Magnificent Desolation

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Neil Armstrong — an American hero and a pioneer in the field of space exploration, it’s true, but does the public en masse know his struggles as well as he and his family did? The answer, and then some, is provided in First Man, the third feature film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. Certainly, it was an unexpected move from the director of music films Whiplash and La-La Land to do a period piece about the greatest voyage humankind ever bore witness to, but damned if it isn’t his finest, and one of the finest movies of the year.

Grounded as an Air Force test pilot and traumatized by a recent tragedy, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) applies to NASA’s nascent Gemini program to get a new start for himself, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Breathe) and their son. In doing so, Neil is tested in all manners of speaking as he tests the limits of the atmosphere, the patience of public and politicians alike and the strength of his family.

Among the cast, Gosling finally proves his mettle in my eyes as more than a handsome face and a cutesy voice, and brings realism and humanity to the legendary Armstrong. Similarly, Ms. Foy is at her career best with this film, bringing an truthful portrayal of the struggles felt by the wife of an astronaut, wondering if the man she loves will ever come home to her and holding the fort largely by herself (bringing to mind an equally stellar Sienna Miller in 2014’s American Sniper). Other notable standouts include Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) as Edward White, a colleague of Neil’s who serves as a shoulder for him to lean on at times, and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Elliott See, an early acquaintance of Neil’s during the interview phase of the Gemini program. Finally, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) brings all the requisite smarm and crass behavior to the utterly asinine Buzz Aldrin — the accuracy is much appreciated!

Chazelle shows real talent as a director with this film — unlike his wanton tail-riding of other, better movies (let’s face facts, La-La Land is just a modernized An American in Paris), he seems to have gone deep in ensuring authentic performances of his actors — no one is hamming it up for an Oscar — and portraying the 1960s without glamorizing or mocking it. Also, in a wise move, the lunar landing scene is entirely film in IMAX, bringing an expanded view for such a pivotal scene, and heightening the reality of the moment — if you have the good fortune of being near an IMAX Laser theater, get your tickets now! Josh Singer’s script — itself based on a chronicle of the same name by James R. Hansen —  never goes to the hysterical level of other space chronicles or period pieces. The words coming from these actors’ mouths feel natural, not at the Aaron Sorkin level of ego and hyperbole, and the events shown are certainly believable and honestly portrayed.

The film also arrives at a most apropos time, for in a day and age when public interest in our intergalactic future is at an all-time high, a film like First Man presents a reminding view to audiences; apathetic generations less concerned about contributions to history and human progress than putting band-aids on Earthbound problems — sounds to me like an additional past America, circa 2008-2016. The fact is we need to explore space continuously — even if no life exists beyond Earth, we can learn so much and further human advances in technology, medicine and countless other fields all from journeying from one habitable planet to the next. After all, why did maritime explorers look for a new world?

First Man is a brilliant, tautly-crafted film, honest in every detail, and while it almost certainly won’t win many, if any, of the awards it’s hyped to get (let’s be real, Oscars don’t do science… or honest history), it doesn’t need them. It never stoops to the overbearing caricature of space exploration and its conflicts that Apollo 13 was, nor does it bombard the viewer with fact and conjecture a la (the still very brilliant) Interstellar. No, this is a movie of its time for our time; a reminder that the future is up there, far beyond the atmosphere and, soon, the stars.

Rating: 5/5

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Overplayed

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Proving once and for all that a turd can’t be polished, the seminal Hollywood favorite A Star is Born is remade for the third time, and it’s as cut-and-dry as they come.

All the original story elements are here – Jackson Maine, a drunken star on decline (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover), Ally, the talented ingenue he discovers (Lady Gaga, in her motion picture debut), and the love they share while one rises to stardom (heh-heh.) and the other falls flat (hee-hee.). I wondered on the way home why it took two other directors — Steven Spielberg (?!) and Clint Eastwood (?!?!) — to attempt this film before Mr. Cooper made his directorial debut with this, and also how nothing changed at all for these characters. If Warner Bros. & MGM, and by association, the screenwriters, kept the storyline the same for the sake of familiarity, or wanton laziness (you decide), that was a really bad move — If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, you’ve already seen this film. The only changes made are the actors, the songs and the time in which it takes place. Speaking of the former two, the only three actors worth their oats in this film are Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot (Road House), who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod as Jackson’s beleaguered eldest brother-turned-handler, and, oddly enough, Andrew Dice Clay (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) as Ally’s well-meaning father who can’t keep money even if it were sewed into his pants. Actors like Dave Chappelle (he of the eponymous TV show) are there and then gone; not much else to say about that.

As for the songs, most are bizarrely cut into snippets, with only three numbers played in full to my immediate recollection — the movie feels like a sampler designed solely to make you buy the soundtrack album, which Lady Gaga devotees will doubtless buy in staggering numbers. Don’t get me wrong, her voice is stellar, and truthfully, her future is not in monotone, drawling autotuned pop songs, but in hard rock. That being said, “Shallows” is the only number that truly resonated with me. Still, to each their own.

I honestly don’t want to be this unkind toward the film, but as it stands, A Star is Born, while a feast to listen to and look at (Matthew Libatique’s luscious anamorphic cinematography will win him the Oscar), is not worth seeing in the slightest. It almost reminds me of the cinematic adaptations of The Great Gatsby thus far, but with Gatsby, one need only look back to the source novel for the best version; A Star is Born has no good version to look back on, and that was the first of many mistakes with this one.

Rating: 2/5