FIRST MAN. "Hey Girl" memes and references to The Notebook (2004) aside, Ryan Gosling has become one of the most versatile, self-challenging leading men in Hollywood, with a constantly growing filmography to reflect it. Now he works almost exclusively on major releases for prestige directors but he brings intense focus and emotional depth to those projects such that his presence can make a big movie feel intimate and raw. And he can be funny as hell, which goes a long way, but in this case it also presents a conundrum: Gosling's got the goods but can he — or should he — be charged with carrying a near-humorless story and playing a near-humorless character?
There is a similar conflict inherent in Damien Chazelle's role as director here. He who garnered so much attention with his second feature, Whiplash (2014) and then was anointed upon the release of his third, the excellent, lily-white La La Land (2016), which marked his first collaboration with Gosling. Those movies are defined by their musicality, the marriage of story pacing and soundtrack, as much as they are by the distinct visual style deployed in each. Clearly Chazelle has a vision for each project, a veteran director's sense of visual storytelling, but will that vision hold when he moves beyond the influence of jazz, back six decades for a quasi-biopic that reaches literally from here to the moon?
The answer to both questions is yes, mostly, but not without reservations.
First Man tracks Neil Armstrong's (Gosling) career at NASA from 1961 to 1969, as the American government accelerated its flinging of men and matériel farther and farther into space in an attempt to demonstrate superiority over the Soviets (an effort met with middling success overall). The movie opens with Armstrong strapped into a creaking, clattering airplane hundreds of thousands of feet above the surface of the Earth. So high up, in fact, that the aircraft slips the planet's atmosphere and begins to bounce against it — terrifying circumstances where only the coolest heads could avoid death. But Armstrong proves himself to be that cool, finding a way to roll the careening craft onto its side, decreasing its silhouette and knife-edging it back to ground. It's a breathtaking, beautiful, dynamic sequence that serves both as an attention-grabbing opening scene and as a wordless description of Armstrong's strength as a problem-solver in times of crisis. The problem, then, is that we've got another two-plus hours of running time to cover the following nine years and to describe Armstrong as an introvert, a taciturn engineer unwilling or unable to make himself emotionally available in his private life.
And it's in attempting that balance of literal otherworldly action and restrained domestic drama that First Man falters. I hesitate to say this is down to either its director or its star. Chazelle's envisioning of the time period, his creative team's efforts to recreate the details, the fine cinematography by Linus Sandgren and editing by Tom Cross — both have worked with Chazelle on all of his features and one might say the movies belong as much to them as to him — are all exquisitely executed. Likewise Gosling's pared down performance, which hints at Armstrong's inner life, at the depth of the emotions he keeps so closely controlled and the performances of the exceptional supporting cast. Claire Foy in particular, as Janet Armstrong, provides the perspective of a witness to the tragedies underlying the occasional triumph of the space program with a sometimes uncomfortably intimate rawness.
The problem with First Man, then, is not in any element of its execution, rather in the source material. Be that the actual events, the book by James R Hansen or the adaptation by Josh Singer, I really can't say. But there is something in the attempted balance of a protagonist with such a singular, protected point of view against a backdrop bigger than the known world that diminishes the overall effect of the uniformly excellent storytelling. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. Drew Goddard came to prominence as a writer on the last season of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a guiltless pleasure. He went on to write on the last season of Buffy spin-off Angel and then a boatload of other TV work, all which gained him enough traction to direct The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon and is beloved for good reason.
With Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard takes his formidable ability to synthesize popular culture and turns it on the end of the 1960s and a group of strangers meeting by chance at a once-thriving casino hotel on the California-Nevada border. It's part caper picture, part locked-room mystery, part Vietnam commentary, part spy thriller, part sibling cult-rescue, with a soul soundtrack pumped out of a prominent, bubbling Wurlitzer jukebox. The cast is tremendous and the style of the thing admirable. But it's too long by almost a third, leaves questions unanswered that prove more frustrating than titillating and resolves its complex plot elements with a too-convenient, not-quite shockingly violent climax. To be admired despite its faults, it still can't quite transcend them. R. 141M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
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BEETLEJUICE (1988). Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder play haunted house. PG. 92M. BROADWAY.
HALLOWEEN (1978). The original slasher starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence. R. 91M. MINOR.
HALLOWEEN. Jamie Lee Curtis returns for a stabby present-day reunion with her masked bro. R. 106M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
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THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Robert Redford stars as a long-in-the-tooth bank robber. With Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover and Tom Waits. Also Casey Affleck because it's such a scary time to be a man. PG13. 93M. BROADWAY.
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GOOSEBUMPS 2: HAUNTED HALLOWEEN. Creepy fun from R.L. Stine. With Jack Black, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ken Jeong. PG 90M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
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LOVE, GILDA. A documentary about legendary comedian Gilda Radner using her writings and recordings to find the shredded remnants of your heart and make you smile as they're crushed. PG. 132M. MINIPLEX.
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SMALLFOOT. Channing Tatum and James Corden voice an animated feature about a yeti out to prove the existence of a human. PG. 96M. BROADWAY.
A STAR IS BORN. Bradley Cooper's directorial debut casts him and Lady Gaga (who amazes) as leads in a surprisingly real examination of love, art, celebrity, addiction, sacrifice and depression. R. 136M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
VENOM. This relative Marvel underdog doesn't disappoint. Despite its flaws. Tom Hardy brings his signature commitment, Michelle Williams overcomes an underwritten character and Matthew Libatique's cinematography is top notch. R. 135M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill