Category Archives: Movies

Still at the ‘Top’

Tom Cruise soars—older but wiser—in sequel to the iconic 1980s blockbuster

Top Gun: Maverick
Starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly & Miles Teller
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Rated PG-13
In theaters Friday, May 27, 2022

Tom Cruise makes it all look so easy.

Scaling the glass of the world’s tallest skyscraper? Sure. Dangling from the outside of an airplane? Piece of cake. Leaping from the top of one building to another? All in a day’s work.

Yes, he did all those things, for real, for various Mission: Impossible movie adventures, often ignoring the advice of safety professionals and defying the film’s insurance protocols. (He famously broke his ankle on the skyscraper stunt—ouch—but hey, no big deal.)

Cruise is up—and that’s truly the right word—to the job once again in this sky-high, much-anticipated sequel to the 1986 summer-movie smash. He returns to the role of U.S. Navy fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, whose cocky, risk-taking flyboy personality made him the standout superstar, almost four decades ago, at the elite Navy training program known as Top Gun.

Now, Maverick is called back to Top Gun to train a new batch of elite younger pilots for a seemingly impossible mission. And in true Tom Cruise fashion, that’s really him in the cockpit, flying, soaring, zooming, sideways, straight up and upside-down at eyeball-popping supersonic speeds, pulling some serious G forces. No stunt pilot or special effects for him.

And those F/A-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats and “fifth-gen” fighters (the most advanced 21st century combat planes in the air), they’re all real, too. It’s like a military aviation museum roaring and soaring back life.

Cruise’s commitment to realism is only one of the factors that make Top Gun: Maverick such an exhilarating movie experience. It’s a fine-tuned, big-budget blockbuster, full of heart and soul, white-knuckle action and vertiginous excitement, swells of heartfelt emotion and jabs of joshing, mood-lightening laugh lines. It’s big, strutting, soaring, roaring, proudly pop-corny entertainment that begs to be seen on the big screen, like the blockbuster it was destined to be—which is why its release was delayed twice, over the past two years, by the COVID pandemic, until more people felt comfortable coming back to theaters.

Director Joseph Kosinski, whose other films include Tron: Legacy (2010) and the firefighter drama Only the Brave (2017), worked with Cruise previously, on the sci-fi adventure Oblivion (2013). He knows how to meld massive spectacle with strong story lines, and—in this case—how to make Cruise and his megawatt, big-screen charisma shine like the sun. When closeups fill the screen with his face, it’s a larger-than-life reminder that Cruise, now 60 years old, is much more than an actor, or a Hollywood veteran; he’s a bona fide movie star, an action icon who became one of moviedom’s most dashing leading men.

Miles Teller plays “Rooster,” the son of the late “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) in the original.

The new Top Gun has plenty of throwbacks to its 1980s roots, from a reprise of Kenny Loggins’ original signature song, Danger Zone, to character reappearances and nods to previous events. There’s Val Kilmer, who originally played Maverick’s stone-cold Top Gun competitor “Ice Man,” now a high-ranking Navy brass with serious health issues (mirroring Kilmer’s real-life situation after losing his voice due to throat cancer). Jennifer Connelly plays the bar proprietress Penny, a sideline character briefly noted in the first movie, now fully promoted to love interest. And Miles Teller comes aboard as the rookie pilot “Rooster,” the son of the late “Goose” (Anthony Edwards), whose tragic death in Top Gun has haunted Maverick all these years.

Cruise and Jennifer Connelly

The classic-rock tunes (T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” “Slow Ride” by Foghat, Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano-pounding “Great Balls of Fire,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) playing during an early scene in Penny’s bar, The Hard Deck, are affectionate musical acknowledgements of a story that began more than 35 years earlier, then zipped into the sunset as a pop-cultural touchstone. And the movie almost fetishizes certain “icons” from the first film—like Maverick in his signature shades or leaning into the wind on his Kawasaki GPZ motorcycle, flashing his pearly whites in a blissful grin. He may be flying “into the danger zone,” a place where people have been known to die and outcomes are rarely certain, but there’s something bad-ass retro cool and reassuring about seeing those cinematically comforting sights again. They’re reminding us to buckle up for another wildly entertaining ride, that it’s going to be full-scale fun, and Tom Cruise will make it all appear so natural, so effortless, so easy.  

A slo-mo beach football game has sun-drenched shades of the sweat-soaked volleyball match that steamed up the screen back in 1986 with its visual interlude of sexy, sculpted torsos. Lady Gaga sings the closing song, “Hold My Hand,” which has all the sonic soundtrack qualities of “Take My Breath Away,” the pop smash breakout by the new-wave band Berlin, which won an Oscar for the original film. And Maverick continues to break the rules and push the envelope, which is especially aggravating to the flinty, no-nonsense admiral now in charge of Top Gun (Jon Hamm).

Back in the mid 1980s, with global tensions ratcheting up in the Middle East and elsewhere, Top Gun—made with the full cooperation and partial funding of the U.S. Navy—was awash in flag-waving patriotism. It was a big-budget, all-star salute to fighter-pilot cowboys who put their lives on the line to defend America from the skies. The new movie is a bit less gung-ho about it, but Maverick does address the vital role of men (and women!) who put themselves into a cockpit and head into the front lines, especially in an era of combat technology that increasingly relies on drones and damage inflicted from afar.

Ed Harris

“You’ve got some balls, stick jockey,” says a steely general (Ed Harris) of Maverick, before telling him his days—as well as the existence of the whole Top Gun fighter-pilot program—are numbered. “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.”

Can Maverick whip the young pilots into shape, make them a team and get them prepared for a daring, do-or-die mission (in this case, a blitz to destroy an enemy compound in an unnamed rouge nation)? Can he teach them to fly at a dangerously low altitude, through a twisty canyon, below radar level to avoid a stronghold defended by lethal batteries of surface-to-air missiles? Can he save the Top Gun operation and restore its relevance in an era of modern warfare? Can he salvage his fractured relationship with “Rooster,” who blames his father’s death on Maverick?

Will the flyboy get the bargirl?

C’mon, really? What do you think?

It’s Tom Cruise, and as always, he makes it all look so easy.

California Dreamin’

Newcomer stars give breakthrough performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s graceful, charming ode to growing up in the 1970s

Alana Haim & Cooper Hoffman star in ‘Licorice Pizza’

Licorice Pizza
Starring Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated R
In theaters now

A charming Southern California coming-of-age tale set in the mid-1970s, Licorice Pizza takes a sweet, nostalgic look at an era when waterbeds were the new rage, Eastern food was exotic cuisine, pinball was a prohibited vice, the war in Vietnam was dragging on, and an oil embargo and gasoline crisis created endless lines of vehicles in the streets.  

Director Paul Thomas Anderson weaves all that, and more, into this affectionate, sprawling saga of a high school teen and his first-love crush on an “older” young woman.

Licorice Pizza is several things. It’s a love story, for sure. It’s an expertly rendered snapshot of a very specific time, teeming with detail, and a very specific place—L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, within tantalizing earshot of Hollywood’s glittery star-making machinery. And it’s the latest movie from one of the industry’s most acclaimed directors, who’s been nominated eight times for an Oscar.

It’s sprinkled with stardust and familiar faces, but it totally belongs to its two young leads. Cooper Hoffman plays Gary, a 15-year-old who becomes smitten on school-picture day by one of the photographer’s assistants, Alana. She’s played by Alana Haim, who in real life is part of the rock trio Haim, along with her two sisters, Este and Danielle (who appear in the movie as Alana’s movie siblings.) The Haims’ real-life parents also play Alana’s mom and dad.

The movie marks the acting debuts of both Hoffman and Haim, and they are nothing short of remarkable. Haim has already received several nominations, including nods from the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes. And in Hoffman, you can plainly see the DNA of his father, the late Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, a go-to for director Anderson in several of his films, including Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. In December, the younger Hoffman was recognized, along with Haim, for their breakthrough performances by the National Board of Review, which also cited Licorice Pizza as the year’s best film, and Anderson as the best director.

Anderson’s Magnolia had Tom Cruise; two of his other films, There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, were both galvanized with immersive performances by Daniel Day-Lewis; Boogie Nights resurrected the career of Burt Reynolds. But neither Cooper nor Haim are glamour-puss, “known” actors, which gives Licorice Pizza its loose, shaggy, authentic, unpredictable feel. The arc of their characters’ relationship isn’t a conventional one, but their charisma and their commitment sell it, with all its quirks, and you believe it.  

Gary is a go-getter, an aspiring young actor, and he’s like a lovestruck puppy; Alana, a decade older, is cool, detached and listless, unsure of what to do with her life, or who do it with. Hoffman and Hiam center the film on their characters and the experiences that bond them—Gary coaching Alana for a meeting with a casting agent, the two becoming business partners in a waterbed store, a surprise encounter with the cops, Alana’s bravura navigation of a delivery truck in reverse, down a winding Hollywood hill. And through it all, there’s the awkwardness of a relationship shaking out its messy, uncertain wrinkles before it can unfold into romance.

In several scenes, the movie shows Gary and Alana running—joyous jaunts with each other, breathless sprints when one of them is in need, and, ultimately, toward each other.

The movie is loosely based on the experiences of an actual child actor and entrepreneur, Gary Goetzman, who as an adult became friends with director Anderson and regaled him with stories of his exploits, several of which occur in the film—with the business ventures of “movie Gary” and his hustle to get his acting career off the ground. (Goetzman went on to co-found Tom Hanks’ Playtone movie-production company.)

Although it’s never explained, the title comes from the name of a well-known (now gone) record-store chain throughout Southern California, back in the day.

There are other real-life connections in the film, too. Bradley Cooper has a most memorable turn as Hollywood celebrity hairdresser Jon Peters, who was famously linked in the 1970s to superstar singer-turned-actress Barbra Streisand. He’s flat-out hilarious as a hot-headed horndog who orders one of Gary’s waterbeds, telling Gary that “I love tail too much. You know how much tail I get? All of it,” and schooling him of the pronunciation of his current conquest: “It’s Streisand…Streis-hand.”

Sean Penn plays a movie icon based on William Holden

Sean Penn has a couple of scenes as Jack Holden, a macho, alcoholic actor modeled on real-life actor William Holden. Jack is still basking in the glow of his biggest movie, which bears a strong resemblance to William Holden’s 1954 World War II drama The Bridges of Toko-Ri. Looking to cast his next film, he has a brief flirtation with Alana, flattering her when he compares her to princess-actress Grace Kelly (the real Holden’s costar in that film). Tom Waits, the musician-turned-actor, has a juicy turn as Holden’s hard-drinking director, with a boozy swagger that recalls the iconic, globetrotting John Huston, the Ernest Hemingway of Hollywood filmmakers for several decades.

There’s SNL alum Christine Ebersol as Lucille Doolittle, a TV and movie icon clearly modeled on Lucille Ball. Watch for a familiar actor in a brief, uncredited appearance as Herman Munster, from TV’s The Munsters. John Michael Higgins, who hosts the syndicated TV gameshow America Says, plays the buoyant, Japanese-mangling owner of Gary’s favorite Japanese restaurant. Alana does volunteer work for a local rising politician with a secret, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), based on an actual trailblazing member, with that name, of the L.A. City Council.

Steven Spielberg’s two daughters, Leo Di Caprio’s dad, Tim Conway’s adult son and director Anderson’s longtime romantic partner (Mia Rudolph), plus and their four children, also appear.

The rocking soundtrack—with carefully curated hits and deep cuts from Todd Rundgren, Sonny & Cher, David Bowie, Clarence Carter and Blood, Sweat & Tears—help define the time and accentuate the plot.

It’s all a delightful, delicious swirl of ingredients—like a licorice pizza—for a feel-good story that will charm its way into your heart, a heady, intoxicating rush of romance and nostalgia to remind us of the tricky, unsure navigation often required in growing up, finding a true soulmate and falling in love.

Hometown Hero

Pop superstar Justin Timberlake gets tough in heart-tugging Southern drama

Justin Timberlake and newcomer Ryder Allen in ‘Palmer’

Palmer
Starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Ryder Allen
Directed by Fisher Stephens
R
Jan. 29 on Apple+

A former small-town football hero returns home to rural Louisiana after serving a 12-year prison sentence, where he becomes involved in the messy home life of a young boy living next door to his grandmother.

Starring as the hulking, sulking, melancholy ex-con, Justin Timberlake looks and acts like someone a few hundred, hard miles away from the polished pop superstar who started out as a perky preteen Mouseketeer on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club before launching the squeaky-clean boy band NSYNC.

As NSYNC sang, “Bye Bye Bye.”

The multi-millon-selling singer, songwriter and producer has also forged a formidable acting career with roles in some 20 movies, including The Social Network, Bad Teacher, Inside Llewyn Davis and Wonder Wheel. (I’ll be kind and won’t count the computer-animated/live-action 2010 unnatural-disaster comedy pile-up that was Yogi Bear, for which Timblerlake voiced Yogi’s short-stuff companion, Boo Boo.)

His last movie was Trolls World Tour, released earlier this year, a sequel to the 2016 animated musical romp based on the frizzy-haired toy dolls of the 1960s.

Palmer is Timberlake’s return to more meaty, serious dramatic fare, as his character rebuilds his life, becoming a reluctant caretaker and champion for a child who doesn’t fit in anywhere else in the community.

We meet Palmer when he gets off the bus in his little backwater hometown, then hikes it to the house of his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him. We find out she’s the only family he’s got left, and that she has a few rules, like getting up and taking her to church every Sunday.

Praise the Lord: Timberlake, Allen and June Squibb

Looking out the window of her house, Palmer sees the rundown mobile home next door. Vivian tells him she regrets renting it to the young mother, Shelly, and her son, Sam (Ryder Allen), living there now—because Shelly’s boyfriend is always around, causing trouble.

Sam is “different” from the other boys, at Vivian’s church and at his school. He wears a barrette to keep his hair out of his eyes, he plays with dolls, he sashays and prisses when he walks. He wants nothing more than to become a member of the princess club, from his favorite cartoon TV show.

In a more, ahem, enlightened community, Sam would be considered “gender fluid,” or perhaps “non-binary.” Most people in Palmer’s hometown are, well, a little more blunt.

“There’s something wrong with that boy,” says one of Vivian’s church-going friends.

When Shelly runs off with her boyfriend, kindly Vivian takes in Sam to live—with her and Palmer. For how long, they don’t know.

Like just about everyone else, Palmer initially doesn’t know quite what to make of Sam. “You know you’re a boy, right?” he asks him. “Boys don’t play with dolls.”

“Well, I’m a boy,” Sam answers him. “And I do.”

Director Fisher Stevens—an actor turned award-winning documentary filmmaker—takes the movie into some predictable places, first as a “buddy picture” showing the gradual bonding process of Palmer and Sam, then layering on emotionally wrenching overtones that might remind movie lovers of break-up dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer or Marriage Story.

Palmer becomes Sam’s guardian angel, stepping in to stop schoolyard bullies—or busting a redneck’s head to impart some tough lessons about tolerance. The pop idol who once sang about “bringing sexy back”—and lays down some slick R&B gospel grooves in his new single, “Better Days,” with New Jersey rapper Ant Clemons—now brings out his fist to strike a blow against hateful ignorance of people who react with meanness when they “see something that they ain’t used to seein’,” especially when it’s hurtful to a child.

It’s a strong, beefy performance from Timberlake, but he gives much of the film over to his nine-year-old co-star, who makes a memorable movie debut (Allen’s only previous acting experience was an appearance on a 2017 episode of TV’s Law & Order). Though she disappears for much of the movie, British actress Juno Temple (mostly recently on Hulu’s Ted Lasso) does a convincing turn as Sam’s drug-addicted, Southern-fried, trailer-trash mom. That’s Dean Winters—yep, the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate commercials—as her loutish, abusive boyfriend. Alisa Wainright is Sam’s teacher, the lovely Ms. Hayes, who uses a school Halloween party—when Sam comes in a princess costume—to gently teach a lesson to her kids that people can “be whoever you wanna be.”

Juno Temple

As Palmer puts his own life back together, he finds many of the missing pieces in building a better world for Sam. This deep-South drama’s sensitive, humanistic approach to atonement, acceptance, inclusion and compassion will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like a loner, an outcast, an oddity—and who might wish they had someone like Palmer in their corner, advocating for them, standing up for them, loving them, fighting for them.    

“There’s things in this world you can be, and things in this world that you can’t,” Palmer tells Sam at one point, worried about how hard it’s going to be for Sam to acclimate to a world seemingly set against him. But by the end of the film, Palmer has changed his mind; Sam can be a princess, Palmer can be whole, and the circle of family can be as wide, and as full, as you make it.  

And Timberlake can be a serious movie star, again, in a movie like Palmer.

Woman on a Warpath

Carrie Mulligan strikes a righteous #MeToo blow in incendiary rape-revenge fable

Promising Young Woman
Starring Carey Mulligan
Directed by Emerald Fennell
R
In theaters Dec. 25, 2020

A candy-colored rape-revenge fable with a fierce performance from Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman brings the righteous fury of the #MeToo movement into savagely wicked focus.

Mulligan stars as Cassie, a college dropout on the cusp of 30 who was once on track to become a doctor before a tragic event derailed her plans. Now working as a coffee-shop barista by day, she has a very different agenda at night.

In the evenings, she daubs on lipstick, dolls up and pretends to be sloshed in bars or nightclubs, just waiting for a so-called “nice guy” to offer to give her a lift home. When the ride invariably takes a detour and they end up at his apartment, and he ends up pouring her even more drinks, pawing her body, putting his hands down her blouse or up her skirt, Cassie abruptly turns out to not be nearly as sloshed as he thinks. Not sloshed at all, in fact.

The guy gets a shocking comeuppance, and Cassie gets to make another neat little color-coded hash mark in her book. Check!

Making her feature directorial debut, Emerald Fennel is already a hot property in Hollywood, as an actor (she played Camilla Bowles in The Crown), writer, and for her pair of Emmy nominations as executive producer and showrunner for the second season of BBC America’s Killing Eve.

You can see how Killing Eve—about a British intelligence officer who relentlessly pursues a psycho assassin to the point that the two become obsessed with each other—funnels into Promising Young Woman. Cassie is driven by her own obsession, too.

The event that derailed Cassie’s life involved a horrific act of sexual violence inflicted on one of her med-school classmates, her childhood best friend, Nina. There were other people involved, too—boys who afterward went on as if nothing had happened, keeping their nice-guy appearances and their reputations intact for the rest of the world. And there were those who knew what happened but didn’t do anything about it, or defended the guys, or even worse, blamed or discredited Nina…

The devastating incident destroyed her best friend, and it also crushed Cassie. It also galvanized her into a mission, setting her on a singular, obsessive path as a bait-and-switch avenging angel for every “promising young woman,” like Nina, who’d been victimized by acts of non-consensual aggression, who never got the justice they deserved.

Mulligan, so good in everything she’s ever done—from Pride and Prejudice (2005) to An Education (2009), Drive (2011), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Mudbound (2017) and Wildlife (2018)—is terrific here in a bold, boundary-pushing performance as an exhilarating anti-heroine: edgy, dark, dangerous, sexy, sad, wounded, wild, wily, self-aware but also scarily  unhinged. She makes us feel the trauma that’s never left her, the fire that will never go out, a hurt that won’t heal, a hunger to stand up for something that so many women have had taken from them and can never get back. It’s powerhouse acting that fires on all lipstick-smeared, bruised and broken cylinders.

And it’s not just men that come into Cassie’s crosshairs. Even females can need some education in the matter.

“Don’t get blackout drunk…and expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don’t want to,” says one of her former university friends (Alison Brie).

Alfred Molina plays an attorney haunted by what he did. Connie Britton is the dean who dismissed things as just another “he said/she said” matter. The OC’s Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) and Max Greenfield (The Neighborhood) are all aboard, as (nice) guys who attempt to coerce Cassie into sexual encounters but don’t seem to think what they’re doing is inappropriate…and they certainly wouldn’t call it rape. Familiar, friendly faces, characters we recognize and maybe even feel like we “know,” in situations that turn into something abhorrent—just like we’ve all heard about happening in college dorms, apartments, or hotel suites…

Rape… predators… revenge… Those are all serious words and serious things, but Fennel deftly steers Promising Young Woman along its prickly path with deliciously dark humor, giving its gritty truths a hyper-stylized swirl of girly, candy-cane colors and a swish of vampy camp. Cassie’s on-the-town trolling outfits are so over-the-top, it becomes a dishy delight to see what she’s going to wear next—and what she’s going to do. Scenes with her barista boss (Orange is the New Black’s LaVerne Cox) have a snarky, sitcom-y snap. The movie veers into a kind of romcom sweetness when Cassie meets up with an old med-school classmate (Bo Burnham), now a respectable pediatric surgeon, whose puppy-dog crush on Cassie may reveal him to be the genuinely nice guy he actually seems to be.

But make no mistake about it: This is about men who do things they shouldn’t be doing, and get away with it, and a system that mostly enables and protects them. It’s impossible to ignore the film’s real-life backdrop—the rising chorus of #MeToo voices across the land in response to high-profile allegations and lawsuits against entertainment moguls, corporate giants, TV network execs…even President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 26 women, all of whom he has denounced as “liars.”  

When Cassie gets out of her car and takes a tire iron to a guy’s pickup truck to teach him to mind his disrespectful mouth, she’s striking a blow for every woman who’s ever been called…well, you can guess the words. She’s striking a blow for every female who’s every been brave enough, bold enough, to step forward and tell how she’d been victimized by a guy who did something terrible, something awful, only to be dismissed and debunked, smeared and scorched…and then had to watch him go on to become a doctor, a lawyer, maybe even a U.S. Supreme Court Justice or a president.

“I didn’t do anything wrong!” one of Cassie’s transgressors tearfully tells her. “We were kids! We were all drunk!

It all full-circles to a blowout bachelor-party finale that will leave you quite breathless as Cassie brings some closure to her mission—if not in the way you might be expecting.

Arriving in theaters on Christmas Day, Promising Young Woman isn’t quite It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street. But if you’re up for a smart, sassy, stinging #MeToo kick to the chestnuts, I promise you’ll be thinking about it long after the eggnog is drained dry and the holidays are over.

Think about it: That’s what Cassie would want, after all.  

Black and Blues

Chadwick Boseman goes out in blaze of glory in this masterful musical biopic

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Starring Viola Davis & Chadwick Boseman
Directed by George C. Wolfe
R
Available Dec. 18, 2020 on Netflix

Viola Davis gives a boisterous, bigger-than-life performance at the musical epicenter of this stage-to-screen biopic about the “Mother of the Blues” and a contentious recording session one sweltering summer day in 1927.

But the movie belongs to the late Chadwick Boseman, who goes out in an absolute blaze of glory in his final acting role as one of Ma’s band members.

Based on a Broadway play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes its title from one of Rainey’s tunes, about a raucous Roaring Twenties flapper dance that was very popular at the time. Rainey, a Georgia-born singer who began her career in rural tent shows, became one of the era’s most popular and successful blues singers, especially after recording companies saw that there was green to be made from Blacks singing the blues.

But in 1927, Ma was on the downside of her career. The gigs weren’t as big, there were other popular blues singers on the rise, like Bessie Smith, and musical tastes were changing. The movie depicts a (fictional) day when Rainey has ventured north to a Chicago studio to put several tunes onto vinyl, including “Black Bottom.”

She meets up with her musicians—the diplomatic trombonist and band leader, Cutler (Colman Domingo); Toledo (Glynn Turman, whom fans of this season’s Fargo will recognize as Doctor Senator, the right-hand man of Chris Rock’s starring crime-boss character), her sagacious piano player; upright bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts); and young coronet hotshot Levee (Boseman), who’s itching to break out, write his own songs and start his own band.

And that’s not all: Ma arrives in tow with her pretty-young-thing girlfriend trinket, Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige, from TV’s Hit the Floor) and Ma’s teenage nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), whose speech impediment will stall the recording session—but not Ma’s insistence that he record a spoken intro to one of her songs.

Ma isn’t exactly excited about having to come to Chicago, spending a day in a broiling studio. She’s peeved that her—white—manager (Jeremy Shamos) has forgotten that she always requires a Coca Cola (or two, or three) before recording. She’s not happy that Levee’s been embellishing her songs—her songs—with his snazzy-jazzy trumpet trills and fills. And she’s certainly not happy when she catches Levee casting lusty glances at Dussie Mae.

Ma is a magnificent, brassy, sassy, sweaty mountain of attitude, makeup, teeth filings and gold-mine talent that makes everyone else bend before her, like green Georgia pines in a cat-five cyclone. Davis, an award-winning veteran actress with more than 80 movie and TV roles to her credit, virtually disappears into the blustry, busty, bisexually voracious blues matron, becoming a veritable force of nature, as elemental as earth, air, fire or water—a swaggering proto-diva who looks like she could eat Rihanna for lunch, burp up Whitney Houston and use Cher as a toothpick.

Davis’ previous Oscar—a Best Supporting Actress trophy—was for Fences, another play by Wilson adapted for the screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her get a Best Actress nod, if not a trophy, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

But this movie is Boseman’s, in more ways than one. In this his final acting role, before his death, at age 42 from colon cancer in August 2020, he sears the screen with a hauntingly powerful performance that takes on even more gravity because we know it was to be his last.

The temperature is high in the recording studio where Ma and her band come to record, and Levee makes it even hotter. Boseman plays him as a live wire, electrified with life, lust, jive and cocky confidence, a character of such depth, dreams, passion and rage that we’re still learning about him as the movie closes. And unlike his bandmates and his bossy boss, who just want to do the job and get back home, Levee (correctly) sees the future: It’s not in the earthy moan of Ma’s backwater blues, but instead in the snappy, swingy pep of more “commercial” arrangements—that would later pave the way to rock and roll. It’s in the songs he’s written that he wants to give to the studio producer, another white fat-cat (Jonny Coyne) with a wad of cash, who says he likes Levee and he likes his music, and he’ll give him a shot. But will he really?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, like Fences, is one of the works in Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle about the Black experience in America during different decades of the 20th century. Like all the Cycle plays, this one has a lot of things to say—and it says them, in its crackling dialogue and its testy power-play dynamics between Ma and her band, her manager and her producer, and in the tension of Black musicians working for white men, who not only control the recording equipment, but also the purse strings.

It’s all set against the backdrop of the “Great Migration,” when millions of Black families relocated from the rural South to the North, to places like Chicago, Detriot and New York City, seeking better postwar job opportunities and lives—or fleeing segregation, Jim Crow laws and the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. But urban life wasn’t necessarily easier; racism and prejudice knew no geographic boundaries. The migration eventually resulted in a “renaissance” of Black culture, a spread of diversity and influence into wider America. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows how a Georgia blues singer stood for her own Black Lives Matter movement long before there was a movement.

Vibrantly full of music—from Ma and her band, as well as an original soundtrack by Branford Marsalis—and bathed in a golden retro glow (by acclaimed cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who dazzled moviegoers with Dreamgirls and Disney’s live-action 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast), it’s a masterful, full-on sensory experience that feels like a pulsing, living, breathing, heaving time capsule.  

Boseman (foreground) with Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag and Colman Domingo as Cutler.

In the dingy basement band rehearsal room, Levee and his fellow musicians banter, josh and rib each other. They talk about Levee impulsively blowing an entire gig’s pay—plus some—on a fancy new pair of shoes. They talk about God and the devil, about being Black in a white man’s world; Toledo riffs out a song at his piano that equates humanity to a stew, a gumbo mix of all sorts of food, with Black people as its dicards, the “leftovers.” In the film’s most extended, emotionally intense, centerpiece scene, Levee tells a story about his childhood and his mama, a bunch of white men who entered his house—and how he got the scar he still bears on his chest.

He may be forever remembered as The Black Panther, but this movie, and even that scene alone, could be—and should be—what gets Boseman an Oscar.

“White people don’t understand the blues,” says Ma. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.”

Bozeman’s red-hot performance, his swan song, burns a sizzling hole in the middle of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, leaving us with an emptiness that will take a long time to fill, the hollow space of an immensely gifted actor who gave everything he had for his last hurrah, all the fire and intensity of which he was capable. Way too hot, way too young, way too soon.

That kind of blues—we may not understand ’em, Ma, but we sure can feel ’em.

Not a Princess

Disney’s new Mulan provides a rousing heroine for young girls ready to move beyond sleeping beauties and little mermaids

Mulan
Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee
Directed by Niki Caro
PG
Available Sept. 4 on Disney+

Disney’s new princess is no princess.

Mulan, a young female warrior who leaves her family to defend her country, is based on stories dating back to 4th century China.

You might remember Disney’s earlier version, a 1998 animated musical romp for which for Eddie Murphy provided the voice of a little talking dragon and Christina Aguilera sang what would become her first hit song, “Reflections.”

There’s no talking dragon in the new, live-action Mulan, or any other cutesy animals. This Mulan is, instead, full of color, sights, action, drama, emotion and spectacle, all revolving around a young heroine with the bona fides to become a rousing role model for little girls ready to move beyond sleeping beauties, little mermaids, talking teapots and pumpkins that turn into coaches.

(You do get to hear Aguilera sing “Reflections” again, though.)

The setting is ancient China, where the Emperor issues a decree that every family must send “one man” to serve in the Imperial Army to fight against a ruthless horde of advancing invaders. Mulan (Chinese-born actress Yifei Liu), the eldest of two daughters of an honored veteran warrior who has no sons, takes her ailing father’s place so he doesn’t have to hobble onto the battlefield.

Disguising herself as a young man, Mulan goes off to training in preparation to meet the vicious warlord Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the shape-shifting witch Xianniang (Li Gong), his partner in crime.   

Along with all sorts of rigorous exorcises and combat skills, Mulan and her fellow soldiers are taught to be loyal, brave and true, the three “Pillars of Virtue.” Those pillars are so important, they’re etched into the shiny steel blade of Mulan’s sword. But Mulan struggles with the pillar of truth—she knows she’s living a “lie” hiding her true identity from her fellow soldiers, her commanding officers and herself.

But like the flaming red phoenix—the mythological bird—Mulan keeps seeing, we know Mulan, too, will soon rise up and reveal herself, in all her splendor.

Steeped in Chinese culture and capably steered by director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Whale Rider, North Country and McFarland U.S.A) in China as well as her native New Zealand, Mulan is truly something to see—too bad COVID-19 kept it out of theaters, and off the big screen. There are teeming plazas, ornate palaces, fortress cities, snow-capped mountains, and training montages on wide, windswept plains. Characters pop, parade and promenade in all sorts of fabulous costumes, from suits of shiny amour to a spectrum of raiment in all colors of the rainbow; I’m sure Disney hopes to sell a ton of ruby-red Mulan cloaks. An early scene where Mulan and her sister get “made up” for a meeting with their village’s matchmaker is a spectacle in itself, a quick-course lesson in Chinese tradition.

There are clash-y showdowns, chop-socky throwdowns and one especially acrobatic battle atop what looks like a bamboo construction site, with a face-off on a piece of lumber hanging precariously by a strand of rope; I halfway expected Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig to step in and take over for a Mission: Impossible stunt or a James Bond cliffhanger.

Liu, who stars as Mulan, may be a newcomer to most Americans. But at 33, she’s already an established, award-winning actress, singer and model who’s starred in some two dozen films and television shows in China. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou, is played by Tzi Ma, a Hong Kong-born actor with a long list of American acting credits, including TV’s Bosch, Veep, Madam Secretary and The Man in the High Castle.

The rest of the cast is similarly pedigreed, with many actors who are already stars in Chinese cinema, though they may be somewhat unfamiliar to mainstream U.S. audiences.

Some action scenes seem a bit clunky and choreographed, like they were staged for a Broadway production instead of film. I was disappointed that the movie didn’t do more with the idea that “chi” warriors could run on, up and down walls, like spiders; it’s more of a gee-gosh gimmick than a concept that could have been really cool to explore more visually. And for all the progressive, culturally forward progress of having Mulan’s central character be a fearless warrior heroine, instead of a lovestruck princess, there are still some durable, dependable Disney-touchstone throwbacks. I’m almost certain one of Mulan’s fellow recruits—the doughy, comical Cricket—shares some strands of DNA with Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“We’re going to make men out of all you,” barks Mulan’s drill sergeant to his greenhorn troops at the start of their training.

He doesn’t know, of course, that the greatest soldier in his entire legion, in the history of his empire, will turn out to be a woman, rising like a phoenix through the centuries as an emblem of achievement, loyalty, bravery and honor.

And she’s not a princess, she’s Mulan.

A New Mob-Sterpiece

Director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, epic, all-star gangster’s paradise 

Irishman 1 (72)

The Irishman
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci & Al Pacino
Directed by Martin Scorsese
R

The old man in the nursing home doesn’t look dangerous, but he’s a stone-cold killer.

Or at least he used to be. He’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who gave up a job driving a meat truck to work for the mob, and now he’s outlived—literally—everyone he used to know.

That’s the terrific opening—a brilliant, extended tracking shot, scored to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”—of director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling new gangster opus The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran and featuring a who’s who of other mobster-movie all-stars.

Scorsese, of course, is the maestro of mob cinema, from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. This one marks his ninth collaboration with De Niro, and his third with Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to work again with the Oscar-winning director and with De Niro, his frequent costar.

Pesci plays Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, who takes a liking to Frank as a younger man and ushers him into his crime family in the 1960s, beginning with smaller jobs that eventually lead to bigger—more dangerous, and more deadly—assignments.

The story is based on Charles Brant’s true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually a biography of Sheeran’s life of crime. The phrase is mob shorthand for inquiring about hiring a hitman, without actually having to come right out and ask him to kill someone. Frank becomes Russell Bufalino’s “house painter,” spattering walls, sidewalks and other surfaces bright red with blood.

Irishman 4

Al Pacino (left) plays Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) becomes his right-hand man in the powerful Teamsters Union.

The movie itself spans some five decades as it unspools the story of Frank, Russell and their intersection with the events of the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as it pertains to the powerful Teamsters Union and its bombastic president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s two-time Godfather royalty, but—amazingly—never until now worked with Scorsese). Things start to get tense when Hoffa and the Teamsters begin to get sideways with the mob, and Frank—himself a Teamster, who’s been anointed Hoffa’s bodyguard and confidante—is caught in the squeeze.

Hoffa’s “disappearance” in 1975 was one of the biggest news events of the decade, especially since his body was never found and it was widely presumed that he was murdered. Brandt’s book—and The Irishman—have a tidy answer for what happened, but I won’t give it away here.

At three and a half hours, The Irishman fills out its epic proportions with epic performances and some of Scorsese’s best, most profound filmmaking—the signature cinematic touches of a master coming home again, working in his gangster-paradise element, and finding new depth, emotional richness and insightful resonance in old, familiar themes. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Pacino—you’ll never see these four lions roar like this again. This is Scorsese’s mobster-movie masterpiece, and a masterpiece in general. There’s no question it’s the year’s big-event movie.

This mob-life master class has it all, from quick, bloody, spasmic bursts of violence to long-game extortion squeezes; we learn the infrastructure of organized crime from the ground up. But the bloodshed is never gratuitous; it’s always “business.” One “hit” we see takes three minutes to explain and set up, in narration, and less than five seconds to execute. Most of the “house painting” is over in one, two or three quick, clean pops.

But make no mistake about it. These wise guys may be “businessmen,” they may be family men with wives and kids, they may cross paths with priests, politicians and even presidents. But they’re doing profane, down-and-dirty work, and they’re living in the shadowy underbelly of society, where it’s only a matter of time before the end comes for them, one way or another.

The movie has no less than three scenes of baptism, one wedding, and one scene that’s a symbolic “communion,” when Frank and Russell break bread, dip it into glasses of wine—and seal what will become their lifelong bond. But make no mistake about it: Theirs is an unholy bond, and nothing good can ever come from it.

You’ve probably heard about the high-tech, computerized and highly complicated “de-aging” technology that allows the actors to play themselves across the years, or the decades. It’s pretty amazing, but after a while you stop thinking about it—it’s just the magic of the movies.

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De Niro and Pacino (right) with Jesse Plemons (left) and Ray Romano as their character react to news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The cast also includes a bunch of other recognizable—non-de-aged—faces, including Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Jack Huston. Anna Paquin plays Franks daughter, Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina). Peggy has very few lines, but her disapproving, disappointed eyes broadcast a spectrum of emotion about the chasm that eventually comes between her and her father over his violent lifestyle.

The other females in the movie aren’t given much to do, or say, either—because the film, like the mob it depicts, was a man’s world. And The Irishman shows us that the men who choose to live its life of crime—though it may be “glamorized” in the movies—have a high job-related mortality rate. People who paint houses often end up covered in paint. Those who live by the sword, as the saying goes, often die by it.

Unless, against the odds, they live to face another fate—old age, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, last rites, nursing homes. They may play wheelchair bocce ball in a freezing courtyard, or remember fondly how much they liked someone they had to murder, or dip pieces of cheap prison bread in grape juice—in a melancholy bookend moment to that “communion” scene earlier.

But still, the Grim Reaper will surely come, to paint his own house, and all they can do is wait, and wait, and wait on the creeping darkness of the night, and hold on to whatever sliver of light is left, in a world they’ve help to make all the darker.

In select theaters Nov. 1, 2019 (and on Netflix Nov. 27)

Smashing

Nicole Kidman De-Glams as a Gritty, Wrecked, Wracked L.A. Detective

Destroyer_IMDB-2

Destroyer
Starring Nicole Kidman & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Karyn Kusama
R

She’s one of the most strikingly beautiful women in the movies, but in her latest flick, Nicole Kidman looks like a wreck.

The star of TV’s Big Little Lies and such box-office hits as Moulin Rouge, Far and Away, Days of Thunder and The Stepford Wives de-glamorizes to the extreme in Destroyer as a damaged-goods L.A. detective whose life was derailed after a deep-cover sting operation took a very wrong turn.

Now Erin Bell is a hollowed-out shell of her former self, haunted by the tortured trauma of her past, when she receives an unexpected reminder of the very thing that ruined her life.

“Do you really want to go back down that hole again?” asks one of her fellow detectives.

Kidman here is something to see—because you’ve never seen her looking anything like it. Rail thin, with dark, sunken eyes, blanched skin and drab clothes that look like they’re hanging off a scarecrow, Erin Bell doesn’t appear to have bathed, brushed her teeth or combed her hair in weeks, maybe months. And it probably took a lot of Hollywood makeup to make it look like makeup isn’t something she’s thought about for a long, long time. As she squints and shuffles in the scorching, searing L.A. sun, she’s a piece of walking beef jerky. And she’s certainly just as tough. This beef jerky can bite back.

Destroyer_IMDB-4

Kidman & Sebastian Stan

Some 17 years ago, Bell was a fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy recruit assigned to a dangerous assignment with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) that involved infiltrating a ruthless criminal gang with a thing for robbing banks. But one big heist went horribly wrong, the gang’s murderous, cultish leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), got away, and Erin’s never been the same.

Now, apparently, Silas has resurfaced, and she’s driven to find him and finish the job.

As she burrows into L.A.’s seedy, seamy underbelly looking for people and clues, we’re taken into the cracks and crevices where criminals crawl like vermin. We meet an illegal gun merchant, a dying jailbird, and a cocky, money-laundering lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who reminds the battered, burned-out detective that she’s already fought this battle before—and it didn’t turn out so well.

“You chose to play cops and robbers, and you lost, big-time,” he smugly tells her.

Exactly what happened, and what was lost, is explained in back-and-forth flashbacks. Director Karyn Kusama—whose previous films include Girlfight with Michelle Rodriguez, AEon Flux with Charlize Theron and Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox—has created a stark, tense, bleak-looking film-noir crime-mystery character study that challenges viewers with multiple layers and tricky time-shift changes, especially as things bear down into the home stretch.

It also challenges its audience with a character whose “appeal” is in the sympathy it generates for her being so doggedly unappealing. She’s bitter, morose, wracked with guilt and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world—at least not anymore.

Detective Bell can’t even get her rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) to have a civil conversation. Her exasperated ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) longs for the life they might have had together. Her cop co-workers practically hold their noses when she walks by.

She does whatever it takes to do what she has to do—bashing heads with a gun barrel or a soap dish, bartering a sexual favor for a dollop of information, beating a bank robber to a bloody pulp then tossing her into her car trunk. It’s a Hollywood double standard that we’re accustomed to seeing guys—and guy cops—behave this way, but rarely women. It’s a down-and-dirty walk on the wild side that few actresses ever take.

Destroyer_IMDB-3

This isn’t really a movie to enjoy so much as to appreciate—for the skill of its storytelling, the craftsmanship of its filmmaking, and the performance and physical transformation of Kidman into something, and someone, eaten away from the inside by a cancer of regret, self-loathing, grief and an all-consuming need for vengeance.

You’ll probably feel a bit grimy and worn-out when it’s over, especially after the twisty-turn at the end that loops back on everything that’s come before. You may not be wrecked, but you could be due for a realignment.

Destroyer is no holly-jolly Christmas ride on the holiday express. But if you’re up for a gritty, grueling dive into a pummeling puzzle of bumps, bruises, gunfire, gristle, twists, turns, thumps, thwacks, slaps and surprises, climb on board.

Just be sure to bring your own soap, makeup and toothbrush.

In theaters Dec. 25, 2018

Trick or Treat

New ‘Halloween’ Marks Fresh, Frightfully Fun Return to Franchise

Film Title: Halloween

Halloween
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer & Andi Matichak
Directed by David Gordon Green
R

Trick or treat!

It’s that time of year—and Halloween is that kind of movie.

It’s certainly a treat seeing Jamie Lee Curtis back as Laurie Strode, slasher cinema’s most celebrated scream queen, in the role she created back in 1978.

And it’s a bit of a trick what this movie does with its own franchise, a hefty collection of 10 reboots, sequels and revisions by various directors, dozens of other actors and wildly divergent plot lines. This Halloween basically pulls a disappearing act on all of them, except the original, wiping the movie slate clean and operating as if all the events that came before, in all those other films, never happened.

Poof! They’ve vanished.

All orange and a-glow with fresh, new thrills, chills and edge-of-your-seat jolts, this frisky, frightfully fun return to the franchise is full of tense, taut, pulse-pounding scares, enough slashing, stabbing, skull-smashing and impaling to provide some gristle for the gore-hounds happy, and terrific nods to the movie that started it all. (The original’s director, John Carpenter, is one of the executive producers, along with Curtis.)

The new one picks up where the first left off, in Haddonfield, Ill., 40 years after masked, mute Michael Myers went on the horrific Halloween-night killing spree that came to be known as the “babysitter murders.” One resourceful sitter, Laurie Stroud, escaped—but grew up forever traumatized by the experience.

Michael was locked away in a looney bin for endless psychiatric probing. And Laurie became Haddonfield’s local paranoid crackpot, living in a fortified compound with an arsenal of weapons, floodlights on her roof, multiple locks on her doors—and the certainty that Michael would come back to hunt, and haunt her again someday…or some night.

Maybe Halloween?

And she’d vowed she’d be ready for him, even if everyone else thought she was crazy.

Film Title: Halloween

Judy Greer (left) with Jamie Lee Curtis

Laurie’s obsession has alienated her now-grown daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), despite the entreaties of Karen’s own teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), a high school senior who begs her grandmother to let go of Michael “and get over it!”

Of course, Michael (played by James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle, reprising his role from 1978) does escape, he does come back to Haddonfield and he does zero in on Laurie. The body count again rises as he blends in, hiding in mostly plain sight among the costumed ghouls and goblins on the sidewalks and streets on Halloween night. But another “trick” of the movie is how it sets up three Stroud women this time to ultimately confront him. Now, 40 years later, the world has changed in many ways, and the boogeyman meets a #MeToo generation with more than one score to settle.

Film Title: Halloween

Andi Matichak

Director David Gordon Green collaborated on the screenplay with Danny McBride—and that’s another trick. The pair is much better known for their rollicking, ribald comedy team-ups for TV’s Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down, in which McBride also starred. But give them a masked killer, some sharp knives, a fireplace poker or a tire tool and a shotgun and they can certainly deliver the goods. The opening credits sequence—a reverse time-lapse of a rotten jack-o’-lantern coming back to its original, freshly carved state—sets the stage for their agile horror romp that deeply honors its hallowed roots, “reversing” the outright awfulness of some of its other so-called sequels, while notching its own crisp, definitive design into the iconic tale.

Film Title: Halloween

Gas station bathrooms…yuck!

A couple of scenes are consummate, tip-the-hat homages to the original, and others are smart, stylish new additions to the horror-film canon, blending tension, dark humor and shocking crimson splashes, spatters and smears of blood. Some gas-station bathrooms are yucky enough already, but you may never want to go inside another stall after…well, it’s never good when someone leans over the door and drops someone else’s teeth on the floor. And I’ve always thought those motion-activated backyard security lights were a bit creepy; kudos to the filmmakers for finally exploiting their horror potential.

The movie dabbles a bit in predator-vs.-prey psychology, and whether Laurie might actually “need” Michael, live her life for him, around the idea of him—and look forward to confronting him again.

“He waited for this night,” she says. “He waited for me. I waited for him.”

Just like this is a movie that Halloween fans have been waiting for—like kids anxiously wait for Halloween itself, its candy, its costumes and its frightful fun.

Trick or treat!

In theaters Oct. 19, 2018

Blast Off

Ryan Gosling personalizes Neil Armstrong in moving, masterful moon-mission movie

Film Title: First Man

First Man
Starring Ryan Gosling & Claire Foy
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13
In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon.

Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the focus of First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s monumentally intimate portrait of the former U.S. Navy aviator and engineer who became famous forever for taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Everything in the movie leads toward that climactic moonwalk moment; as one of the most documented events in modern history, we know it happened and we know it’s coming. But wow, is it ever an emotional journey getting there.

As space movies go, First Man isn’t a rousing character romp like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, nor a far-out cosmic mind-bender like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more sobering, introspective, contemplative and calculated in its depiction of Armstrong and the nuts and bolts of getting men into the great beyond.

The movie (based on Armstrong’s official 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen) makes you understand just how difficult, dangerous—and sometimes deadly—it was.

Film Title: First Man

Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful. It’s gorgeous, immersive and often rapturous, a technically brilliant and sometime sublime bit of moviemaking that puts the audience inside the space program, and alongside the astronaut who would become the commander of Apollo 11, the first NASA mission to land two people on the moon.

We’re inside cramped, claustrophobic cockpits with Armstrong and other space jocks, surrounded by analog dials, panels jammed with buttons, flip switches and read-out gauges of primitive 1960s computers. We hear the whoosh and hiss of rocket fuel through pipes, the rattle and racket of metal, the monstrous rush and roar of the combusting engines. We feel—or at least think we do—the nauseating, violent, skull-jarring shaking, spinning and rolling.

And the void of space is a majestic, unfathomable symphony of silence.

In the opening scene, we watch Armstrong—then a test pilot—guide an experimental X-15 rocket plane up, up, up, until he perches on the cusp of space. For one beautiful moment, he hovers there, savoring the awesome beauty, gazing at the spectacle of the thin, blue sliver of the atmosphere on the horizon against the vast, endless blackness of the cosmos.

But then he has a bit of trouble re-entering, of getting turned around and returning to Earth. For him, shooting into space is the easy part. Coming back down is hard.

Film Title: First Man

Claire Foy

Reuniting with director Chazelle from last year’s Oscar-winning La La Land, Gosling portrays Armstrong as silent, withdrawn, nearly expressionless and emotionally distant. He feels much more at ease in space than he does at home, with his wife Janet (an excellent Claire Foy, who starred as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s The Crown) and their two young sons. Perhaps some of that stems from the tragic death of their young daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor, an event which haunts him—and also spurs him on.

First Man is about getting to the moon, but Armstrong’s “small step” required a sequence of many, many other steps ahead of it. We see some of the details, like the rigors of preparation (hang on for the “Multi-Axis Trainer,” a vomit-inducing beast that looks like cross between a giant gyroscope and a crazy carnival ride). We get an understanding of the prodigious engineering feats as well as on-the-fly, make-or-break decisions that go into missions—and the many things that can go wrong. We learn of the fatal setbacks, and the public opposition to such high-dollar, risky science.

Film Title: First Man

Jason Clarke

There’s a pack of other astronauts swirling around as NASA scrambles to gets its Gemini and Apollo programs off the ground (literally) ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Corey Stoll is motor-mouthed Buzz Aldrin. Lukas Haas portrays Michael Collins, and Shea Whigham is Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7, the first group of solo astronauts. Kyle Chandler is Deke Slayton, also a Mercury 7 alum, now promoted to head NASA’s astronaut program.

And all are there to shore up the story around Gosling, who internalizes everything and distills it into an epic hero’s journey. Chazelle’s stupendous space saga—about America’s most significant astral achievement of all time—is grounded in a down-to-earth, existential tale of a man struggling to connect with his wife, his family and their children and his earthly life, even as—especially as—he zooms off to the moon.

The spectacular recreation of the lunar landing sequence, and Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, is punctuated with an immensely moving personal touch you never saw on TV. And the poignant ending of First Man suggests that sometimes, even when your job takes you on a trip of 478,000 miles, the journey you face when you return may be even longer, and much harder.

Like Chazelle’s La La Land, the lingering overtones of First Man aren’t celebratory, but something much more somber, reflective and meditative. It may not be the rah-rah, American-pie, flag-waving, space-race victory lap everyone’s expecting, but Chazelle and Gosling’s masterful moon movie is an out-of-this-world blast in a class all its own.

In theaters Oct. 12, 2018