Thursday, October 11, 2018

FIRST MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at multiplexes from here to the stars:

(Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2018) 

Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning smash LA LA LAND, is a quietly profound adaptation of James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Neil Armstrong. Chazelle re-unites with his LA LA LAND lead Ryan Gosling, who brings his patently stoic presence to the part of Armstrong as we follow him on his epic journey from edgy test flights to the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.

Even though one knows exactly how this film will end, Josh Singer’s (SPOTLIGHT, THE POST) screenplay provides a strong sense of danger as the road to space is littered with casualties including Ed White (Jason Clarke), who was the first American to walk in space; Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham).

This is never off the mind of Armstrong’s spouse, Janet Shearon, played by The Queen’s Claire Foy, who makes the most of the standard worried wife back at home role. Foy, utilizing a convincing American accent, appears to have trouble emotionally connecting with her husband, who Gosling coldly plays except for in the scenes set in space. The point apparently being that Armstrong’s real love was the stars. This is probably why they got divorced years later (not covered in the film, of course).

Aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shot LA LA LAND, Chazelle paints an impressionistic picture of the space race era in which they show more than they tell what went down. This adds to the film’s dream-like feel at times, especially in dealing with haunting flashbacks to before Armstrong’s 2-year old daughter died, something that reminded me of the abstract approach of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.

Since I’ve grown up on the stories of the moon mission, and seen countless re-tellings of how the men and women of NASA struggled to reach the final frontier (in other words, there’s no way this wouldn't have some of the stuff that’s in THE RIGHT STUFF), many of the aesthetics here are very familiar – having 2001-ish style strings during one sequence for instance – but the lucidity of how authentic everything comes across from the period stylings to how dead on the imagery of the moon looks made for an immersive experience all around.

Cazelle wisely decides to stick with what the astronauts – Gosling’s Armstrong, and Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin – saw through cramped capsule windows, or their lunar helmets, and the effect makes you feel like you’re getting what the incredible experience really looked like.

For much of FIRST MAN, the only thing that broke up the visually poetic spell for me was Gosling’s dead eyed performance. But when his eyes light up at the view of the heavens that very few humans have seen (also when giving a speech about said experience), one can get what the film has to say about the character, the real man, and his fantastic adventure that is faithfully and beautifully recreated.

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Thursday, October 04, 2018

VENOM: A Complete Tonal Misfire With No Sense Of Fun

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everyone:

VENOM (Dir. Ruben Fleischer, 2018)

o get this straight, this isn’t a Marvel movie – it’s an “In Association With Marvel” movie. That means that it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s the beginning of Sony’s Marvel Universe because Sony owns Spider-man, and Venom started out as a character in the Spidey-verse.

Or something like that. Anyway, I only knew Venom from SPIDER-MAN 3, in which he was played by Topher Grace, as I’m pretty comics illiterate, so I had no real expectations for this origin story. I was just hoping for a fun sci-fi action picture, but what I got was this terrible, tortured slog – an ugly, sticky, tangled mess, much like its title character.

Tom Hardy, with a strained American accent, plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist with a TV show (think Anderson Cooper as played by Jeremy Renner), who loses his job after going after evil genius billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This also ends Eddie’s engagement to his love, Anne (Michelle Williams with long straight blonde hair that doesn’t move), who immediately leaves him.

Meanwhile, there’s been these alien symbiote things that have been taking over people’s bodies wrecking havoc and Ahmed’s Drake is trying to control them in his Life Foundation lab which is built into a mountain side across the bay from San Francisco as we see in countless establishing exterior shots. Jenny Slate (SNL, OBVIOUS CHILD) plays one of Drake’s scientist assistants who decides to be a whistle blower and expose her boss’s deadly experiments with the help of Eddie, who she brings to the lab.

You know what happens then – Brock gets this thing “up his ass” (his words), and becomes embedded with powers which makes him a sweaty, always hungry, spastic, obnoxiously over-the-top jerk, who take out leagues of attackers with black, shiny shard like arms thrusting from his body. It’s not pretty.

Eddie also hears the symbiote, who hates being called a “parasite,” talk through him in a garbled, jarring voice (Hardy’s voice modified) that goads him on, puts him down (calls him “pussy” when he takes an elevator instead of jumping out a window of a high rise), and throws out one-liners, many of which fall flat.

The rest of the narrative is un-engaging, and poorly paced as it goes through the motions of a motorcycle chase through the streets, battles with a bunch of standard issue black-clad thugs, a count-down to a launch that must be thwarted, and tons of empty spectacle made up of unimpressive CGI.

VENOM is a complete tonal misfire which can be largely blamed on its dreadful, witless screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel which even tries to make “Have a nice life” be a burn more than once. Even at its most watchable, the whole movie just feels off. Hardy does his damnest, but just doesn’t gel with the character – either character of Eddie or Venom, and at times his hyper acting made me cringe with embarrassment for him. However, I blame the material because I’ve seen him do way better before.

Despite it being a dud, fanboys will just have to see it because you know completism, and there’s, of course, a few stingers – a mid-credits scene that has an intriguing cameo, and an extended post credits teaser for the animated SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE movie coming out this December.

Those tagged on bits are actually fun, but that so calls attention to how all the VENOM nonsense that preceded them so wasn’t.

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A STAR IS BORN: Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga Soar In Stellar Remake

Opening tonight everywhere:

(Dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018)

I had a feeling going in, from the high amount of positive buzz, that this film was going to be good, but I really didn’t expect it to be the emotionally powerful experience that it is.

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the third remake of the 1937 classic, A STAR IS BORN, but you don’t have to have seen that, or the 1954 or 1976 versions to recognize the premise: a tragic romance in which one star rises while the other one fades.

Cooper, who also co-produced, co-wrote the screenplay, and co-wrote some of the songs, plays Jackson Maine, a country rock star who we first meet shredding his guitar in front of thousands of cheering fans. Well, actually the first shot is of him taking pills and downing some liquor backstage before that moment, but I digress.

We follow the drunk Jackson after the show as he gets his driver (Greg Grunberg) to take him somewhere, anywhere that serves alcohol only to find himself at a drag bar being serenaded by Lady Gaga as Ally, the one woman they let perform at the place because, well, she’s Lady Gaga.

Jackson is immediately smitten with Ally, and so is Cooper’s cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, BLACK SWAN) who gives Gaga gorgeous close-ups throughout the film. Jackson and Ally hit it off and have a wonderfully rambling evening together in which she punches a fan for being pushy, and they end up in a grocery store parking lot with her hand wrapped up in a frozen pea bag with tape – Jackson’s concoction, of course.

In a sweet moment, Ally improvises some lines to a new song and before you know it the movie has its big signature anthem “Shallow,” which he gets her to shake off her stage fright and perform with him at his show the next night. It’s a glorious scene that trailers and T.V. spots have been right to milk.

You know how it goes from there – Ally’s star is on the ascent with a new album, image, and tour, while Jackson goes deeper down into the bottle. But as predictable as that sounds, it plays out beautifully here with every scene having thoughtful weight.

The strong supporting cast well play their needed notes too – Andrew Dice Clay proves that his performance in BLUE JASMINE was no fluke with a great turn as Ally’s limo driver/ex-crooner father , the always reliable Sam Elliot gives great gravitas as Jackson’s brother/manager, Dave Chappelle pops up to help Jackson and Ally get married while making some patently laid-back wisecracks, and the lesser known Ravi Gavron puts in a sharp appearance as Ally’s ambitious agent.

Adding greatly to the portrait of this couple’s relationship is how the film values the song-writing connection that Jackson and Ally have together. How they bond over words scribbled on notebook pages that become crowd-pleasing ballads is one of many factors that had me tear up at times.

This helps make the film’s soundtrack – a rich mixture of country and pop songs – a seriously stellar collection. Through the concert scenes, some of which were filmed at Coachella, the song performances really sold me on these characters feeling like real people caught up in the spotlight. In that vein, Gaga owns her first leading role by coming across more like a real person than any time I’ve seen her before. She is bound to get award season action a-plenty for her stunning work here.

Cooper will surely get some attention too for his touching take on the star on the way down. Jackson has a lot of charisma despite his sloppy drunkenness, and mean moments of jealousy towards Ally, and Cooper is equally skilled in bringing out both his charms and flaws.

A STAR IS BORN is one of the best remakes ever, and one of the best films of the year. It’s a joyous, romantic, funny, tragic, uplifting, poignant, heart-string-pulling, beautiful, and, what I said up-front, emotionally powerful piece of pure entertainment.

More later...