or expect, but when it’s hyped as being something more, you’re looking for something more. The one creative moment is a return to that climactic bedroom scene of the original, only this time it’s not Myers but a heavily armed Laurie doing the hunting in the closets among the wire coat hangers, with a funny twist on the body falling from the upper-level bedroom window then spreadeagled on the grass below.

As the eleventh movie in the series, it may want us to ignore the previous nine, but it won’t be long before you’ll be doing the same with this one. Stick with the first. For all its faults and that awful acting, it’s still the only Halloween you need to see.

MPAA Rating: R      Length: 109 Minutes

Posted in Film

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

After the completion of its acclaimed production of Newsies across town at Herberger Theater CenterValley Youth Theatre has now moved back to its home base on North 1st Street in Phoenix with an Arizona premiere.

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is a new comedy with a built-in theme that packs a thoroughly entertaining punch. Up until now, most productions of the show around the country were performed by adults – it’s the kind of musical you might expect to see staged at Childsplay – but for its Arizona debut, it’s VYT that has taken on the challenge of staging the story of 8-year-old Lily Polkadot and the prejudices she’s about to encounter at her new school in a new town.

Creator of Polkadots Douglas Lyons

Young Lily Polkadot (played on alternate performances by either MarySue Dickens or Kate Daley) has just moved to the small town of Rockaway, a ‘Squares Only’ residence. You can see the difference. It’s on everyone’s face. Those with the last name Square have squares on their skin. Those with the last name Polkadot have polka dots. And they don’t rub off.

It’s the first day of school, or as the chalkboard in Ms. Square’s classroom states, ‘A New Year, A New Start!’ For the squares in the class it probably feels just the same as any other year, but for Lily, it’s definitely a new start, particularly when she encounters the classroom bully, loud-mouthed Penelope Square (alternately Cecilia Bradley or Kiara Adams). “But she has polka dots!” exclaims the bratty child with the squares on her face. “Only Squares go to Rockaway!

Douglas Lyons Taking a Selfie with Polkadots Cast Members

Worse, Lily finds that when she’s thirsty, she can’t drink out of the regular water fountain. That’s for Squares only. Even her kindly teacher, Ms. Square (alternately Ryley Grace Youngs or Mia Johnson) who is sympathetic to Lily’s difference insists that Lily never drinks from the Square’s water fountain. It’s just not done. The school will have to bring in a special fountain for Polkadots only. “Does the water taste different?” Lily ponders.

As you can tell, the themes of the show are clear, especially when Lily befriends Penelope’s brother Sky (alternately Alex Silver or Dominic Cardenas) and tells him that out there in a world beyond the limits of Rockaway there are not only Polkadots but also Triangles, and they’re perfectly nice people. “My dad said if Triangles come, the family would have to move away,” responds Sky.

Yet despite the obviousness of its message, the need for tolerance, and how being different makes us all the more wonderful, the show never feels as heavy-handed with its real-world, historical parallels upon which it draws as you’d think. With its light, playful, and humorous approach, being suspicious, scared, or even angry at something just because it’s different is presented as clearly a preposterous notion to take.

Director Bobb Cooper, Costume Designer Karol Cooper, and the Show’s Creator Douglas Lyons with Polkadots Cast Members

Themes and messages aside, what elevates Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical to something even more special is its pop/rock score. With lyrics by Douglas Lyons and music by Lyons and Greg Borowsky, the show is populated with short, bright, upbeat, and melodious songs, each with a catchy hook, underlining scenes with the most positive of attitudes.

Under director Bobb Cooper’s guidance, the end result is an all-around, accomplished charmer. While writer Melvin Tunstall III may have originally envisioned the musical as a showpiece for four adults doubling as both adult characters and children, the way VYT has adapted the work and added bodies, you’d swear it was always designed to be seen this way.

Go back to where you came from!” shouts the bratty Penelope. But Lily, bright, engaging and always positive, recognizes that Penelope Square’s anger comes from a place of fear. When asked if she’s afraid of Penelope, Lily answers, “Why should I be afraid of someone who is scared?” Precisely.

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical continues at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix until October 28

Posted in Theatre

Titanic the Musical – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Think of it. A show about the deadliest commercial maritime disaster in history. A vessel that needed 54 lifeboats but only had 20. More than 1,500 passengers drowned. And it’s a musical. Considering that everything about the project sounded like a disaster ready to tank long before it left dry dock, you have to wonder what the initial pitch was like and how a theatre manager and potential backers reacted.

Long before the musical Titanic opened on Broadway in ‘97, rumors regarding elaborate sets going wrong, hydraulics breaking down, a budget rocketing sky-high, and last minute concerns that the show wouldn’t even open had gossip mongers salivating. But the show did go on. It even swept the Tonys, winning all of its five nominations, including Best Musical. Reviews were tepid, mixed to good, and even though, due to its enormous cost, the show closed without turning a profit, the overall reaction from audiences was generally positive. It was the tour two years later in 1999 that earned the praise.

Streamlined from the original gargantuan set design – those hydraulic pumps were now gone – the premiere in Los Angeles of the first national tour earned praise in the much the same way that the recent revival of The Color Purple did once it eliminated its original scenic design and put the focus on the performers. While Nate Bertone’s effective metallic looking design for the new Arizona Broadway Theatre production, now playing in Peoria until November 10, doesn’t tilt as the infamous ship sinks, its scaled-down look and its lack of effects are never an issue. Your focus is elsewhere.

Just before the intermission when the iceberg finally hits, with a boom, the enveloping backdrop cracks. From that point, once the second act begins and the ship has only 90 minutes or so left before it sinks, that crack widens, and widens, while objects such as a table, a chair, a flickering lamp, an anchor, and more, all hang from above, floating like ghostly objects in a crazy haunted house. The more the ship sinks, the lower those objects hang. Particularly effective is the moment when the first-class passengers bicker among themselves about life-jackets and whether they really need to go up on deck. A tea trolley slowly rolls from one end of the stage to the other. It brings the characters to a sudden silence as they look on at the eerie sight before them. The moment would be amusing if it wasn’t for the horrifying implications.

Writer Peter Stone has used facts and figures to keep the events of what occurred during those early hours of April 15 in 1912 as accurate as possible. Because of that, a problem the book can’t possibly overcome is that there are no surprises. Due to films such as A Night To Remember plus the phenomenal global success of James Cameron’s film of the same name – a fictional romance and all that business about a jewel aside – the events as they happened are by now too well known and documented. In terms of excitement, there’s no real tension. We know what’s going to take place and how. And the business about the ship being a monument to the different classes has already been explored.

But that doesn’t mean your attention wanders. Aware of what lies ahead, the stupidity of a company owner (Matthew Mello) demanding more speed and trying to override a captain’s authority will always induce an emotional response. And a steward telling 3rd-class passengers, “You wait down here until you are told,” as the water rises while the 1st-class are already climbing aboard the lifeboats will cause a similar sense of anger. But the moment when the lookout declares, “Dear Mother of God! Iceberg ahead!” you’ll have goosebumps.

Plus, among the high-drama, there remains good humor. When the steerage passengers talk of their hopes and dreams in America where they’re certain they can rise above their class, Albuquerque is pronounced ‘Albie-cue-cue,’ and Maryland becomes literally a ‘Mary-Land.’ That lack of worldly knowledge extends to even the 1st-class. At a dinner table when the recently married, youthful Madeleine Astor (Madison Cichon) is asked how did she find Paris, she replies without any sense of irony, “I didn’t have to. John knew exactly where it was.” She appears clueless, even concerned when the guests around her laugh.

Like a 70’s disaster movie where over time you get to know certain individuals and become concerned with their fates, among the real-life characters of the ship’s owner, its designer (Kiel Klaphake), the captain (Olin Davidson) and his crew, writer Stone has incorporated several characters representing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-class passengers, many of whom were also based on their real-life counterparts. But they’re more snapshots of an assemblage rather than central figures; there’s no one person you’re with or get to know for any length of time. In other words, there’s no Kate and Leo, though amusingly, when it comes to the Irish 3rd-class down below in steerage, the women’s first names are all Kate.

As a result, the cast of Titanic is a true ensemble. No one performer stands out more than the other. The real star of the show is Maury Yeston’s score. Like Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Yeston’s Titanic is operatic in style, epic in scope. Full-throated, inspiring robust voices fill the house. With the streamlined set, Brian DeMaris’ outstanding ten-piece orchestra, and director Danny Gorman’s staging where the cast often face the audience directly as they sing, ABT’s Titanic often feels less a presentation of a regular musical and more a spectacular concert presentation in full costume. It’s lavish in sight and inspiring in sound. And best of all, it’s genuinely thrilling.

Titanic the musical continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until November 10

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Posted in Theatre

Fun Home – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

After a long development period and a well-received run at New York’s Public Theatre, once the musical drama Fun Home finally opened on Broadway, it was adapted for the more intimate Circle in the Square Theatre. As with all productions where the audience is seated around the action, scenery was suggested, and settings were established with props and artifacts.

Once the national touring production went on the road, the production was reestablished for the more traditional proscenium arch presentations of large auditoriums, just as valley audiences saw it last year at ASU Gammage in Tempe. As a consequence, the intimacy was compromised.

While the excellent touring production remained an effective emotional journey when seen in a massive auditorium, watching Phoenix Theatre’s new production in its considerably smaller black box Hormel Theatre puts the show back to where the piece belongs. Though Hormel is not a theatre-in-the-round, the close proximity audiences have with the performers automatically guarantees a sense of involvement that can’t be experienced in a house that seats thousands rather than hundreds. Phoenix Theatre brings a level of clarity to the production. In order to get a true sense of what Fun Home is aiming for, this is where valley audiences need to see it.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name, Fun Home the musical explores the discovery of the artist’s sexuality, the relationship with her parents, particularly her gay father, and tries to come to terms with the events that lead to his death. “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.” Alison (Becca Ayers) explains. “And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.” And while ordinarily that opening declaration may be viewed as an immediate plot spoiler – it literally states everything that is going to happen – the show explains the hows and explores the whys. With a running time of approximately ninety-five minutes without intermission, it reaches out and grabs your attention without letting go until the final, uplifting fade out.

The clarity in its telling comes with the ability to feel as though you’re right there with the forty-three-year-old Alison as she begins her work, reflecting back on her childhood. We see what she thinks. Unlike the graphic novel which, as a program insert tells us, told its story in a straightforward linear style, the show is a multi-layered exploration that jumps times and settings; it’s a patchwork of events that ultimately builds a picture. And like its Broadway theatre-in-the-round staging, Douglas Clarke’s scenic design creates the need to use imagination. Settings are suggested not so much by a full backdrop, but by props and artifacts. When the characters talk of their home looking like an antique museum, unlike the touring production that gave a full design, the Hormel Theatre production creates the atmosphere through suggestion; it’s considerably more effective, like the theatre-of-the-mind as created by an audio drama. “He appeared to like children,” narrates Alison regarding her father’s often playful nature towards her and her two brothers, “But the real object of his affection was his house.”

As a result of the non-linear approach, we see three different versions of the artist. In addition to the Adult Alison, there’s Young Alison (alternate performances played by either Olivia Feary or Sydney Vance), and as a college student, Medium Alison (Kaitlyn Russell). Often all three share the stage at the same time. And one later point, the Adult Alison even breaks a barrier of time by inserting herself into a scene at a critical moment with her father, Bruce (Rusty Ferracane). Again, because of Hormel’s setting, what may have caused audiences in large auditoriums to question exactly what it was they were watching is here never an issue. The intimate staging of Robert Kolby Harper’s direction is always clear. Despite the jumps, the fantasies, and the cross-over through time boundaries, there’s never a moment when you’re unsure as to where you are in the narrative.

As a musical, there is no grand spectacle to experience, no large ensemble showstoppers; the songs exist to enhance the emotions of the moment; they’re how things feel. When someone talks of how they don’t get musicals and can only accept events when told in a literal manner, the Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron score is the example to use when explaining what a musical interlude does. A song expresses an emotion in a way that simply talking about it can never achieve. When Tony leaves the dance at the gym having just met his soul mate Maria, in reality his walk home was probably done in silence. In a musical you hear the soaring emotions he’s feeling within and understand the moment to its fullest extent. In Fun Home, all of the songs are soaring emotions, even the comical, bittersweet fantasy sequence Raincoat of Love where The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family meet to musically reflect the perfect family life of Young Alison’s imagination, and each of the principal characters has their expressions shared.

For Young Alison it’s in the diner with her father when a woman with whom she feels a curious, instant attraction enters, Ring of Keys; for Medium Alison it’s at college after her night with fellow lesbian student Joan (Lauren McKay), Changing My Major (To Joan); for Adult Alison it’s when she’s in the car with her father, Telephone Wire; and for Bruce it’s the questioning moment before the final act of his life, Edges of the World. But best of all it’s the confession Alison’s mother, Helen (Elyse Wolf) sings to her daughter regarding the frustrations of her life with her husband, Days and Days. The heartache she feels of knowing what her husband was doing when he went out in the middle of the night and Wolf’s ability to deliver the song so effectively may tear you apart. “I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me,” she tells her student daughter.

This column has repeatedly expressed its admiration for the direction Phoenix Theatre has gone in the last few years, not only with its choices but with its production standards, further solidifying its reputation for being the city’s leader for regional musical theatre. Like the booklet it published in 2005 celebrating 85 years of productions, in years to come when the theatre looks back with another celebratory book, one that picks up where the last one left off, hindsight should view this present time as its golden period. Fun Home is an example why.

Fun Home continues at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre until December 02

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

The Hate U Give – Film Review

I was nine-years-old when I got the talk.” Those are the words of sixteen-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) spoken as a voice-over during the opening sequence to director George Tillman Jr.’s devastating new drama, The Hate U Give.

The ‘talk’ Starr is referring to is the one her father, Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby) gives to the family at the dinner table. It’s how to behave when the police pull you over. It’s what to say, and what not to say. As he explains, you will be pulled over. It’s going to happen. And over a time, it’s going to happen a lot. The explanation is precise, thorough, and under the circumstances of the family’s position in society, totally logical. “Know your rights,” dad concludes. “Know your worth. Understand?” As an African-American, it’s a talk that any sensible parent concerned for their children’s safety and welfare when out alone would consider mandatory. It’s a talk that most white parents rarely feel the need to give.

Inspired by the 2009 New Year’s Day fatal shooting of an unarmed twenty-two-year old African-American named Oscar Grant by a California police officer, then-college student Angie Thomas wrote a short story on the subject for her senior project. But as time passed and more police shootings of unarmed black males dominated the news, followed by protests against police brutality and issues of racism, writer Thomas expanded the story into a novel for a young adult readership. The title comes from Tupac Shakur’s rap, THUG LIFE; ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.’ Later, when in conversation with her best friend of early school days, Khalil (Algee Smith), Starr asks what does it mean. “What society gives us when we’re little comes back to bite them in the ass when we’re grown up,” he explains.

My name is Starr with two R’s,” her voice-over informs during the introduction. “Don’t ask me what the extra R is for.”

True to her name, Starr is a bright, intelligent teenager living with her father and mother (Regina Hall) and two brothers in the problem neighborhood of Garden Heights. As the young girl states, the local Garden Heights high-school is a place where you either get high, drunk, pregnant or killed. Instead, her parents send their daughter across town to the predominately white Williamson private school. As a result, there are two versions of Starr. There’s the Garden Heights Starr and the Williamson Starr. The young girl modifies both her speech and her behavior depending on where she happens to be at the time, keeping her attitudes in check in case she comes across to most of her white classmates as too ‘black.’ She even has a white boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa). “Chris is the best thing about Starr version two,” the girl informs.

However, it’s not long before Starr’s existence in those two worlds collide, and it’s all due to the fatal shooting by a police officer of her childhood friend. Khalil drives Starr home from a house party. It’s when a white police officer pulls the car over and asks for Khalil’s license and registration that the trouble begins. Star knows how to act. Her father gave her the ‘talk.’ But Khalil becomes belligerent, annoyed that a cop would bother him for no particular reason. He reaches for his hairbrush when he should have kept the palms of his hands on the roof of his vehicle. Thinking the boy was going for a weapon, the cop opens fire, repeatedly shooting Khalil.

Ordinarily, the setup so far would be enough to fill the narrative of any effective drama, but as events continue, The Hate U Give develops into something so much more. From that point, Starr’s life is irrevocably changed. She was the only witness, but both she and her mother are reluctant to go public. “Stuff like this gets on the news,” Starr narrates. “People get death threats. I just gotta be quiet.” But being quiet is a luxury the young girl can ill-afford.

Screenwriter, the late Audrey Wells who sadly passed away earlier this month, has done an outstanding job of adapting Thomas’ intelligent, 2017 multi-layered novel. With so much occurring, so many themes of racial injustices and their reasons for existing to explore, and so many conflicts for Starr to overcome until she finally finds her voice, you would not be surprised if the whole affair simply fell apart. Yet it never does. Every step of the way, every struggle Starr is forced to face, is meticulously crafted into an incredibly absorbing drama. Scene after powerful scene unfolds, keeping a complex series of events in check. It never loses its focus.

Activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) wants Starr to go public with what she witnessed. She urges the girl to find her voice in society and speak up. Then there’s Starr’s uncle, Carlos (rap star and poet Common) who happens to be a police officer. The talk he gives to his niece about viewing the situation from the point-of-view of the police is deeply affecting. Though perhaps the most troubling and certainly the most threatening is King (Anthony Mackie) the local drug dealer. By going public, Starr may bring an unwanted spotlight to the neighborhood, including King’s hold over the community.

The film rarely makes a false, disingenuous step in its lengthy 132 minute running time, though maybe King’s story and the grip he has on the community concludes in a somewhat too-tidy fashion. But ultimately The Hate U Give is astonishing. Plus it can boast a standout performance from its central figure, Amandla Stenberg. Given that the weight of the film rides almost exclusively on this young girl’s shoulders and our attention on her never sways only makes her performance all the more remarkable.

Near the conclusion after the riots when a standoff between the neighborhood, the cops, and a youth with a gun results with Starr pointing an accusatory finger at everyone while asking, “How many of us have to die before y’all get it?” the anger in what she’s asking becomes faintly reminiscent of the speech Maria gave at the conclusion of West Side Story. But that tale of gang warfare, the hate of its members, the sideline victims, and the bigotry of the police was written in 1957. It’s sobering to realize that sixty-one years later not only do the same problems exist, but the stakes with drugs, guns, and violence are higher. But the film also gives hope in the shape of America’s youth, in people like Starr and those who will be inspired to also find their voice and speak up. To date, The Hate U Give is the film of the year.

MPAA Rating: PG-13             Length: 132 Miunutes

Posted in Film

First Man – Film Review

In his youth, before he passed his driving test, Neil Armstrong earned his pilot’s license. Unlike most teenagers of his age, his fascination for flying far surpassed his interest in anything else, including having a girlfriend or driving cars. While that small nugget isn’t included in director Damien Chazelle’s epic drama First Man, it is one of the many telling characteristics from the biographical book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen upon which the film is based. But Josh Singer’s adapted screenplay uses plenty more character revealing traits from the book, eventually disclosing many things about a man and his life we thought we knew but didn’t.

Beginning in 1961 with an emotionally overwhelming opening sequence, Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot for a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft; an X-15. He’s gathering critical data for future human spaceflight, and it’s a roller coaster of a ride to the extreme. Director Chazelle puts us right inside the shaky cockpit and sets the tone for how the rest of the film will display events – it’s all from the point-of-view of Armstrong; we see what he sees. By using this approach, the movie’s style robs the widescreen of any breathtaking, establishing panoramic shots. Instead, images of the sky, of space, and eventually even the moon are as Armstrong sees them; through restrictive small windows and helmets.

As portrayed by Gosling, Armstrong tends to be a man of few words, and when he does speak what he says is carefully chosen. One evening at the family dinner table, Armstrong receives that all-important congratulatory call telling him he’s been accepted by NASA to be an astronaut for the Gemini program. He casually tells his wife, as if in passing, “I got it,” then carries on eating. And later, when co-astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) openly gives an unwanted, critical opinion of another astronaut and of the program itself, he ends with, “I’m only saying what everyone is thinking.” “Maybe you shouldn’t,” responds Armstrong.

Instead, the passion in the Armstrong household comes from the astronaut’s wife, his first, Janet Shearon (Claire Foy). At one point, Janet tells a fellow astronaut’s wife, “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.” But her life and her marriage to an American astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programs are anything but normal. While Armstrong keeps his feelings mostly contained, Janet lets them explode. She’s the much needed emotional arm of the film. When during a life or death moment in the program, NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure a nervous Janet that NASA has everything under control, she’s not having it. “You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood!” she angrily declares. “You don’t have anything under control.

While there’s much to admire in First Man – Claire Foy’s performance and all of the home-based family exchanges among them there’s a dullness that slowly creeps in during the middle act, undermining what initially promised to be a fascinating ride.

The sense of what it was like to be seated in the capsule, cramped, confined, surrounded by knobs, dials, and switches with only the slimmest of views of the outside world is successfully conveyed. In such a claustrophobic setting, lift-off has to be a terrifying experience; you may never see space travel in quite the same way again. But long scenes of Gosling’s Armstrong gazing thoughtfully off comes across as playing someone who’s simply a blank slate. Clearly, that’s not Armstrong, but Gosling can’t convincingly express a sense of inner turmoil; it’s just a stare.

Combined with the director’s carefully crafted style of using lengthy pauses to establish settings, ultimately the film’s overall atmosphere feels too detached; it’s going to test the patience of mainstream audiences. For some, it may never take off. By always looking at things from within, the film’s restrained style misses out on creating any sense of inspiration, the kind that the story of the first man to walk on the moon requires. It’s missing a sense of awe.

MPAA Rating: PG-13      Length: 138 Minutes

Posted in Film