“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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it … Chappie and Insurgent

Indiana's Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in ... private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in … private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.

The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century  (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?

And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive, and mean.

I had a Facebook “debate” with a soon-to-be-former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus,  “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”

To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”

(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)

It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.

The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.

His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)

Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)

Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.

I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”

I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.

Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for  young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.

Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.

James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.

When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.


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.