Not Rated. Stars Paul Giamatti, Corey Stoll, Maggie Sif, David Costabile, Condola Rashad, Asia Kate Dillon, Daniel Breaker, Jeffrey DeMunn.
Some major cast changes for its sixth season would otherwise offer the prospect of a refreshing new perspective to Showtime’s “Billions” if its writers weren’t so set in their proclivities.
For its first five seasons, “Billions” focused on the efforts of crusading government attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to take down ultra-rich hedge fund guru Bobby Axelrod. With Axe having fled the country, Rhoades sets his sights on the billionaire who conquered Axe’s empire, Mike Prince (Corey Stoll).
Prince hopes to re-energize Axe’s troops with a new mission to pursue investments based on bringing positive social change. Unlike Axe, whose money-making schemes frequently bordered on the shady and abusive, the image-conscious Prince seems motivated by benevolence. Among his efforts are bringing an Olympics to New York City and funding a universal basic income program. His efforts would beautify the city, revitalize infrastructure and stimulate the local economy.
Prince’s arrival also alters the power dynamics within Axe’s former company as they adjust to the new paradigm, particularly Axe’s old right-hand-man, Wags (David Costabile), who will do whatever it takes to prove he’s an ideal sycophant for whomever is in charge, and Wendy, Axe’s former motivational coach and Chuck’s ex-wife, who questions her purpose in the new company.
Rhoades, being the vindictive bureaucrat that he is, strives to quash all of Prince’s plans solely on the theory that simply being a billionaire must make Prince a criminal worthy of a takedown. Rhoades is also out for a bit of revenge given that he teamed with Prince to set up Axe’s fall, only for Prince to manipulate the situation to take over Axe’s companies and facilitate his escape.
The show remains a riveting drama of Machiavellian proportions, filled with engaging character performances, sharp dialogue and a panache for pop culture. But the sixth season’s 12 episodes are a bit of an uneven roller coaster as story arcs veer from one scheme to the next with minimal transitions, and plot twists that demonstrate the writers aren’t willing to accept the obvious messaging of their own storylines.
Rhoades’ unchecked ego and abuse of power make him one of the biggest villains on television today. Yet the show still seems to want to view him as something of a hero, the embodiment of lingering anti-capitalist sentiments that hypocritically infuse the entertainment industry.
As the cat-and-mouse game between Prince and Rhoades plays out, Rhoades makes it his business to interfere in everything Prince attempts, like a typical statist who can’t abide the concept of private money doing public good when it diminishes what he can control. On the verge of being outmaneuvered by Prince’s political alliances, Rhoades then appeals to broad populism and class warfare, hoping to convince his constituents that societal improvements are only worthwhile if they stem from the government.
What’s especially disappointing about season six is that until the final episodes of the season, Prince’s biggest flaws seem to be a misguided devotion to stakeholder capitalism, which is annoying, but it’s his money. Then the writers let Rhoades and his minions off the hook by gradually revealing facets of Prince’s character and business practices from seemingly out of nowhere for no other real narrative reason than to keep the show treading in the moral gray area it’s been swimming in since it began. There are no heroes and villains when it comes to power — there are just those who benefit and those who get screwed.
Street Date 3/15/22;
Disney/20th Century; Musical;
Box Office $38.32 million;
$29.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $43.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking. Stars Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, Rita Moreno.
Director Steven Spielberg tries his hand at filming a feature-length musical for the first time in his career with a fresh adaptation of the acclaimed 1957 stage version that played on Broadway.
The play, based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, was famously adapted into a film version in 1961 that won the Oscar for Best Picture, so there were serious doubts over whether a modern remake was even necessary.
Spielberg, though, grew up with the music of the original stage version, and felt a 60-year gap between the films was enough time to justify his own take on the material.
The original version, conceived of by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, modernized Shakespeare’s famed love story to be about rival street gangs in New York in the 1950s — the Jets, who were white Americans, and the Sharks, who were Puerto Rican. Their power struggle is complicated when a Jet named Tony falls in love with Maria, sister of the head of the Sharks.
Rather than re-modernize the play modern day, Spielberg is faithful to the 1950 setting, going so far as to shoot it on film in a way that just looks like it could have been shot back then.
While respectful of the 1961 version directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, Spielberg embraces the cinematic nature of the story’s gang war to great effect, with impeccably staged musical numbers that don’t detract from the romantic nature of Tony and Maria’s story, or the violent backdrop of the life-and-death battle to control the streets.
Ansel Elgort makes for a fine Tony, while newcomer Rachel Zegler carries the day as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Maria’s friend Anita in the original film, returns to the cast in a reworking of the Doc character that serves as a mentor to Tony.
The Blu-ray includes a thorough 96-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that is broken up into smaller featurettes that cover individual topics such as costumes, sets, and the staging for several of the songs, which have been slightly rearranged to heighten the emotional impact of the story.
Some of these making-of segments include one of the last interviews with Sondheim, who died aged 91 in November 2021 just days before the new film’s premiere.
(Review) Director Damien Chazelle’s visually impressive biopic about the first man to walk on the surface of the moon challenges viewers’ expectations about what a film about the space program is supposed to be by focusing on the man instead of the mission, presenting an intimate and not always flattering portrait of an American hero that most Americans actually know very little about.
Street Date 1/22/19; Universal; Drama; Box Office $44.94 million; $29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD; Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbot, Ciarán Hinds, Lucas Haas, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit.
Space program enthusiasts thinking this biopic about Neil Armstrong would be as awe-inspiring treatment as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 might want to temper their expectations.
Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not altogether about the Apollo 11 moon landing. Strictly speaking, it’s not even about the space program. As the title would imply, it’s a film about Neil Armstrong the man, what drove him to join NASA, and what motivated his efforts to become the first man to walk on the moon. Depictions of spaceflight achievements take a backseat to the character study of the most famous of astronauts that, ironically, most of the public really knew nothing about.
Chazelle’s re-creations of various missions are dazzling visually, but his aim is not to celebrate the achievements of the space program the way other portrayals have. That disconnect between filmmaker objective and audience expectation may be the primary reason the film underperformed at the box office despite massive critical buzz (though, really, how much of the acclaim was simply drafting from the aura of Chazelle’s Best Director Oscar for La La Land is anybody’s guess).
First Man is moody. It’s gritty. It’s lyrical and often plays like a dream, a tone set by a haunting musical score from Justin Hurwitz that often shifts between elegant and droning. And sometimes it’s just depressing. The first two-thirds of the movie feels like a 1970s independent film rather than what one might expect from a big-budget outer space blockbuster.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a sullen family man who takes on risk as a means of distracting himself from the grief over the death of his young daughter in the early 1960s. This is a portrait of a man constantly confronted with death, with several of his astronaut friends killed training for missions. Yet Armstrong presses on, despite questions about whether going to the moon is even worth it. As an engineer and pilot, Armstrong is absorbed by the challenges of spaceflight to the seeming detriment of his personal life and relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and two sons. He even conducts a discussion with his children over his chances of surviving the moon mission with the cold stoicism of a press conference.
The depicted missions are presented mostly from the point-of-view of Armstrong, with the final part of the film taken up with Apollo 11. Most of the major events were covered much more comprehensively in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, and anyone familiar with that miniseries will be struck by just how much is missing from the depictions here.
That’s not necessarily to the movie’s detriment, since it needs to portray the missions just enough to show how they fit into Armstrong’s story, not America’s. The result of this narrative direction, however, seems to be a choice to portray the missions in a matter-of-fact way more akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar, as opposed to an inspirational achievement the way most audiences would be used to.
The film is less interested in technical details and glosses over several of them, such as an alarm that went off several times during the lunar landing that indicated the navigational computer was being overwhelmed with data (which doesn’t get explained until the bonus materials, for anyone who isn’t otherwise aware of what happened). The film flubs a few details, too, but only the hardcore enthusiasts are likely to notice.
Once viewers can get past such challenges, it’s easy enough to appreciate the film for its technical and artistic merits, which may take several viewings to fully take in.
Notably, First Man was the first big-screen dramatization of an actual Gemini mission, with the depiction of Armstrong and Dave Scott performing the first orbital docking during Gemini VIII. The mission was cut short when a stuck thruster sent the capsule spinning out of control before Armstrong could stabilize the craft. But here’s a prime example of how the decision to stick with Armstrong’s perspective could hamper the audience’s understanding of what was really going on, aside from a colossal malfunction taking place.
Personally, the knowledge I already had of the incident helped me follow what the scene was trying to portray, so I’d recommend checking out the first episode of From the Earth to the Moon for a more omnipresent look at what happened (aside from actual research on it, of course).
Likewise, with the way the film rushes through the lunar landing sequence, the way it’s handled in From the Earth to the Moon’s sixth episode will probably be more to a lot of viewers’ tastes. (HBO would be wise to re-release the From the Earth to the Moon DVD boxed set, assuming they aren’t willing to remaster the visual effects for high-definition to finally release it on Blu-ray).
Judging by an otherwise excellent audio commentary track of Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer and editor Tom Cross, the filmmakers weren’t really interested in how their movie would be compared to previous examples of the genre, other than stylistically. That’s kind of a shame, as the decision to present the Gemini VIII launch from the viewpoint of within the capsule the whole time works well to simulate Armstrong’s experience for viewers, but robs us of what could have been a glorious external view of the rocket launching that hasn’t really been dramatized yet.
Instead, Chazelle saves the inspirational launch for the liftoff of Apollo 11, and while a fully fueled Saturn V rocket is a sight to behold, and First Man manages to craft a solid launch with some good shots of the spacecraft, the filmmakers were going to be hard-pressed to top what we’ve already seen from the Apollo 13 depiction of a Saturn launch, which is the standard-bearer for such sequences.
In addition, the remarkable shot from the trailers of a Saturn launch that’s reflected in a window as Armstrong watches was cut out of the movie. It’s available as one of the two deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, while the film’s trailers haven’t been included with the disc.
The other deleted scene is a sequence of the Armstrong house burning down, which really happened in 1964.
The Blu-ray also includes about 34 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which in conjunction with the commentary provide a lot of insights into the process of adapting the film from James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
What’s particularly fascinating is the level of practical visual effects employed with models and in-camera opticals rather than an abundance of CGI. In fact, it’s almost as if the filmmakers used technological advancements to improve upon old-school methods, filming models and cockpits in front of a giant LED screen that displays images at a resolution high enough to look like the real deal in the final product (with some digital enhancements).
This results in several visually stunning sequences that look great on the high-definition presentation of the disc. Scenes on Earth were shot with different grain levels to give the film a retro feel that serves its tone well. Of course, Chazelle is saving most of the razzle-dazzle for the final lunar sequence, which was shot with Imax cameras and appropriately shifts aspect ratios to capture the grandeur of it on home video.
To re-create the moon, filmmakers built a giant lunar set at a quarry, filmed at night with an actual full-sized lunar lander mock-up and a giant light in the distance to stimulate the sun (as opposed to the greenscreen and CGI approach most films would likely take today). The results pay off in a visually impressive lunar sequence that provides a real stylistic contrast with how such scenes have been handled before.
Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss and Brian Dennehy are a just a few of the top actors that Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer was able to assemble for the latest film adaptation of the Anton Chekhov Russian classic The Seagull.
The film is available on DVD and digital from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
“Annette literally made the film happen because it was her signing on that made the project attractive to the other actors,” Mayer said. “Also, I asked Annette to do it, and then Stephen Karam could write with her voice in his head.”
Tony-winning playwright Karam adapted the film from Chekhov’s play about the obsessive nature of love, the tangled relationships between parents and children, and the toll of making art.
“We had an idea to do a contemporary feeling film,” Mayer said.
It was a hectic shooting schedule of just 21 days, so “it was helpful to have so many theater actors in these roles,” he said.
Ronan, recently nominated for an Oscar for her lead performance in Lady Bird, also signed on.
“Saoirse did an early reading of the screenplay, and she was incredible,” Mayer said. “I loved working with her. She brings great truth and bravery to her work.”
Moss, currently starring in the award-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “was fantastic to watch and direct,” he said, while Dennehy “is a living legend and gave so much of himself.”
“The whole company was a joy to work with,” he said. “It was fast and furious and great fun.”
Corey Stoll, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen and Billy Howle also star.
Another character in the film was the setting, a house on a lake that reflected the play’s Russian roots.
“It’s a house on a lake in upstate New York that is owned and operated by Russian Americans,” Mayer noted. “Our production designer, Jane Musky, who is of Russian descent, spent summers at the house when she was a young girl and remembered it when we went scouting.”
Bonus features include the Tribeca Film Festival cast and crew red carpet and a Q&A with Mayer and Bening.