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.

The Nice Guys

By: Kevin Jordan

Good, but you missed a spot.

Imagine you are on a flight from Denver to Los Angeles.  As flights go, it’s fairly eventful – there’s some pretty solid turbulence, projectile vomiting, a spirited game of poker over the new entertainment system on the plane, and a flight attendant accidentally leaving the comm. system on while divulging personal issues to her coworker.  In other words, you are entertained for the duration of the flight.  However, unbeknownst to you or any other passenger, the pilot has reversed course and when you land back in Denver you ask the pilot “what gives?” and he simply responds with “things never change.”  Welcome to Shane Black’s latest movie – The Nice Guys.

TheNiceGuysOneSheet

(If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m going to SPOILER the end of this movie because if I don’t my whole first paragraph will make no sense.  But I’ll do it at the end of this review and I’ll even warn you again.)

The Nice Guys is a mystery/action movie featuring a bunch of people looking for a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley).  Amelia has information relating to a new catalytic converter that releases much more pollution than automakers are willing to admit.  She wants to release the information and explains that the best way to do this is by making a porn film with an actual plot (yes, this is the actual plot of The Nice Guys).  Unfortunately, the people Amelia wants to expose are killing everyone involved with making the film and Amelia is the only one left.  And, for some reason, the movie takes place in 1977.  My best guess at that reason is Black found a great deal on bulk disco-era clothing through Craig’s List.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) are our main characters, with support from March’s teenaged daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice).  Jackson is an enforcer, hired by people to scare/hurt other people to get them to stop a certain behavior.  Initially, Jackson is hired by Amelia to get Holland to stop looking for her and Jackson makes good on the contract, hence the arm-cast that Holland sports throughout the film (and in the movie poster).  But when Amelia goes missing and a couple of guys try to make Jackson dead (who are also looking for Amelia), Jackson turns to Holland to help find Amelia because Holland is a private investigator.  Tagging along on the investigation and consequential shenanigans, Holly serves as a conscience and damsel-in-distress to the two men.  Toss in some car chases, shooting, comic relief, and boobies and we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned, throwback action flick.  Don’t believe me?  The porn star’s name is Misty Mountains.  Now you believe me.

Black’s strength as a director and writer is his ability to weave action in with comedy (of course, that’s ignoring the mess he made of Ironman 3).  Until now, Gosling has always come off us “meh” to me, but Black coaxed a top-notch performance out of Gosling that I won’t soon forget.  He plays perfectly into the weaselly persona we tend to associate with sleazy private dicks and punctuates it with a couple blood-curdling screams that seem like they should be coming from his daughter.  He’s the perfect contrast to the overweight tough guy that Crowe presents, though who is also a bit of a sleazebag.  I’m really not sure why the title refers to them as the Nice Guys, ironic or otherwise, but we do see their hearts peeking out every now and then and the narrative puts them on the “good guy” side of the plot.

As the movie rolled on, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.  The movie flowed quite well as the plot progressed and everything felt right about the movie.  As the movie finished its climax (did you really think I wouldn’t include any sex puns after everything I just told you?), I felt more than satisfied (*rimshot*).  But, then the last scene happened and Holland utters the following line (SPOILER! SPOILER!) – “they didn’t have enough evidence to pursue charges, so they’re going to get away with it.”  Yes, you just landed back in Denver and everything that happened in the movie (plot-wise) was pointless.  In other words, the villain of our story – who is also a senior member of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), a.k.a. a lawyer – didn’t know how evidence works and decided to kill a bunch of people, including her daughter, Amelia (yes, that Amelia), to keep the evidence (the porno) from getting out, even though that evidence wasn’t enough to convict her.  Yeah – I KNOW!  What’s maddening is the fix for that is so elementary – change Holland’s line to “the film was destroyed, so they’re going to get away with it.”  How did they miss that?

My friend said he liked the ending because he thought the entire theme of the film was that things never change and, while I agree with that, my tiny little fix keeps that theme intact without rendering the villain’s entire motivation, and thus the rest of the film, pointless and making me lose my mind for five minutes.  Thankfully, other members of the audience caught it as well, so I’m not just a curmudgeon nitpicking at an otherwise really good film.  Or maybe I just want to get out of Denver for a while.

Rating: Ask for one dollar back because things should change dammit.