First Man Movie Review

Perhaps the largest overarching theme of Damien Chazelle’s First Man is control. Mission control of the world famous Apollo 11 flight, yes. There’s also a mission in which Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) tragically cannot control with the death of his young daughter to a brain tumor. In Gosling’s face as he lands for the first time ever on the outer reaches of our solar system, we sense his myopic focus on this historic assignment. It is coupled with a sense of loss of what he experienced a few years prior with a task he couldn’t achieve in saving her life.

That, more than anything else, is where the power of this picture lies. Yet these moments are not particularly frequent. We all know how First Man is going to end with Armstrong’s first footprint on a never before stepped upon surface. There is little dramatic tension there, though the booming musical score helps a little bit. Chazelle’s film takes the moon landing and shows it through the eyes of the man who did it. That means we see the extraordinarily small spaces he trains and rides in. And in the years prior to success, we see a string of losses from his daughter to several coworkers who perish along the way.

This is not the space saga I expected from Chazelle. It’s entirely different in tone from his previous efforts Whiplash and La La Land. Armstrong was a famously low key figure and First Man takes cues from his personality. The saga begins eight years prior to his claim to fame. Armstrong is a test pilot with a devoted but strong in her convictions wife Janet (Claire Foy) and two children. With two-year-old Karen, Neil treats her illness as a mathematical equation to be solved, like his daily work. He can’t solve this problem.

His piloting career coincides with his nation’s fervent desire to beat the Russians to the moon after being beat out by them in earlier missions. As we know, he’s eventually given captain status with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) alongside him. Before that occurs, we see Neil’s friendship with another famed astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke) and others. All of these innovators reside in Houston and develop a close community where the wives are constantly living in fear of whether their husbands will come home.

First Man often focuses on that sense of dread and the fact that, in the 1960s, NASA was a program often running blind. Ever hopeful, but with rickety rockets and a cross your fingers and hope for the best attitude. It takes a toll on Neil’s marriage. Foy is excellent as Janet and she’s given a scene or two to shine.

Gosling’s work is, like his subject, tougher to nail down. It’s not a showy role. However, in the moments where he must convey Armstrong’s laser concentration, Gosling flourishes. I admired Chazelle’s tactic of making this tale that goes outside our galaxy a small and personal one. First Man is ultimately an experience that easier to appreciate than be grandly entertained by. Neil Armstrong worked in his own way and so does this for the most part.

*** (out of four)

The PGA Goes Green

The eyes of Oscar prognosticators were on the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Awards and for good reason. In this decade, the Best Picture Award has matched the Academy’s 6 out of 8 times (there’s a little fudging here because in 2013 there was a tie between Oscar recipient 12 Years a Slave and Gravity). The non matches occurred in 2015 when the PGA selected The Big Short over Spotlight and the following year with La La Land winning and not Moonlight.

Two scenarios could have changed the Oscar landscape in a significant way. A victory for Roma (coming off its Critics Choice honor) could have solidified standing as a front-runner. If A Star Is Born took the top prize, it would have marked a much-needed win after some high-profile precursor snubs.

Neither scenario happened as Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was named. This is a surprise and it opens up an already uncertain race for Best Picture at the big dance. It certainly lessens Green Book winning the Oscar being seen as an upset. It’s a real contender along with Roma and Star.

Tonight’s ceremony also gave yet another animation award for SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse. Coupled with its Globes and Critics wins, it now appears Spidey is the Academy favorite over Incredibles 2.

Bottom line: the PGA made the Oscars a bit murkier. We got ourselves a race.

Best Picture: A Look Back

A few weeks ago, I posted look backs at major categories at the Oscars from 1990 to the present. I’ve covered all four acting races and if you missed it, you can peruse them here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/11/04/best-actor-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/31/best-actress-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/25/best-supporting-actor-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/20/best-supporting-actress-a-look-back/

In each post, I review what I’d classify as the three least surprising winners, as well as the three biggest upsets. And I select what I believe are the strongest and weakest overall fields.

Today on the blog, we arrive at the Big Daddy – Best Picture. It’s important to remember that hindsight doesn’t come into play here. For instance, Forrest Gump won the top prize in 1994. Since then, many believe fellow nominees Pulp Fiction or The Shawshank Redemption should have won. Yet the Gump victory was not an upset at the time. Same goes for 1990 when Dances with Wolves bested GoodFellas.

Let’s begin with a reminder of each winner since 1990:

1990 – Dances with Wolves

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1992 – Unforgiven

1993 – Schindler’s List

1994 – Forrest Gump

1995 – Braveheart

1996 – The English Patient

1997 – Titanic

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1999 – American Beauty

2000 – Gladiator

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2002 – Chicago

2003 – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2005 – Crash

2006 – The Departed

2007 – No Country for Old Men

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2010 – The King’s Speech

2011 – The Artist

2012 – Argo

2013 – 12 Years a Slave

2014 – Birdman

2015 – Spotlight

2016 – Moonlight

2017 – The Shape of Water

We start with my three least surprising winners:

3. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson’s final entry in the acclaimed trilogy seemed due for a win after the first two installments were nominated, but lost to A Beautiful Mind and Chicago. This was as much a recognition for the entire franchise and by 2003, it was obvious the Academy would move in that direction.

2. Titanic (1997)

James Cameron’s epic was plagued with rumors of a troubled shoot and the possibility seemed real that it could be a costly flop. The opposite occurred as Titanic became the highest grossing motion picture of all time upon its release. It seemed clear that Oscar love would follow.

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

Capping an amazing year which saw Steven Spielberg direct Jurassic Park over the summer, his Holocaust feature Schindler’s List became the undeniable front-runner at its end of year release. Winning all significant precursors, this was a shoo-in selection.

Now to the upsets. In my view, there were four very real ones and I had to leave one out. That would be 1995 when Braveheart emerged victorious over the favored Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility. Yet there’s 3 others that I feel top it.

3. Moonlight (2016)

La La Land appeared ready to pick up the gold after its filmmaker Damien Chazelle and lead actress Emma Stone had already won. And it looked like the script was being followed when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway actually announced the musical as Best Picture. Perhaps Oscar’s largest controversy followed as the wrong envelope was given and the Barry Jenkins effort Moonlight had actually won. Correct envelopes or not, the Moonlight victory was still unexpected given the La La momentum.

2. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

All eyes were on Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan to win as Spielberg had already picked up his second statue for directing. Shakespeare rewrote that script and few saw it coming.

1. Crash (2005)

Here is perhaps the most surprising BP winner in history. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was the strong favorite when the Paul Haggis race relations drama took it. Even presenter Jack Nicholson looked shocked when he read the envelope.

And now the fields. That’s a bit tough because just under a decade ago, the Academy switched from five finite nominees to anywhere between five and ten (nine being the most common). For weakest, I’m going with 2011 when there were 9. While there’s some quality picks like The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, and The Tree of Life – I feel even some of them might have missed the cut in stronger years. And I think that certainly applies to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, and War Horse.

For strongest, I will go with the aforementioned 1994. Pulp Fiction and Shawshank are indeed two of the most impressive cinematic contributions in recent times. Winner Gump and other nominees Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral filled out the slate.

And that does it, folks! Hope you enjoyed my look back at Best Picture in modern times.

Best Actress: A Look Back

Back at it again with my look back at major Oscar races from 1990 to the present! We’ve arrived at Best Actress. If you missed my previous posts covering the Supporting performers, you can find them here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/25/best-supporting-actor-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/20/best-supporting-actress-a-look-back/

As I did with those posts, I’m selecting my top 3 least surprising winners and top 3 upsets. I’m also giving you my personal pick for strongest and weakest fields from the past 28 years.

For starters, here’s the list of winners from 1990 to now:

1990 – Kathy Bates, Misery

1991 – Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs

1992 – Emma Thompson, Howards End

1993 – Holly Hunter, The Piano

1994 – Jessica Lange, Blue Sky

1995 – Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking

1996 – Frances McDormand, Fargo

1997 – Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets

1998 – Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

1999 – Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry

2000 – Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich

2001 – Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball

2002 – Nicole Kidman, The Hours

2003 – Charlize Theron, Monster

2004 – Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

2005 – Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

2006 – Helen Mirren, The Queen

2007 – Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose

2008 – Kate Winslet, The Reader

2009 – Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

2010 – Natalie Portman, Black Swan

2011 – Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

2012 – Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

2013 – Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

2014 – Julianne Moore, Still Alice

2015 – Brie Larson, Room

2016 – Emma Stone, La La Land

2017 – Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

When it comes to Best Actress, I must say it’s probably the race with the least amount of genuine upsets. Nearly every year, there’s a pretty strong front-runner and they win – even more so than in Actor and the Supporting players. Of many non-surprises, here’s my top ones:

3. Holly Hunter, The Piano

Hunter’s work as a mute piano player in Jane Campion’s period piece was the clear favorite over significant competition that included Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It? and the previous year’s winner Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day. 

2. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich

One of Hollywood’s biggest stars had already received nods for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman and there was little question that Brockovich would earn Roberts her first and only (so far) trip to the Oscar stage.

1. Charlize Theron, Monster

Theron’s metamorphosis into serial killer Aileen Wuornos swept all precursors. The rest of the field was also fairly weak that year, making her the obvious victor.

And now the “upsets”…

3. Kate Winslet, The Reader

While not a surprise when she won Oscar night, the multi-nominated Winslet was expected for much of the year to get a nod for Revolutionary Road instead. Yet it was this Stephen Daldry drama that was selected instead.

2. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose

This was a two-way contest between Cotillard and veteran Julie Christie for Away from Her, with many believing the latter had the edge. It didn’t turn out that way.

1. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry and Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

This #1 comes with a caveat. It wasn’t much of an upset by the time Swank won her double Oscars. What’s interesting here is that she single-handedly denied two prime opportunities for the winless Annette Bening to get a statue for American Beauty and Being Julia. 

We move to the fields. For weakest field, I’m selecting 1994 when Jessica Lange won for the little-seen Blue Sky. Other nominees were Jodie Foster in Nell, Miranda Richardson in Tom&Viv, Winona Ryder for Little Women, and Susan Sarandon in The Client. 

Strongest group in my opinion goes to 2010 with Natalie Portman’s victorious role in Black Swan. The rest of that impressive field is Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence’s first nomination in Winter’s Bone, and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine).

Best Actor is next, folks! Stay tuned…

First Man Box Office Prediction

With awards buzz lifting its potential box office prospects, Damien Chazelle’s First Man debuts next weekend. Ryan Gosling headlines as Neil Armstrong in the story of the journey that led him to walk on the moon. Costars include Claire Foy (in a role garnering Oscar chatter), Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas.

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival, First Man has received positive word of mouth with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 88%. Like Chazelle’s last two pictures (Whiplash and La La Land), a Best Picture nomination is expected. Older audiences should turn out (and Gosling fans), but it could be a film that plays well for weeks as opposed to a huge opening.

October has been kind to space flicks, most notably Gravity and The Martian. They both launched to over $50 million out of the gate. First Man is not expected to achieve those numbers. Competition is serious with the second weekends of Venom and A Star Is Born in particular.

I’ll say this manages a low to likely mid 20s start with solid grosses continuing beyond.

First Man opening weekend prediction: $23.5 million

For my Goosebumps 2, Haunted Halloween prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/03/goosebumps-2-haunted-halloween/

For my Bad Times at the El Royale prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/03/bad-times-at-the-el-royale-box-office-prediction/

Oscar Watch: If Beale Street Could Talk

One of the most eagerly awaited titles screening at the Toronto Film Festival has premiered in the form of If Beale Street Could Talk, the third directorial feature from Barry Jenkins. As you may recall, his second film Moonlight took home the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016 in rather memorable fashion over La La Land.

Beale Street is based on a James Baldwin novel and set in mid 70s Harlem. The pic sports a large ensemble cast led by Stephan James and Kiki Layne alongside Regina Hall, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Pedro Pascal, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, and Dave Franco. Early reviews suggest this could be a player in multiple categories, including Best Picture and Director. In down the line races, it could be recognized for its score from Nicholas Britell as well as Cinematography, Editing, and Production Design. Jenkins could also contend for his Adapted Screenplay. While most critical reaction is strong, some have said it doesn’t quite match up to Moonlight. That said, we shall see if that particular buzz changes in the coming weeks and I feel pretty secure marking it for Picture consideration.

As for the cast, that’s a little murkier. James and Layne are receiving positive notices, but both the lead acting races seem awfully crowded. Both Hall and Parris could contend in Supporting Actress, but that too is far from guaranteed.

Bottom line: If Beale Street Could Talk likely did what it needed to do to be in the Picture and Director mix, while acting nods are a bit less clear.

The film opens domestically on November 30. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Oscar Watch: First Man

The Venice Film Festival has kicked off today with Toronto coming next week. That means you can expect two dozen or more Oscar Watch posts coming your way on the blog over the next few days!

The opening film from Venice is a big one – Damien Chazelle’s First Man. The story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey to the moon has screened for critics and the early verdict is quite strong.

It should come as no surprise that Man is considered a potential serious awards contender. Director Chazelle has seen both of his previous works – 2014’s Whiplash and 2016’s La La Land – land Best Picture nominations. The latter infamously lost to Moonlight. Additionally, both pictures resulted in Oscar wins for their performers (J.T. Walsh for Supporting Actor in Whiplash and Emma Stone in lead Actress for La La).

So where does this stand based on early buzz emanating from Italy? It would appear First Man is highly likely to be director’s third effort in a row to be recognized in Best Picture. Chazelle also stands a great chance at a directing nod (he won for La La and was the youngest filmmaker in history to do so).

As for the actors, critical notices have heaped praise on Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Jan. Her inclusion in Supporting Actress is probable. Of the many recognizable male supporting players, it appears Jason Clarke is receiving the most attention. It’s possible that Universal’s Oscar campaign’s focus could primarily center on Gosling and Foy, but I wouldn’t count Clarke out.

Which brings us to Gosling. Critics have been very kind in praising his understated work. I don’t think it’s yet a guarantee that Gosling lands his third Best Actor nod (after Half Nelson and La La Land), but he’s absolutely in the mix.

In addition to Best Adapted Screenplay, First Man should definitely find itself under consideration for numerous tech races including Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Production Design, and Original Score.

Bottom line: First Man is the first fall festival picture to be screened… and it’s established itself as a major player.

First Man opens domestically on October 12. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…