First Man review

FIRST MAN

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 18 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Call it ‘La La Moon Landing’: Damien Chazelle, the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, trains his sights on NASA’s quest to put the first man on the moon in this biopic.

It is 1961 and civillian test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, emphasises how the Soviet Union has beaten the US to every major milestone in the Space Race. This batch of astronauts, which also includes Ed White (Jason Clarke), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), among others, will take part in the Gemini Program. Gemini is NASA’s second human spaceflight program, and the tests conducted during the Gemini missions will lead to the Apollo Program, which aims to put a man on the moon.

The training is physically and mentally demanding, and the risk is high – several of the astronauts whom Neil becomes close to die in failed missions. This takes a toll on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), who fears that their children Rick (Gavin Warren and Luke Winters at different ages) and Mark (Paul Haney and Connor Blodgett at different ages) will be left without a father. NASA faces scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of their high-profile failures, as many across the nation question the cost of the Space Race in dollars and in lives. This culminates in Neil, Buzz and Michael forming the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

Following in the grand tradition of historical dramas about the Space Program like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, First Man is an awards contender that hopes to also thrill audiences. Chazelle works from a script by Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer, who adapted history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. First Man combines a documentary-like feel marked by lots of grainy verité handheld shots with grand cinematic spectacle, and it’s a balance that mostly works.

There are bits of First Man that do feel a bit dry, but the film does a fine job of covering the history and an even better job of putting audiences inside the spacecraft alongside the astronauts. Before the Gemini 8 mission takes off, we get close-up shots of all the rivets and bolts inside the capsule as it creaks on the launchpad – if just one tiny thing fails, it all goes up in smoke. First Man contains some of the most realistic depictions of spaceflight ever put on screen, and endeavours to shed light on the people who made the achievements of the Space Program possible.

Chazelle reunites with several collaborators from La La Land, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who also scored Whiplash. The 16 mm and 35 mm film stock give the film an authentic period feel, while the moon landing sequence is presented in all its 70 mm IMAX glory. There is careful attention to detail in capturing the specifics of the ‘60s NASA setting, and production designer Nathan Crowley’s reproductions of the spacecraft and facilities is entirely convincing.

The backlash against the film for omitting the moment in which the American flag is planted on the moon seems like a mountain out of a lunar molehill. The decision to leave this well-known part of the moon landing out seems to stem from a desire to pare back the iconography of this historical moment and focus the story into something personal, giving the movie an honesty and a rawness.

Gosling anchors the film with a quiet, well-considered performance. The film characterises Neil Armstrong as someone who’s intelligent and earnest, but who is not especially well-equipped to process the grief that befalls him and those he cares about all too often. He is consumed by his work and driven to succeed, while it looks like everything around him is in danger of crumbling away. There’s an earnestness and intensity that Gosling dials to just the right level.

Foy’s Janet Armstrong is stern but caring, and her take on the role is a lot more than “worried wife back home”. Her relationship with Neil underscores how the astronauts are people with their own lives, and that serving the higher call of the Space Program comes at the expense of those lives.

The film’s supporting cast, including Clarke, Chandler and Ciarán Hinds, all give serious, unassuming ‘character actor’-type performances. Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is characterised as someone who’s not exactly likeable, and this is something Stoll visibly enjoys playing.

First Man is a finely crafted serious awards season drama, but watching it still feels a little bit like homework. The attempts to juxtapose the US’ involvement in the Space Race against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle are commendable but a little clumsy. In taking a matter-of-fact approach, the film loses some of the wonderment and awe associated with mankind “slipping the surly bonds of earth”. However, Chazelle and co. largely succeed in crafting a credible account of Neil Armstrong’s journey from the earth to the moon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

La La Land

For F*** Magazine

LA LA LAND 

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott
Genre : Musical/Romance
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

la-la-land-poster         If you’re looking to have stars in your eyes, a spring in your step and a song in your heart, boy, does writer-director Damien Chazelle have a show for you. This romantic musical comedy-drama is set in present day L.A., where we meet jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and aspiring actress/playwright Mia (Stone). Sebastian and Mia have been chasing their dreams to little success: Mia works as a barista in a café on the Warner Bros. studio lot in between unsuccessful auditions, while Sebastian plays humiliating cocktail party gigs. After meeting and falling in love, Mia and Sebastian push each other to chase their dreams. Success comes knocking when Keith (Legend), Sebastian’s former classmate, offers Sebastian a gig with his new band, just as Mia begins writing a one-woman play. Will love survive in the City of Angels, a place that takes more than it gives?

In a pop culture landscape overdosed on nostalgia, referring to something as “a love letter to X” has inadvertently become a warning. La La Land proves it is possible to create a loving homage that doesn’t drown in schmaltz, with Chazelle’s own sensibilities as evident as his influences. Present-day Los Angeles isn’t exactly the most romantic city in the world, but Chazelle hones in on and amplifies its charms. It isn’t a fairy tale setting per se, but the injection of magic in just the right amounts makes La La Land an enchanting film.

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Linus Sandgren’s cinematography paints L.A. in vivid, inviting hues, the fuchsia skies looking like a cake one could cut into.  The film’s deliberate use of colour is refreshing and eye-catching. Mandy Moore (no, not that one) provides choreography that is a finely-executed throwback to the days of Busby Berkeley. Every last one of the songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a shoo-in for an Oscar. Just try not tearing up on hearing Audition (The Fools Who Dream).

The opening number, edited to look like a continuous shot in which dancers leap over car doors in the middle of a traffic jam on a freeway, is a technical accomplishment and is joyously cheesy. However, it’s clear that La La Land isn’t a cheery Pollyanna fantasy musical. No, the sun might not come out tomorrow, the fact that it’s southern California notwithstanding. La La Land astutely captures the struggles of an artist climbing the Tinseltown ladder, without swinging to either extreme of self-pity or glibness. Chazelle experiments by letting the worlds of an all-singing, all-dancing Studio-era frothiness and real life collide. Despite its slick visual stylings and deliberate moments of artifice, La La Land’s blend of sincerity tempered with cynicism is resonant and heartfelt.

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La La Land’s genesis can be traced back to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which Chazelle made with Hurwitz as a senior thesis film at Harvard University. Chazelle, known for Whiplash, is a drummer himself, and has followed that film up with a vastly different take on the life of a musician. La La Land’s starry-eyed reminiscence is mesmerizing rather than bloated and self-indulgent, and Chazelle consciously avoids making things too ‘inside baseball’. There’s just the right amount of showbiz satire: for example, a screenwriter (played by actual screenwriter Jason Fuchs) introduces himself with “I have a knack for world-building”, and pitches his idea for a franchise – “Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but from the perspective of the bears”.

The film was originally set to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, but we have a difficult time picturing them as a better pair than the leading couple we wound up with. Chazelle said Gosling and Stone “feel like the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple”, comparing them to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. After watching La La Land, we’re inclined to think that’s not hyperbole. Gosling and Stone displayed effervescent chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and watching them sing and dance their way through an old-school movie musical is an utter delight.

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While we’ve seen the archetype of a struggling actress slogging through audition after audition in nigh-futile hope of her big break, Stone’s energy and comic sensibilities make Mia more than the “girl in Hollywood with a suitcase of dreams” cliché. Early on, Stone performs the group number Someone in the Crowd with Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe, who play Mia’s housemates. At this point, Mia is disillusioned but not broken. The personal odyssey she embarks on and the effect that her relationship with Sebastian has on her artistic journey quickly draws the viewer in.

Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz snob, thumbing his nose as what he perceives as perversions of the art form. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Sebastian’s bandmate Keith chides. “You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” If anyone can make crotchety sexy, it’s Gosling. There’s a roguishness that spices up his usual boyishness, and many a woman will melt at seeing Gosling tinkle the ivories. While composer, orchestrator and keyboard player Randy Kerber performed the piano pieces for the film, Gosling took intensive piano lessons and could play all the pieces by heart, without the need for a hand double or CGI replacements. Gosling’s singing voice isn’t particularly pretty, so phew, he isn’t perfect – but it does seem to fit the character.

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La La Land is as much a soaring, uplifting experience as it is an aching one. Big, brash Hollywood musicals with their hundreds-strong dance ensembles are not known for measured subtlety, but La La Land is infused with surprising, profound nuance. Ambitious and indelible, Chazelle harnesses his nostalgia for classic movie musicals while steering clear of gooey sentimentality. Gorgeous imagery, memorable tunes and perfectly-matched leads make La La Land a transcendent achievement.

Summary: Damien Chazelle weaves a spell-binding, toe-tapping tale, showcasing the talents of his lead couple and paying tribute to classic movie musicals of yesteryear. L.A.’s never looked this lovely.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong