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APOLLO 11

Producer: Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Peterson and Evan Krauss
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Writer: 
Stars: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins
Studio: Neon

B

Recently dramatized in “First Man,” the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon gets excellent documentary treatment in Todd Douglas Miller’s film, which for the most part simply edits together NASA footage to present a you-are-there overview of the achievement. The fact that much of the footage has never been publicly released before, and some is in 70mm, makes for a pretty amazing visual event as well as a fine half-a-century anniversary tribute, especially if one takes advantage of the chance to see it in IMAX format. (It will soon be available on CNN, though; the cable network produced it.)

There are a few elements in “Apollo 11,” however, that are not strictly speaking NASA footage. The montages of archival material on each of the three astronauts as they are introduced provide a bit of background that humanizes the men we see being sent off into space and then coming back to quarantine. (Neil Armstrong comes across as a much more agreeable fellow than the one portrayed by Ryan Gosling.) And inevitably excerpts from Walter Cronkite’s broadcast coverage are employed at the start to provide context.

More of that is given in the footage of John Kennedy’s announcement of the mission to the moon. (One of the ironies of the event is that when the landing finally occurred, it was Kennedy’s old rival Richard Nixon who was in the Oval Office. We get to hear his phone call to the crew after the moon walk, and glimpse him among the cheering throng welcoming them back to earth.)

The bulk of the feature, though, is official material that carries the story from the morning of liftoff, with coverage of the last-minute discovery of a leaky valve that had to be attended to before the countdown could resume, through the days of the mission, with the passage of time noted in captions, through the capsule’s return and its recovery from the sea. A few scenes of ticker-tape parades held in cities like Chicago are added at the close.

The result will be a nostalgia trip for those who lived through the fifty-year old event and probably remember being glued to their televisions as it proceeded. For others, the film will offer at least a taste of the excitement that manned space flight generated at the time—though in retrospect the contemporary belief that the mission would be but a first step in similar ventures to other parts of the solar system has proven inaccurate: unmanned vehicles have taken the place of manned ones, and as extraordinary as it might be, the sight of a little robot ambling across Mars doesn’t carry the same wow factor that a human being’s actual setting foot on the lunar surface did in 1969.

Testimony to how great the public interest was is conveyed by the footage of huge crowds near the launch site, ready to watch the rocket as it blasted off. One sequence shows a crammed department store parking lot where families had claimed good vantage points for viewing the historic event. It’s both amusing and a bit sad to note that the store is a Penney’s—once a dominant retailer but now as much a flashback to a bygone era as manned NASA space missions.

Of course, there are some folks out there who remain convinced that the Apollo 11 mission was a cleverly crafted hoax, and this film will certainly not persuade them otherwise; they’ll still insist that Stanley Kubrick did it. Ignorance, as theologians say, sometimes is truly invincible.

THE HEIRESSES (LAS HEREDERAS)

Producer: Sebastian Pena Escobar and Marcelo Martinessi
Director: Marcelo Martinessi
Writer: Marcelo Martinessi
Stars: Ana Brun, Margarita Irun, Ana Ivanova, Alicia Guerra, Nilda Gonzalez and Maria Martins
Studio: Distrib Films

B

Sometimes it’s the quietest of movies that leave a lasting impression, and that’s the case with “The Heiresses,” Marcelo Martinessi’s autumnal study of a long-sheltered Paraguayan woman who takes tentative steps to reconnect with the world after the companion who had overseen her affairs for years is sent to prison. It’s a restrained, stately movie with a deep emotional core.

It also showcases a remarkable performance from Ana Brun as Chela, a shy, reserved woman of perhaps sixty who’s lived in the same Asunción house since she was the pampered child of a well-to-do family. She’s shared the house for years with her lover Chiquita (Margarita Irún), who’s assumed responsibility for most of the practical matters, including—now—the sale of many of Chela’s prized family belongings.

Money is tight, but despite that Chela tries to keep up appearances even as wealthy women drop in to see if there’s anything to buy. She watches from behind a nearly-closed door as Chiquita hosts them, along with their new maid Pati (Nilda Gonzalez). And unwilling to give up her pride, she resists taking any help from their friends.

Unfortunately, Chiquita has gotten into legal difficulty over an unpaid debt, and has been found guilty of fraud and sentenced to a prison term. Chela accompanies her to the jail and drives herself home haltingly in her father’s old Mercedes, which she hasn’t taken out in years (she no longer even has a driver’s license). She’ll also take the car out periodically to visit Chiquita in prison.

It’s on one of those outings that she’s noticed by an elderly neighbor, snooty Pituca (Maria Martins, who manages to make every line of her dialogue sound as though it were dipped in acid), who asks if she might give her a ride to her regular card game. Chela reluctantly agrees, and Pituca presses some money on her for the ride. She also becomes a regular customer, along with other women from the card game.

As she finds herself going out more often, Chela’s life changes. She’s still more timorous than not, but her confidence grows bit by bit. She also meets a younger woman at Pituca’s gatherings—Angy (Ana Ivanova), a brassy, aggressive sort who catches Chela’s eye. Angy’s not gay, but her free-spirited ways entrance Chela. Meanwhile, the ease with which Chiquita has accommodated herself to prison life surprises and distresses her.

Brun delicately traces the steps in Chela’s journey of self-discovery, and Martinessi’s unhurried pacing gives the nuances in her performance ample time to register. The other women in her orbit are also well played, with Irún’s steeliness and Ivanova’s straightforward sensuality complementing her apparent placidity. And at opposite ends of the spectrum, Martins offers a portrait of upper-crust bile and Gonzalez one of almost preternatural kindness and calm.

Subtlety is also the hallmark of Carlo Spatuzza’s production design, with its fastidious dressing of the interior of Chela’s home, and Luis Armando Artega’s cinematography, particularly in its exquisite use of light and shadow in the interiors. Fernando Epstein’s editing is of a piece with Martinessi’s unrushed style.

Tales of female liberation often come on too strong. This one makes a few missteps—like the symbolism attached to a serving tray—but it maintains its refined sensibility even to the end, ending with a note of triumph so muted that it’s almost inaudible, neither bang nor whimper but satisfyingly in between.