APOLLO 11

Directing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A
Special Effects: A

It’s not often that I say a documentary should be seen in the theatre, and here I have my second one to recommend in as many months: Apollo 11 consists almost entirely of footage and audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, but that by definition means there are shots — from both space and the ground on Earth — that are a wonder to behold, and can only be best appreciated on the big screen.

There are only two exceptions to this apparent rule of showing only live footage of the mission itself, and they are brief and used very effectively. The first instance, very early on in the film, features three quick archival photo montages of the lives led previously by the first three astronauts who went to the moon: Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; and Michael Collins. The whole point of this film is its immediacy — in spite of it all having actually happened fifty years ago this year — and director Todd Douglas Miller wisely breezes past it quickly.

The second instance is of footage taken of a tape recorder flipping around in zero gravity, on the return trip to Earth, playing John Stewart’s “Mother Country.” In just one of countless instances of this film’s impeccable editing, we see the original footage, along with the echoing audio from the recorder, and then the film’s sound cuts to the direct sound of the song’s original recording.

The album the song is from was originally released on New Year’s Day 1969; the aforementioned photos were all taken prior to that — so, literally nothing seen or heard in Apollo 11 comes from any time after the mission itself. There are are no interviews, no narration — only the audio from the original footage itself, or from communication recordings. The opening shot is an indelible one: a man walking along a street, dwarfed by the massive, tank-like wheels behind him, which themselves fill the screen — until a cut to a wider shot reveals the rocket itself being transferred to its launch point. How many people even know such a vehicle even exists? I suppose all this time I never thought to consider how they got it there.

There is no narrative arc to Apollo 11 — in fact, this is the first documentary I have ever seen not to give any writing credit at all — and that turns out to be one of its many strengths. Todd Douglas Miller, who also did the editing, lets all the footage simply speak for itself. It’s a document of a particular moment in time, with unparalleled historic import, condensed down to 93 minutes. There is not a single moment wasted, not a lull to be found. This jaw-dropping feat of humanity is enough on its own to be mesmerizing from beginning to end — with particularly thrilling moments, of course: the successful rocket launch; the literal landing on the moon; the safe return to Earth eight days later.

I found myself thinking a lot about the incredible mathematical precision that would have to have gone into all of this. But if you want an “inspiring,” fictionalized version of that angle, just go and watch Hidden Figures. Or if you want rumination on the personal costs of participating in this endeavor — with, granted, Oscar-winning special effects — see First Man. Apollo 11 is not concerned with dictates of emotional responses. Those are left for you to discover on your own, just as they were for the live witnesses to the occasion — of which there are just a few brief shots: crowds camped out to watch the rocket launch, or palpable relief among NASA personnel with each step successfully completed.

Speaking pf special effects, Apollo 11 credits one visual effects artist (Ben Kiviat) and one person with “additional visual effects” (Kevin Allen Caby). There are no discernible effects shots in this film, although I did wonder if there was some restoration work done on some of the never-before-seen footage, much of which is amazingly crisp. There are, however, a few brief interludes of graphics depicting the direction and motion of the spacecraft. They are always simple, straightforward, look precisely like you would expect them to if made by someone in 1969, and are seamlessly integrated into the sequence of events.

Apollo 11 is that rare film where you already know how it ends, and everything that unfolds onscreen is gripping nonetheless. The significance of this event — even by today’s standards but especially those of fifty years ago — truly cannot be overstated, and there may never have been any other film that better illustrates that fact. You leave the theatre marveling at the potential of human ingenuity,

You may think you already know how amazing this really was, but you don’t.

You may think you already know how amazing this really was, but you don’t.

Overall: A

BLINDSPOTTING

Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Every once in a while, when I feel like it's taking me a minute to decide how I feel about a movie, I work backward from a default of perfection: what things are wrong with it? Even if it didn't necessarily change the world, or exactly rock my world, does that count as a flaw? What reason might I have to tear it down from the best appraisal I can give it?

Blindspotting is one of those rare movies where the answer to that question is: none. There is nothing wrong with this movie.

At least, not from my perspective as a white guy watching it -- and yes, that context is relevant. It could easily be said that this movie, directed by first-time feature director Carlos López Estrada, is for white people. Black audiences might like it fine, but they're not going to find anything illuminating about it. A more cynical person might say it could be called White Privilege: The Movie.

It's also fair to say many white people would be less likely to watch it when the movie is explained in that context, given how quick to defensiveness white people tend to get when tasked with talking about race. Or, for all sorts of reasons, fearful: when I first saw the trailer with a friend, a white woman, she said, "That looks stressful." It's about a black man nearing the end of probation, with a white best friend who behaves recklessly with little mind to how he endangers those around him, and who witnesses the Oakland PD shooting of an unarmed black man. Of course it looks stressful.

Except . . . most of the time, it isn't. The marketing hints at this, but doesn't fully reveal how much fun there is in much of Blindspotting. Not that it's a ride through a fun house all the way through, mind you. The flawlessly crafted script, co-written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (who both also star, respectively as Collin, the aforementioned felon; and Miles, his best friend), takes care to bring us casually into their world, these close best friends who are both working class guys watching the systematic gentrification of their city before their eyes. This yields a lot of great detail, such as the city's symbol of the oak tree, which now exists there only in that form, in images on city flags and signs -- except for the hipster who uses a giant oak tree stump as a coffee table in his living room.

Blindspotting is beautifully specific, in both its sense of a place in transition, and of a culture in crisis. Rafael Casal is excellent as Miles, the best friend who is slow to realize what he really gets away with compared to most of the people in the local culture he both emulates and is a product of. He's just as much to blame for the crime that landed Collin in custody, but guess which one of them had to serve any time?

It seems on the surface like a contrivance when Miles gets mistaken for the gentrifying hipster he professes to despise, but it's really a bit of stealth brilliance in writing. The scene that follows, which makes sense for Miles's character but follows Blindspotting's general rule of never quite going in the direction you might expect, works on multiple levels. And the rapport between Mikes and Collin establishes a foundation that, when it begins to crack, underscores both the significance of their situation and the key difference in their individual places in it.

Collin and Miles are also casual rappers, thankfully this time not with any particular aspirations of making it as professional; rather, they just rap as a way of shooting the breeze, helping each other with their rhymes. This is a key element of Blindspotting's musical character, with a skillfully integrated soundtrack that also includes a truly tense climactic performance by Diggs. Collin confronts the cop who killed that other young black man, and he does it in rhymes.

All of which is to say that Blindspotting is hardly the "lesson movie" to be endured like a homework assignment, that some are wont to fear. It's a tightly constructed film that stands on the strength of its own storytelling. It's subtly provocative in ways of more use to some than others, but worthy of equal appreciation by all. It's easily one of the year's best films.

A couple of moving company employees are here to move you with their singular vision.

A couple of moving company employees are here to move you with their singular vision.

Overall: A

EIGHTH GRADE

Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Eighth Grade is a revelation, and that's not just hyperbole. I mean that literally: approaching my mid-forties, this movie revealed to me how aging creates biases even in those of us who actively push against a biased look at contemporary youth.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how radically different the world is for young people and kids today, compared to when I was a kid. I'm not even that old, and when I was in high school, we had one special room dedicated to computers. We didn't have these laptops at every desk, let alone mobile devices in every hand. I've spent so much time thinking about how technological advances have inevitably changed later generations, I lost sight of how the way kids are, their hopes and their anxieties, they way they interact with each other -- on a purely emotional level, nothing has really changed at all. It's just the platforms that have changed.

Watching thirteen-year-old Kayla (a superb Elsie Fisher) navigate her world with all-consuming uncertainty is like a time-warp to when I was the same age. She's raised by a single parent, as was I, as were a huge number of us. Unlike my single mother, Kayla lives with a single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton, also excellent). And he worries about his daughter, tries awkwardly to connect with her, makes his own stupid mistakes, and swells with a pride for her that she is too preoccupied to see.

First-time feature writer-director Bo Burnham, previously known as a musician-comedian (his two comedy specials, from 2013 and 2016, are currently streaming on Netflix), has said in interviews how deliberate he was about choosing a girl for his protagonist in this movie rather than a boy. Boys this age aren't that emotional -- boys talk about Fortnight, he says; girls bear their souls. He allowed Elsie Fisher to guide him in his depiction of eighth-grade living and attitudes, which was an inspired choice. This is a guy who, to me, is himself very young: he's all of 27 years old. But that's still a hell of a lot closer to teen years than I am now, and makes him a better choice for reflecting the lives and challenges of school kids today.

He is more than up to the task and executes it nearly flawlessly. Eighth Grade avoids any pitfall or cliche of typically storytelling you can imagine. Wherever you might think you know where it's going, it never goes that way -- but neither does it have any "twists," per se. It just offers characters who feel genuine and real, and Kayla's semi-desperate lack of confidence is heartbreakingly familiar. Fisher does a fantastic job of giving us a sense that she has great potential to grow into herself.

I did find myself thinking about the number of adults I've known who continue to struggle with the same sorts of awkward anxieties. Some people never quite grow out of it. Lucky for any of us watching Eighth Grade, it seems Kayla is poised to grow out of this problem. Many of us do get lucky on that front. That said, if I had any complaint, I rather wish Burnham had included some indication that Kayla's hurtfully dismissive classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) had her own struggles -- if not exactly the same, then ones that ran parallel. Because who in middle school doesn't?

Still, even though Eighth Grade is relentlessly awkward, it pulls off a rare magic trick in that every scene is also either a delight, a tightrope of tension, or an emotional gut punch. For the great many people poised to relate to this movie in a way they perhaps never have to any other, rooting for Kayla feels like rooting for one's former self. I suppose when it comes to boys, maybe it's different for gay ones like me. Or maybe not? Although Burnham certainly depicts many of the young boys here as having a bit of a one-track mind, any adult regardless of gender or sexuality who is open to a movie like this to begin with is bound to find themselves deeply moved.

This is a movie about a specific time of life that is rarely depicted, bookended between milestones. Kayla, about to finish eighth grade, opens a "time capsule" box filled with things she left for herself at the end of the sixth grade, when she was about to start middle school. By the end of this story, she is assembling a new box for herself to open in four years when she finishes high school. She makes YouTube videos filled with advice she's mostly incapable of taking herself, which virtually no one watches. But then it gets watched by at least one person who matters, and the video she leaves for herself offers a glimpse of her dawning realization of how much she matters.

It's a retroactive comfort to many of our former selves, a kind of reassurance we wish we could travel back in time to give. Eighth Grade isn't going to be for everyone, but to the people it's for, it's near perfection.

Adolescent actors to watch for: Elsie Fisher is superb in  Eighth Grade .

Adolescent actors to watch for: Elsie Fisher is superb in Eighth Grade.

Overall: A

TWIST Advance: BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)

Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

I have only good things to say about this movie, which offers a window into an era not well enough remembered, from the unusual vantage point -- for Americans, anyway -- of another culture.

Maybe straight people today aren't as familiar with ACT UP, the radical activist organization started in New York City to fight for the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. The same could be said of younger queer people today, who have no real understanding of the vast devastation this epidemic unleashed on sexual minority communities. And the U.S. was hardly alone in this.

BPM tells the story of ACT UP Paris in the early nineties. The reference point to which director and co-writer Robin Campillo regularly returns is the organization's weekly meetings, the opening scene being a quick orientation of new members. These activists squabble and organize, disagree on certain key points and band together. They discuss whether or not a demonstration going unexpectedly is good or bad for them, and the story flashes back to a group of them storming the stage at a speech by a government official. Cut back to the weekly meeting, all these activists assembled in a large classroom with stadium-style seating. They move on to their plans to throw fake blood all over the offices of a pharmaceutical company that is not acting quickly enough to save lives not deemed valuable enough by the public at large. Then we're in a flash-forward to the actual scene, these angry activists making a mess of an otherwise very normal-seeming office setting.

As such, from the very start, BPM pulsates with tension and urgency; it crackles with excitement until it inevitably evolves into the dread of personal loss. You don't expect this kind of energy when the setting starts in a classroom of political activists discussing strategy.

All these transitions are done with impressive grace, the entire film edited beautifully, shot with a uniquely tender intensity. We meet several of the activists, but the story zeroes in on Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the new recruits who has somehow managed not to get infected, and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the HIV-positive activist Nathan falls for. They grow close, become a couple, and also emblematic of everything ACT UP fought for.

The sex scenes between Nathan and Sean are unusually frank, and I think this is important to mention. The things they do with each other are very common, arguably even "vanilla," and yet there are few American distributors, if any, who would quite be able to stomach it. The thing is, not only is the sex seen here no more graphic than virtually all straight sex seen onscreen -- it is also among the best I have ever seen depicted, in terms of its parallels to real life experience. Here it is not voyeuristic or necessarily titillating to anyone besides the characters involved. It's a reflection of humanity, an authentic intimacy, a depiction of comfortable sex-positivity gay people have had for ages but gets very little accurate representation on camera. ACT UP was all about fighting stigma, which is what makes BPM's sex scenes so appropriate.

It should come as no surprise that BPM ends in sadness, and a kind that is likely to cut very deep for any viewers who actually lived through the era it depicts. Of course there are countless movies that in one way or another depict the AIDS epidemic, but BPM taps deep into the very specific anger about government inaction, and does justice to the disruptive activists who made a difference.

I found myself thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement as I watched this film. Anyone who insists their disruptive demonstrations are counterproductive would do well to consider groups like ACT UP. Sometimes disruption is the only option available. And with both groups, they were -- and are -- talking about literal lives at stake, lives undervalued by the public at large. These are courageous people fighting to make the world a better place.

Even in my forties, I barely missed the era of HIV and AIDS killing a staggering number of people -- I can barely fathom what the experience was like, both for those who died and for survivors who saw their entire social world decimated, at the same time many of them had families rejecting them. BPM doesn't focus on the latter element (in fact, Sean has an incredibly supportive mother), but it never lets up on the kind of urgency set upon this community. And here is a film that depicts it with finesse. You won't soon forget it, because ACT UP demanded that we never do.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois fall into each other amidst organized chaos and expected tragedy.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois fall into each other amidst organized chaos and expected tragedy.

Overall: A

THE BIG SICK


Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

I'm not sure The Big Sick is the best title for a movie this great. It kind of conjures, without context, images of projectile vomit. You should be happy to hear this movie contains none of that. And on the other hand, there's still some real truth in advertising there: it really is about a woman who has to be put into a medically induced coma for several days. And that really is the backdrop for a story presented successfully as a romantic comedy -- one that is not only consistently funny but a truly original vision.

It's hard not to be in this case, given that it's largely based on Kumail Nanjiani's real-life experience with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the essentially perfect script with Nanjiani, who also stars. This really was what happened to them at the start of their relationship: they had not been dating long when Emily got sick and had to be put into a medically induced coma until she could be treated successfully.

Much of the dressing around that, in this movie, is fictionalized or at least embellished, a skill at which both Nanjiani and Gordon, as writers, excel. This rather crazy start to a long term relationship being based on a real event still lends the story an unusual authenticity. Not only is this nothing like anything else in theatres -- which is a major compliment -- but it also has an air of truth. Amazingly for a story this complicated, neither the tragic elements nor the humor are ever forced.

And there's a lot going on, even before Emily gets sick and hospitalized, maybe an hour into the movie. Kumail is a first-generation American Muslim whose parents are constantly bringing over would-be brides for the traditional marriage everyone else in his family has gone through. It's sad that this has to be mentioned, but it must be stated: The Big Sick also stands apart, big time, for its positive portrayal of Muslims in America. Kumail's family provides much fodder for very effective comedy, but never at the expense of their culture or their religion, both of which are clearly important to them and portrayed respectfully. Naturally they would be, given who co-wrote the script. On that point alone, America needs this movie right now.

When Emily does get sick, after Kumail's dishonestly about his parents potentially disowning him over dating a white girl results in their breakup, he winds up staying at the hospital nearly the entire time she's there -- along with her parents, who fly in from North Carolina. In a very strange, truly unusual scenario, Kumail gets to know Emily's parents with the backdrop of worry and grief, mixed with initial resentments that eventually evolve into appreciation.

Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as Kumail and Emily are excellent as the central characters, but The Big Sick would simply not be the same without the supporting players: truly wonderful Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's parents; Zenobia Shroff and famous veteran Indian actor Anupam Kher are every bit as good as Kumail's parents. This stellar cast not only gives The Big Sick an unusually prestigious pedigree for a comedy -- let alone a romantic comedy -- it elevates its very sense of performance in general. Few comedies have performances this nuanced.

And I want to stress how funny this movie is. I mean, it's not going to make you laugh until it hurts -- that wouldn't be appropriate for this movie. What it will do is regularly surprise you with its humor, with jokes coming at a steady clip, the humor rooted in real comedic skill, on both the parts of the actors and the writers. The core of this story is obviously rather sad, and yet the writers, and director Michael Showalter, manage to infuse plenty of humor even in the midst of what are for the characters unbearably difficult circumstances. And the humor still works, which is perhaps most impressive of all. To call this a delicate scenario would be an understatement, and everyone involved in this movie walks the line perfectly.

I can't even think of any real criticism for this movie, a rare thing indeed. This is a film the fires on on cylinders. Everything in it works: it's touching, it's charming, it finds inventive ways to get you invested in the characters. It's just too bad about that title, at least for anyone who doesn't know anything more about this movie. The Big Sick will likely rely heavily on word of mouth. Well, take my word for it then. See this movie. You'll be glad you did.

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan make a unique start to their relationship in THE BIG SICK.

Overall: A



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