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First Man

First Man

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We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.

First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is  a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.

Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.

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First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.

 

 

 

First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience.  It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.

London Fields

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Nicola Six, S-I-X

Nicola Six (Amber Heard) always knew exactly when she was going to die: on the day of her thirtieth birthday. The man who was going to kill her would be waiting for her in a parked car. But she didn’t know how or why she would meet her untimely demise. And she definitely didn’t know who. Then one day she enters an underground club and meets three men, one of whom would be her killer.

First there was Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), a champion darts player with a penchant for gambling. He’s a shady character, always looking for some new delight to tickle his fancy. Keith is constantly plagued with outstanding debts, including a big one to rival darts player and flamboyant gangster Chick Purchase (Johnny Depp). Then there’s Guy Clinch (Theo James), a straight-laced business man in a loveless marriage that produced a psychotic child. Guy sees an escape with the beautiful and seemingly vulnerable Nicola. Finally there’s Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton), the narrator of the story. He’s an author struggling with writer’s block. In Nicola he finds his next novel. As he follows her while she tries to make sense of her premonition, he works her story into his. Truth blends with fiction and we don’t know if some of what we’re seeing is scenes in Nicola’s life or figments of Samson’s imagination.

And what about Nicola? We learn bits here and there about her life story. Ever since she was a young child she had premonitions. She predicted her parents’ death in a plane crash and countless other tragic events. Knowing her life would be cut short, Nicola lived for the moment. Using her looks and sex appeal, she would draw men into her snare. When she meets Samson Young she finds a kindred spirit, another soul on the brink of death. Will Samson help Nicola discover herself or will he just be another participant in her demise?

London Fields was directed by Michael Cullen and ever since it’s attempted release three years ago it’s been plagued with problems. An international premiere was intended for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival but when director Cullen filed suit against the producers for making significant edits to the final film, TIFF pulled it at the last minute. And to add to the drama, the producers sued star Amber Heard for refusing to attend the planned TIFF premiere. Furthermore, Heard accused then husband Johnny Depp, who appears in an uncredited role in the film, of spousal abuse. The producers settled the lawsuit against Heard earlier this year clearing the path for what in turn would be the release of Cullen’s final edit of the film. However, the director will be going to court with the producers in early 2019. London Fields was released in the UK earlier this month and had a limited release in the U.S. on October 26th.

The film’s story, based on the high praised novel by Martin Amis, is an interesting concept but poorly executed. I loved the idea of a meta story, something happening in real life that is in turn being adapted into a novel. But London Fields turned out to be a convoluted mess. The reviews leading up to U.S. release were not promising. I didn’t have high expectations but was hoping for at least an enjoyable mystery with a sexy femme fatale. Unfortunately the film overall was kind of a slog to get through. I was particularly interested in Amber Heard’s Nicola Six and was hoping for at least an interesting and complex female protagonist. In one of the scenes with Billy Bob Thornton’s Samson and Heard’s Nicola, he discusses writing her character in his book and is worried that he will be accused of creating a one-dimensional object of male fantasy. And that’s pretty much what Nicola is in this movie. We learn about her past, we see how she interacts with the three men, we see her struggle with being understood yet we don’t really learn much about her. Heard delivers a decent performance as Nicola Six. She’s sexy as all get out but can’t surpass a highly flawed storyline. If there is a stand-out performance in this film it’s Heard’s boob glue/tape that holds her wardrobe in place, defying all laws of gravity.

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I don’t know if it was the theater or the film itself but the audio quality of London Fields was very poor. It was somewhat muted and I could barely understand half of what Jim Sturgess was saying. Guy’s psychotic child was played a short adult which I thought was an odd choice. Cara Delevingne has a small role as Keith’s long-suffering wife and mother to his child. It was a role beneath her capabilities in my opinion. I also wished the film explored the apocalyptic state of London towards the end of the story. We see fires and explosions all over the city, symbolic of Nicola and Samson’s impending demise. But they’re never explained. A lost opportunity to add some richness to the story.

If London Fields has anything going for it it’s Amber Heard’s sexy performance but that’s about it.

 

Thank you to Satiated Productions for the opportunity to see London Fields.

Transformer

“How am I ever going to find peace being comfortable in my own skin?”

Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was caught between two worlds. He always knew he wanted to be a woman and he wanted to be strong. But he didn’t know how he could reconcile those two things being biologically born a man. Over the years Matt found success as a Marine and then as a champion bodybuilder and powerlifter where he won competitions and graced the cover of bodybuilding magazines. He became a legend in that world, idolized for his ability to develop huge muscles and to lift some really heavy weight. He had his fair share of struggles overcoming a difficult childhood, then surviving testicular cancer, depression and a divorce. Now a single father of three sons, he made sure they would grow up with an attentive and involved father. But something was missing for Matt. He could no longer fight against his true authentic self.

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Janae Marie Kroczaleski

“I felt like the person I was was completely constructed. There was a whole bunch that was missing. I didn’t know if there was anything about me that was authentic.”

Michael Del Monte’s documentary Transformer, follows 43-year old Matt as he transitions to become Janae Marie. It’s an intimate portrait of a transgender individual grappling with how to function in society, relationships and career. Janae struggles the stability of being a man and instability of being a transgendered woman. And because Janae spent so many years as a visibly muscular and masculine man, she must deal with how to present her femininity but still train as a body builder. Having the majority of her hair, Janae must wear wigs and depend on make-up and clothes to present as feminine as possible even when a deep voice, wide jaw and wide muscular build fight against that.

What stands out about Janae’s story is the dichotomy between femininity and muscularity. She is a woman who founds success in the bodybuilding world as a man and its a world that she can’t seem to leave behind. In the documentary, we see Janae switch back to male many times until she finally decides to stay as Janae forever and moves forward with facial surgery that will help her connect with that feminine self that seems just out of her grasp.

“If all else fails your Matt Kroc.”

The film follows Janae through her transition, how she currently stands in the bodybuilding world and her relationships with her father (who refuses to accept), her mother (who is starting to accept) and her sons (who are completely supportive).

Transformer is an important LGBTQ documentary and its most significant message is for transgender individuals life is a constant struggle. However, as an audience we don’t really learn too much about the transgender community or the bodybuilding world and how it rejects transgender athletes. Its focus is squarely on Janae’s story. I would love to see another documentary that shines a spotlight on the gender bias in the bodybuilding world and how female and transgender athletes are treated.

Transformer is in select theaters today and is available to purchase on iTunes, Amazon prime, YouTube, Vimeo and other digital platforms. You can find more information on the official website.

Transformer

TIFF Review: A Star is Born

by Raquel Stecher

A Star is Born
dir. Bradley Cooper
Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga

Review:

Before I begin my review of A Star is Born (2018) I would like to acknowledge the movies that came before it:

What Price Hollywood? (1932)
Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman
A Star is Born (1937)
Janet Gaynor, Fredric March
A Star is Born (1954)
Judy Garland, James Mason
A Star is Born (1976)
Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson

Hollywood has a long tradition of revisiting and remaking its own stories. A Star is Born has evolved over the past 80+ years from a story about actors to a story about musicians. But the essence has stayed the same. What happens when an established star, on the path towards self-destruction, meets an unknown talent and falls in love? Out of the ashes of one career comes the genesis of another. A star is born.

Having seen all of the previous versions, I came to this latest iteration of A Star is Born ready to compare it to all of those other movies. And you know what, Cooper’s movie holds its own.

There are many ways in which Cooper’s A Star is Born improves upon the previous versions as well as makes this classic story relatable to a new audience. These added layers enhanced the overall story.

  • The relationship between Jackson and Ally is fleshed out more and their physical attraction to each other is palpable. While the 1937 version is still my favorite, Gaynor and March’s romance is tender but there is no sexual chemistry there. And there is no chemistry at all between James Mason and Judy Garland in the 1954 version. Fast forward to 1976 and we get a bit of chemistry with Kristofferson and Streisand (but it didn’t help that they didn’t get along in real life). In the 2018 version Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper helps us understand not only why Jackson and Ally were attracted to each other but what drew them together as artists and as individuals. It’s a more well-rounded portrait of a romantic relationship.
  • In addition to Jackson Maine’s drinking problem, he as degenerative hearing loss which adds another layer of drama to his tragedy.
  • SEMI-SPOILER: Jackson Maine’s suicide is depicted differently than in the previous versions and the method is more relevant to the conversation regarding suicide today. Also there is an added element that serves as a gut punch to the audience.
  • Pays homage to previous versions including the one last look/goodbye, the bathtub scene from the 1976 version, this is Mrs. Jackson Maine, etc.
  • Ally and Jackson Maine collaborate in their live performances and song writing. We see the pairs in the previous versions work together to some extent but it’s more substantial here. The mentor-student relationship here is key until Ally outgrows her need for Jackson’s guidance.
  • Lady Gaga’s Ally and Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine are presented fairly equally. The 1954 version is a Judy Garland showcase and the 1976 is meant to highlight Barbra Streisand, even though Kristofferson gets some good screen time too. It was more even handed in the 2018 which to me seemed more true to the 1937 version with Gaynor and March being almost equal counterparts in the story.
  • Lady Gaga shows true vulnerability in her performance as Ally which is not something I got from Gaynor, Garland or Streisand. Or even Bennett. All are superb actresses who deliver on their own vision for the part but Gaga’s Ally felt the most real to me.
  • Added characters like Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father and Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s best friend are great for enhancing our understanding of the two main leads. Ally’s relationship with her father shows us that she’s always been taking care of the men in her life. Jackson’s best friend sticks by him through the worst further showing us how difficult it is to have someone in your life who is completely self-destructing.
  • Anthony Ramos as Ally’s BFF can be seen as a call back to the 1937 version where Gaynor’s Lester has a close friend, played by Andy Devine, who has been there for her since the beginning and see her through ups and downs. Sam Elliott’s Bobby takes the manager role to a deeper level with Bobby and Jackson as brothers. The added family dynamic enhances the drama. The two brothers have their own A Star is Born storyline with Bobby’s failed musical career.
  • Garland, Streisand and Lady Gaga are all icons in the gay community. In this new film, it pays homage to that with Gaga’s Ally performing La Vie en Rose in a nightclub. She’s the only female in a line-up of drag queens and it’s at this point where Ally and Jackson meet. At the A Star is Born Press Conference at TIFF, Lady Gaga proclaimed “I wouldn’t be here without the gay community.”

 

A Star is Born (2018) has a lot to offer movie-going audiences. When I watched it at TIFF I was blown away by the stellar performances and the original takes on the story. I left telling myself “this is what a movie should be.” It should be an experience, one that touches your heart and makes you swell with emotion. This is all in addition to the amazing music performed and in part written by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. These are the types of songs that give you goose bumps and take your breath away.

 

 

 

A Star is Born (2018) hits theaters October 5th.

I attended a press and industry screening as well as a press conference for A Star is Born at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF Review: Colette

Colette

by Raquel Stecher

Colette
dir. Wash Westmoreland
starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough,

Review:

Colette was a woman ahead of her time.

Wash Westmoreland’s biopic follows Colette (Keira Knightley) from the age of 18 to 34; the pivotal years when she was married to writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, also known by his nom de plume Willy (Dominic West). Colette starts her married life as a dutiful wife, helping Willy out with his business which involves hiring writers to create stories to be published under his name. Willy is a complete cad, spending the family finances on prostitutes, in gambling dens and treating others to expensive meals. When Colette tries her hand at some writing to help Willy out, the Claudine novels are born. Published under Willy’s name and not hers, these stories become the toast of Paris. As Colette begins to discover her authentic self, Willy finds himself losing control over her. We follow Colette’s trajectory from spunky country girl to fully realized woman and creator. She comes into her sexuality discovering her physical attraction to women. As Colette and Willy’s relationship falls apart, she falls for Missy (Denise Gough), a woman defying society by presenting as a man. Through her personal and professional relationship with Missy, Colette blossoms and finds the strength within herself to live courageously.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

The first line of Claudine are repeated throughout the film as a declaration of identity. And that is what this film, a story about discovering your true self.  Colette is a superb character study exploring gender dynamics and politics within the confines of deeply entrenched double standards. The real life Colette challenged sexual norms while finding her agency. Her message of female empowerment is desperately needed today.

 

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The idea to bringing Colette to the big screen came from Colette herself. In conversation at the Colette press conference at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Westmoreland said he and the late Richard Glatzer found Colette’s story to be  “a compelling narrative of a woman creating while a man was taking credit.”

As someone who loves a good period piece, Colette was rich in period detail. The cast wore real costumes of the era and scenes were shot in historic buildings. This imbued the film with a great sense of place and time. The part Colette fits Keira Knightley, no stranger to period pieces, like a glove. At the press conference she proclaimed, “I stood very tall when I played Colette. She was a maverick.” Colette is quite bold for a period piece. Comparing it with the relatively tame period pieces of previous decades, this movie demonstrates that you can still tell a story about the past that is provocative and interesting to contemporary viewers. Westmoreland went on to say, “for a long time period pieces have gotten a reputation for being a kind of safer genre. But I think at the moment there is something happening with period pieces that are radicalizing.”

Westmoreland found many parallels to Colette’s turn-of-the-century France with modern day. It was an era when people were questioning gender roles and women were demanding more access to power.  Westmoreland collaborated with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who added the necessary female insights needed for the script. Actress Denise Gough called the casting one of the most progressive that she’d ever been involved with. Westmoreland went on to say:

 “With the casting we tried an approach that I don’t believe has really been tried before of having a very inclusive cast. We have trans men playing cisgender characters. We have trans women playing cisgender women. We have an out lesbian actor playing heterosexual. We have our gay actor playing someone who said he was heterosexual, we’re not quite sure. And we have Asian British actors playing characters who were historically white. We have a black actor playing someone who in history was white. And guess what? It all works. And these have been sacred rules for so long…. Colette broke a lot of rules so we though we should too.” – Wash Westmoreland

 

 

 

Colette is in select theaters starting today.

I attended a press and industry screening as well as the press conference for Colette at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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