Damien Chazelle, in ‘First Man,’ delivers a film that is opposite of what everyone expects it to be. I think I know what he is trying to do here – the film is very simple, and a lot of it is internal and subtle. That style is very discordant with its subject – Neil Armstrong walking in the moon – that it feels like a step back. All in all, I am confused by what the film is trying to say. As far as biopics go, it’s not as fully formed, and only represented a particular part of Armstrong’s life. Is the film supposed to represent the mood of those times? Or perhaps it’s a low-key action movie, as it is effective in making you feel like you are in there inside the space ship with Armstrong (the sound direction here should be a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination) All in all, it’s not nearly enough of any of those things, resulting to a competent but ultimately meh of a movie. A friend of mine, describing it, called it ‘unremarkable’ and I agree. There’s this big movie here that doesn’t deliver in a lot of ways.
Ryan Gosling, as Neil Armstrong, gives a real understated – and effective – performance. He fills the character well despite it being written with starkness. I always say it’s harder to convey something subtly because an actor would limited talent would easily go over than under. There is an intelligence in how Gosling gives a glance or a stare to convey emotion. In a lot of ways, this is very similar to his performance in ‘Drive’ so there’s a precedent to how he tackled this role.
A film like this should have excited me about something – science, patriotism – but my biggest takeaway from it is that Gosling’s performance deserved a better movie.
It would be easy to dismiss ‘Song To Song,’ Terrence Malick’s latest movie. It can try your patience. Malick’s fragmented style of storytelling – there’s no structure, scenes begin and end haphazardly, nature scenes show up out of the blue – is admittedly a tough pill to swallow. But there has to be genius behind the madness, and I do get it – perhaps he is using the film as a metaphor to creating art through songs. As Stephen Sondheim says “Art isn’t easy.’
Or maybe it’s just plain crazy. This is probably the kind of film where the actors don’t know what film would come out of their performances. The A List Cast – Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchette, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman – seem there just to support Rooney Mara, who is for the most part front and center in this film. The trouble is that Mara doesn’t and never had the natural instincts for characterization. She seems a blank slate here, and perhaps that’s the point – everyone else is colorful and she is just plain white. Though it appears that Gosling brought his La La Land character here. Portman is luminous, though, and brings a certain heartache to her small role as a teacher who gets involved with Fassbander.
The story is just a musical chairs of pairings but I liked the fact that it went forward without you sometimes realizing how it does. Perhaps that is where the brilliance of Malick lies – in the subtlety, in the unspoken. There’s little dialogue here, as most is said through character’s voice-overs. But scenes do play out redundantly – you blink and sometimes wonder if it’s the same scene over and over again. And since the movie is set around various music festivals in Austin, you kind of wonder why there is very little actual music here (Patti Smith is glorious in her one number)
At my matinee, two women hurriedly left as soon as the credits came up – I bet they saw Goslng’s name and expected a retread of La La – and I stayed and stewed over what I had just seen. This is the kind of movie that has layers. I cannot wait to see it again – probably on disc or streaming – and peel some more.