Sunday, November 18, 2018

Two Space Movies

It isn’t unusual that I’ll watch a critical darling and be underwhelmed, though it isn’t too often that I watch a movie garnering a lot of Oscar buzz or critical acclaim and find myself genuinely disliking it.  Yet, this was the case for First Man, which went beyond being a disappointment to the extent that I feel safe in calling it a bad movie.

The idea of the movie is isolation.  As the film would tell us, Neil Armstrong more or less went into a shell after the loss of his infant daughter, throwing himself into his work and eventually rising through the ranks to be tabbed for the legendary Apollo 11 mission.  It’s a journey of single-minded pursuit, yet Armstrong’s work in the space program is also presented as essentially just work — he’s at a desk, he’s testing equipment at the factory, he’s training, etc.  Apollo 11 is recast from one of the great endeavours in human history to more of a nuts-and-bolts operation, the cinematic equivalent of Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time” song about the guy who steals one part from the auto factory each day until he has enough for his own homemade car.

All of this is a fine idea on paper.  It’s an interesting sidebar to Damien Chazelle’s past works exploring the concept of what goes into greatness.  “Whiplash” explored the cruel side of a single-minded pursuit, “La-La Land” a more romantic slant on the same concept, whereas First Man just removes art from the equation altogether and turns the pursuit into gruntwork. 

* = well, sort of, since there’s an undeniable artistic aspect to any on-screen portrayal of space.

The problem is, First Man is minimalist to a fault.  After Whiplash and La-La Land were so brimming with energy, I’m stunned that Chazelle made such a dull movie.  First Man is so focused on the technical aspects of recreating the details of Apollo 11’s launch that it fails to set itself apart from any documentary that one could simply watch about the real-life event.  Any number of historical biopics obviously also deal with events where the audiences knows what actually happened, though better examples of that genre elevate the material by giving us reasons to care about the characters. 

It’s one thing to make Armstrong into as empty of a vessel as the one he’s flying to the moon, yet two hours of Ryan Gosling as a blank slate doesn’t make for much of a viewing experience.  Gosling is being given nothing to work with, and then makes the choice to underplay even that modicum of a role.  If Armstrong was kind of an uninteresting guy in real life, that’s fine, I’m not saying you need to add a lot of bells and whistles to make Movie Neil into a capital-C Character, but give us something, eh?  Like, I have no idea if Buzz Aldrin was actually the oblivious pedantic as Corey Stoll portrays him as being, but it was a welcome blip of an actual character amidst the scores of well-known actors playing the rest of the NASA team, almost entirely relegated to being personality-free grunts in white shirts and ties.  Along those same lines, Claire Foy has the prototypical thankless wife role, and is trapped in the role’s one note.  Foy just gets to be concerned, over and over, for the entire film.  I feel like I don’t know anything more about what Neil and Janet Armstrong were like after seeing First Man.

It seems like the movie will pick up a few notable Oscar nominations, and since there’s rather an incredible lack of consensus about what the top contenders are this year, there’s probably still an outside shot that First Man could win Best Picture.  Needless to say, I wouldn’t be on board with this decision.  It’d be the worst Best Picture since A Beautiful Mind, another very flawed biopic, though at least that one went to a couple of weird and semi-interesting places while not even being remotely true to the actual story of John Nash.  First Man didn’t need to go to those lengths in the name of adding zest to a real-life figure, but sticking to the script also didn’t work.


Does Tom Hardy hate the sound of his own voice?  Is this man incapable of taking a role that doesn’t involve him taking some strange accent, or speaking though some kind of voice-muffling face appendage (i.e. Bane’s mask in Dark Knight Rises, the oxygen mask in Dunkirk) that makes him impossible to comprehend?  By this token, I have to imagine that Hardy immediately accepted the offer to star in Venom.  “Wait, so I get to use TWO goofy voices?  One, an absurdly overdone Bronx accent for Eddie Brock, and the other an electronically-dubbed melange for the symbiote that makes it sound like Kevin Michael Richardson playing the plant from Little Shop Of Horrors??  Where do I sign up?!”

I read one review of Venom that described it as the best superhero movie of the 90’s, which is such an elegantly perfect summary that I’ll just reprint it here rather than bother coming up with something else.  Sony’s comic book movies (with the eternal exception of Spider-Man 2) always seem to fall in that weird netherworld between Marvel’s movies and DC’s movies, with some seeming like Marvel trying to adopt a DC formula and other feeling like DC trying adopt a Marvel formula.  The latter would be DC actually trying to ape the specific rhythms of a Marvel film, to be clear, rather than them trying to adopt Marvel’s formula of a shared universe, since we’ve already seen what that’s like, with disastrous consequences.

The vagaries of the Sony/Marvel partnership in regards to Spider-Man aren’t known to me, so I’m not sure if we should be considering Venom as a candidate to actually pop in the MCU or something, or if he’ll stay in Sony’s pocket universe populated by Spidey characters but not actually Spidey himself.  The cringe scenario, of course, would be if Sony decides that Marvel has rehabilitated Spider-Man enough that they’ll think “thanks for the help Marvel, we’ll take it from here!” and then shift Spidey out of the MCU and back into their own second-tier productions.  That would be the real-life equivalent of what happens to Peter Parker in Infinity War.

No comments: