LUCY IN THE SKY – movie review

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noah Howley
Screenwriter: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Noah Hawley
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Ellyn Burstyn
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 10/1/19
Opens: October 4, 2019

Lucy in the Sky Poster

Lucy Cola may be in the sky part of the time, but as storytelling, this Fatal-Attraction-like revenge fantasy lacks wings. Based on an actual tale of a female astronaut, Lisa Marie Nowak, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006, Noah Howley’s dramatization follows her as she is floating on a mission, segueing into her romance with a handsome devil who dumped her, thereby leading to her going insane. Howley’s résumé cites him for directing TV series like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Fargo,” now delivering a freshman feature with a lot more ambition than one would expect from a director with that background.

Howley appears to make up for a lack of solid storytelling (he has two co-writers) for a wealth of cinematic tricks, almost all of which serve nothing more than to distract the audience. He would expand the screen when Lucy’s world opens up, then cut back on the aspect ratio when she is in the doldrums. Credit Natalie Portman with a class act as the title character—she is alternately seductive, pleading, violent, sensitive, running the gamut of emotions depending on the circumstances. As a larger-than-life woman, an astronaut, no less, you might expect her to be so satisfied with her profession, willing and even demanding to take on risky assignments, that she would never fall to murderous rage when a “ladies’ man” drops her for another.

Opening scenes may well remind you of “Ad Astra” and “Gravity,” a slow-moving triptych into outer space which finds Lucy looking exhilarated by her gig. She is like the type of person who risks his life in Afghanistan in 110 degrees, is sent back to the States with an honorable discharge, looks at one hundred cereal boxes in the supermarket, and heads right back to the fighting. He has a nice albeit irresolute husband Drew (Dan Stevens), a grandmother Nana Holbrook who like Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley in “Downton Abbey” has an unlimited supply of witticisms. This earthbound life is simply not enough for someone who finds more thrills being alone in space.

During the second part of the film, in which Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a fellow astronaut and womanizer hits on her, Lucy is smitten. She is head over heels as she might be when floating in space in the absence of gravity. She should have realized that this fellow is not the settling kind, but in a moment of sexual flush she kisses him, and the affair begins. Lucy will risk all for both her profession and her boyfriend, insisting on the administrator of the space program that she does not like the way he grounds her, taking the big chance of chucking her husband, going nuts, and losing all. In the final scene she is once again courting danger, a scene that should be seen as one providing a strong clue not just to her willingness, but to her real desire to be in danger.

126 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – C+

APOLLO 11 – movie review

Neon and CNN Films
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Cast: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldren, Richard Nixon
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 2/14/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

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If Frank Sinatra were an astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission, he would make these lyrics popular:

It’s very nice to go traveling,
With Houston control to the moon,
It’s oh so nice to go traveling,
But let’s hope we get to home soon.

Why did we have to wait fifty years to watch scenes never before released to the world? The big plus in Todd Douglas Miller’s heavily researched and competently edited documentary is that after a half century, there are archival clips that we’re seeing for the first time giving viewers a more comprehensive, even a rah rah, look at a buddy road movie to make others of the sub-genre seem so provincial. After all we’re talking about sending three men on a mission more risky, more likely to crash and burn, than would face a guy and his gal fortified with a liter of Dewar’s, setting out without head gear on a hundred-miles-an-hour jaunt through the California coast.

America’s trip to the moon in 1969, which might seem to today’s millennials as a time hopelessly backward in technology, is a key moment in history when the American people and, in fact, the five hundred million people worldwide who tuned in to the drama, feel a togetherness never sent since in quite the same way. Still, outside of the minutes in which the space ship is prepared for takeoff with just minutes to go before ignition—and ultimately the blastoff that illuminates the heavens—there is not much here to lead Americans in the chant USA! USA! USA! Most of the film conveys technical details, showing how many scores, perhaps hundreds of engineers sit at their desks, short-sleeve white shirts and ties setting of their closely cropped hair, each fulfilling one specific function needed to make the trip a rousing success.

Thankfully there are no talking heads here, no people sitting in chairs across from the subjects filling their heads with questions that everyone knows are coming and which garner predictable enough replies. Instead, Walter Cronkite, the journalist most trusted by Americans, conveys the excitement of the people who have napped on Florida beaches waiting for perhaps the most dramatic single moment in U.S. history.

The backstories of the three buddies, tossed in while Commander Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are suiting up, display wedding pictures, kids, other tidbits to show that the three are not robots but vulnerable human beings with families, some members of whom may or may not have encouraged their heroes to take part in a mission. Remember that any hitch in the engineering would mean that their children would never see their fathers again.

Scenes taken right from the space ship are of the highest value, particularly the moments that the ship is about to land on the crater-filled surface of the moon and setting down in such a hitch-free style that they trio appear to be gliding to earth on a slow-moving helicopter. President Nixon’s message to the astronauts conveys the Oval office occupant’s bursting pride, and much earlier, President Kennedy delivers a speech in 1962 introducing the project that would reach fruition in July of 1969. The entire film serves to punctuate the banality of our politics today, our country irreparably divided into political viewpoints so far apart that compromise no longer appears possible; the unity that existed at least for a short time, on that propitious July day.

93 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – A
Overall – B+