“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.

Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.

This movie got to me. Bigly.

The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.

Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.

Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.

The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.

Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).

Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”

Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.

Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor.  On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.

However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Just because there’s no war, it doesn’t mean we have peace.” X-Men: Apocalypse

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the past decade and a half (plus), there have been a lot of X-Men movies – some kick-out-the-jams great (X2, Days of Future Past, The Wolvervine), some as tired as a day-old doughnut (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Last Stand), and a couple inventively transcendent (First Class, Deadpool). If nothing else, the fact that one intellectual property can sustain that many films with such varied output is testament to the allegorical appeal of a bunch of costumed oddballs whose spectacular difference makes them feared and loathed by the mediocre masses. ‘Murica.

Where does Bryan Singer’s latest X-entry Apocalypse rank? About smack dab in the middle. It’s a decent summer popcorn epic with a great cast, many of whom rise above the CGI detritus to land a moment or two of tear-jerking pathos. Per capita Oscar/Golden Globe winners/nominees, the X-movies have always far surpassed their nearest rivals. In this flick alone, you’ve got Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Rose Byrne and series newcomer Oscar Isaac. I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see Nicholas Hoult (who plays Hank McCoy) and Evan Peters (Quicksilver) similarly awarded for their (other) work. Joining them are equally strong up-and-comers Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, and Lucas Till. And Olivia Munn, who is about as vocal a proponent of animal rights (and as militant a one) as a Hollywood bombshell can be, plays bad-ass ninja mutant Psylocke like Xena Warrior Princess slaying a frat party.

The film is perilously overstuffed. (Could you tell from that cast list?) Apocalypse suffers, as so many of these enterprises do, from a dopey and predictable end-is-nigh narrative arc upon which to hang far superior character moments. Heck, truth in advertising time, “end-is-nigh” is the film’s very title.

Said title is also the name of the film’s antagonist “Apocalypse,” played by Isaac under so much make-up and costuming that he looks like a Happy Meal toy or a grape popsicle. He’s such a fun and frisky performer that mostly he rises above the cardboard operatic dialogue with which he is saddled. It doesn’t help that, well, he can’t move his neck in that get-up. Like at all. But Isaac does just fine being menacing enough that you believe the world actually might be in some trouble … and at the two-thirds mark of this overlong film, you might wish he would just hustle up and get it over with.

The rest of the cast isn’t given a lot to do, but they make the most of every moment, even if no member of the cast likely has more than two or three pages of dialogue in the entire film. Peters continues to be delightful comic relief as the resident speedster, though the sparkle of his “between the raindrops” slo-mo scene-work has lost a bit of its novelty since the last film. McAvoy is compelling as a baby Patrick Stewart, totally mastering the fine art of Stewart’s mind-reading, telepathic grimace face.

We get a fun (depending on how you view “fun”) bit with Jackman finally getting to unleash Wolverine’s full-tilt berserker rage. In fact, I was a little shocked the filmmakers were able to keep their PG-13 rating, as Jackman’s bloody pas-de-deux approached horror movie levels of carnage.

Byrne, Hoult, and Lawrence are rather neglected by Simon Kinberg’s rambling screenplay – which may have been just fine with them – but these three pros still bring welcome heart and wit to their too few impactful moments. Lawrence does get one of the film’s best lines, though: “Just because there’s no war, it doesn’t mean we have peace.” Amen, sister.

Fassbender is the film’s heart-breaker. His scenes aren’t well written – Singer and Kinberg, shame on you with this Lifetime TV melodrama – but he plays them so beautifully, so delicately, and so hauntedly you just may get teary. A bit. I did anyway, and I don’t think it’s because it is allergy season here in Michigan. Fassbender grounds the film with a kind of hyper-real pathos that also benefited his other two outings in the franchise. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise this installment could’ve been a total candy-coated disaster. (Whenever wait-staff at Red Robin are wearing your film’s logo on their shirts as a cross promotional effort, while delivering a revolting concoction called the “Red Ramen Burger,” your flick may be in trouble.)

So what if the assembled performances here are tantamount to Halloween USA costume catalog posturing? It’s all good. Everyone deserves a paycheck. During one ponderous scene between Isaac, McAvoy, and Fassbender, I zoned out and just kept thinking to myself, “Damn, that is a fabulous trio of ACTOR noses right there. Look. At. Their. Noses.”

I’m not sure where the series goes from here, and I admit a morbid curiosity to see how many more characters (for future toy sales) they can cram into … chapter nine, is it? I’m losing track. However, I hope the studio execs, plagued as they are by checkbook accounting and the collective creativity of a baked potato , take to heart the lessons that all of us mere mortals see in the success of a movie like Deadpool. Have fun, be light, tell a human story, focus, keep it small, and understand that these superhero movies are today’s fairy tales. We want a moral, we want to relate, and we need it told in less than three hours.


Olivia Munn

Olivia Munn

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).  In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”


And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.