FIRST MAN – THE WRONG STUFF

SHORT TAKE:

Incredible acting can not save this tedious and pseudo-"reality TV show" style rewriting of history aimed at devaluing American exceptionalism, American accomplishments and American heroes.

WHO SHOULD GO:

No sexuality, a handful of mild profanitites (and one quite vulgar but understandable cuss word muttered off screen by someone feeling very ill) and a lot of visually disturbing images including prolonged scenes of extremely violent shaking and people trapped in a fire in an enclosed space. Were this an accurate inspiring portrayal of the space race I'd say it was worth it, but as it is there's really NO POINT.

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LONG TAKE:

I was 10 years old when the first man – an AMERICAN – walked on the moon. I remember it being late in the day – 9:56 pm CST to be precise – where we were, so I had my P.J.s on. And when Neil Armstrong uttered those now amazing words for the first time: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," I SAW it on TV. Then everyone in the house – Mom, Dad, my brother and sister and her fiance all ran outside. I was barefoot, so my future brother-in-law swept me up and carried me outside with our group and we all just stood near Metairie Road, because nearer to our house the view of the sky was obstructed by trees – and we just looked and waved to Neil Armstrong. And we were not alone. People all over the WORLD cheered and cried and laughed and were simply amazed at the INCREDIBLE event that AMERICA had accomplished, putting the FIRST MAN – an AMERICAN man – on the moon.

America was the FIRST country, and to date the ONLY COUNTRY, to make an extraterrestrial manned landing, was AND IS the FIRST AND ONLY country to have a man step out ONTO  extraterrestrial property, and frankly is the FIRST and ONLY country in the world or in HISTORY to legitimately lay CLAIM to an extraterrestrial piece of land. In a fit of historic re-engineering to downplay the obvious American exceptionalism in such a feat, First Man pointedly neglected to show the planting of the American flag – a symbol as synonymous with our achievement as the image of the booted human footprint or Lieutenant Armstrong's step off the module.

Their excuse is that they think Armstrong didn't see himself as an American hero but that it was an accomplishment of the world…..NO! The world didn't pay for it. The world didn't chip in men or time or money or blood or industry or lives in plenty for our AMERICAN space program. No one but AMERICAN men died in our test planes and shots and explosions. The UN had nothing to do with it. And I don't really care what the filmmakers think Armstrong's opinion was. This was ENTIRELY an American adventure against which we were in competition with other countries. And even if I bought into the vacuous "world accomplishment" POV – which I do not – the fact is the flag was planted. Our AMERICAN flag was visible in places and photos where the director – Damien Chazelle – deliberately chose, in an act of sheer arrogance, to inauthentically, blatantly and unilaterally eliminate our AMERICAN flag from the picture. And yet they CLAIM to be historically accurate emphasizing its FALSE historicity with the documentary style footage. This is an affront to every man who died, to every widow who had to raise their children without one of the men who perished in a test plane or capsule, to every man, woman and child who devoted their prayers, tax money, sweat, enthusiasm and attention to this DISTINCTLY AMERICAN program.

Before I went to see First Man I had heard about this flagrant insult to the memories and sacrifices of our country. I had been concerned I would have to chide what I had been sure would be an otherwise excellent movie about the space program.

I needn't have been concerned.

SPOILERS

There are PLENTY of other egregious flaws with First Man. Insulting the planting of the American flag by ignoring it was just one of many.

To start, however, the acting was excellent. In Claire Foy I think we're seeing the making of a British Meryl Streep – a woman who can so artfully immerse herself in character that you don't recognize her from one performance to the next. She is a true actor – as defined by Alan Swann in My Favorite Year when he explains in comic desperation that he is "…not an actor, I'm a MOVIE STAR!" (For more examination of this point please see the first paragraph of my blog Operation Finale). Whether the Swedish Girl in the Spider's Web, the crazed American in Unsane, Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown or as Janet Armstrong, Foy nails it. There is a scene at the end, brilliantly performed, of almost complete silence, visually emphasizing Armstrong's inability to connect with anyone, where Gosling and Foy say more in subtle looks and gestures than most movies do in pages of script.

Unfortunately, while Ryan Gosling is excellent too – he expends his talent creating an extremely unpleasant person.

Were I Neil Armstrong's descendants I would be thoroughly perturbed at the portrayal of the famous astronaut in First Man. It is also just poor script writing. We all know the outcome of the story: It took years, there were a number of Gemini shots which made sure we could safely get a man into space, dock with another vehicle and return him home alive. Then Apollo 1 blew up, Apollo 11 made it to the moon and there were a number of successful Apollos in between. In order for such a pervasively well known story to work you have to care about the characters. And the Neil Armstrong in First Man is not only unlikeable, he is unapproachable. Cold, distant, unfeeling, harsh, abrasive even to his best friends, his wife and his sons, the writer chalks his personality issues down to his inability to overcome the death of his toddler daughter by brain tumor. He flees the funeral of a fellow astronaut, to run away home, without a word to his wife, ignoring the fact she is in pain as well, and leaving her, humiliated, having to beg a ride from a friend. He shuns his friend's offers of counsel, as he stands staring into space in his backyard with: "Do you think I came out here because I wanted to talk? Do you think I left the funeral because I wanted to talk?" He not only refuses to answer his worried wife's inquiries when he returns home bloodied and burned after an almost fatal crash, but immediately runs away claiming to have "forgotten something at the office". Janet has to bully, berate and throw things to get him to say goodbye to his own children, for possibly the last time, before he goes to the Moon. He seems immune to the agony of his dead friend's widow. And the flashbacks of his dead daughter, which cripple him into apathy, become redundant in their predictability at crisis moments. I've seen serial killers, devoid of empathy, portrayed as more emotionally engaged than poor Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong. It is difficult to believe NASA would put someone so emotionally and psychologically damaged in charge of THE one and only first ever in all of human history –  moon landing.

The retro historians were out to trash an established American hero. Basically they portray Neil Armstrong as a body part reserved for proctologists. And even if this were true, the story of the First Man, who was landed on the moon by AMERICA, was NOT the place to put it. If you want a tell-all, soap opera bio pic of Neil Armstrong, then by all means, go ahead. But don't pretend this tortured portrait of an American hero is a reflection of the American Spirit or play fast and loose with history while claiming to be accurate. Don't make a psychologically crippled version of Neil Armstrong the center of a movie about the space race.

Either show Armstrong's whole life warts and all or put the uplifting endeavor that was and is the AMERICAN space program in the correct light. The only reason to have it "both" ways and put it ALL in a negative light is because you wish to undermine and treat with dismissiveness the AMERICAN moon walk in particular and AMERICA in general.

Nowhere in the entire movie is the joie de vivre, the enthusiasm, the sheer joy of exploration and discovery that was and is the American space program, not even in the more realistically portrayed Gus Grissom (Jason Clark) or  Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). 
Where is the comraderie from The Right Stuff? Where is Ed Harris' John Glenn who exemplified that genial excitement or Dennis Quaid's  cocky and arrogant but infectiously confident Gordon Cooper in the movie about the lead up to the moon shot? Harris and Quaid's Glenn and Cooper, respectively, personified why charting the unknown was worth the trials and terrors and tears that it cost us.  

By contrast First Man makes it look like the space program was the unwanted chore of a beleaguered group of government bureaucrats with which we foolishly burdened the American taxpayer. Chazell even rudely shoehorned in "Whitey on the Moon," an anthem against the space program. Playing it along with scenes of racially inspired protest marches, the film makers tried to make it appear as though this bitter song was a reflection of the "popular" sentiment during the years leading up to the moon shot. This song, with all its resentment and anger, was neither a representation of the mood of the country concerning the space program NOR even published until AFTER the first landing on the moon took place. Its anachronistic insertion was amateurishly spliced in, as though from an entirely different movie and had no bearing on the outcome of the story.  

The obvious intent of First Man was to make it appear as though the American public was against the program, when, in fact, the approval for the space program was enthusiastically positive along all the —isms you can imagine because it was a unqiuely AMERICAN program of which every AMERICAN could be proud! In the end the entire WORLD was rooting for AMERICA and these three AMERICANS to get to the moon, land and return alive – which AMERICA accomplished FIRST.

Instead of the exciting, energizing program that created jobs, inspired innovations and injected new levels of patriotism across our country, First Man tried to portray the space program as a draining, painful, horror movie. The audience has to sit through interminably long, difficult to endure, near real-time length scenes in the capsule, including the  deafening roar from inside of the relatively primitive Gemini 1 and the monster-like screaming of the exploding rocket fuel and distressed metal as it strains to not come apart in Apollo 11. The director's choice of near home movie found-footage semi documentary-style makes the movie feel even more harsh and barren, especially as we walk often through dated, sparsely adorned versions of the military housing where these men and their families lived.

And slow! Oh my goodness! It was as though Stanley Kubrick became enamoured of The Blair Witch Project, and insisted on the acting techniques of HAL from 2001 to make a sequel to The Right Stuff.

First Man is yet another obvious attempt by the intelligentsia to target and try to downplay, trivialize and sully the achievements that highlight America's genuine and unique exceptionalism. They emphasize the space program's problems and failures without celebrating their successes and astonishing one-of-a-kind accomplishments.

And – guess what – when last we looked "…our flag was STILL there!"

Poland should be rightly proud of Madame Curie's discoveries. The world should be grateful to France for producing Louis Pastuer. The world admires and loves Mother Teresa, a native of Skopje (now Macedonia). Humanity is better for the beautiful music of Russia's Tchaikovsky. Japan's Kurosawa's movies are considered classics. All these countries love their native sons and daughters and take every opportunity to extol them to the world.

What is WRONG with some Americans?! The country of their birth, which has given them and the world so many blessings through the grace of God is unappreciated by many whose thriving is owed to the freedoms for ingenuity and success that America affords. Other countries seem to appreciate and respect our flag more than do some of her native peoples, and it is infuriating. If you do not appreciate the many many blessings of living in America and being an American then, as another blessing of living in America, you are free to go to some other country for which you have more respect. If you wish to make movies about American history then  I don't expect perfection or for it to be shown without mistakes, for no human endeavor can be done without them, but I do expect that it would be created with respect.

In short First Man is the LAST place you want to go for a good uplifting (pun intended) movie about the space race. Instead, just go watch The Right Stuff again!!

 

 

EARLY MAN – LAUGH AS WALLACE AND GROMIT MEETS EVERY SPORTS MOVIE CLICHE KNOWN TO MAN

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable, funny, family friendly, typical sports outing about an underdog cavemen team playing soccer against a more sophisticated "Bronze Age" team to win their valley back, all brought to us by Nick Park and friends, the creators of SHAUN THE SHEEP!!!

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

If you like Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep or Chicken Run or The Wrong Trousers or…. oh EVERYBODY!!!

AND IF YOU LIKE THESE REVIEWS PLEASE SUBSCRIBE! THEN YOU'LL GET     EVERY NEW REVIEW SENT STRAIGHT TO YOUR E-MAIL!!

GO TO THE BOTTOM OF THE LEFT HAND SIDE AND TYPE YOUR E-MAIL IN – IT (SHOULD BE) THAT EASY. ANY PROBLEMS PLEASE SEND ME A COMMENT AND I'LL DO MY BEST TO RESOLVE YOUR ISSUE.

LONG TAKE:

What do the fantasy franchises: Harry Potter, The Avengers, Game of Thrones and……. Wallace and Gromit have in common? Wallace and Gromit????!!!!

The answer is: Early Man.

Early Man is an adorable plasticine animation feature length movie brought  to you by the same instigators, led by Nick Park, who created The Wrong Trousers, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the story is spun about the lives of a group of Cavemen who were forced into the lone habitable spot by a meteor which devastated the rest of the known Earth. Their valley is lush and green, where all about them is the Badlands: with dangerous mutant animals, harsh rocky ground, and volcanos. The Badlands looks a bit like I'd imagine the Wembley Stadium parking lot after an EFL Championship game. But there are a couple of silver linings. Not only did the meteor strike carve out at least this one fertile area but the meteor, itself, also gave them the template for history's first football. By that, for those of you reading in America, I mean soccer. But the Brits call it football, so there it is.

Fast forward a couple "eras" and Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne – Newt Scamander from the "Harry Potter" world of Fantastic Beasts) and the tribe of which he is a member, happily lives on fruits, nuts and the odd rabbit (which said presented rabbit is about as catchable as Bugs Bunny so, in effect, they are de facto vegetarians). But Dug is ambitious – he wants to hunt mammoths………!

But that's not what the story is about. Their idyll is interrupted when Lord Nooth (voiced by The Avengers' Tom Hiddleson) sporting an impenetrable guise of Italian accent, comes upon the scene with equipment made of the bronze which he has mined from his nearby kingdom.

Dug challenges them to a game of soccer/football to win their valley back. Completely outmatched, Dug's group has no equipment, no training, no experience and doesn't even know the rules, but his chutzpah gets the attention of a local girl, Goona (voiced by Game of Thrones' Maizie Williams) from the Bronze kingdom who coaches Dug's tribe in exchange for a spot on the team. Nick Par, the creator, even lends a hand — or voice — for the emotive and communicative grunts and snorts of Dug's intelligent pig, Hognob.

The story is a pretty formulaic case of underdog team goes up against much better players with nothing but a good cause, lots of heart, and a ringer. We've seen the like in everything from The Karate Kid (karate) to Facing the Giants (American football) to Bad News Bears (baseball) to Mystery Alaska (hockey) and Balls of Fury (ping pong), and it works — every — time because, as Patton put it so well – "Americans love a winner" and everyone loves the underdog because in them we all  find inspiration. But this time it's played for laughs, parodying the sport, the genre, diva professional players, sports announcers, a "win one for the Gipper" moment, a hen pecked husband, you name it.

It's a clean, gentle, lovable movie that kids will enjoy for the claymation/plasticine animation and adults will appreciate for the pokes at the cliches. While there is a good deal of spoofing and teasing, there's not a mean spot in Nick Park's entire imaginative brain.

The cast list is like an old home week of favorite kids' characters, especially from the Harry Potter franchise. So when you take your kids you can happily point out that Eddie Redmayne is both Dug andNewt Scamander.  Timothy Spall, who voiced Chief Bobnar also moonlighted as Peter Pettigrew. Mark Williams, who does the voice for Barry, was also Mr. Weasley.

Miriam Margolyes, who voices Queen Oofeefa was also Professor Sprout. And Tom Hiddleson is Lord Nooth andLoki! I'll let you figure out how to explain Maisie Williams' stint in Game of Thrones. But, if it helps, she was also in a handful of Dr. Whos.

Early Man is available on Amazon now. So go watch this cute movie that will be delightful to kids, footballers, adults, fans of Wallace and Gromit, Harry Potter afficianados, pig farmers, rabbits, cavemen ………………

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO – COMPLETELY FAMILY FRIENDLY ANIMATED HISTORICALLY ACCURATE DELIGHT ABOUT A FOUR LEGGED WORLD WAR I SOLDIER

SHORT TAKE:

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a wonderful animated history of American Sgt. Stubby, a small mixed pitbull, the only dog to achieve rank and combat advancement, who followed his master’s Yankee Division regiment into the desperately dangerous front line trenches of World War I France.

WHO CAN GO:

With rare unequivocalness, I can recommend this movie for EVERYONE of any age.

LONG TAKE:

Years ago my brother, Bill, and I watched Lethal Weapon 2 on TV. There was a scene where Gibson as Martin Riggs, his dog Sam and Riggs' girlfriend du jour were under attack – helicopters, guns, lots of shooting. Bill turned to me and knowing what my primary concern would be said, "Don’t worry the dog survives." So rest assured to any parents concerned about bringing their small children to a movie about a cute dog on the front lines in World War I trenches, I have no compunction about a spoiler to let you know Sgt. Stubby is VERY child friendly.

Directed by Richard Lanni, in his first non-documentary feature film, and written by Lanni and Mike Stokey, the latter a combat vet and experienced film consultant on everything military, Sgt. Stubby is a mostly historically accurate telling of a stray miniature pit bull mix who attached himself to the 102nd Infantry Regiment Yankee Division, especially one Private Robert Conroy. Conroy is voiced by Logan Lerman, known for Fury, the Percy Jackson movies, 2011's steam-punk version of The Three Musketeers, and the most recent (and vastly underappreciated) Noah. (As a side note see Word on Fire’s Bishop Barron’s review of Noah before coming down too hard on Noah.)

In a delightful surprising supporting role, the amazing French actor, Gerard Depardieu brings Gaston Baptiste to life. Depardieu, with over 233 credits to his name is, to my mind, of note for the best Cyrano de Bergerac (short of the updated romantic comedy by Steve Martin, Roxanne), the funniest Porthos from 1998's Man in the Iron Mask, and the almost unique appearance of the character Reynaldo in Branagh’s unabridged Hamlet. Depardieu, leading man in both French and American movies, accomplished winemaker and restauranteur, has appeared mostly in historical dramas and romantic comedies. Baptiste, drawn to loosely look like Mr. Depardieu, is a large gentle giant of a veteran Frenchman who, in his civilian life, is a chef and takes Conroy, Stubby and Conroy’s closest human friends under his wing to help them survive in the trenches.

Stubby became the mascot of the Yankee Division, wandering onto the grounds of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where the troops were training. Stubby ended up going with the men to the front lines in France for 18 months – in the trenches, raising morale, chasing out vermin, locating the injured, alerting the men to incoming bombs and impending gas clouds, and warning of approaching Germans. He was the most decorated dog in World War I and the only dog to ever achieve rank and then a combat promotion which he won for heroics during battle, including receiving a war wound.

Sgt Stubby is told through the medium of letters written home to Conroy’s sister Margaret, voiced by Helen Bonham Carter. Carter is best known for her scary roles including Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise, the Red Queen in 2010's Alice in Wonderland, and Madam Thenardier from Les Mis. She is not quite as well known for some truly lovely and far gentler roles, such as the devoted wife of George VI in The King’s Speech. Her narration as Margaret in Sgt. Stubby ranks with her performance as Queen Elizabeth.

Sgt. Stubby reminded me of the old Disney and Warner Brothers animated shorts made during World War II promoting patriotism, explaining rationing, and cautioning against "loose lips". It was delightful to see that kind of straight forward common sense view of America and her allies against a common enemy AND with all the benefits of beautiful modern animation, all structured by the genuinely amazing events of this little dog.

From what I have read there were SOME historical liberties taken – for example Stubby does not manage to get onto the ship alone through sheer will and determination to find his master, but was smuggled onto the ship by Conroy. However, MOST of the other notable adventures really occurred – of which I hesitate to mention for fear of spoilers and ruining some surprises.

This is a VERY VERY child friendly movie. Even the battle injuries sustained by the soldiers are "shown" through mild reactions of other soldiers, or occur off screen or simply are just not shown but spoken of as one might during a stage play without actually showing any blood or wound. My two year old grandson, who ADORES dogs and is especially fond of our American Staffordshire mix, was not upset by any of the proceedings. During suspenseful moments he occasionally spoke a word of encouragement to Stubby but was otherwise transfixed. Two ten year old little girls who came with us and all the moms found the movie equally enjoyable. My ten year old "co-reviewers" both gave Stubby a definite "two thumbs up".

One of the other moms noted to me that, not only was Stubby a good and wholesomely entertaining movie, but it was genuinely educational. Maps of France, the trenches, the battle front lines, the advances and retreats were clearly drawn and animated, making it quite easy to follow the progress of the war. Details of uniforms and weaponry, the barbed wire, insignia on the bombs, movement of weaponry and conditions of the trenches seemed to be very carefully considered.

So I’d say – bring your dog obsessed two year old, bring grandma whose grandfather might have fought at Chemin des Dames, bring your older teen majoring in history at college, bring a girl on a first date, bring your friends to watch a feel good patriotic movie about the true exploits of brave American and French soldiers – both two and four footed, who fought selflessly to protect their countries and each other.