The Herald - The Herald Magazine
Films of the Week From a tight-knit community to the vastness of space
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FOLLOWING their successful 2016 musical collaboration La La Land, which netted 14 Academy Award nominations and six Oscars, director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling teamed up again in 2018 for something completely different: an entirely dance-free biopic about legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.
Beginning in 1961 and running through to the iconic 1969 Apollo 11 mission which Armstrong commanded, First Man is a tense and intense piece of film-making which (as these things always do) underlines the achievement of the men and women of Nasa and the bravery of the men who put their lives on the line for the sake of space exploration.
We first meet Armstrong working as a test pilot on the rocket-powered X-15 planes, from where he eventually graduates to Project Gemini and makes his first spaceflight aboard Gemini 8 in 1966.
From there it’s only three short years before he’s taking one small step for man and … well, you know the rest.
Gosling, resplendent in a short back and sides, plays Armstrong as a quiet and thoughtful man, and as much as Chazelle’s film is about the dangers faced and derring-do shown by Armstrong it’s also about his personal side. British actress Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, and there’s a strong focus on his family life and his friendships with fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), both of whom died in training.
Elsewhere, Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas play Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, Armstrong’s crewmates on the historic Apollo 11 mission.
As shown by the success of films such as 2016’s Hidden Figures (about the struggle of three black, female mathematicians who worked at Nasa in the 1960s) and 2019 Netflix documentary Apollo 11 (which used previously unseen 70mm film of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to glorious effect), interest in movies about the golden age of space exploration is increasing rather than diminishing.
First Man is a more than decent addition to the canon and, as ever, Gosling holds the attention like few other actors of his generation can.
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With her new film Nomadland expected to sweep the Oscars this month, and with records already tumbling thanks to her best director wins at the Baftas, the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America Awards – she’s the first Asian woman to take all three accolades – Beijing-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao has the world at her feet. It’s a perfect time, then, to check out her stellar 2015 debut, set among (and mostly starring) members of the
Lakota Sioux community living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A hit at the Sundance Film Festival, it also screened in the prestigious director’s fortnight strand at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Camera d’Or.
The film centres on the relationship between high school senior Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his 11-year-old sister Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St John), who live a precarious existence in a dilapidated clapperboard house with their mother Lisa (Irene Bedard). When their absent father, rodeo rider Carl Winters, is killed in a fire, the family assembles for a memorial service which is also attended by Carl’s 23 other children and some of the nine women who bore them. The phrase “brother from another mother” is one Johnny hears from the mouths of his sprawling collection of half-siblings as he ekes out a living selling illegal alcohol and pursuing his dream of becoming a boxer. An older brother, Cody (Justin Reddy,
John Reddy’s real-life brother), is in prison. “God’s just another man you can desert your children for,” he tells Lisa when she visits and tells him she has turned to Christianity to help her kick the booze, a scourge of the community. Jashaun, meanwhile, hangs out with Travis (Travis Lone Hill), just out of prison himself and trying make ends meet by selling clothes he customises. Travis likes green and the number seven. Against that background, Johnny plans his escape to Los Angeles with girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha
Fuller), a rare academic success story who has landed a place at university studying law. But what are dreams worth on “the rez”, as it’s known?
Shot in a style that veers between the naturalistic and elliptical, the wordy and the wordless, Zhao’s film is a powerful study of a community living on the margins featuring mesmerising performances from all its young leads. She, and it, deserve an audience.