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
Date Released to DVD: January 21, 2019

Copyright Universal 2018
On September 12, 1962, nine months after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy issued a daunting challenge to 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 HBO series produced by Tom Hanks, “From the Earth to the Moon

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Hidden Figures Will Tell The Story of Three Black Women at NASA

Posted on July 10, 2016 at 8:00 am

Three of my favorite performers will star in a new film called “Hidden Figures,” the true story three African- American women who worked for NASA during the 1960s space race.  of Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson will star as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who are a crucial part of NASA’s history.

Here’s Katherine Johnson.

And the cast congratulates her.

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Based on a true story Behind the Scenes Gender and Diversity Race and Diversity

Spare Parts

Posted on January 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Copyright Lionsgate 2014
Copyright Lionsgate 2014

It really happened. Four undocumented high school kids from the poorest of communities took on the most brilliant engineering students from the country’s top colleges in a robotics competition and won. The contest results were one in a million, but once it happened, the movie version was inevitable. George Lopez produced the film and stars as the students’ reluctant coach and teacher, Fredi Cameron (based on the two real-life teacher/coaches, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi).

Unlike its robotic superstar, there is not much ingenuity in the storyline. Everything added on, especially the fictionalized backstory for Cameron, is predictable and superfluous and distracting. Lopez is an amiable presence, but these detours reveal his limits as an actor. We want to focus on the students and their robot, to see them solve problems in engineering and teamwork (which is a form of engineering, too). But too much of the running time is devoted to Cameron’s past and his possible romance with a fellow teacher, played by the always-wonderful Marisa Tomei. If she played the coach, this would have been a much better movie. Still, with a storyline like this one, it cannot help being fun to watch.

Cameron is an engineer with a PhD who tells the school’s principal (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a performance of great warmth and wit) he wants a temporary job as a substitute teacher. She notes that he has moved around a lot, but she does not have any alternatives. He agrees to coach the school’s engineering club because he is assured no one will want to join.

Oscar (Carlos PenaVega) shows up with a flier. He is an outstanding JROTC cadet and was crushed to learn that he cannot join the US Military without proof of citizenship. He thinks participating in a NASA-sponsored robotics competition will make it harder to be turned down. Cameron reluctantly agrees to help.

They assemble a team that includes the brain (David Del Rio), the kid who always gets into trouble but is a whiz at mechanics (José Julián), and the muscle (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II) — one problem they cannot engineer around is that someone has to be strong enough to lift their robot. Each has his own challenges. The brain is bullied at school. The troublemaker is under a lot of pressure to take care of his brother. The muscle has to be able to pass a tough oral exam at the competition to show that every member of the team understands the details of the robot. Oscar falls in love with a pretty classmate named Karla (sweetly played by PenaVega’s real-life wife, Alexa), but worries that his illegal status puts her at risk. All of the students are hiding from the ICE, which has already sent one of their mothers back to Mexico.

And then there is the challenge of the competition itself. Not only does this robot have to operate underwater, it has to execute an immensely complicated series of tasks in a limited time period. When the team shows up, they are so certain they will lose anyway that they decide they might as well compete with the college teams instead of the other high school teams. The night before they have to compete the robot has a disastrous leak. Their very creative and inexpensive (and hilarious) solution is one of the film’s high points.

The film’s name refers to more than the repurposed junk used to assemble the robot. Their triumph is bittersweet because their undocumented status prevents them from taking the opportunities available to those who are citizens. This film makes it clear that it is our loss, as it prevents our country from benefiting from the perseverance and skill that made an $800 robot created by kids kick the robotic butt of the $18,000 robot from MIT.

Parents should know that this film includes some teen crime including armed robbery, violence including bullying, some strong language and tense family confrontations and teen kissing.

Family discussion: What was the team’s most difficult challenge? Who was the teacher who inspired you the most and why?

If you like this, try: the book by Joshua Davis, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream, and films like “October Sky” and “Stand and Deliver”

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Based on a true story Drama High School School Stories about Teens

Happy Anniversary of the First Moon Landing

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

45 years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, a powerful reminder of what is possible if we put no limits on our goals “for all mankind.”  I hope we never lose that sense of endless possibility, boundless curiosity, and the determination and courage to carry it through.

For more about the moon landing, I recommend For All Mankind, and what I consider the finest miniseries ever produced in America, Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon.

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