THE OATH

the oath

by Alan Yudman

If America’s current politics are driving you crazy and social media is driving you crazier, then THE OATH may be the perfect movie for you. Ike Barinholtz has crafted a funny and crazy commentary on America in 2018 (actually, maybe 2015-2018).

Barinholtz plays Chris, who is basically a human Twitter feed. The movie opens with Chris and his wife Kai (the amazing Tiffany Haddish) watching as a White House spokesman talks to the Press Corps about something called “The Patriot’s Oath”. It is apparently a sort of pledge of patriotism all Americans are being encouraged to sign before Black Friday the following year. Cut to Thanksgiving week as the deadline approaches and you immediately see how things have devolved. Chris has grown a patchy beard and the news is getting bleak. Chris rants and raves about how rights are being infringed upon, how the Government has become a bunch of brown shirted Nazis and that he’ll never ever sign the Oath.

This is all set against Thanksgiving with Chris’s family. His parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) his brother Pat and his girlfriend Abbie (Jon Barinholtz and Meredith Hagner) and his sister Alice (Carrie Brownsteing) and her family. Chris promises not to talk politics, but that doesn’t last long. His brother and Abbie (who is the subject of a very funny running gag) are conservatives. His parents seem disinterested and his sister is liberal like him. The arguments spiral out of control on Thanksgiving day and Chris winds up eating and sleeping in his car.

But that is when things really get crazy. Two agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) from the Citizens Protection Unit (CPU) show up to question Chris. He is defiant and the situation escalates beyond all control or reason. People are beaten, shot, tied up and well you get the general idea.

Barinholtz uses these extreme and funny situations to comment on the state of our politics and how obsessed people are with social media. It also is easy to see how those co-dependent situations could drive a situation beyond the extreme. You watch it and think, “this couldn’t happen”, but somewhere in the back of your head you are also thinking, “well, I guess it could happen”. That is what makes it effective and hilarious. The movie made me think about what I am doing on social media and whether it is at all healthy for America or Americans.

The cast is brilliant and funny. Barinholtz choices as a director a nuanced and hit every mark. If you spend your days raging at Facebook and Twitter, THE OATH may be just what you need to drag you back to sanity.

FIRST MAN

first man

by Alan Yudman

It is so hard to like a movie that features a character like Neil Armstrong. He’s not the stereotype of the other Gemini astronauts. He wasn’t a cowboy. He was quite the opposite. So it makes his character in FIRST MAN difficult to root for.

FIRST MAN tracks Armstrong’s life from right before he was selected for the Gemini program until he lands on the moon. That’s a space of 8 years. He saw lots of death that obviously shaped his personality. No loss was more deeply felt or more important to this story that the death of his young daughter, Karen. A seemingly introspective, emotionally controlled man seemed to turn further inward.

Armstrong was a brilliant test pilot, cool under the most dangerous or difficult of circumstances. That made him very good at his job. It also made him a very difficult co-worker and a very tough man to like. He seemed to be a loving husband and caring father. But his job always seemed to be his number one priority.

That quiet introspection and lack of emotion had to make this movie an immense challenge for Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling. How to make this seemingly unlikeable man a hero? They did it by focusing on how he overcame tragedy after tragedy during this period of his life. The death of his daughter, the Apollo testing accident that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and the crash of a training jet that killed Elliot See and Charles Bassett. That is a lot of death to deal with. Maybe his training as a Naval aviator helped. But it seemed to be his sheer force of will more than anything else.

That is what makes FIRST MAN so interesting. Gosling does a lot of acting with his face and body, mostly because Armstrong wasn’t a talker. At one point after after Armstrong leaves See and Bassett’s memorial, White goes to see him to talk and Armstrong says bluntly, he didn’t leave the memorial because he wanted to talk. He shuts down White. Just like he shuts down everyone when he is not comfortable talking about feelings. But Gosling shows us how he is feeling. How he is focused. How he has his own way of dealing with all this.

Chazelle makes some interesting choices in how he portrays certain events. If you are expecting big special effects like those in APOLLO 13, you will be disappointed. In fact during the Gemini 8 launch, we never see the outside of the capsule. It all is very claustrophobic as we watch Armstrong and David Scott get slammed around in less than heroic fashion. But again, this is not a movie about the big picture of NASA’s manned missions. It is about one man struggling with grief while trying to make history. The one time you get a sense of awe and wonder is when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (the remarkable Corey Stoll) approach and land on the Moon. That is when Chazelle allows the spectacle to breathe.

Josh Singer (THE POST, SPOTLIGHT) took James R. Hansen’s book and make a compelling screenplay, while trying to keep the Armstrong family satisfied and in the loop. And, Claire Foy does great work as Janet Armstrong, the wife who seems to mirror her husbands stoic facade.

FIRST MAN would be the kind of movie Oscar voters loved if it was more like APOLLO 13 or THE RIGHT STUFF. Instead it is a gripping drama about a man, his demons and one historic step.

MANDY

mandy

by Alan Yudman

MANDY is the definition of bonkers!

A friend recommended I check it out. It was $6.99 on Amazon Prime so I figured, why not? I’m glad and not glad I watched it.

Here are the basics. Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough live in the Oregon wilderness in the early 1980’s. He’s a logger. She runs a general store-type shop and draws. They seem blissful. Not far away is a religious cult lead by pseudo-Jesus Linus Roache (a role so far from his Law & Order days so as to be nearly unrecognizable). Roache spots Mandy (Riseborough) on the road one day and must have her. So, the cult recruits a bunch of drug-addled, maniacal, blood-thirsty bikers to kidnap Mandy. She is drugged and brought to Roache for her first “encounter”. Things don’t go to plan and she is killed, right in front of Cage who is tied up. They leave Cage to suffer or die or something and take off. Cage escapes, fuels his rage with a bottle of Gin or Vodka and sets off on a blood soaked course of revenge. First he gets a crossbow from Bill Duke (who he is, isn’t fully explained), then fashions at sort of Klingon Bat’leth (great blacksmith “porn” if your into that sort of medieval thing). So you know there’s going to be blood and lots of it. Next stop is the biker gang who first kidnaps him, then he breaks loose (he’s really good at that) and kills everyone. Body parts fly, gallons of blood are spewed all over Cage’s face and he tastes some kind of LSD-type drug that further fuels his mania. Next he visits some guy in the woods who clues him in on where the cult is. Then it’s revenge time!

This all sound outright bananas. And you’re right. It is. But director/screenwriter Panos Cosmatos makes it all work. I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but I couldn’t pull myself away from it. He and cinematographer Benjamin Lieb do great work with colors and framing. Riseborough has these big eyes which they use to great effect. There are several scenes that are just breathtakingly beautiful (that’s before the mayhem begins).

Cage maybe has 3 pages of dialogue in the whole movie, unless you count grunting and screaming as dialogue. His acting is all in his face, and it’s surprisingly good.

Two days after seeing MANDY, I still don’t know what to make of it. The plot is ridiculous and frankly time-worn. I got a definite, “I’ve been here before” vibe. But the visuals and haunting music turn this into something more than your average revenge-slasher movie. And that is all about the insane vision of Cosmatos.

A STAR IS BORN (2018)

a star is born

by Alan Yudman

I’ll start with a confession. I have never seen any of the previous three versions of A STAR IS BORN. So, I’m coming at this with a nearly fresh take. Yeah, I know what the story was before I walked in. Aging music star, battling addiction discovers a vibrant young singer. They fall in love. And it doesn’t end happy. So what about the 2018 version directed and produced by, and starring Bradley Cooper?

First the music is right in my wheelhouse. Alt-country, Americana… whatever you want to call it… is probably my go to sound at this point in my life. The songs were written or co-written by Lady Gaga, Cooper, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) and Jason Isbell just to name a few. That is quite an all-star list for this type of music. But there are also Lady Gaga pop songs in there, and I gotta tell you I am a fan. Ok, enough for now about the wonderful soundtrack because that isn’t even the best part of this movie. I came for the soundtrack and got so much more.

Cooper stars as Jackson Maine. He’s the drug and pill addicted singer who is also dealing with tinnitus. And he’s not dealing with any of it very well. He walks into a drag bar one night in search of a drink and stumbles across Lady Gaga’s Ally. She’s a waitress with dreams of music industry stardom. And man does she have the chops, which Jackson quickly realizes. After Ally punches a cop in a cop bar, they wind up in a supermarket parking lot where they talk and Ally starts singing a song, seemingly improv’d on the spot. I almost broke down in tears just listening to Lady Gaga sing acapella. He flies her to a gig and nearly drags her onstage for her breakout, YouTube moment. That is the first single from the soundtrack “Shallow” which is immediately a frontrunner for a best song Oscar.

Their love affair grows, her career begins to outshine his and Jackson alternates between drinking into a stupor and battling to stay sober for Ally. His struggle is real and heartbreaking. Meantime, she is off on a shooting star. Saturday Night Live appearances, Grammy nominations and huge tours. And Jackson just keeps screwing up by popping pills and downing booze.

This whole film is just outstanding. Cooper is such a solid actor and he totally pulls off the perpetually drunk, stumbling around gruffness required for Jackson. And he can really sing and play guitar. He’s got chops. The amazing part is that he does this while directing his first movie. So you’d expect some things falling through the cracks. But it just doesn’t happen. This has got to be one of the best first-time directing jobs I’ve ever seen. Sure, other directors first time in charge have been excellent, but not on a stage as big as this or with the stakes this high. I’m more than impressed.

Two of the supporting actors are excellent. The legendary Sam Elliot plays Jackson’s older brother/tour manager and brings an emotional depth I’d never seen from him before. Also outstanding is Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father.

Lady Gaga is a force of nature, she always has been. I first fell for her during an SNL performance where she was in one of her usual Gaga costumes, but sat down at a piano and belted out a song that had my jaw on the floor. Now she is acting and I just don’t know where this comes from. She is outstanding. Granted, this character might not be too far from her own story. But the raw emotion and feeling she brings to the role just carries it to another level. This is THE breakout performance in this film, and maybe of the year. It’s weird calling it a breakout performance for an artist who has been around this long. Fans of her music and performances already know how captivating she can be. But you have never seen Lady Gaga like this.

There is so much to love here. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is perfect. Every shot is framed to enhance the two stars personas. The adaptation of Moss Hart’s original story by Cooper, Eric Rpth and Will Fetters is just great. Jackson’s backing band is Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real. If you haven’t heard their music, search iTunes or Spotify. The movie even has an adorable labradoodle! I mean c’mon!!!

A STAR IS BORN is kind of meta as a title for this movie. Gaga is born (or re-born or maybe Born This Way) as a movie star. Cooper is born as director. And they both have given birth to one of the best movies of 2018.