Friday, January 13, 2017

"Hidden Figures" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Hidden Figures" as well as the DVDs "American Honey" and "Morgan."  The Book of the Week is the novel "Nine Women, One Dress."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die" with Jean Luc Godard's "Contempt" where Brigitte Bardot's butt plays a major role]

Hidden Figures

A biopic about three little known African American women who played key roles in America's space race during the early 1960's.

When this film was first advertised and the posters started appearing in the theatres, I had little interest in the film.  For one thing, it was about women mathematicians working on America's space program.  I am not really that interested in movies about the space program and I hate math.  I also thought this movie was going to be just another old-fashioned film about women struggling to triumph in a man's world.

Yes, the movie is about the space program and math and it is about women struggling to make it in what was viewed as a man's profession.  But the film is so much more than that.  It is also a movie about racism, discrimination against women, strong female friendships, and Kevin Costner is in it, all things I AM interested in.  And yes, it's an old-fashioned film but that's a good thing because there is nothing wrong with good old-fashioned compelling storytelling.

This movie is a gem.

The film, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, highlights three African American women - Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson) played by Taraji P. Henson, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) - who, despite the racism and discrimination still so rampant in the 1960s's, played key roles in the United States' Space Program in Langley, Virginia. 

In the early 1960's, the United States was in a "space race," with Russia.  Russia had already put a man in space and we Americans don't like to be second. It was also the height of the Cold War, when we didn't like Russia very much, unlike what it seems like today.  

Goble/Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan started out at NASA as "human computers." That's what they called people who computed before computers came along. These workers, many of them female, checked the calculations of the male scientists and engineers, but even at NASA, working for the United States Government, in the early 1960's, African Americans were segregated at work, and those three women worked in the "Colored Computers" room together. All three were educated, extremely smart women who were ambitious. Mary, the smart talking scrappy one, wanted to be an engineer. Dorothy, who ostensibly was the supervisor of the computing room, wanted to be recognized as the supervisor with the title and pay.

But the film is mostly about Katherine, who was recognized early as a mathematical genius, and who is called to work directly on the Alan Shepard and John Glenn launches with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and the other male scientists and engineers in The Space Task Group, because she is the only one who knows analytical geometry.

All three women must create their own paths to be recognized and reach their goals despite the racism and misogyny of the time.

The film is a buddy picture of sorts as the women travel to work together and share their struggles to get ahead.  But the film is also a sad reminder of the discrimination that African Americans suffered as recently as only 50 years ago.
We are reminded that African Americans could not use the same restrooms or drink out of the same drinking fountains as whites, even at work. In the 1960's, they were still riding in the back of the bus, and the public library even had a "colored" and a "whites only" section. Horrible.  And despite Brown vs. The Board of Education, a 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, in some states African Americans still couldn't go to white schools, as we see when Mary wants to take some night classes to become an engineer and the only classes are at an all-white school.

So racism and discrimination against African Americans was still rampant in the 1960's. Add African American women into that equation (pardon the pun) and the discrimination is doubled.  Could an African American man become an engineer?  Maybe.  An African American woman?  Absurd!  Should a woman be allowed in a briefing room?  Absolutely not. Should her name go on the report that she wrote? No. In fact, at NASA the African American women doing the computing were practically invisible, hidden, that is, when they weren't being looked down upon by their white superiors. We are reminded that people of color, and women especially, had to work harder and better than their white counterparts if they wanted to have the same opportunities.

There is a telling thread in the film that begins when Katherine is promoted to The Space Task Group to work with Al Harrison and his people who were working on the space launches and who were all white. There was covert hostility when she showed up for work that became overt when someone labeled a separate coffee pot on the break table "colored."  And no one gave any thought to where Katherine might use the restroom.  There were no "colored" restrooms in that wing, so rain or shine, she was forced to run a half mile back to her old office to use the "colored restroom."  It makes for some humor, especially with Pharrell Williams' song "Runnin" in the background, but it's a humor clouded in darkness and brings its point home. Katherine suffered in silence until, finally, when Harrison wonders where Katherine has been and calls her on the carpet in front of everyone, Katherine gives an impassioned speech about the inequities she has had to endure. 

I am amazed that Taraji B. Henson was not nominated for a Golden Globe. Her portrayal of Katherine Goble/Johnson is a sensitive, quiet performance, but a very strong one with a bit of humor as she is prone to pushing her glasses up her nose, nerd style.  There is not a smidgeon of Cookie ("Empire") in sight.  I hope the Oscars recognize this wonderful performance. Octavia Spencer was her usual self.  She always brings in solid, sensitive performances, but I didn't see a stretch in this performance, so her Golden Globe nomination was surprising when there wasn't one for Henson.

Kevin Costner is my main Hollywood crush so he can do no wrong in my eyes, and here he gets to be the tough but reasonable boss who recognizes Katherine's worth. Jim Parsons as Katherine's supervisor and arch nemesis, Jim Stafford, is surprisingly good, playing against type.  Likewise, Kirsten Dunst gets the dubious pleasure of a job well-done playing a condescending supervisor holding Dorothy back from her desire to become a supervisor.  The rest of the cast, which includes Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali, both of whom were in "Moonlight" together, are all first-rate.

Katherine (Goble) Johnson came up with the "hidden figures" needed for a successful launch of John Glenn into space, but Katherine, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn were themselves "hidden figures" in American history until they were celebrated by Spetterling in her book.  Her subtitle tells it all: "The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race."  I am so glad she told their story and that director Theodore Melfi (who also adapted the script with Allison Schroeder) did them justice in this film.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a beautifully written and acted inspirational movie that is also an important reminder of what American people of color and, especially women, had to struggle against to be seen and heard. Also an important reminder to and inspiration for girls that they can be good at math!  A must-see for the whole family.

BTW, I cried...and you know what that means!

***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

American Honey (2016)

A teenage girl joins a group of young people who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. 

You know those kids who were so rampant in the 90's - they went door to door selling magazines and giving us sob stories?  I fell for it a couple of times, especially when one overweight girl said she was having a panic attack and could she come in and sit down.  I felt sorry for her and bought several subscriptions.  And then we all found out that those supposed sad teens with the sad stories were really part of a huge shadowy operation where the kids were bused into neighborhoods and sent out all day to sell those magazines. They would say or do whatever they needed to to sell.  One kid told me he was at Stanford and his aunt lived around the block from me.  Did I ask his aunt's name or her address?  No.  I've always been a sucker for charming and handsome young men.

Anyway, that's what this movie is about - those kids, here a disaffected, hard-partying motley crew, seemingly lost souls who travel from town to town in a van, let loose in affluent areas and hoping to tell a story that the person who answers the door will buy - "I am in a contest and if I sell enough magazine subscriptions I will get a free semester of college" or "I was in trouble but am now trying to turn my life around" - none of which were true.

Sasha Lane plays Star, a young girl with attitude from a poor, rough background who is not particularly likable.  She meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf, the only big name star in this film, if you can call him a big name star), a guy who is part of a travelling group of young people who go from town to town selling magazine subscriptions.  They embark on a romance but the film is mostly about Star and her trying to figure out life. 

When Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter), the "boss," interviews Star, she asks her where she is from.  Star answers "Texas," to which Crystal replies, "You're a southern girl, a real American Honey, like me ("American Honey" is also a song by Lady Antebellum)."

However, Krystal isn't really the boss.  She is just another cog in the wheel of what is most likely a pyramid scheme in a much larger corporate entity. As these kids travel from town to town pursuing their own version of the American Dream, selling in affluent tree-lined neighborhoods and then spending the night in gritty neighborhoods and seedy motels, the divide between America's rich and poor is laid out before us.

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, in her first movie filmed outside the U.K, the movie has a documentary feel with its shaky hand-held camera work and its small screen (no widescreen here).  Most of the actors are non-professionals who Arnold recruited for the film.  Even Lane, the star of the film, was discovered by Arnold on a beach and had never acted before. All of that adds up to an engrossing piece of reality that is part character study and part road trip.  The screenplay is interesting and original and the cinematography beautiful, but I have to question the length of this film.  Two-and-a-half hours seems a bit indulgent.  I think the point could have been made in 90 minutes.

Shia LaBeouf is actually a very good actor, but the antics in his personal life have overshadowed his work, which is too bad, because here he creates a character that is at times brash and insensitive, other times tender and caring.

Sasha Lane had never acted before, which is amazing.  She is believable as Star, the girl who has nothing to lose, leaves her town and goes off on what appears to be a big adventure in hopes of finding something better.  Star has major attitude but also has a soft spot for children and animals.  It's a coming of age tale that would give parents the shudders.

Oh, and those magazine subscriptions I bought?  They were over-priced, but I actually DID get the magazines.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a fascinating look into a world few of us have ever been privy to...and we are lucky we haven't. 

Morgan (2016)

An artificially created humanoid begins to come unhinged.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who I recognized as the star of another recent horror film "The Witch," which I reviewed last year) is a corporate experiment in creating a hybrid biological organism and injecting it with emotions and intellect.  (It was never really explained why we needed more humans). A team of people live in a remote, scary gothic house working with Morgan (why are these things always done in remote scary places)? The team consists of Amy (Rose Leslie), the behaviorist, Skip, the nutritionist (Boyd Holbrook), Kathy, one of the caregivers (Jennifer Jason Leigh in probably the smallest role she has ever had), Dr. Ziegler (Toby Jones), doctors Darren (Chris Sullivan) and Brenda Finch (Vinette Robinson), Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and Ted (Michael Yare).  I never figured out what Ted's job was. 

Everything has been going swimmingly - Morgan is now five years old, though she is very definitely a teenager in looks and intellect - until there is an unfortunate incident where Morgan attacks Kathy. Morgan appears to have a bit of an anger problem, so now corporate has sent a risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to sort out what needs to be done. If Morgan is out of control, then she/he/it needs to be terminated.  But when Lee arrives, she sees that almost all of the team has formed an emotional bond with Morgan and are treating her as a human.  Amy, particularly, has crossed the boundaries and taken Morgan out of her enclosure and into the woods and to a lake to experience nature.  

As Dr. Cheng points out,  "Do you know the cruelest thing you can do to someone you've locked in a room? Press their face to the window."

Dr. Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) has also been sent by corporate to do an evaluation of Morgan and when he arrives to give Morgan a psychological evaluation, he makes her mad...and all hell breaks loose.

This scifi thriller with some gothic tinges was written by Seth W. Owen and directed by Luke Scott (son of Ridley). It seems to be a very similar plot to "Ex Machina," which I listed as one of the best films of 2015.  An outsider travels to a remote location to discover some strange human experimentation going on, finds a humanoid who is very human and gets caught up in the drama.  We are then required to ask ourselves, "What does it mean to be human? However, in this one, naturally, there is a twist on that theme, which naturally, I saw coming a mile away.  

But that aside, let's be frank.  This is a Lifetime Movie with A-list actors, but hey, I love Lifetime movies and this was a fun ride.

Mara does a good job as the unfeeling Lee Weathers who has come to do a job.  The rest of the cast is also fine - you will recognize Rose Leslie as Amy who was Jon Snow's love interest in "Game of Thrones" and Chris Sullivan from the hot new TV show "This is Us," one of the TV shows I listed recently as one of my favorite TV shows.

Then there is Paul Giamatti. You know how I feel about Paul Giamatti.  I have ranted about him ad infinitum.  He usually plays some kind of pompous ass and talks too loud.  He yells his lines. But actually, here, when he first arrived on screen, I hardly recognized him because his performance was so low key, but then he reverted to type and went over the top which not only caused Morgan to get angry, thus getting the ball rolling in the bloodshed that was to ensue, but made me give up on him entirely.

Rosy the Reviewer says...yet another entry in the film genre that could be called "How-To-Create-Humans-Other-Than-The-Natural-Way: A Cautionary Tale." But an entertaining movie, nevertheless, that reminds us: Don't mess with Mother Nature!

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

219 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

Contempt (1963)

A marriage disintegrates during the making of a film.

Based on the novel "A Ghost at Noon" by Albert Moravia, the film opens with a long shot of Bridget Bardot's lovely naked backside.  In fact this entire film seems to be a love letter to Bardot's body.  She wasn't a major sex symbol for nothing.

Screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli, who looked very much like Clive Owen - back then anyway) is working with producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance, on a screenplay, a version of Homer's "Odyssey," but he is at odds with Prokosch and director Fritz Lang (played by the real Lang). 

Prokosch is filming on the Isle of Capri and Javal and his wife Camille (Bardot) are also there. Their marriage is in trouble and Camille blames the troubles on Javal hanging out with movie people.  However, I blame the troubles in their marriage to Javal being a controlling type who is not averse to knocking his wife around and shopping her out to Prokosch who lusts after her so that he can get his movie made.  This film seems to be saying that selling one's soul to the devil seems to be a necessity in the movie business. It also seems to be saying that Bardot taking off her clothes at every opportunity is also a necessity.

Director Jean-Luc Godard uses the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope as a theme for Paul and Camille's marriage as their marriage plays out against the backdrop of making a movie on the Isle of Capri amidst a plethora of Greek art and statues. 

Lang is German, Palance American and Javal and Camille French so there is a female interpreter present for most of the film interpreting dialogue for the characters, and I found it extremely annoying.  Perhaps it was a device to show the lack of communication amongst the characters, but it was annoying nevertheless.

Godard turns a caustic eye to the conflict between art and business and has created a cynical take on making movies and asks the question, "What is art?"  He literally beats you over the head with that question as he juxtaposes Greek sculpture into the film every 15 minutes or so. He also asks, "What is real life and what is make believe?  How much of what we see in the movies mirrors real life?"

As I make my way through the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die," I have come to realize that there was a lot of navel-gazing in some of the movies from the 50's and 60's, especially the French films.  Back then I must have enjoyed navel-gazing, because I and my friends were all agog at anything French and incomprehensible.  We didn't understand it?  It must have been deep.  But nowadays, I see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes and those same films do not have the same impact on me now that they had on my young mind back then.  Now some of them make me..yawn.

Interestingly, the movie is filled with references to films and adorned with movie posters.  That was a similar device in "La La Land," which has currently taken the film world by storm, but that was the only similarity between the two films.  Where "La La Land" is a love letter to the movies, this film is mostly a love letter to Bridget Bardot's body and a poison pen letter to the movies. 

This is a beautiful film to look at and the story centers around a crumbling marriage played out on a gorgeous Mediterranean island.  It reminded me of "By the Sea (and we know how that marriage played out in real life)," but much of the movie was incomprehensible and the music was strangely out of sync to what was happening on screen.  Bardot also dons a short black wig from time to time which I am sure is symbolic of something but I never figured that out either.  But in general, in addition to the what is art stuff and the conflict between art and commerciality, I think this film is also how love can turn to contempt, which is a bit obvious, considering the title of the film.

I found it ironic that Godard is critical of the commercial side of art/movie-making but has no problem using Bardot's nudity in a gratuitous way at every turn - but then, maybe he was doing that to make a point.. Mmmm, deep.

Why it's a Must See: "A clever, elegant film with a shocking ending."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Roger Ebert said: "Contempt'' is not one of the great Godard films...It is interesting to see, and has moments of brilliance...but its real importance is as a failed experiment. 'Contempt' taught Godard he could not make films like this, and so he included himself out, and went on to make the films he could make."

Rosy the Reviewer says...I agree with Roger, so why is this one of the "1001 Movies" I must see before I die?  But I will say, if you want to see Bardot sans vetements in all of her glory, then it might be worth it to you.

***The Book of the Week***

Nine Women, One Dress: A Novel by Jane L. Rosen

Who knew a LBD (Little Black Dress) could have such impact on peoples' lives?

"For seventy-five years I have made ladies' dresses.  That means that for seventy-five years I have made women happy...Because the right dress does that.  It makes an ordinary woman feel extraordinary...A beautiful dress holds a little bit of magic in it."

So says Morris Siegel, a 90-year-old pattern maker in New York City's garment center, who made "The Dress."  The dress in question was Morris's last dress before he retired, and it instantly became the "must-have" dress of the season. We meet him at the beginning of the book and at the end, after his dress has made its way to nine different women with nine different stories.

First there is Natalie, a Bloomingdale's salesgirl, who is having trouble getting over a nasty break-up and is called upon to wear the dress to a movie premiere with a movie star who is trying to show he isn't gay (he isn't but she thinks he is).  Then there is a Felicia, a 50-something secretary who has been in love with her boss for years but after his wife died, he has taken up with a much younger woman...until he sees Felicia in "the dress."  And then we meet Andie, a private investigator, who is hired to catch a woman's husband cheating...until she falls for the husband. 

Those are the three main storylines.

But the dress also makes its way to a young model fresh from the South who makes a splash in New York because everyone falls in love with her accent (think Margaux Hemingway); a not-very-nice Hollywood diva making her debut on Broadway; a recent Brown graduate who is embarrassed that she can't find a job so fakes a #fabulouslife online; a sheltered young Muslim girl yearning to wear clothes like in the magazines instead of a burqa; a woman who ends up dead in a sinkhole after leaving Bloomies; and Samantha, whose boyfriend works in a funeral home and who ends up in the ER with a rash from formaldehyde.  I will let you figure that one out.  The dress has a part in each of these lives.

And ladies, don't you have a favorite item that makes you feel fantastic and that can tell a story?  Whether we like it or not, what we wear defines us in many ways and clothes have the power to make our story wonderful or lousy.

I know. 

This isn't Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. This is a quick read and chick lit of the highest order, but there is nothing wrong with spending a dreary, cold afternoon with some interesting characters, some romantic stories and the perfect little black dress.

Rosy the Reviewer says...this would make a great movie in the tradition of "The Yellow Rolls Royce," except it's an LBD (Little Black Dress) that gets passed around instead of a BYRR (Big Yellow Rolls Royce).

Thanks for reading!

See you next Friday 

for my review of

"Live By Night"


The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)

 and the latest on

"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project." 

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