Proxima (2019)

prox2Single-mother Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) is a French astronaut preparing for a year-long mission aboard the ISS, and in the final weeks leading to the mission she finds that her relationship with her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) is threatening to fall apart as the child starts to resent her mother for leaving her.

Proxima naturally reminded me of the similarly-themed Lucy in the Sky, in which Natalie Portman delivered a fine performance as an astronaut returning to Earth after a Space Shuttle mission finding herself unable to resume the normal life she had left behind. Proxima flips things around somewhat, dealing with the lead-up to a space mission and the toll it takes on personal relationships, but it shares topics such as women working in what is usually accepted as a mostly male-dominated profession and the unique pressures women face having to prove themselves equal. Proxima is clearly the superior film as it defttly navigates the many arcs running through it without being overly preachy or melodramtatic. For me, if it falters at any point its when Sarah abandons her pre-flight quarantine (essentially endangering the mission and her fellow crewmembers safety) in order to have one last important night with her daughter, to finally make peace with her and the situation they are caught up in. Emotionally, it works and acts as something of a crescendo for the film, but intellectually its sets up all sorts of alarm signals, which is unfortunate, because on the whole the film is quite remarkable for being both character-driven and involving, but also authentic in how it portrays the beaurocracy and administration around an astronauts career and the physical and intellectual intensity of their training. Being an astronaut is not a normal job, leaving the Earth is not a normal event, but men and women have to navigate the normality of family life and the bizarre enormity of what they are doing in their careers. Proxima explores the pressures that are perhaps not wholly unique to a woman, but it does offer intriguing observations of what particulalrly effects a mother, and the drive that ensures a woman can succeed in her life aspirations in what might be assumed to be a male-dominated career. The film stumbles a little in places but on the whole it suceeds really surprisingly well.

Eva Green is absolutely terrific, as might be expected. She’s one of the best actresses working today, and its hard for me to think of a bad performance of hers in anything I’ve seen her in (even if her choice of roles sometimes does her few favours- 300: Rise of an Empire for one). I remember how brilliant she was in the short-lived (and rather oddly under-appreciated) series Penny Dreadful, which sets me thinking that there’s another few Blu-rays up on my shelf that I should be watching again sometime (that watchlist is endless, frankly). The chemistry between Eve and young Zélie, who plays her daughter, is really quite affecting and it absolutely lends the film some greater intensity and sense of reality. Their rapport feels natural and real and its something that can get quite overlooked sometimes: its one of those things that viewers can often take for granted but if the chemistry isn’t there, or if it feels forced, it can really undermine any drama.

I think its to be welcomed that film-makers suddenly seem interested in the human side of space travel (Proxima is wholly set on Earth with no sequences set in space other than stock footage), and films like First Man, Lucy in the Sky and this indicate that there is plenty to explore. Some TV shows have explored this too and oddly enough don’t appear to have been as successful as their film counterparts  (The First, starring Sean Penn was an interesting attempt that got cancelled after one season), wheras I would have thought an episodic format would have been a benefit. I would be fascinated to see a project with the emotonal/intellectual gravitas of First Man or Proxima combined with the scale and ambition of maybe a 2001: A Space Odyssey – well okay, thats maybe unfair, but then again, why? Why shouldn’t we be able to expect that of our current film-makers (what on Earth is James Cameron doing making sagas about blue Aliens when he should be tackling something with real importance, scale and ambition)? I suppose setting my sights more realistically, I’m thinking something with the reality of First Man or Proxima doubled with a film like The Martian or Mission to Mars: you know, get a sense of real drama and humanity in there with the hardware and spectacle. In space, you don’t need aliens or monsters to get viewers excited, the human story that got you there should be enough, and the impact of the experience on the human psyche and heart is a subject rich with possibilities. 

Lucy in the Sky minus diamonds

lucy2Natalie Portman is as terrific as ever in a drama that never really ignites or fulfils its potential, but which I nonetheless quite enjoyed. It serves as an unintended but welcome companion-piece to First Man, offering a more contemporary, and female, perspective on how Space affects the human experience; I think its very interesting, and certainly most welcome, that new films are starting to revaluate the Space Race and humanity’s faltering steps into the Cosmos. Its a pity that there’s little particularly profound in these films, but we’re clearly getting there. 

In First Man, the engineer/test pilot enigma that is Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, inevitably remained the enigma, even though the film offered some suggestions regards what made the man ‘tick’.  The sense of the unknowable (in Armstrong) was mirrored by the unknowable in Space, the immensity of the cosmos: better to send a poet to the moon if we ever hope to come close to understand, engineers and test pilots can only be frustrated by their own limitations when trying to explain the unknowable. Where that film succeeded was in how it reinvigorated that adventure of space travel for new audiences, and indicated how terrifying it can be.

That sense of the profound, the intensity of the life-changing experience of seeing all the Earth from a distance, cannot be understated, and proves a centre-point of Lucy in the Sky, telling the true story (or an approximation of it) of  Lisa Nowak, a Nasa astronaut who after a space shuttle mission flew off the deep end threatening to kidnap/harm a love rival in a tempestuous astronaut love triangle. Noah Hawley’s film Lucy in the Sky  posits that Nowak was suffering from an existential crisis having been ‘changed’ by her experience in orbit: essentially leaving her unable to cope with the mundane back on Earth.

lucy1In this I think it succeeds, thanks largely to Portman’s great performance, as she shows herself grasping vainly at life on Earth when all she really wants is to go back up ‘there’ in order to experience again that exhilarating, incredible ‘high’. The film suggests that you can recruit the intellectual and physical Elite, train pilots and engineers for the mechanics and procedures of spaceflight, but cannot really prepare them for the experience and what it might do to them emotionally and spiritually. There is something fragile and broken within Lucy back on Earth, something disconnected from her husband and those around her, something wholly unfulfilling about ordinary life. Maybe this would have been enough for the film- its when it goes on with the crime story elements, telling a soap opera through the lens of the Nasa Elite, that the film falters somewhat. The irony of course is that even some of the most fantastic elements of the story actually turn out to be quite true, or very close to it: I suspect some viewers instantly dismiss some of the wildest stuff as Hollywood invention, not realising how close to the truth it is (much has been changed and Lucy’s story remains very loosely based on that of Lisa, but what surprise many is just what was changed and what wasn’t- I won’t expand upon it here for fear of spoilers, but anyone who watches the film would be encouraged to read up on the true story). 

Ultimately Hawley struggles to balance the profundity with the inanity – the life-changing endeavour of humanity in Space with the mundane everyday strife of messy relationships. It may struggle and fail but I think its worthwhile all the same; at least it raises some interesting questions, even if, like First Man, it fails to arrive at any convincing answers.

 

Whiplash (2014)

whip1I thought this film was terrifying. Seriously, I shrug off and laugh in the face of the grisliest of horror films (to be fair, they are often all just dafter the gorier they get) but this film about a young jazz-drummer wannabe being terrorised and bullied by his music teacher was absolutely horrifying. I still get uneasy chills thinking back to J K Simmons’ monstrous Terence Fletcher. His performance really got under my skin, so much so that thinking back on the film feels like a panic attack in itself. I can’t explain it, I feel nervous just writing this down. Scariest. Film. Ever. Its like one of those anxiety dreams that just intensifies as it progresses, my dream-self increasingly losing control as it descends into nightmare. While the film does unfortunately descend into exploitation territory at moments, possibly inevitably so really, considering what it depicts, nonetheless it is such a shocking exercise in relentless tension.  

Disturbingly, when Fletcher confides his reasoning to our unravelling hero Andrew (Miles Teller) “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’” he grunts, one almost has to applaud him. He believes that praise and nurture are ultimately defeating, only from great suffering can one create a genius and Great Art. Those that fail (and he has destroyed the lives of students before) were simply unworthy, easily forgotten, and although he not yet managed to discover and bully a student capable of legendary greatness, at least he can say he tried. The sheer bloody hubris of the monster: he has the simplicity and perfection of Giger’s Alien. 

I’ve come to this film rather late, as the director Damien Chazelle went on to La La Land and First Man afterwards, films which I both enjoyed, and I’m not certain why it took me so long to get around to it-  Whiplash was clearly well-regarded, so its not like I was not curious. Maybe I knew deep down that it would get under my skin. Its a pretty amazing film, although I’m cautious regards stating that I really enjoyed it, it seemed such an ordeal in tension and I’m not sure I’ve quite recovered. 

 

Armstrong

armArmstrong is a fascinating documentary film about the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and is a welcome companion to Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film First Man that starred Ryan Gosling. That film was rather divisive, likely deliberately so, as it dwelt less on the space program and the mechanics of the Apollo missions and more on Armstrong himself (the film aptly summarised by Mark Kermode as ‘more inner space than outer space’). The problem for First Man was that Armstrong was always a private man, and rather kept his distance from the media, something of a cold fish to anyone outside his inner circle of family and friends. There is a very telling observation in Armstrong that ‘thank God there was no social media back then’, and this resonated with me a great deal. Can you imagine what it would be like, had the first moon landing happened in today’s world? That first man would have been eaten alive by the demands of our modern mass-media world. It was probably bad enough for Armstrong post-Apollo 11, I don’t know how he would have managed to survive something like that now- the demands of the media world today and the added hysterics of social media… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lacking the dramatic conflicts (albeit largely fictional dramatisation) of films like Apollo 13, First Man initially seemed a cold, distant film, but having seen Armstrong, I think First Man will reward greater on repeat viewing.

Of course the tantalising thing about First Man, and of Armstrong himself, is the sense of mystery about him, because he refused to become a part of the celebrity media circus that he might have been. Part of that mystery, beyond the facts of who he was and his accomplishments, is just how do you survive something like Apollo 11? He became one of the most famous men not just alive, but in all of history- his is a name that will be remembered in the same way as the greatest kings or Pharaohs or the likes of Da Vinci, long after the rest of us, even the most famous people alive today, the musicians or actors or scientists or leaders, are long gone and forgotten.

Which is part of the dichotomy of Armstrong, because although his name will always most chiefly represent all that Apollo achieved, he himself was always clear about his sense of personal good fortune and always referenced all the work of the many thousands of people who got him to the moon. Essentially, of course, being an Astronaut was his job and while its a curious thing to look at it like that, I think it’s important too. He earned his place on Apollo 11 and was ultimately the preferred choice for the first lunar footstep- this was by merit, and he earned it. But it could as easily been someone else through some other twist of chance.

Review: ‘Armstrong’ examines the man behind the moon landingThis documentary has input from his family and freinds to inform much about Armstrong’s personal life that the public only dimly knew, and features a surprising amount of Super-8mm home movie footage of Armstrong and his family. I also found it interesting how much footage existed of Armstrong’s test-flight days- it’s odd to consider his life was being recorded so early on when its historic value would not transpire until much later. But it’s the fairly candid footage of his home life that fascinates, particularly of the 1960s and how that corresponds to its depiction in First Man, which was actually not far off the mark.

Anyone who recalls the awful voiceover on the theatrical version of Blade Runner will be amazed by the excellent narration here by Harrison Ford, who reads speeches and personal letters by Armstrong allowing us to hear the man’s thoughts and insights. Its extremely well read by Ford, infecting it with considerable nuance through pauses and inflection of voice.

On the whole I’d suggest this is a well-balanced and informative film, that tells us a great deal about the man and his achievements without falling into the trap of awe and idolising him. While to some extent Armstrong remains something of a mystery (there always seems to be something ‘unknowable’ about him, so frustrating in First Man) there is some achievement here in distancing the human being from the event that would dominate his life and his place in history.

Listening to First Man OST

firstmostThe soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz is as flawed as the film for which it was written (and I really should get around to posting my review of the film soon) and yet, also like the film, in spite of any misgivings, it does, ultimately, work. Just not the way one might expect. Its quite a stroke of genius in its use of harp and theremin, the latter an instrument so synonymous with spacey 1950s films and their aural wake through genre cinema for decades that it almost slipped into parody. Its a dangerous thing to use here in a drama about the first moon landing, the man who made the first step there and the grief and tragedy that (allegedly) propelled him there. But it works. Just. As a whole the score is a mixed bag of electronic soundscapes and those lovely harp/theremin interludes and a few more bombastic moments, but generally it is quite melodic and quite sophisticated and fresh-sounding. Its certainly a relief from the usual Zimmer drone we tend to get these days, and like the composers earlier La La Land score it really harks back to old-school scoring.

The problem with the score is, like the film itself, one of a blurred focus. Partly this is because the while the film pretends to be a dramatic study of grief and loss and a fractured life, it is also a fairly routine drama about how we got to the moon, of Apollo and its astronauts, and it couldn’t really do both satisfactorily. The score mirrors the films highs and lows- its sensitive moments are its best, although I particularly enjoyed the tense heroics of The Launch and the driving theme that is placed throughout the film and propels the End Title– unfortunately the noisy electronic soundscapes overly distract from the whole. Also, while most (possibly all) of the score is here, it is by its spotting in the film very ‘bitty’, most of the tracks too short to make for comfortable listening over 70 mins (the track total is 37 tracks, some tracks as short as 28 and 48 seconds). A shorter album of highlights would make for a far more enjoyable and focused listen- and yes, funnily enough, something similar could have been said of the film itself.

 

 

HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon > First Man

fe2m2It shouldn’t come as any surprise, really. In some respects, any comparison between a high-quality twelve-part mini series and a two hour-plus Hollywood movie is going to be rather unfair, if only because a twelve-hour series is going to have much wider scope to give the Space Program its proper due. In First Man‘s case, it is perhaps doubly unfair because, contrary to some of the marketing, in many ways the Space Program and moon landing are almost incidental to the main focus of that movie.

Having watched, and enjoyed  First Man (albeit with some reservations that I may come to later in another post), I went home and was unable to resist finding out my DVD of HBO’s glorious mini-series from 1998 (has it been so long?). I cued up my favourite episode, the wonderful ‘Spider’ (episode 5) and its subsequent episode ‘Mare Tranquilitatis’ which covers much of what First Man does. What a fantastic two hours it was- First Man paled by comparison, frankly.

The music. The cast. The sheer joy. Mind, it was a sobering experience- a 55″ OLED does no favours for DVD. The show looks quite utterly horrible. Here starts the campaign to get somebody at HBO to remaster the series for a HD release on Blu-ray (and okay the campaign probably ends here too, but I can dream). Some of the model-work holds up (just) but the CGI effects have aged as badly as a Babylon 5 episode, and could do with a fresh rework. It would be a shame to let the rest of the series suffer for this poor image quality and dated effects, because it could likely hold the series back from gaining a new appreciative audience. Strangely overlooked over the years since it first aired (its a series largely lost under the shadow of HBOs bigger hits like The Sopranos, Band of Brothers etc)  I still think it is a remarkable project and a largely definitive account of the Apollo program. Maybe HBO plan to so something with the show next year, as a freshly remastered broadcast to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing would seem a marketing man’s daydream.