First Man

First Man

By: Kevin Jordan

Nerds.

Have you ever ridden Mission Space at Epcot?  I have and I love it.  My wife has also and decidedly did not love it.  I think her exact words were I have a headache and I might throw up.  First Man has the same effect without requiring that pesky centrifuge to simulate increased G-forces.  My wife did not screen First Man with me, but if she had, her reaction would have been bwwllleaeaeaeaeeeuuuuuuuhhhhhhh.

For all you space nerds and history junkies, First Man tells the Cliff’s Notes story of the Gemini and Apollo space programs.  Even if you are not a nerd, you most likely know what the Apollo program is or are at least aware that humans walked on the moon.  First Man tells the story from the perspective of Neil Armstrong, the first human to actually step foot on the surface of the moon.  As much of a nerd as I am (both space and history), I knew next to nothing about Neil Armstrong besides “The Eagle has landed,” and “That’s one small step for man.  And one giant leap for mankind.”  First Man fills in that giant gaping hole for me.

Does anyone have a bucket I can borrow?

The first thing the movie teaches us about Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is that he was a test pilot of experimental planes.  The film starts with a well-known incident where Armstrong flew an X-15 jet to 200,000 feet, bounced off the atmosphere when he tried to descend, then nearly crashed into some Joshua trees before safely landing the aircraft.  The entire scene is shot from inside the cockpit, giving the audience an extraordinary feel for what Armstrong experienced during the incident.  The sounds of the airplane, the radio communications, and the rapidly changing view through the plane’s canopy created an intense couple of minutes that were only a glimpse of what would come later in the film.  This is also the point where my wife would have quit the movie.

The film then takes a breather to give us a look at Neil Armstrong the father and husband, but punches the audience in the gut while it is doing it.  Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, died of pneumonia caused by a weakened immune system due to x-ray treatments of a malignant tumor.  And, lucky us, we got to watch a father’s final moments with his daughter followed by Karen’s coffin being lowered into the ground.  This was arguably more difficult to watch than the X-15 flight, to which many crying audience members would attest.  Shortly after the funeral, Neil applies for the Gemini project, is selected and, with the support of his wife, Jan (Claire Foy), moves his family closer to the project headquarters for a fresh start.

We need to talk about death, kids. Questions?

For the bulk of the running time, the film focuses on key events of the two programs as the highlights.  But, sprinkled around them are the human stories that keep the film somewhat grounded (sorry, I could not resist).  Again, for those unfamiliar with any of the space story outside of moonwalk and Apollo 13, quite a few astronauts died in accidents (not all program-related) between 1962 and 1969.  The film shows us the Apollo 1 disaster and it is harrowing for those who knew what was coming and another gut punch to those whose ignorance was quickly remedied.  For every death, the film always goes back to Armstrong to show us how he took the deaths and coped with them.  This is summed up by Jan, at one point telling some friends “we got really good at funerals” and slammed home when Armstrong barks at his friend and fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke), “Do you think I am standing in my backyard because I want to talk to someone?”  At this point you realize that the moon did not stand a chance of defeating Armstrong.

Worth it.

The power of this film is in the brilliant mix of human story and putting us in the cockpit, space capsule, and spacesuit with Armstrong.  We are there with him for every near-death flight experience (the Gemini 8 event was particularly crazy to experience visually and auditorily) and every personal death experience.  The film throws each experience at us as if we are in a dunk booth, but the water gets exponentially colder every time we fall in.  By the time the film makes it to the moonwalk, you appreciate how special and difficult that event was and the payoff of getting there is practically cathartic.  By the conclusion of this film you will be exhausted, but you will also be smarter and more empathetic.  Now, I just need to ask my wife to wait for me while I ride Mission Space again.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back, but maybe ask for a napkin to wipe your eyes or your chin.

Gold

By: Kevin Jordan

Stranger than fiction.

gold-poster-2

The first thing you are going to do after watching Gold is look up the actual story the film is based on.  Actually, the real first thing you are going to do after watching Gold is find a Lincoln commercial so as to try to get the image of fat, comb-over, snaggletooth Matthew McConaughey out of your head.  I mean – look at that poster….yech.  Let me help…

jim_carey_snl

Nope, that’s Jim Carey making fun of McConaughey on SNL.

child_lincoln_ad

No, that’s a child making fun of McConaughey.

mcconaughey_lincoln

There we go.  Ahhhh.

Now that that’s over, you can focus on reading about Bre-X, the company this movie is based on.  If you have no idea what Bre-X is, do not look them up before watching Gold or you will SPOIL the movie for yourself.  Also, do not read the rest of this review because, obviously, I’m going to talk about it.

(Seriously – SPOILER ALERT.)

Once you have seen this movie and read about the Bre-X mining scandal, you’re going to wonder the same thing as everyone else – why did they change so much of the story?  The real story is bonkers enough.  In the mid-1990’s, a Filipino geologist working for Bre-X minerals convinced another geologist and an investor that he had discovered gold in Indonesia.  Bre-X’s stock skyrocketed from pennies to nearly $300 per share over the course of two and a half years.  As it turns out, the Filipino was ‘salting’ the core samples from the site with shavings from his wedding ring, then with river-panned gold he bought from the locals.  The Indonesian government took over the site after the three men sold a bunch of their stock and allowed another company to continue mining.  After finding zero gold, the Filipino supposedly committed suicide by jumping out of a helicopter.  The stock became worthless, the investor denied everything and died two years later, and the second geologist was acquitted of crimes and moved to the Cayman Islands.  I mean, come on – that script writes itself.  The only problem is how to make McConaughey look like a Filipino.

This being Hollywood, they changed things both big and small.  To start with, the second geologist and the investor were mashed together to create Kenny Wells (McConaughey), an American miner who managed to wreck his father’s prospecting company to the point where he was running the remains of the business out of his waitress-girlfriend Kay’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) bar.  That forty pounds makes sense now, doesn’t it?

In a drunken fever dream, he sees a jungle and knows he will find gold there.  The next day, he remembers stories of a geologist named Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) who theorized the location of gold in Indonesia.  Acosta is what the writers of the film created out of the Filipino geologist.  Wells flies out to see Acosta and convinces Acosta to partner with him on the dig.  After weeks of digging, they find nothing and Wells catches Malaria.  Upon Wells’ recovery, Acosta informs him that they’ve found gold to the tune of 1/8th ounce per ton of rock.  Yeah…they struck it rich!  I think.  Wait, is that a lot?  It doesn’t sound like a lot.  Or did I just misunderstand the number?  No matter, they struck it rich!!

This is what you look like when you have have gold fever and jungle fever at the same time.

This is what you look like when you have have gold fever and jungle fever at the same time.

The rest of the film bears very little resemblance to actual events, but a whole lot of resemblance to a combination of Two for the Money and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Rise to the top, lavish spending, helicopter sex, etc. followed by the fall from grace.  The movie tries to make Wells somewhat sympathetic by making him care more about being recognized as a great miner than money.  Potato, pot-ah-to, right?  This leads him to declining multiple lucrative offers for the mine and you can guess where he ends up.  The film also tries to make something out of his relationship with Kay, though it falls completely flat during the film and Howard is given very little to do outside of a breakup scene that comes out of nowhere.  Finally, they try to play up his loyalty to Acosta, and that turns out to be the one thing that makes you root for him just a little bit.  To be fair, the film keeps the scandal part – Acosta salting the samples, cashing out his stocks, and possibly dying in a helicopter suicide jump (but not from the sex helicopter).

In addition to adding the girlfriend and changing the characters, the film is set back in 1988 and the timespan is shortened to about six months for no reason.  They also toss in two different investment companies vying for Wells’ to partner them in, but really in order to give screen time to Stacy Keach and Corey Stoll (and Stoll was delightfully on target as a sleazy Wall Street investor), but they at least serve the purpose of moving Wells through his rise and fall.  Perhaps the weirdest creative choice is Bruce Greenwood doing a bizarre accent while playing a gold magnate and forced to look at naked, fat McConaughey when they first meet.  I get what the writers were going for there – contrasting a fool with a viper – but Greenwood can’t unsee that.  That’s just mean.

I get older, but they stay the same age.

I get older, but they stay the same age.

(Note: Rachael Taylor is also naked in that scene, so it’s not all bad for Greenwood.  Probably still not worth it though.)

Having said all that, I don’t really mind that they changed so much from the real story, but I do wish they hadn’t thrown in the unnecessary girlfriend subplot.  It drags the movie down and doesn’t change your opinion that Wells is mostly a bad businessman and comes off like a used car salesman.  But the thing I mind the most is that the film tells you almost from the beginning that everything is going to go south for Wells.  Early on, we see a panning shot of a microphone and hear Wells talking to someone who is obviously questioning him.  As soon as you see that microphone, you spend the rest of the film knowing Wells is going to fail, you’re just not sure how.  Unless, of course, you ignored me and read up on Bre-X prior to watching the film.  I actually went into this movie thinking it was going to be a story about a man who defied the odds and ended up proving everyone wrong.  I was looking forward to some crazy hijinks and close calls, but an inevitable win in the end.  Thanks a lot, writers – the one time I don’t go into a movie pessimistically and you ruined it for me.

Still – I did find myself enjoying the movie quite a bit.  McConaughey brings his A-game, you can never get enough Stoll, and it’s much better than the typical January fare we’re used to seeing.  And, even though I knew things were going to end badly, I never suspected the salting scandal, which was a genuine surprise.  I just thought the fool was going to get taken by Wall Street sharks, not his friend.  Does Hollywood deserved to get smacked around a little for messing with this nutty, true story?  Sure.  But that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t worth a pat on the back.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and never look at the Gold movie poster again.

(Source note: Here’s the article I read detailing the Bre-X scandal.)

Ant-Man

By: Kevin Jordan

This is just getting ridiculous.

ant_man

There’s a scene in Dogma where Selma Hayek is explaining that nineteen of the top twenty grossing movies were inspired by a muse (her) and the twentieth was because someone sold their soul to the devil.  With the amount of success Marvel is having with their films, either they’ve got an army of stripper muses at their headquarters or Satan’s going to need to a new wing at Infernal Studios for all those newly acquired souls.

I remember going into Guardians of the Galaxy with very guarded expectations.  I didn’t think there was any chance a movie with such a ridiculous ensemble cast and a trailer with no plot hints whatsoever could possibly be as entertaining as it turned out to be.  You’d think I would have learned my lesson after that, but I found myself with the exact same mindset going into Ant-Man.  Could you blame me though?  They cast Paul Rudd (really) as the lead/superhero in a movie that was seeming dangerously close to being a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids sequel.  If you think I’m being hyperbolic, Ant-Man has a pet ant (actually lots of them) that the hero rides.  You’re nodding now aren’t you?

As you may have guessed by now, I enjoyed the hell out of Ant-Man.  I actually do like Paul Rudd, so I was looking forward to seeing if he could pull off being Ant-Man.  The film begins, not with Rudd (Scott Lang), but with a scene from years past showing us a CGI’d Michael Douglas (Dr. Hank Pym) storming out of a meeting with Howard Stark and Agent Carter because Pym didn’t want them abusing his shrinking particle and Marvel wanted to make sure we understood this movie fits into the same universe as the Avengers.  Fast forward to present day and we meet Scott Lang (Rudd), a thief being released from prison.  We quickly get his background story – divorced dad with a young daughter – then meet his friends (including Michael Pena, who almost steals the entire movie with his brilliance) who want him to pull another burglary with them.  As it turns out, they are robbing Pym’s house, which Pym orchestrated in order to convince Lang to become Ant-Man.

Meanwhile, Pym’s old protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has nearly duplicated Pym’s work and Pym wants to stop him before he can sell it to the bad guys (no points if you guessed Hydra as the bad guys).  Pym thinks Lang is the perfect person to steal Cross’ super-suit (the Yellowjacket) because of his burglary skills.  That’s it; that’s the plot.  Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the plot is simple and straight-forward, it presents a clear goal, and does a good job developing its main characters so that you care what happens to them.  They even toss in a good confrontation and clichéd romance in the form of Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who wants to don the ant-man suit herself (and makes a very convincing case as to why).  The rest of the film is just Marvel doing what it does best – action mixed with comedy mixed with fun.

I wish I had more to say, but I’m not sure there is anything left to say when it comes to Marvel’s movies (the ones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is).  Ant-Man has erased the bland aftertaste from Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Terminator: Genisys and is easily as entertaining as The Avengers: Age of Ultron.  The only real question left is if they can save some of their other properties from being destroyed.  Spider-Man is on its third Spider-Man and the trailer for the reboot of The Fantastic Four made me think the 2005 Fantastic Four wasn’t all that bad (it really was).  I’m sure there’s someone left over there with a soul to sell.

Rating: Worth as much as those three previous reboots I mentioned – combined.