First Man

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Josh Singer


It’s interesting that Neil Armstrong, one of the most celebrated names in modern history and the protagonist in the greatest feat of exploration and discovery the human race has ever achieved, had never received the cinematic treatment prior to this film. In NASA’s entire momentous campaign to put a man on the moon, the only two notable films to chronicle the astronauts’ stories are The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. The former thrived on the anxieties and uncertainties of the USA’s first steps in space exploration and the latter details the greatest disaster of their lunar expedition save only the Apollo 1 fire. This might say something about trepidation and calamity making for better drama than triumph or it might just have more to do with the famously private Armstrong not wanting his story to be dramatized during his lifetime. In either case, Chazelle and his team were faced with the same kind of dilemma James Cameron had when he made Titanic: how do you build drama and suspense out of a story to which the audience already knows the end?

For one thing, First Man sets its focus on depicting not how Armstrong got to the moon (which HBO already covered in their superb miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) but rather how it felt. Much of this accomplished through the use of the camera. Uncomfortable, shaky close-ups of people’s faces that drift in and out of focus have us feeling the palpable stress of each scene. Claustrophobic POV shots from within the crafts that our hero pilots have us feeling confined and disorientated as we, like David Bowie, experience the scary sensation of sitting in a tin can far above the world. Far from the grandiose Kubrickian wide shots that you normally get with space movies ranging from Star Wars to Gravity, First Man is made up of tight, turbulent sequences that all serve to provide the viewer with a first person perspective of space travel. When an astronaut goes to space, it isn’t the majestic, tranquil voyage we’ve been taught to expect; it is a chaotic, distressing and bloody dangerous affair (even if you know what you’re doing). To be an astronaut you must be either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. In fact, as far as this movie is concerned, there may not necessarily be that much of a difference.

That brings us to the star of the show, the handsome and stoic Neil Armstrong as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, perhaps the best actor in all of Hollywood when it comes to playing stoic, handsome men. He signs up for the Apollo programme not long after losing his two-year-old daughter to cancer, perhaps so that he might be distracted from his grief. It isn’t entirely clear because Neil is shown to be so withdrawn in his emotional expression that not even his wife Janet (Claire Foy) can tell what he’s really thinking. She is of course grieving as well and soon makes it abundantly clear that having an uncommunicative husband risking his life every day for a cagey organisation while she’s helplessly stuck at home does little to help. We also learn that she has good reason to be worried. The Apollo programme’s mission to get an American man onto the moon proves exhaustive in its rigorous training, the crushing failures as the Soviets maintain their lead in the space race, and the grave pressure hanging on their shoulders as the testing of NASA’s machinery leads to the deaths of many of their pilots.

Gosling delivers a powerfully introverted performance as Armstrong with what is perhaps the most intensely quiet piece of acting I’ve seen since Aden Young in Rectify. Some actors tend to think that being reserved means being inexpressive and soft-spoken, but that’s not what’s happening with Gosling. It isn’t that Neil is unfeeling, it’s that he bottles up his feelings so deeply that they barely get to see the light of day. This is a man who feels the pain of his tragic loss on a profoundly personal level but who lacks maybe the confidence, the ability or perhaps even the need to express himself outwardly to those who care about him. At first this might seem like a validation of the traditional Hollywood notion that the ideal male archetype is the strong, silent, emotionally suppressed type, especially as it becomes clear that his impassiveness is a part of what enables him to keep his cool in the pilot’s seat when all the red alarms are going off and catastrophe is imminent. However the film does also show that Neil’s emotional detachment is a serious weakness in his character when it comes to forming some basic human connection with his loved ones. Not only does his grief and stoicism make him incapable of frank, open displays of vulnerability and emotion, even when it comes to explaining to his son that he might not make it back home when they send him to the moon, but Neil is also shown to be downright resentful of those who seem happy with their lives.

This nuanced character study of such a reticent figure may come as a surprise to those who expected to see a celebratory, flag-waving epic. It’s clear that wasn’t quite the movie Chazelle and Singer were interested in making not only because of their acute focus on Armstrong’s personal grief and inner-conflict but also their willingness to acknowledge the human cost of the Apollo missions. Other key figures in NASA’s team include project chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and, if you know your history, you’ll know that not all of them lived to see Neil take that giant leap for mankind. Meanwhile, the movie shows us, other things were happening on the ground as some of the political and social upheavals of the 1960s are given their own occasional spotlights. One features a crowd of African-Americans gathered around singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) as he recites ‘Whitey on the Moon’, an ode to the racial inequalities that continue to plague his people while the white man is busy looking at the stars. While certainly a tremendously effective scene, it is sadly undermined by the disconnect between the themes it raises and Armstrong’s personal story, which is after all what the movie is really about and where its heart truly lies.

While the civil rights protests and the war in Vietnam continue, none of it seems to even register with Armstrong, never mind affect his actions and emotions. He’s too busy focusing on the task at hand and so, I suppose, is Chazelle. When it comes down to it everything is ultimately about getting Armstrong to the moon and anything that isn’t directly related to that one goal feels like an afterthought. The real story is taking place in the flight sequences, the Armstrong family woes that happen in between, and the climatic re-enactment of Apollo 11’s historic landing and it is these moments which make clear that First Man is more than anything else a tragic portrait of strong, stoic masculinity that nevertheless ends in triumph, or at the very least relief. So much of this movie is about putting the viewer in Neil’s shoes and it does that by fixing the camera squarely on him at almost all times, whether he’s in the cockpit of a shuttle trying to think his way through a crisis, in NASA meetings taking in the mission details, at home arguing with his wife or at some uncomfortably fancy party inadequately trying to schmooze a senator so that congress doesn’t pull the plug on the Apollo missions. The movie stays with Neil for so long in such a constant way that by the end you do feel like you’ve lived his life and understand what it took for him to get to the moon and make that momentous first step.

Where First Man shines brightest is during those flight scenes where you almost instinctually find yourself clinging to your seat for dear life. Chazelle has a great eye for visceral filmmaking, as he proved in Whiplash where he showed that a drum solo could be an intense life or death struggle, and those scenes where Neil is piloting a craft feel like being trapped on a roller coaster designed by Willy Wonka. Through painfully prolonged and turbulently erratic takes and ingenious use of sound, this movie manages to orchestrate some truly spectacular, vertigo-inducing sequences that rival the scale and dynamism of what Cuarón did with Gravity. For all its faults when it comes to portraying the historic period and some of the characters (most of whom, including Janet Armstrong, are pretty underwritten) in a constructive way, the movie deserves to be praised all the same for Chazelle’s kinetic direction and Gosling’s layered performance. The way that movie is able to build such a powerful portrait of such an introverted man with minimal reliance of dialogue couple with the physical experience of actually watching the film is worth the price of admittance.

★★★★

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La La Land

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


There’s a reason why La La Land is being regarded as a return for the movie musical, even though musicals have never really left the movies. La La Land was made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musical, which has its own distinctive look and style unlike the musicals of recent years. These are the films which first showed how some thoughts and feelings are too powerful and overwhelming to be conveyed in mere words and expressions, they need to be expressed in song and dance. Recent musicals like Les Misérables and Moulin Rouge! have kept the tradition alive but have tended to place more focus on songs that advance the plot, thus robbing us of the pure expression of music and movement that made the classics so wonderful. The scores and choreography in such movies as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and West Side Story were just as essential as the lyrics (if not more so) in making this genre the Hollywood landmark that it is. Chazelle has sought to recapture that spectacle with La La Land.

The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress trying to make it in show business, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist trying to keep the music alive. Both live in LA, a city of dreamers and believers all looking for their big breaks. The first time they encounter each other, Mia overhears Sebastian improvising a romantic piece on the piano, which gets him fired from his restaurant job, leading him to brush off Mia when she attempts to talk to him. They meet again months later at a party where they spend the night expressing their disdain for each other despite the clear attraction between them. In typical Hollywood fashion, the two get together and fall in love. In the months that follow the two share their dreams and wishes with one another and try to help each other achieve them. After a series of failed auditions Sebastian encourages Mia to write a one-act play telling her story so that she might get herself noticed while she encourages him to join a band led his former classmate Keith (John Legend) in order to advance his career and earn a steady income. As the two work to make their dreams come true, the struggles and disappointments they encounter threaten to drive them apart.

When a film is universally lauded the way La La Land was, there’s always a chance that audience’s expectations will be skewed, which is probably what motivated some of the backlash from viewers who felt that the movie did not live up to the hype. Speaking for myself, I don’t think La La Land is the best movie of the year but I do think it is a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable film that too many people have unfairly criticised (for the most part). For musical spectacle alone, this movie deserves to be celebrated. Chazelle brings such energy and creativity to the musical sequences, favouring prolonged, wide, sweeping shots that allows us to see the beautiful sets and superb choreography in full form. The film makes exquisite use of colour with its lighting, costumes and production design and has such a magical feel to it I couldn’t help but feel awestruck throughout. Whether the leading couple were dancing in the light of a beautiful sunset or amongst the stars, I was enchanted.

One crucial element that made the classic Hollywood musicals so successful was the magnetic attraction of such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, and both Gosling and Stone have that star power. He is cool and smooth and she is witty and glamorous. That neither of them is a particularly great singer or dancer doesn’t matter. I suspect that Chazelle wanted to prioritise sincerity over polish and here it really works. The singing doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect or the dancing flawless if the performances and chemistry are strong enough and here the two stars more than deliver. Towards the end when Stone sings her audition song, she doesn’t hit every note but her performance is so heartfelt and vulnerable in that moment that I was mesmerised all the same.

There are some issues I could pick at if I really wanted to, but they would be little more than nit-picks. One criticism that comes up quite often is how the film is essentially a self-indulgent portrait of Hollywood, a movie revelling in its own glamour that doesn’t stand on its own two feet the way the movies it pays tribute to do. I disagree. There are certainly plenty of homages towards the movies of classic Hollywood throughout but it still manages to do its own unique thing without directly imitating them. I never saw this film as a celebration of itself but as a celebration of the movies and the joy and wonder they can inspire. It’s too early to tell whether the film will be remembered as a classic or whether it really does mark a return for the Hollywood musical, but I for one think it’s marvellous. The look of the film is stunning, the music is delightful and the magic of it all is entrancing. When everything came to a head in a magnificent climax that gave movies like An American in Paris and The Red Shoes a run for their money, I was spellbound.

★★★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Writers: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle


The secrecy surrounding this film as it came out is I think one of its best selling points. As it was being developed and filmed, few people realised that it was going to be a sequel to the J.J. Abrams movie. The ambiguity and intrigue that the revelation of the film’s title inspired ended up being a key ingredient in what made watching this film such an enjoyable experience. The question of how this story is connected to Cloverfield adds much to the uncertainty provided by the film’s very concept and also keeps the viewers on their toes whenever they start to believe that they might have figured this movie out. I was a bit apprehensive about watching this movie as I wasn’t really a fan of the original Cloverfield. However I ended up finding the sequel, with its wholly different tone and style from that of its predecessor, to be a fascinatingly compelling and intriguing film. It works well enough on its own but as an ambiguous sequel with an uncertain connection to its original counterpart it works splendidly as both a mystery and a thriller.

After breaking up with her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) frantically drives through rural Louisiana where she ends up in a car collision. When she regains consciousness she finds herself chained and locked in an underground bunker. Howard (John Goodman), the man holding her in this place, reveals that an unknown attack has occurred and that he cannot allow her to leave his shelter. These claims are given credence by the testimony of a third survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a construction worker who helped to build this bunker and who witnessed the attack himself. After an escape attempt convinces Michelle of the truth behind these claims she accepts that she must remain in the bunker with these two men for an indeterminate amount of time. As time passes by however, Howard’s eccentricities and antagonism convince Michelle that he might be withholding secrets from them both and might even have ulterior motives for holding her in the bunker.

While Cloverfield was a found-footage monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane adopts an entirely different style as a claustrophobic psychological thriller. The audience is trapped in the bunker along with Michelle while the threat in the outside world remains invisible and anonymous. The film makes the wise decision of portraying the entire narrative through Michelle’s eyes, meaning that we only ever know as much as she does. With each new discovery she makes about the ominous threat that has them all trapped inside this bunker and also about the strange, hotly tempered man keeping her here, the deep tension and stirring intrigue keeps growing and growing. Although I do think that the ultimate pay-off in the third act was perhaps a little too far-fetched, the way that the mystery unfolds over the course of the first and second acts is a suspenseful and captivating experience.

At the centre of it all is Winstead as Michelle, the viewer’s window into this world. While we never really learn much about her, we get a strong enough sense of her personality that she never feels like a mere surrogate for the audience. In her attempts to understand the reality of her situation and the natures of the men sharing this living space with her, the film never makes the mistake of making her an idiot. She applies reason and rational thought, she is able to be trusting without being naïve and she takes action when faced with a legitimately threatening situation. The best performance of the film however belongs to John Goodman as Howard. This is a man who clearly isn’t all there, given that he was paranoid enough to have actually built the bunker in the first place, and whose eccentricities range from strange to charming to terrifying. He is the one who holds all of the power within this bunker which means that he could be either Michelle and Emmett’s greatest asset or most dangerous threat. The fact they don’t know which he is scares them to no end.

10 Cloverfield Lane is easily a clear step up from its predecessor. The film is tense, smart and enthralling and unfolds its story and just the right pace. While I did find parts of the climax to be somewhat bewildering and cannot help but feel that they sort of undermined the film as a whole for me, I can still definitely say that I never saw a single frame of it coming. Obviously I cannot elaborate in any way on what happens, but feel I should say that the decision to make this movie a sequel to Cloverfield without explaining how or why was an excellent one on the studio’s part. The mystery of how the two movies are connected is the icing on what is already a rich and layered cake. If this franchise chooses to continue the trend of reinventing itself then I eagerly await its future instalments.

★★★★

Whiplash

Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


Pursuing a dream is often difficult. One could argue that everyone would do it if it were easy. It requires patience, determination and passion. Even then a dream can often prove to be unattainable. Other times it can consume you and turn into an obsession. Some people can chase their dreams so fervently that they lose sight of all else and end up destroying themselves. This is the central theme of Whiplash, a film about a young man’s compulsive quest for perfection and greatness and the sufferings, inflicted both by himself and by his teacher, he undergoes in order to achieve his dream.

The film opens with Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented jazz drummer enrolled at one of the best music schools in the country, practising on the drums. Andrew is an ambitious young man who emulates the big names of jazz music, including Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, and aspires to one day join their ranks as one of the greats. He stops playing when he notices that one of the school’s music maestros, the jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is listening in. Fletcher puts Andrew on the spot, asking him confrontational questions and giving him a complex drum beat to play, before leaving in the middle without another word. After a second audition, which takes place when Fletcher spontaneously walks into his class and asks each student in turn to play him a couple of bars, he makes Andrew the new alternate drummer in his band.

Simmons gives a powerhouse performance as Fletcher, a musical genius with psychopathic methods who demands perfection and nothing less. He proves to be a teacher with a sadistic temperament who verbally abuses his students for the slightest offences. It is startling to see him casually talking to Andrew with a calm and kindly demeanour when only a few minutes ago we saw him reduce one of his musicians to tears and kick him out of the band for playing out of tune. When he asks Andrew about his parents, one wonders if he is genuinely trying to be friendly or if he is simply looking for ammunition that he can use against him. He assures Andrew not to be too worried about getting the music right only to fling a chair at him moments later for not keeping tempo. He goes further to strike Andrew repeatedly and brutally insults him using his recently acquired knowledge of Andrew’s family as the rest of the class watches in grave silence.

Following this first session Andrew becomes utterly determined to improve his technique and to prove himself to Fletcher. He furiously practices on the drums for hours on end until his hands bleed. Wanting to save himself from any distraction or future difficulties, he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend so that she won’t divert any of his time or attention from becoming a great drummer. Yet in session after session he continuously fails to impress Fletcher who unrelentingly berates him for not being good enough. During a jazz competition when Andrew loses the drummer’s notations he rises to the challenge by performing Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’ from memory, earning himself the post of the main drummer. Believing that he has finally proven himself to Fletcher, his pride is short-lived as Fletcher brings another drummer into the band. Fletcher then maliciously pits his drummers against each other in an intense sequence where all three drummers play themselves through blood, toil, sweat, and tears as they try to earn the right to perform the double-time swing in the song ‘Caravan’.

The conflict between Andrew and Fletcher throughout this film is harrowing to behold as Andrew undergoes a disturbing transformation. He goes from being a quiet, mild-mannered boy, frequently spending his afternoons with his father and too shy to ask out the pretty girl who works at the cinema, to an aggressive, wrathful man who scorns his family for failing to appreciate how talented he is and who pushes himself to extreme lengths in order to be the best. He pursues a path of desolation and self-destruction, all the while with Fletcher’s merciless attacks provoking him even further.

Fletcher might have easily turned out to be a caricature of a character (not unlike J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman films) if not for the depth he is given. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, Fletcher comes to a session with a mournful look on his face. He asks his band to listen to a piece of music and after a moment reveals that the musician they are listening to is a former student of his who recently died in an accident. He praises his late-student as a “beautiful player” before bursting into tears. It is astonishing to see a man who has performed such heinous acts over the course of the film show such sensitivity. Knowing what we know about him, one starts to wonder whether his outburst is motivated by grief or by guilt.

As Andrew pursues his destructive ambitions, the film raises the question of how far one should go when pursuing their dreams and whether there’s even such a thing as going too far. A recurring story that Fletcher tells to justify his actions recalls an incident where Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head for failing to keep the tempo during a concert, an incident that motivated Parker to practice obsessively until he delivered the iconic performance that made him the jazz legend that he is today. This story is used as an incentive for Andrew to endure all the trials and tribulations that are thrown at him because they are what it takes for someone like him to be a great musician. Yet as Andrew pushes himself further and further and becomes more volatile, we the audience are unsure whether or not he will even survive this ordeal. The result is a truly astonishing film with an explosive finale that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat.

★★★★★