A Quiet Passion


Sisters are doing it for themselves.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Noémie Schellens, Miles Richardson, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter, Stefan Menaul, Maurice Cassiers, Yasmin Dewilde, Marieke Bresseleers, Barney Glover, Verona Berbakel. Directed by Terence Davies

 

Emily Dickinson remains, more than a century after her death, one of the giants of American literature. Little-known in her own time (only a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime, most of them heavily edited), she lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home, rarely coming out of her home and in fact rarely emerging from her bedroom. It was only after she passed away that her sister discovered a treasure trove of her poems and made it her life’s work to see them published and even then she didn’t get the acclaim she deserved until well into the 20th century.

So who was Emily Dickinson? As a young woman (Bell), she was dismissed from Mount Holyoke Academy (nowadays Mount Holyoke College) for her lack of piety. Rather than capitulate to the demands of the headmistress, she stood up for herself much to the bemusement of her father (Carradine). Emily returned home to live with him and her mother (Bacon) as well as her brother Austin (Duff) and most importantly her sister Lavinnia (Ehle), known to one and all as Vinnie.

Now grown into full womanhood, Emily (Nixon) asks and receives permission from her father to use the early morning hours when all else in the household are asleep to write. It is permission, she later explains, she would never get from a husband. Emily remains outspoken about the place of women in the society of the day and she finds a fellow traveler in Vryling Buffam (Bailey) with whom she exchanges barbs at the institutions of church, marriage and society in general. Twirling their parasols like nunchuks, the two make a formidable pair.

As the years pass, Emily maintains an increasingly faint hope of writing something important. She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst. Her brother’s infidelity causes a family schism that creates tension in the household, a tension that Vinnie tries in vain to mediate. Emily does get at least one persistent suitor (Menaul) but she is so cruel to him that at last he takes his leave of her. She develops a passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Loren) but when he is transferred to San Francisco she is devastated. Thinking herself too plain for marriage, she changes her wardrobe from nearly all black, as was common in the day to all white. As those closest to her die or get married (which Emily likens one to the other), she increasingly withdraws from life.

This is not the Emily Dickinson I had pictured in my head, which shows you how much I know about the great poet. I had always thought her shy and retiring but in fact it was not shyness that made her reclusive. She was forthright and blunt in conversation almost to the point of cruelty. She was an independent thinker as well which was not attractive to men of the era but Emily didn’t need a husband to feel complete in life.

Nixon gives a performance that may be the high water mark of her career, which is saying something. She’s one of those actresses who rarely gets much acclaim but has over the years quietly accumulated a resumé of distinction, one that would be the envy of any actress. Best-known for her work in Sex and the City, she really inhabits the role of Emily Dickinson, reading her poetry in voice-overs to help put context into the events onscreen. It is a forceful performance that only grows more powerful as the movie goes on.

She gets plenty of support, particularly from Ehle who is a marvelous actress in her own right and like Nixon doesn’t always get the acclaim she deserves. As Vinnie, Ehle is the embodiment of compassion and loyalty. Carradine also excels as the somewhat stiff-necked father, and Bailey almost steals the movie as the ebullient and outgoing Vryling who it is a shame is a fictional composite. I would very much like to believe that such a woman existed at that time – and perhaps she did – just not in Emily Dickinson’s world.

There is a definite Merchant-Ivory vibe her in the sense that we get a lush visual experience with mannered performances and dialogue that reflect the era. Especially early on in the film, the actors seem to struggle with the language and the overall effect is a little awkward but as the movie goes on it feels a little bit more organic, although the delivery is still somewhat deadpan.

This is definitely a movie for adults with adult attention spans. It might seem a little long (and definitely younger audiences will find it so) but in the end this is a movie to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop the viewer and bring them into the world of Emily Dickinson in mid-19th century Amherst. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to everybody – hence the somewhat middling rating – but for cinema buffs, lovers of history, lovers of poetry and those who have cinematic patience, this is a movie that will transcend its score and reel you in.

REASONS TO GO: Nixon gives a superb performance. Davies uses Dickinson’s own poetry to accentuate the various scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors sound uncomfortable with the language and style of 19th century New England. The movie is a bit on the long side and younger audiences may find it tough sledding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene of sexual material, a disturbing image and some thematic material inappropriate for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davies used six different biographies of Dickinson as source material in order to get her character right. He believes that she was a legitimate genius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hours
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wall

The Lost City of Z


Charlie Hunnam suffers some slings and arrows.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello, Matthew Sunderland, Johann Myers, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Elena Solovey, Bobby Smalldridge, Tom Mulheron, Daniel Huttlestone, Nathaniel Bates Fisher, Franco Nero, Louise Parker. Directed by James Gray

 

As a species we have an urge to make known the unknown, to travel to uncharted places and make them charted. We also have a yen to leave a legacy, something that cannot be taken away from us no matter what life brings us afterwards.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) was such a man. A British army officer at the turn of the 20th century, he chafed in a career that was stalled due not to his own devices but because of his father’s indiscretions. Finding himself at a crossroads, he accepts a commission from the Royal Geographic Society to chart the area near the Bolivia and Brazil border to mediate a dispute between the two countries but not for nothing also to keep the flow of rubber to British industry.

Taking with him his assistant Henry Costin (Pattinson) he discovers a mysterious and alluring wilderness of rich culture and danger. The natives aren’t exactly pleased to see him and they show their displeasure with blow darts and arrows, forcing the intrepid crew into piranha-infested waters. More importantly for Percy’s future, he discovers some artifacts – pottery shards and such – of a civilization rumored to have been extremely advanced and from which the modern natives were descended. They inhabited a vast city which Fawcett referred to as Z (pronounced Zed by the English) and when he returned home he spoke about it. The results were not scientific curiosity but outright disbelief and ridicule. The British intelligentsia couldn’t believe the “savages” capable of any sort of advanced civilization.

Fawcett wants to return and find his lost city but World War I intervenes. When he finally goes a second time, he brings along James Murray (Macfadyen), a veteran of Arctic expeditions whose reputation allows the financing to fall in place but Murray is woefully unprepared for tropical conditions leading to a frustrating end of the expedition. Furious at the RGS for taking Murray’s side, Fawcett quits in disgust and raises the capital himself to mount a third expedition, this time taking his grown son Jack (Holland) with him. The results of that expedition would evolve Percy from laughingstock to legend.

Gray is a director with the kind of visual sense that characterize directors like Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog. The movie is beautiful, mysterious, and breathtaking. When the first expedition is under attack, Gray shoots it in a way that the audience can feel the arrows whizzing by and the panic setting in as the positions of their attackers are hidden by the dense forest. This may be the most beautiful movie from a cinematography standpoint that you’ll see this year or maybe any other; cinematographer Darius Khondji should be given all the praise in the world for his efforts.

The script is lyrically written and the characters are all fleshed out nicely, giving the actors a great deal to work with. Sienna Miller, as Fawcett’s ahead-of-her-time wife with feminist leanings does an amazing job; you can see her inner spark slowly dimming over the course of the movie as she realizes that her husband, who had encouraged her independence, didn’t fully mean it and that she had in many ways wasted  much of her time on a man who was never there, although to her credit the real Nina Fawcett never gave up hope for her husband and son even when the rest of the world did.

The one tragic flaw of the movie is Hunnam. On paper he seems an ideal choice for the role; dashing, handsome and patrician. He never really creates a sense of Fawcett’s obsession; he thunders like a bull elephant from time to time but he doesn’t really pack the screen presence needed to really make the part memorable. It is interesting to note that Brad Pitt was at one time attached to the role but couldn’t make it work in his schedule; I think Pitt might have realized another Oscar nomination (and maybe a win) had he gotten the part. Hunnam is merely adequate which is a shame. It also should be said that Pattinson, nearly unrecognizable in a full beard and an actor I’ve never really connected with, delivers a superb performance here.

The fate of Percy Fawcett has been the subject of much speculation over the decades and the book this is based on presents one theory which is hinted at (but not shown in too much detail) onscreen. It is also worth noting that in recent years evidence has been discovered, not far from where Fawcett was last seen, of a vast network of roads and settlements that might just be Fawcett’s Lost City of Z. I am sure that wherever Fawcett is, he is smiling. I think he is likely smiling about this motion picture about his life as well. It is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out on the big screen, where it most deserves to be seen. This is a real-life adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most beautifully photographed films you’ll ever see. The subject matter is fascinating. The era is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Hunnam is a bit too low-key in the lead role. The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of violence (some of it involving war violence), brief profanity and some native nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holland had to wear a fake mustache for the movie as he was unable to grow one of his own.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fitzcarraldo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 2017 Florida Film Festival coverage commences!

Barry


Even reading a Ralph Ellison book in a Harlem schoolyard as a 20-year-old, the future President can’t get away from Joe Biden!

(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi

 

Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.

But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.

He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.

He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.

To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.

The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.

Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.

As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.

REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southside With You

The Founder


Ray Kroc worshiping at the Golden Arches.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella, Randall Taylor, Lacey King, Jeremy Madden, Rebecca Ray, Adam Rosenberg, Jacinte Blankenship. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Most of us are more than familiar with McDonald’s. It is Main Street, America on a global scale; on a typical day the fast food chain will feed something like 8% of the world’s population. They are convenient and in a fast-paced world where meals can be afterthoughts, a necessity. But how did they get to be that way?

Salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) is having a spectacular lack of success selling his five spindle milkshake mixer to diners and drive-ins in the Midwest. When he gets an order for five of the machines from a burger joint in San Bernadino, California, he is gratified – gratified but amazed. The operation he visits is staggering; lines snake through the parking lot. Counter service only, he makes his order for a cheeseburger, fries and a coke and gets it delivered to the window in less than a minute. Dumbfounded, he sits down to eat his meal – and it’s actually pretty darn good. The restaurant, named McDonald’s for the McDonald brothers who own it, looks promising as visions of a franchise operation begin to dance in his head.

At first the brothers – Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) aren’t too interested. They’d tried something like it before and ended up with franchise owners adding their own flair – fried chicken, barbecue, straying from the formula of keeping the menu simple and the quality high. Kroc thought he could make that happen by being a hands-on boss. As it turned out, that didn’t quite work out the way he expected.

At home, his wife Ethel (Dern) lives a life of loneliness and boredom, living for those precious times when they go to dinner at the local club. He uses those occasions to snare investors and Ethel tries to help in her own way. Soon though Ray’s dreams are fast outstripping those of his partners as well as those of his wife. The wife (Cardellini) of a potential investor (Wilson) catches his eye. As for the McDonald brothers, they are content with having a quality restaurant and what Ray is looking to build is more than they intended to take on and their reluctance to change or to compromise quality becomes a major frustration for Ray. He becomes aware that the biggest hurdle in making McDonald’s a household name are the McDonald brothers themselves.

I’m not too sure what the executives at the McDonald’s corporation think of this movie; they are in a very real sense the descendants of Ray Kroc and they owe their position to his vision and his drive to achieve it. I think they appreciate the free advertising but Ray doesn’t come off terribly well here in many ways although he did do a lot of the less savory things that are depicted here, including taking credit for some of the aspects of the image that the McDonald brothers introduced (like the golden arches) and effectively excising the brothers from the history of the company (he labeled an Illinois franchise McDonald’s #1 when in fact it was the ninth store to open). Keaton imbues Ray with a surfeit of charm without ignoring the man’s more vicious traits; he also gives Ray enough energy and charisma that when he does some pretty bad things, one still roots for him. Maybe there’s something in that secret sauce that compels us to but I think that Keaton’s performance has a lot to do with it too.

The film only covers a short period in the history of the fast food Goliath and doesn’t really get into the globalization of the brand or examine the effect of their product on the obesity epidemic in this country which has disappointed some critics but not this one. There are plenty of things one can get into concerning the pros and cons of McDonald’s from their catchy advertisements, their shrewd marketing to children with the play areas and Ronald McDonald and their recent move to adding more nutritional selections on their menu and offering a wider variety of food in general. I think the movie accomplished what it set out to do and examine how McDonald’s went from being a small roadside burger joint in California to the global giant it is today and that’s plenty of story for one movie.

There’s plenty of dramatic conflict that goes on but this simply isn’t going to appeal to those who are easily bored. Although there might be a niche group interest for those who are interested in how corporate entrepreneurs achieved their success, I’m not sure if America (or anywhere else) is waiting for movies about Col. Sanders, Sam Walton (founder of Wal*Mart) or Bill Gates. I did find Keaton’s performance fascinating and that kept enough of my interest to give this a mild recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Keaton delivers a solid performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit boring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the McDonald’s restaurants depicted in the film were built from scratch in parking lots and vacant lots because producers couldn’t find suitable locations that matched the look of the film that they were aiming for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Network
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)

Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

Hidden Figures


When all else fails - dance!

When all else fails – dance!

(2016) Biographical Drama (20th Century Fox) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidya Jewett, Donna Biscoe, Ariana Neal, Sanlyya Sidney, Zani Jones Mbayise. Directed by Theodore Melfi

 

Here in the United States we are justifiably proud of our space program. NASA has done some mind-blowing things when you consider our humble beginnings in the Space Race. Back in 1962, it wasn’t certain that we would succeed at all.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a math prodigy employed by NASA’s Virginia facility. So are her friends Mary Jackson (Monáe), an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) who is the de facto supervisor of the computer division – the group of mostly African American women who crunch numbers at the facility. The Space Race is in full bloom and even though NASA has gotten Alan Shepherd into space, they haven’t yet achieved orbit with an astronaut which is also something that the Soviet Union hasn’t been able to do either. John Glenn (Powell) is the candidate for the orbital mission, but the mathematics don’t exist yet to safely get Glenn into orbit and back to Earth again. Time is ticking as NASA has some intense political pressure on them to deliver.

In this office, most of that pressure falls on Jim Harrison (Costner) and his engineers, led by Paul Stafford (Parsons) and things aren’t going well. After some spectacular failures, Harrison needs someone to double check the math of the engineers and the prim and proper supervisor (Dunst) of the computer pool taps Vaughan to suggest someone and she in turn suggests Johnson.

She couldn’t have chosen better. Johnson is a legitimate genius, perhaps more so than the white male engineers and as she begins to clean up their efforts, she shows Harrison that she might be the one to invent a new form of mathematics that will get Glenn into orbit and home again without burning him to a cinder, or sending his spacecraft into a trajectory that takes it beyond where he can get home again.

At the time IBM was building its first supercomputers and installing one in Virginia had turned out to be a much more daunting task than they had at first envisioned. Vaughan, realizing that this computer will put her and the women of the computing division out of a job, learns programming on her own and helps get the system up and running. In the meantime, Jackson – ably assisting chief engineer Karl Zielinski (Krupa) needs to take classes to get her degree so she can progress further. Unfortunately, the only night courses she can take are being taught at a segregated high school which she can’t legally attend.

There are all sorts of petty humiliations associated with the segregation culture of its time; Johnson is forced to take long breaks to scurry the mile and a half to the nearest colored bathroom since she can’t use the whites only bathroom in her own building. She also is not allowed to drink from the same coffeepot as the others. The pressure of the job is keeping her away from her children and her new husband, a dashing Army officer (Ali) much longer than she would like. Will she crack under all this pressure?

One of the things that has irritated some critics about the film is that much of the segregation sequences are essentially manufactured. The bathroom incidents, for example happened to Jackson, not Johnson and while Vaughan became an essential computer programmer for NASA, her role in getting the computer installed was overstated here. However, keep in mind that this is a movie based on the experiences of actual people – it’s not a history lesson per se and is meant to be entertainment.

And as entertainment the film succeeds, largely on the back of the performances of its leads. Spencer has become in short order one of America’s finest actresses bar none; I can’t remember a recent film in which she’s given a subpar performance or failed to elevate. Here she is absolutely mesmerizing whenever she’s on screen; the power of her personality almost overwhelms the others.

Henson has a much more mousy character to portray but she makes her human and vulnerable rather than so smart we cannot relate to her. She is that, but she’s also got a ton of humanity as well – she gets frustrated with her situation but she has a lot of confidence that the future will be a better one. Henson has also climbed to the top echelon of actresses working and while Spencer has gotten more award acclaim, I don’t doubt that Henson is headed in that direction as well as she gets more leading roles on the big screen and the small.

Costner is a reliable performer who is transitioning into a bit of a character actor as well as a leading man still. He knows how to play grouchy with a heart of gold about as well as anybody and Harrison is all of that. Of course, this being a Hollywood production, there are elements of “decent white guy helping the cause of African-American freedom.” It’s a bit condescending but I suppose, forgivable; after all, there were plenty of decent white guys (and gals) who not only supported the civil rights movement but also fought on the front lines of it. Still, Melfi at least has the good sense to make sure the focus is on the trio of ladies where it should be.

The good thing about Hidden Figures is that it educates us about people who have been lost to history but shouldn’t have been and that is invaluable. Nearly as invaluable is that the movie leaves us with a good feeling as we exit the theater (or turn off our home video device when the time comes) and in times like these, it’s certainly about as important.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances from all three of the ladies include an Oscar-nominated one by Spencer. It’s a really uplifting film – literally.
REASONS TO STAY: Strays quite a bit from the actual history of these extraordinary women.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was used as Dorothy Vaughan’s house has historical significance; the residence, in Atlanta, is where civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first met.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Split

Lion


Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, Tanishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepti Naval, Keshav Jadhav, Rohini Kargalya, Saroo Brierley, Sue Brierley, John Brierley, Menik Gooneratne, Madhukar Narlwade, Emilie Cocquerel. Directed by Garth Davis

 

We know who we are largely because we know where we came from. We know who raised us, who gave us life. For those who don’t know the latter, there are always questions – they are almost forced to wonder who they really are or where they came from.

Young Saroo (Pawar) lives in a small village in Hindi India with his mother (Bose) and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). They live in extreme poverty with Guddu and Saroo finding means of stealing coal and reselling it so that they can help put food on the table, particularly the delectable treats that Saroo craves. At night, Guddu goes to the train yard without Saroo who at five years old is too young although Saroo himself doesn’t think that’s true. He wheedles and he whines until Guddu finally reluctantly agrees to take him.

They get to the station and Guddu leaves Saroo on the platform while he investigates possibilities to where the two of them can find some coal. While he’s gone, Saroo gets sleepy – it’s way past his bedtime – and in a bit of a fog wanders onto a train where he can sleep more comfortably. When he wakes up, the train is moving – and the station by his home is long behind him. There is nobody else on board and nobody to hear his cries for help; the train is being relocated to Kolkata (what used to be called Calcutta). Once he gets there, he is as lost as a human being can be; he doesn’t speak Bengali, the language that is spoken there. He narrowly avoids being kidnapped by a child slave labor gang and eventually gets picked up by the authorities after days on the street.

Returning him to his home soon proves impossible; he doesn’t know the name of his village, or even the name of his mother (what five year old knows beyond “Mommy”?) and he is eventually put up for adoption. He gets lucky; a kind-hearted Australian couple – John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) Brierley take him into their Tasmanian home and raise him as their own, along with a second Indian orphan named Mantosh (Jadhav).

Years pass. Saroo (Patel) and Mantosh (Ladwa) have grown up; Saroo is attending university in Melbourne majoring in hotel management, while Mantosh has had a much more difficult time adjusting, becoming a drug addict and is often confrontational with his parents and adopted brother. Saroo considers John and Sue his parents and loves them with all his heart but at a party one night at the apartment of a student of Indian descent takes him back to his childhood and leads him on a quest to find his original home and family. That quest becomes something of an obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) who is supportive, and his standing at the school. He hasn’t told his adoptive parents about his mission; he fears it will break his mother’s heart. Using the then-new Google Earth on his laptop, he embarks on the seemingly hopeless task of finding his way back, but there’s no guarantee his family will even be there in the unlikely event that he does find his village – and considering how large India is and how the vast the train system, it will take years to find the right station with the right water tower if he finds it at all.

This true story, based on a book by the real Saroo Brierley (who appears at the end of the movie in footage detailing the end of his search along with his parents), is absolutely compelling and heart-warming. The first part of the movie, showing the five-year-old Saroo’s journey, has little dialogue and beautiful images – the very first scene in the film depicts young Saroo surrounded by butterflies. The countryside of rural India is juxtaposed with the urban squalor of Kolkata and makes for essential cinema. Part of the reason for this is Sunny Pawar who provides a sensational performance. He acts with his face, with his eyes – something you really can’t teach – unlike a lot of child actors who try too hard to act and ultimately come off as inauthentic. Pawar is nothing but authentic.

Patel is similarly sensational, having garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is likely to receive serious Oscar consideration. This is nothing short of a star-making performance; the young actor has given notice that he can ascend to the next level and is in fact likely to. Saroo isn’t always pleasant in the movie; like many obsessed people, he sacrifices current relationships and dreams to scratch that itch. Basically though he is a character we root for even when he’s shutting his supporting girlfriend out.

Kidman, who chooses to play the part of Sue without glamour, is also likely to receive Supporting Actress consideration for the upcoming Oscars. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish she was getting more screen time – there’s a scene where she confesses her fears to Saroo that is absolutely mesmerizing. She’s gone from being one of the most beautiful women in the world to a talented actress who has compiled an enviable record of mind-blowing performances. She’s become an actress whose movies I look forward to no matter what the subject.

The movie succeeds on nearly every level even though it does kind of lose its way in the middle a little bit. The ending, even though you can predict what’s coming, will absolutely floor you and to be honest there’s a component of the ending that will bring tears to your eyes in an absolute gangbuster of an emotional payoff. I can’t recommend this movie enough.

REASONS TO GO: The story packs an emotional wallop and the payoff at the end is considerable. Patel, Kidman and Ladwa give terrific performances. Sunny Pawar gives a surprisingly powerful performance amid some wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a little bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the events may be a little rough for sensitive children to watch; there’s also a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lucy character played by Rooney Mara is not based on a specific person but is rather an amalgam of Saroo’s real life girlfriends during the period covered by the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warchild
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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