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Posts Tagged ‘Shea Whigham’

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

“FIRST MAN” My rating: B 

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With “First Man” wonderkid director Damien Chazelle has segued from the high artifice of a musical (“La La Land”) to a soaked-in-realism docudrama.

“First Man” is the story of Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

The creation of NASA, setbacks in the U.S. space program and the eventual triumph of a moon landing  already have inspired the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” and films like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”

The emphasis from Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer is on momentous events as experienced by one man…and not a terribly demonstrative man at that.

The Neil Armstrong of this retelling is a jet jockey whom we first meet in a near-disastrous sub-orbital test flight of the experimental X-15 plane. Like a lot of guys who risk death as part of their daily routine, he keeps his feelings — both fear and love — pretty much to himself. Whatever  ego he possesses stays hidden…getting the job done is his primary goal.

So it’s a good thing, then, that Armstrong is played by “La La…” star Ryan Gosling, who has the skill and talent to project the inner turmoil of a man who doesn’t give away much.

The screenplay cannily focuses on Armstrong’s most traumatic experience.  It has nothing to do with  ejecting from a crashing plane and being dragged across the landscape by his wind-propelled parachute.

No, it’s the cancer death of  his young daughter, a beautiful child who, thanks to the Chazelle/Singer screenplay, appears periodically to Armstrong’s inner eye, a reminder that no matter his stoic appearance, there’s fierce emotion bubbling beneath.

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Paul Rudd as Moe Berg

“THE CATCHER WAS A SPY” My rating: C+

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Crammed with famous faces and centering on a bit of real-life WW2 cloak-and-dagger that almost defies credulity, “The Catcher Was a Spy” is both a thriller and a flawed character study of a man who refused to be characterized.

Indeed, even before he was recruited by the O.S.S. and trained to be an assassin, Morris “Moe” Berg (portrayed here by Paul Rudd…probably too boyish for the role) was a bundle of puzzling contradictions.

Berg had degrees from Columbia, Princeton and the Sorbonne; he spoke seven or eight languages fluently and could get by in several others.

Yet he made his living as a professional baseball player, serving as the second string catcher for the Boston Red Sox.

As presented in Ben Lewin’s film, he is well spoken, erudite and bisexual, augmenting his domestic life with a live-in girlfriend (Sienna Miller) with visits to underground gay nightspots.

Shortly before the beginning of the war Berg was named to an all star team (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig participated) on a good will tour of Japan.  While there he became convinced that war was inevitable and, on his own, climbed to the roof of a Tokyo skyscraper so that he could film military installations and harbor facilities.

He later presented his reels to William “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Daniels), then running the O.S.S., the precursor to the C.I.A. Donovan was sufficiently impressed by Berg’s intellect, patriotism and facility with foreign languages to give him a job…but not before asking: “Are you queer?”

Berg’s answer sealed the deal: “I’m good at keeping secrets.”

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wolf 2“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Dec. 25)

179 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” the result of some sort of show-biz wager?

It’s as if Martin Scorsese (arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s latter-day DeNiro) accepted a challenge to make a three-hour movie that would entice us to laugh along with despicable characters – just because they thought they had the special juice to pull it off.

And there are moments when they come close.

“Wolf” is based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, a poster boy for ‘90s stock market shenanigans, who made millions selling his customers worthless securities and ended up going to prison for his misdeeds.

Now I’m the sort of fellow who tries to find the essential humanity in just about everyone, but Belfort is the financial equivalent of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. He’s arrogant and greedy and virtually without conscience – capitalism at its most corrupt.

And DiCaprio and Scorsese have to sweat like stevedores to make him a palatable companion for 180 minutes.

This is a speedball of a movie that maniacally tears along from one scene of misbehavior to the next, hardly ever slowing down to contemplate just what message we’re to take away. Presumably Scorsese disapproves of Belfort and what he represents … but the film feels just the opposite. It seems a monumental  celebration of greed and excess.

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