First Man

Posted on October 11, 2018 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured and killed, sad death of a child
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
On September 12, 1962, nine months after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy issued a daunting challenge to America challenged America, already behind the Soviet Union in the space race. He promised to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade so that the first trip to space would not be “governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” He said,

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The extraordinary story of the space race that followed has been covered by many books and movies. But none have taken us so literally inside the trip to the moon like “First Man.” Ryan Gosling, working with his “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, plays Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Gosling is one of the few actors who could bring such humanity to the famously reserved Armstrong. Chazelle wisely spends much of the movie focusing on Gosling’s face, and he conveys infinite courage, integrity, and dedication, and more. Armstrong did not talk about the tragic loss of his toddler daughter to cancer. When he is asked about whether it affected him in his interview for the space program, he answers calmly that it would be impossible not to be affected. But we see so much in the way he touches her hair, and in the way he thinks of her in an important moment near the end of the film.

When we think of space travel, we tend to think of spacious flying machines like the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, with sleeping chambers and holodecks and chess games. This movie takes us inside the actual space capsule, all built with practical (real-life) effects, not CGI and it’s as though they launched a metal container the size of a car trunk with an atom-bomb-fueled catapult, in a process that shakes it up like a paint can at the hardware store. We can feel the pressure on the screws as they jiggle and threaten to pop. And we hear — wow, the sound design in this film, from Ai-Ling Lee — the hum, the rattle, the breathing. Armstrong is always strong, contained, and capable, but this movie gives us the intimacy and vulnerability around him. One of the film’s most powerful scenes is the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. A small puff of smoke through the hatch is more telling than a special effects inferno.

We see the modest simplicity of the Armstrong’s home as well, slightly more comfortable once they are in the space program and living near the other astronauts. Claire Foy is outstanding as Janet Armstrong, a very traditional mid-century suburban wife but in her own way as honest and determined as her husband. She insists that he sit down with their sons before the moon voyage to answer their questions about the dangers he was facing.

There are a number of nice touches that remind us of some of the other work that was going on. The interviews touch on the selection process shown in “The Right Stuff.” Kyle Chandler as astronaut chief Deke Slayton draws an illustration that takes two blackboards, an indicator of the unprecedented calculations shown in “Hidden Figures.” The calm, analytical response to unexpected peril reminds us of “Apollo 13.” It is not so much, as in that film, that failure is not an option. What Armstrong says in this film is, “We fail here so we will not fail there.”

“First Man” puts us inside one of the greatest explorations in human history, respecting the technical achievements and the breathtaking scope of the vision, but always keeping it real and personal. Archival footage of people reminding us that many Americans thought that the money for the space program would be better spent in solving the problems at home remind us that arguments about priorities have been around as long as people have had impossible dreams. And this movie reminds us that sometimes impossible dreams should be a priority, too.

Parents should know that this film includes severe risk and peril with characters injured and killed, a very sad death of a child, disturbing images, some strong language, smoking, and drinking.

Family discussion: What made Neil Armstrong the right man for this mission? What do we learn by the way he responds to danger? Why did he bring something special to leave on the moon?

If you like this, try; “Apollo 13,” “The Dish,” and the excellent series “From the Earth to the Moon”

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Get Ready for “First Man” With These Moon Shot Movies

Posted on October 5, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Copyright 2018 Amblin Entertainment

“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling have teamed up again for “First Man,” the story of Neil Amstrong and the 1969 Apollo 11 voyage to the moon. Get ready for space travel with these outstanding fact-based films — they are not only true stories; they are some of my very favorites:

Hidden Figures One group of braniacs figured out how to build the rocket, another figured out how to create the fuel necessary to make the almost half a million mile round trip. And a whole other group had to figure out how to hit the target, so that fully fueled rocket ship would not bypass the moon and go hurtling off into the universe. The remarkable story of the math people, including brilliant black women, is told in this warm-hearted and inspiring film.

The Dish Another story of the unsung heroes of the space race is this utterly charming film about the Australian crew who ran the satellite dish that allowed the footage of the moon landing to be shown around the world.

The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe’s ground-breaking book about the earliest days of the space program, including the selection of the first group of astronauts is the source for this film, written and directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed, and Sam Shepard.

Apollo 13 Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Ed Harris star in the gripping story of a flight to the moon that went terribly wrong. “Failure is not an option,” said Flight Director Gene Kranz. Even though we know they came home safely, the film will keep you on the edge of your seat.

In the Shadow of the Moon This British documentary about the history of the Apollo program with archival footage and interviews with people who made it happen.

From the Earth to the Moon This brilliant miniseries from “Apollo 13” star and space geek Tom Hanks looks at the space program from many different angles, including the press, the government contractors, and the wives of the astronauts. The last episode is a poignant parallel story that includes the making of Georges Melies’ classic of the same name.

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Operation Finale

Posted on August 29, 2018 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong and hateful language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 31, 2018

Copyright 2018 MGM
It is, perhaps, the ultimate conundrum, one that echoes throughout all of human history. How can good guys defeat the bad guys without becoming bad themselves? If the bad guys do not play by any rules at all, the good guys have two choices: to stay within the rules themselves, which can be high risk because it is like going into a fight with both arms tied behind your back, or decide that the ends justify the means and violate the rules to improve their chance of winning. Can it really be a win if you abandon your principles to get there?

Sometimes there is ambiguity about who exactly are the good guys and the bad guys. That is not the case with the Nazis in WWII. Among the worst of the worst, certainly the worst to survive the war, was Adolf Eichmann, the head of the “Department of Jewish Affairs” and the man responsible for creating the system that led to the murder of millions of people, including six million Jews. The other top Nazi leaders, Hitler, Himmler, and Goering, killed themselves at the end of the war. Then there were the Nuremberg trials for many others. But Eichmann and a few others escaped to Nazi-friendly Argentina. Fifteen years later, agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency captured him and brought him back to Israel for a trial that was broadcast around the world. This is the story of how that happened, so tensely presented that we hold our breath even though we know that Eichmann made it to Israel, where his “man in a glass booth” (for security) trial was broadcast as it happened throughout the world, giving most people their first chance to hear testimony from Holocaust survivors.

Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton skillfully portray the people of the young state of Israel, just 12 years old, still defining itself internally and still justifying its existence to the world. When someone approaches Mossad with evidence that Eichmann has been identified in Argentina, the first reaction is that the atrocities are old news, and they don’t have the resources to go after him because they are too busy fighting for the right to exist now. They ultimately decide to get him less from a sense of justice or even revenge than from the notion that at this stage, everything they do is definitional; every choice they make shows the world what it means to be a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an atrocity so unprecedented that the term was not even in widespread use for several more years.

We see what it is to have a country made up of displaced people, each of whom has suffered unthinkable trauma and grief. In one scene they almost start to have a grim “who lost the most” conversation before they stop. Their focus has to be on what happens next, and that is the risky, complicated plan to get Eichmann out of Argentina, even though there is no extradition and they don’t have access to military aircraft capable of transporting him.

Sir Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann, living under an assumed name, working at a Mercedes factory, living with his wife and sons, and speaking often to groups of other escaped Nazis about his wartime experiences. Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who actually tackled Eichmann, and who, with his colleagues, had to keep him captive until he could be extracted and put on a commercial flight to Israel.

There is a wisp of a love story, and there is some exploration of the moral dilemmas. But it is the electrifying scenes between Kingsley and Isaac that are even more riveting than the “can they get him” and “will they be caught” moments of spycraft.

It was Eichmann himself who inspired Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil,” and disconnect is jarring between Eichmann’s deeds in overseeing the mechanics of rounding up Jews and transporting them to their execution and torture and the bland, civilized factory foreman who loves his wife and children. Eichmann is not bothered by the slaughter of millions, even when a murdered baby’s brain was splattered over his coat. Malkin is still deeply wounded by the loss of one person, his adored sister, who was killed with her children. He is still anguished by a fatal mistake on a previous mission. We see that the very conscience that keeps Malkin from “putting a bullet between eyes,” as he said he would gladly do, can make it much harder to bring him to justice.

Eichmann, a master manipulator, tries to put them both in the same category of following orders to save their country. Malkin tries to manipulate Eichmann into signing the necessary consent form for leaving the country. Each tries to gain ground over the other, usually through appearing to be conciliatory, to find some point of vulnerability. The action scenes, especially toward the end, have a ramped-up “Argo” rhythm, but what is far more engrossing is when two people talk to each other.

The stakes are incalculable and inherently dramatic, but Kingsley and Issac take it to another level as characters and as actors, and it is fascinating to see them challenge each other. Two of the greatest actors alive, each with endless screen magnetism, superb control of acting technique, and the ability to tell a lifetime with an almost imperceptible shift of the eyes or slight additional huskiness in the voice, put all of that to show us a massive historical event can come down to two people in a room.

Parents should know that this film includes footage of Holocaust atrocities, including mass murder, with some graphic and very disturbing images, some peril and violence, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why is it important to give someone a fair trial when the crime is unimaginably big and the evidence against him is overwhelming? Is it possible for a trial under those circumstances to be fair? Why did Eichmann sign the agreement?

If you like this, try: “Argo,” “Munich,” and “The Eichmann Show,” a film about the trial, and read Peter Malkin’s book, Eichmann in My Hands.

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Trailer: The Green Book

Posted on August 21, 2018 at 5:09 am

Viggo Mortensen and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali star in “The Green Book,” based on the true story of black musician Don Shirley and the white driver/bodyguard who took him on tour through the America South of the early Civil Rights era. Before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, public accommodations like hotels and buses were allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guide to the places that black people could stay in the South without problems. (About Comics has re-published the original 1954 edition.)  The movie is directed and co-written by actor Peter Farrelly (“Twilight,” “The Big Kahuna”), and it will be in theaters this November.

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BlacKkKlansman

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is undercover through most of “BlacKkKlansman,” and not just on the job, but in the job and outside of it, too. The real-life Stallworth was the first black police officer, and later the first black detective in Colorado Springs, back in the 1970’s and he really did go undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan — over the phone. Spike Lee’s film, based on Stallworth’s book, tells how Stallworth saw a classified ad, called the Klan, and, with the help of a white partner who was “Stallworth” for the in-person meetings, ended up a member in good standing, having phone conversations with the head of the organization, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). (All of this really happened.)

Stallworth also really went undercover at a lecture by black activist Stokely Charmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture, and who is played here by Corey Hawkins, conveying Ture’s magnetism and fiery brilliance and making an impression so strong in his brief scene that it resonates throughout the rest of the film. This rally is really the pivotal, as Washington shows us as close unguarded as Stallworth gets, which opens him up to pursuing Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pretty activist he meets there. But of course he has to stay undercover with her, too — personally, not professionally — because she has strong political feelings about working within the system in general and about the police in particular. (This character and their relationship are fictional.) Adam Driver, as Stallworth’s white partner, has his own double-undercover moments. He thinks it does not matter that he is Jewish, but as Stallworth tells him, he has skin in the game, too. Near the end of the film, Stallworth is undercover at least two levels when he is assigned to Duke’s security detail and must stand close to the man who does not know Stallworth is the man he spoke to in confidence over the phone.

Law enforcement might have been an unusual choice for a black man of that era, but in every other respect Stallworth seems born to be in law enforcement, happy to accept the offer, and clearly aware of the challenges he will face, from the superiors who assign him safe but boring jobs to racist comments from some of the other officers. Washington (a former pro football player and regular on “Ballers”) projects an easy physical confidence, nerves of steel, and a personal meticulousness, from his perfectly shaped Afro to his neatly ironed shirt and shined shoes. Lee, working with production designer Curt Beech, costume designer Marci Rodgers, and director of photography Chayse Irvin, bring a light touch to a 70’s vibe that owes as much to the movies and pop culture of the era as to what ordinary people and settings looked like. There’s a nice nod to 70’s movies as well in the graphics and sinuous, jazzy camerawork and the way the handsome, athletic Washington is lit like Shaft or Superfly.

There could be no better depiction of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” than the Klansmen and women in this film, who chat casually about hatred and terrorism the way other small groups of like-minded communities might talk about an upcoming bake sale. We can almost sympathize with a 1970’s wife who just wants a chance to do something important like the men do or the men who get a sense of fellowship in a shared interest. Topher Grace shows us Duke’s silky, ingratiating manner, and Lee shows us that complacent hatred may be the most insidious.

It may seem to some viewers that an opening montage of racist imagery, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and a scene of Alec Baldwin as a racist businessman are over the top, until we see the footage from 2017’s white supremacist rally Charlottesville one year before the release of this film. Lee is one of my favorite directors, but he sometimes has more ideas than story or characters in his films. Here, with Stallworth’s remarkable true and timely story, a star-making performance by Washington, whose resemblance to his double Oscar-winning father is more in his voice than his face, he has made one of his all-time best, most purely entertaining, and most important films.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of terrorist activities with peril and violence and very strong and offensive language. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How did Ron and Patrice differ in their ideas about the best way to solve problems and make things better? What has changed and what has not since the 1970’s?

If you like this, try: the book by Ron Stallworth and Lee’s films “Inside Man,” “School Daze,” and “Chi-Raq”

Recommended reviews: Odie Henderson on rogerebert.com, Travis Hopson on Punch Drunk Critics

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