In First Man (2018), Ryan Gosling puts his trademark stoicism to good use in the real-life story of Neil Armstrong and the astronauts who manned the Moon missions that lead to his landing on Earth’s famed satellite in 1969. As Armstrong, Gosling cuts a determined and rather grim figure whose devotion to his work endangers his family harmony and isolates him somewhat from his peers. This is where First Man is different from other NASA-inspired tales. Rather than simply romanticize space travel, Damien Chazelle’s film focuses on the heavy toll that the Space Race exacted on its participants. From the first test flight taken by Armstrong, in a jet shooting out of Earth’s atmosphere in now antiquated technology, to the riskiness of the Moon landing itself, the impact of their accomplishment feels even greater, especially as we have not returned to the Moon since. The movie also captures the political tension of the Vietnam War era, including a protest led by musician/activist Gil Scott-Heron about money being invested off the earth rather than on it. It seems not everyone was enamored with what NASA was aiming to do. As far as the controversy over the fact that we do not see Armstrong plant the American flag on the Moon, it still appears there in the film. Ultimately, Chazelle shows how Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s achievement was celebrated world over, how everyone was proud of an American accomplishment that made them feel proud for us and the human race.
Some films are elevated merely by the presence of great actors, as was the case with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in many classic (and not so classic) Hammer Horror movies. In the Spanish cult favorite Horror Express (1972), Lee and Cushing portray, respectively, competing academics Sir Alexander Saxton and Dr. Wells, who are both taking a Trans-Siberian train ride. Saxton is transporting a frozen primitive man that he found in a cave, but after it thaws and gets out, people start to die, their eyes left blank and brains left soft after the creature absorbs all of their intelligence and memories. Our protagonists must team up to track down the creature and stop its muted but deadly killing spree. Telly Savalas (famous for playing Kojak) has a minor but memorable support role, chewing all the train scenery as an abusive Russian Cossack who comes onboard to investigate the weird goings-on. Despite its hokey science, this low budget film is fun for genre buffs—you’ve got three dedicated name actors, the right touch of gore, and decent, though dated, special effects. Arrow Video includes a lot of great new and vintage extras about this wild and woolly flick, including interviews with director Eugenio Martin and composer John Cacavas.
Appearing on TCM recently, Chris Isaak said that Hollywood doesn’t do rock ‘n’ roll very well. He’s generally right, but there are exceptions, one of them being Bryan Singer’s Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). While the film plays hard and loose with facts and chronology, something that has made hardcore fans bristle with contempt, it does capture the magic of the band, and illustrates how singer Freddie Mercury lead their charge into rock ‘n’ roll history. Rami Malek is fantastic as Queen’s flamboyant front man, while Gwilym Lee (as guitarist Brian May), Joe Mazzello (as bassist John Deacon), and Ben Hardy (as drummer Roger Taylor) easily slip into the roles of his talented bandmates. The recreation of their historic Live Aid performance in 1985 is electrifying and inspired, and there is an in-depth 20-minute documentary that breaks down the complexities in recreating that stadium performance. The other two featurettes go behind the scenes, yet while they praise the involvement of May and Taylor (who also co-produced the picture), they ignore the factual inaccuracies. Despite its issues, Bohemian Rhapsody is still a rousing rock movie. Although, fans who want more of the facts and seek to learn more about Queen and their accomplishments should check out the documentary, Days Of Our Lives.
PRIME TIME: GHOUL SCHOOL MUSICAL
High school is hellish enough without having to contend with an annual talent show and a zombie outbreak. But that’s the fate that befalls the students and citizens of a small Scottish town when an undead scourge rapidly takes over in the gory musical Anna and the Apocalypse (2018), a surprisingly hilarious and poignant tale of teenage angst, family issues, and class warfare featuring peppy, pop-based songs awash with buckets of blood. Ella Hunt stars as college-bound Anna, who must navigate through the insanity with her quietly swooning bestie (Malcolm Cumming), her narcissistic jock ex (Ben Wiggins), and other colorful characters. It’s hard to appeal to high school musical, rom-com, and horror fans simultaneously, but director John McPhail, working from Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry’s screenplay, manages to make it click. The potency of Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly’s songs vary (some are very catchy), but overall this is a compelling mash-up with an unexpected ending that speaks the truth about the transition between adolescence and adulthood. It can be a scary world outside of the safe bubble you may have grown up in. Get ready for a bumpy ride.
When I was growing up, rock ‘n’ roll was more of a lifestyle. Now it’s a very business-minded game. Bob Nalbandian’s documentary Band Vs. Brand (2019) explores how many classic rock acts have stayed in the game through shrewd business acumen, while others have seen their fortunes wane because they did not keep their eye on the business side. For those in the know, most of this will not be news, but for fans and industry neophytes there is a lot of enlightening information they will not have previously contemplated about branding, merchandising, and changes in how musicians earn a living. Interviews with big names like Dave Ellefson (Megadeth), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), and Mike Varney (Shrapnel Records) are mixed in with numerous cult figures and other industry vets. It would have been nice to get more people at the top of the food chain, but the talking heads here offer a lot of really good insight and stories. The audio and video quality varies radically—some of this feels like it was done on the fly, and the live band footage mostly comes from fan YouTube videos. Despite the low budget feel and bland narration, Band Vs. Brand best serves as a primer for young rockers just beginning to navigate the perpetually shark-infested waters of the music business. They have a lot to learn.