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Posts Tagged ‘Damien Chazelle’

As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn’t actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back…

Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you’re no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it’s almost impossible not to like (and I’m tempted to say that I tried).

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Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it’s enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn’t really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)

The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn’t quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I’ve arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert…?

Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it’s fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it’s a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.

Not that it’s conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren’t really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn’t really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren’t singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin’ in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There’s a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.

In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.

Personally I usually go for musicals which aren’t afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I’m still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it’s the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can’t really object, for this is an almost indecently endearing film.

 

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For the third time in recent months, a film reaches theatres that sounds like it should be based on a Marvel comic book – but, like Fury and Nightcrawler before it, Whiplash is a much more serious, if rather less lucrative proposition. Damien Chazelle’s film is a serious and thoughtful meditation on a number of important themes, but also a superbly gripping drama.

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Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a music student at the best school in the US: he is determined to become a top-flight jazz drummer and is intent on getting into the conservatory’s jazz big band. However, doing so requires his meeting the incredibly high standards of the teacher serving as its conductor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser – much nicer than in his days working for Weyland-Yutani) advises his son to keep his options open, and Andrew indeed carries on with all the things normal lives include – most notably beginning a relationship with a nice young girl he meets at the cinema (Melissa Benoist – who, interestingly enough given the unstoppable march of comic-book entertainment, has apparently just been cast as Supergirl). But then he scrapes into Fletcher’s band, and he realises his hard work has just started.

Fletcher is, essentially, a monster, or so it initially seems. He has no truck with the usual niceties like politeness or concern for others’ feelings, but instead is utterly relentless, even vicious, in pursuit of getting the results he demands. Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse are all in his repertoire. Occasionally it seems as though the mask has slipped, revealing it is just a rather unorthodox methodology adopted by a passionate, sincere teacher and musician – but every time this happens, it is followed by another outrage verging on the psychopathic.

And yet Andrew’s drumming is improving as a result, even if his obsessive pursuit of excellence is making him a less pleasant person too. And this is what the film is really about – is it excusable to be a horrible human being if it means you’re a more effective teacher as a result? And is it better to be someone great, or someone good?

A couple of years ago I saw a movie called Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, the extraordinary tale of a man who spent six decades attempting to make the perfect confection of rice and raw fish. Whiplash addresses the same kind of issues, not least the sheer demands of reaching the top of any profession. The film doesn’t skimp on showing us the literal blood, sweat, and tears Andrew has to put in, along with hours of practice. How does someone motivate himself to this kind of effort? The film suggests the baser emotions also have their part to play.

Indeed, one of Chazelle’s braver decisions is to make this more than just the tale of a boy with big ambitions who ends up with a nasty teacher. Andrew himself is a less than entirely sympathetic character at times, as he puts his career ahead of the feelings of others, while Fletcher is not quite the complete ogre he appears to be. And the film is carefully ambiguous about Fletcher: is he simply a megalomaniac who gets off on humiliating his students, or is he fulfilling his remit and pushing them beyond what they expect of themselves? We are never quite given an answer to this.

What is certain is that J.K. Simmons gives an astonishing, mesmerising, terrifying performance: after a while, whenever the band begins rehearsing, you start to cringe back in your seat in anticipation of his latest detonation. Yet he’s not a complete caricature, being equally convincing in the character’s quieter, softer moments. Simmons’ achievement is to create Fletcher as a wholly believeable human being, without your ever being entirely certain what’s making him tick.

Everyone else in the film is orbiting around Simmons, to some extent: he stands for an ideal, which Andrew aspires to, and which the others could potentially divert him from – not that they’re not very good in these roles. Teller, looking not unlike a young John Cusack, is particularly strong in what must have been a demanding role. The climax of the film, a final battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher, is one of the most thrilling sequences I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time, and both actors are equally important to making it work.

As a teacher myself, I do find myself now pondering the deeper issues raised by the film. Colleagues and I do occasionally discuss the ‘Teacher Mask’ – the persona you adopt with students – and this is a topic which the film is obviously relevant to. But it’s also about questions of motivation, and when one is justified in using the stick rather than the carrot – is it still bullying if the other person has effectively given you permission to bully them? The film, needless to say, offers no quick or easy answers.

A couple of little contrivances spoil the script, perhaps, but this is still one of the outstanding films of the year – sharply written, smartly directed, and brilliantly acted. I shall be very surprised if it doesn’t win some serious awards, especially for J.K. Simmons’ performances. This is a very, very good film.

 

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