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.

Skyscraper

Skyscraper

By: Kevin Jordan

It wasn’t me.  It was the one-legged man.

“It is good to see the Chinese are embracing the shittiest aspects of American cinema, just like us Americans.” – Me, minutes after the conclusion of Skyscraper.

Before you start furiously typing a comment about how Skyscraper is not meant to be an Oscar winner, I know.  Calm down.  My expectations for this movie started and ended with Rampage, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s previous film.  But I’m pretty sure this movie was made primarily for a Chinese audience.  It was produced by two Chinese film companies (Legendary Pictures and Perfect World Pictures) with an assist from Beau Flynn and Johnson’s self-owned production companies (Flynn Picture Company and Seven Bucks Productions, respectively), is set in Hong Kong, features two Hong Kong-American Actors (Byron Mann, Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese actress (Hannah Quinlivan), and a Singaporean actor (Chin Han).  The only reason the entire film was not entirely in Mandarin is because Americans eat up shitty action movies, too.

As a human who understands the basic principles of security and film, Skyscraper is pretty dumb.  As a security professional at my day job and film critic in the moonlight, fuck everything in this movie.  Before looking up the cast and crew, I thought for sure the writing credits would be as long as the cast; that we could chalk up this garbage to the broken trash compactor that typically serves as the screenplay machine for big, dumb blockbusters (coincidentally, many of which feature Johnson).  To my amazement, Rawson Marshall Thurber is listed as the sole writer (also serving as producer and director), which means Thurber accomplished by himself what normally requires several writers who have given up on life.

This guy is putting more effort into filming than what went into the screenplay.

(SPOILER ALERT – I am going to ruin this film by describing the shitty screenplay and even shittier portrayal of security.  You are welcome.)

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, an ex-special soldier/FBI agent turned one-legged security consultant after getting blown up during a botched hostage-rescue attempt.  Do not worry about Will – he marries the surgeon who fixes him up, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and has two kids with her.  Plus, his friend and partner, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), also survived the explosion, goes out of his way to throw work to Will while reassuring Will that he does not blame Will for the explosion, and listens intently when Will gives thanks for the incident being his meet-cute with Sarah.  Nevermind that the incident resulted in the deaths of two children, their mother and father (the hostage-taker), and several of Will’s fellow soldiers (presumably) because Will sure did not mind.

After seeing Will attach his prosthetic leg prior to going to a meeting at “The Pearl” a.k.a. Skyscraper, I spent nearly the entire movie wondering how they were going to use the leg as a deus ex machina because Thurber definitely read a Screenplay for Dummies book once.  This would become a common theme for me as the movie introduced one specific, but dumb thing after another (no, wait, that is “specifically dumb”) with the obvious intention of bringing that back around to aid the heroes at some point.

Deus leg machina.

Will has been hired by Zhao Long Ji (Han), who owns the building, to perform a final safety and security assessment.  If Will’s assessment approves the building, Zhao can procure insurance for the building and open the residential sections to buyers.  This is roughly the point at which my security brain activated.  He approves everything in the building and has only to assess the building’s offsite control center.  Zhao hands Will a tablet which gives Will administrative privileges over every system in the building…at which point Will should have handed Zhao back the tablet and failed the assessment for giving a near stranger complete and total control over everything in the building.  Instead, Will literally praises the building as “Fort Knox” and I died a little inside.  In short, Will is so bad at his job that he should be put in jail for endangering people’s lives.

I wish that I could have turned off my security brain, but my brain just was not having it.  For one, the tablet does not even use multifactor authentication, just a facial scan of Will’s face.  For two, once logged in, it never turns off because neither Zhao nor Will know what screenlock is.  For three, Zhao brags about all of the security he has implemented, including knowing a lot of details about Will and Will’s family, yet doesn’t know the insurance representative, Mr. Pierce (Noah Taylor), standing next to him is a known associate of Zhao’s archenemy, Lores Botha (Roland Moller).  This, despite the police having at least one photo of Pierce and linked Pierce to Lores.  For four, why the hell would you have the control center for the building in a completely different building more than a mile away (which the movie decides to tell us the distance to down to the hundredth of kilometer)?  Now you have a second building requiring security and what happens if a bad guy cuts the connection between the two buildings?  There are more, but I need to turn off my security brain to tell you how stupid the bad guys are.

That is security spelled with a K, right?

Led by Lores, the bad guys set fire to the 96th floor.  They also steal the tablet so they can take control of the building, lock Zhao out of the system, and shut off the fire suppression system so the building will be destroyed.  The other goal is to steal a thumb drive from Zhao, which Zhao keeps locked in a safe in the penthouse, but will have to remove when he realizes the building is going to burn down.  On the surface, this sounds fairly straightforward, but the details seem like they were thought out by Hans Gruber’s brain-damaged cousin.

For starters, even though the building is open to the public and they could have simply walked right in (it has dozens of commercial retail stores on the lower half which are evacuated after the fire breaks out), Lores and team infiltrate the building by burrowing a tunnel into the fifteenth subbasement because no movie had ever dug a hole to China before.  Second, after hacking the system to give them control, Xia shoots their hacker in the face, despite the hacker being on their team.  Third, Lores is stymied when Zhao locks himself behind the ten-inch titanium doors in his penthouse.  Despite Xia being given full admin access of the building and despite the audience literally being shown Zhao having zero control of his penthouse after the hack, Xia exclaims that she cannot open the doors because the penthouse system is self-contained and under Zhao’s control.  If only they had a hacker on the team.  Fourth, Lores has no contingency plans to account for any hiccups, but is bailed out by sheer dumb luck that Will’s family is in the building to be used as hostages (Lores’ plan literally had them purposely out of the building by Ben), that Will is not killed by Xia when they steal the tablet, that Will is not captured by the police after a shootout with the cops, and that Will climbs a one hundred story construction crane and jumps thirty feet through the air, through a broken window on the hundredth floor to rescue his family.  On one fucking leg, mind you.

(Side note: that is the best dig-a-hole-to-China joke I could come up with.  I am sure you, dear reader, can do better.  Reward my faith, Internet.)

Use the door next time.

On the bright side, the audience around me in the theater was well aware of how stupid was Skyscraper.  Throughout the film, people were laughing derisively at what they were seeing on screen, as was I.  When Will picks up a statue to try to break a window in a skyscraper?  Giggles.  When Sarah reboots the system with the still-logged-in tablet to regain control of the fire-suppression system (even though the hacker told us how he encrypted everything before eating a bullet)?  Guffaws.  When Will holds the end of a bridge up to keep it from collapsing?  Belly-laughs.  When Will keeps extolling the virtues of duct tape?  Cackles.  When Will is swinging upside-down from a rope and held only by a knot around his fake leg?  Near-death chokes of uproarious laughter.

The unintentional comedy is through the roof.

Even if we forgive all of that (we cannot) and ask if the movie was at least fun, the answer is a resounding “is it over yet?”  The film is proud that The Pearl is over 3,500 feet tall and filled with the wonders of Narnia (or something).  The entire movie should have featured Will battling through a gauntlet of bad guys as he works his way through a gauntlet of building insanity to get to the top floor.  After all, the movie repeats several times that Will knows the building better than anyone.  Yet, we know so little of the building and its features and so few bad guys that Skyscraper might as well have been Tri-Level.

As I drove home from the film, I openly pondered how any screenplay as obviously idiotic as this could get past reviews and edits, let alone be approved for actual filming.  My working theory is that it went something like this:

Thurber: Here is my finished screenplay.

Studio Executive: Seems a little too much like Die Hard.

Thurber: What if we cast The Rock and make it stupid?

Studio Executive: Where is my checkbook?

Rating: Ask for eighty-seven Chinese Yuan back.

Den of Thieves

Den of Thieves

By: Kevin Jordan

I did not see that coming.

Raise your hand if you get super excited when you first hear about a new Gerard Butler movie.  Anyone?  No?  Okay, raise your hand if you loved 300 and forgave Butler for doing bad rom-coms like The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter.  Still nothing, huh?  How about this – raise your hand if you are not the least bit surprised that a Butler-led film is opening mid-January because you have seen at least one of Geostorm, Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen, or Gods of Egypt.  Ah, there we go.  Sadly, I have seen three of those gems, so I fully expected Butler’s new Den of Thieves to remind us why we watch Oscar-bait in January instead of the usual drunken-mistakes that are dumped on us just after the New Year.  To my astonishment, Den of Thieves did not vomit all over us.

(SPOILERS ahead, but you will still be able to drive home after.)

The film opens with a crew of four well-trained and heavily armed thieves stealing an armored truck.  They have a shoot-out with the cops, a car chase, and escape into the depths of Los Angeles.  The next morning, Big Nick (Butler) and his High Crimes unit of the LAPD investigate the crime scene, trade barbs with an FBI guy (only Nick, that is), and wonder why the thieves would steal an empty armored truck.  While the two scenes are fairly typical for this type of movie, it sucks the audience in because we want to know why as well.  Plus, we received free hats marketing the film prior to entering the theater, so the entire experience was quickly at plus-two.

Totally worth it.

Act one of the film is where I realized we were not watching a throwaway winter action flick.  While some critics complained of a long running time (140 minutes for the full film), I was happy to see quality time devoted to fleshing out characters, which is most definitely not a hallmark of Butler films (though my wife would like me to mention that P.S. I Love You was a very good Butler film, character development and all.  You’re welcome dear).  In addition to getting a look into Nick’s professional and personal life, we learn a lot about the heist crew, led by Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber).  You may remember Schreiber as Pornstache (Orange is the New Black), but where Pornstache was just creepy and not ripped, Merriman is menacing and looks like he could snap Big Nick in half.  But, Merriman is also very intelligent and cool under pressure, which makes him that much more dangerous and intriguing as a villain.  Merriman is the kind of guy you would not want to run into in a dark alley.  Or a lit alley.  Or ever.

On the same side of the coin, Nick appears to be just short of a criminal himself and definitely not a great human.  He cares little for police procedure, has nothing but disdain for any authorities outside of his squad, and runs his squad much like a cartel boss.  When his wife discovers he cheated on her with a stripper, she leaves with their two daughters and my reaction was “I kind of hope Merrimen shoots Nick.”  As we did with Walter White, we are actively rooting for Merrimen to succeed in whatever heist he is planning and boy is it a doozy.  Merrimen wants to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.

Borrowing heavily from Ocean’s Eleven (and other great heist movies), we get a detailed explanation of the plan, as well as a brief history of how close previous attempts came to success (none were even close).  However, Den of Thieves has a trick up its sleeve.  Nick has managed to turn one of Merrimen’s crew and the film takes a twist that is so surprising, my jaw audibly snapped open.  I am going to stop there with regards to the plot, but we need to back up to talk about the characters a little more.

Even Butler is confused by the quality of this film.

There were a couple of scenes that felt out of place and pointless until I realized what the film was doing.  The first act spent time establishing the professional credentials of our heroes and villains, but the second act spends time muddying the waters by making all of them seem very human.  In one scene, Nick is served with divorce papers and my initial reaction was “who cares about paperwork in a heist film?”  Then, Nick goes to see his daughter and breaks down crying in his truck.  In another scene, Levi Ensen (50 Cent), one of the thieves, pulls the old intimidate-the-male-prom-date gag, but with added help from the entire crew.  In both cases, the movie makes us re-evaluate our impressions of these guys, which makes it harder to root for either side.   The idea that this movie might have multi-dimensional characters and a well-thought-out, tight plot never crossed my mind.

Without giving anything more away, the third act is one of the tensest pieces of film I have seen in a long time.  Because the film did such a great job of blurring the traditional good guy/bad guy lines, I had no idea how the movie was going to play out.  Everything was on the table – from everyone dying in a massive shootout to Nick and team thwarting the big heist to Merrimen and crew pulling of the job and shooting Nick in the face to Keyser Soze sneaking in, stealing the money, and killing everyone himself.  The sky’s the limit!

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed a movie I expected to be typical January/Butler garbage.  Not only were my expectations ground into a fine powder by the film, but someone (namely director Christian Gudegast) finally figured out how to properly use Gerard Butler.  Maybe I will give Geostorm a chance.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back.  Aside from the Oscar-bait, you won’t find any better this time of year.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

By: Kevin Jordan

Not everything explodes.

image001 (1)

“A filmmaking masterpiece” said nobody ever about a Michael Bay film.  That was my immediate thought when I heard that quote coming from Mr. Movie Trailer Voice a few days ago.  I scoffed at that quote and you’d scoff, too, once you remember that Michael Bay’s last five films (as director) are Transformers, Transformers, Transformers, Pain & Gain, and Transformers.  Plus, when you actually watch the trailer for 13 Hours, it looks exactly like every Michael Bay film you’ve ever seen.  After watching 13 Hours, I can tell you that Mr. Movie Trailer Voice was definitely hallucinating when he said “A filmmaking masterpiece,” but 13 Hours is a better movie than what we are used to getting from Bay.

(Side note: I am in the minority of people who think Bay is judged way too harshly.  Like Quentin Tarantino, he makes a specific type of movie and delivers what people want.  I won’t defend all of his movies, but several of them are very good movies and not just from a sheer entertainment standpoint.  In related news, Tarantino is judged way too favorably.)

If you’ve been paying attention to politics over the last three years, you will have heard the name Benghazi because there are certain politicians and news outlets who refuse to believe that what happened on September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, was no more than just a major fuck up by the people responsible for the security of diplomatic outposts.  They act as if there was some huge conspiracy headed up by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get a bunch of Americans killed because…well, they’ve never actually come up with a good motivation for Clinton (or anybody) to do that.  What’s good about this film is that Bay doesn’t go down the conspiracy road, but instead, sticks to telling us how the events unfolded with as little political commentary as possible.  And, you know that was hard for Bay because, based on his previous films, I’m pretty sure he sleeps under an American flag blanket in a bed shaped like an F-22 and has a pin-up of John McCain’s war photo on the ceiling.

Even if you are sick of hearing about Benghazi, this movie is worth watching for the same reason I recommended movies like Selma and Bridge of Spies – it tells a story about history that you didn’t know.  All that most people know of the event is that the outpost was attacked and American Ambassador John Christopher Stevens was killed by Libyan militants.  The movie tells the story of six military contractors hired by the CIA to provide security for their secret compound near the American diplomatic outpost.  Even better, the movie is based on a book co-written by those contractors (13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff), which explains why not everything in the entire movie explodes, as is normally typical of a Bay film.  Instead, it sticks to the facts from the book as much as possible, though with plenty of Bay signatures in the film that leaves no doubt as to who is the man behind the camera.

The part of the story that you don’t know is that after the outpost was attacked, these six contractors (all former special forces soldiers) went to the outpost to rescue the ambassador and his party (spoiler alert: the ambassador doesn’t make it), then returned to the CIA compound to defend it from dozens of militants for several hours.  Considering the CIA is part of this story, it’s safe to say that there is a lot of detail missing from the story.  I’m guessing that nearly all of the CIA parts and roles were 95% dramatic license, but I’m also fairly comfortable believing we at least got the Cliff’s notes and accurate details regarding the firefights with the militants.  Then again, maybe that’s what they want us to think.

What elevates this film above many of Bay’s other films is that it seemed like he was trying a little harder to make a movie that wasn’t just a series of BOOOOOMMMMs.  While Bay relies on standard fallbacks to make us care about the characters (they won’t kill children, they only shoot when they are certain “those guys” are the bad guys, and they all have pictures of their families), he at least does that much when he could have just tattooed them with American flags and had them say stuff like “I do this because who else is gonna does this?”  The casting was also well done as I had no trouble believing any of these guys were ex-soldiers or dickhead CIA chiefs (nice work, David Costabile).  That goes especially for John Krasinski because it’s hard to see him as an ex-Navy SEAL AND as lovable ol’ Jim from The Office.  That sentiment goes away roughly halfway through the movie when a shirtless Krasinksy walks out of his quarters, showing off abs that were so awesome my wife perked up – and she wasn’t even at the movie.

In short, if you are looking for a good, solid war drama dealing with a recent event, and you aren’t a film snob that hates Michael Bay movies on principle, 13 Hours will do you nicely.  Or, if you are just looking for a non-idiotic Bay film with lots of action, shooting, car chases, and low-angle shots of people getting out of cars, you’ll still be happy watching 13 Hours.  Just because he toned down the explosions (and there are still plenty of those) doesn’t mean he’ll give up those other things.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, because you can’t say that often after a Bay film.