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

Der Bunker


Bad haircuts never go out of style.

Bad haircuts never go out of style.

(2015) Something Else (Arsploitation) Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller. Directed by Nikias Chryssos

 

We see the world through a lens of normality; we have expectations of what people’s lives should look like and then we figure they’ll conform to them. But that conformity is a lie; it’s not always the case. Sometimes what’s just below the surface is twisted enough to make us grow pale.

A young German student (Bukowski) – and that’s all the name he gets, folks – trudges through the snow in the woods to an underground bunker. There he is greeted by the owner who is known only as Father (Scheller), his comely wife Mother (Maydell) and their somewhat unusual son Klaus (Fripan) who is a 30 year old man with a bowl haircut who acts like an 8-year-old and is sure he’s going to be the President of the United States – even though he’s German.

The boy is being homeschooled but it turns out that he is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Father has been handling the teaching duties but he hasn’t made much of an impression despite his rather severe methods, so Student is enlisted to teach the boy. At first he doesn’t make much headway but when he discovers that Klaus seems to respond to pain things begin to get better.

Mother has been putting the moves on Student in the meantime, something he’s not altogether opposed to, but when he discovers that she is breastfeeding Klaus, alarm bells begin to go off. That and Father’s bizarre joke night where he tells jokes dressed as a mime, and then discusses them existentially. Father also seems to be a bit of a tyrant, counting every dumpling eaten and every napkin used and keeping a running tally.

But things really get odd when the Student discovers an open wound on Mother’s leg that has been infested by an alien named Heinrich who apparently is controlling Mother and the entire family. She is loathe to let Klaus grow up and leave; and now, it appears she has designs on keeping the Student around as well. Can he escape from this madhouse?

Chryssos directs and writes this and he’s drawing comparisons to John Waters and David Lynch and from the standpoint that this is a quirky cult film-type, the comparison isn’t wrong. Fans of those two worthies (and others along the same lines) will likely dig the very oddball world that Chryssos delivers here.

He uses color in a very unusual way, shooting through red filters as the story draws to a climax. Everything from Klaus’ bizarre wardrobe and Father’s tacky sweaters seems deliberately chosen for texture and color. Only Mother and Student are dressed rather blandly most of the time (and Mother is undressed quite a bit). The bunker itself is unremarkable although it seems a bit less spartan than the other onscreen bunker homes I’ve seen. Perhaps that is a European thing.

The performances are actually pretty good, and considering there are only four people in the film, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. Von Maydell has a thankless task playing a controlling woman yet making her sympathetic, while Fripan as the man-boy Klaus has the weirdest role of all and pulls it off without making it a caricature.

This is really not a movie for everybody. While some have marked it as a horror film (and several horror websites have given the film some coverage), it is more of a cult film. Yes there are aliens but they are never seen; for all we know they could manifest inside Mother’s head alone. However, the constant barrage of weirdness and the skewed point of view may be off-putting to those who are uncomfortable with the bizarre. For my taste, this is something you might have seen back in the days of the Weimar Republic only with a kind of Russ Meyers edge, along with the filmmakers I’ve already mentioned. This is a strange one, but if you like strange, you’re gonna like this.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s weird but in a good way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This might be a little more twisted and out there than mainstream audiences are comfortable with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and plenty of nudity as well as some violence and a fair amount of corporal punishment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made it’s debut in 2015 at Austin’s venerated Fantastic Fest.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wiener-Dog

The Oxford Murders


 

The Oxford Murders

The crowd waits expectantly for something to burst out of John Hurt’s chest.

(2008) Mystery (Magnolia) Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling, Julie Cox, Jim Carter, Alex Cox, Burn Gorman, Dominique Pinon, Anna Massey, Danny Sapani, Alan David, Tim Wallers, James Weber Brown, Ian East, Charlotte Asprey. Directed by Alex de la Iglesia

 

As a species, we seem compelled to look for meaning in everything, which to a certain extent allows us to discover meaning in our own lives. There are those that believe that the universe is ordered and that everything can be explained and categorized, while there are those who believe that the universe is chaos and that nothing can really be explained thoroughly. Both are probably wrong.

Martin (Wood) is looking to conclude his brilliant academic career at Oxford. He’s an American who has known nothing but success as a student and is looking to get his doctorate at Oxford under the tutelage of Professor Arthur Seldom (Hurt), one of the greatest mathematic minds alive and quite the philosopher to boot.

Seldom reacts to Martin initially as Picasso might have reacted to a kid with a crayon who claims he can create art just as good. However, when the two men simultaneously discover the body of Martin’s landlord, Mrs. Eagleton (Massey) brutally murdered (she also happens to be a close friend of Seldom’s) the game is afoot for the two academics who are determined to solve the heinous crime.

However, they are too late to prevent a second murder. Now the race is to discover who the next victim will be. Both men will use the fullest disciplines of their minds while trying to come to terms with the woman who comes between them; Lorna (Watling), Seldom’s ex-lover and Martin’s current lady friend. Will their investigation put her in peril – not to mention themselves?

Alex de la Iglesia is not a name well known in the United States which is sad because he should be. In his native Spain he is well-regarded and among the critical cognoscenti here in the States he is also respected. However to all but the most discerning of film fans he is largely unknown. Even the usually hip Magnolia gave this only a token release here in the States and quietly gave it the bum rush to Blu-Ray.

There is actually good reason for it; this is one of de la Iglesia’s weaker efforts. Part of the problem is that you have a very cerebral film that examines the meaning behind numbers, the philosophical debate between order and chaos mentioned above, among other nuances of academia. However, there is also a murder mystery with some fairly graphic murder scenes, a lot of sexuality and copious amounts of nudity. These things don’t generally appeal to the same audience, which makes for some schizophrenic marketing opportunities that I don’t blame Magnolia for passing on.

Still, there are some compelling reasons to see this. John Hurt is an actor who doesn’t always get his due. When he’s at the top of his game, there are few actors alive today who can match him and he’s at the top of his game here. I suspect had this performance been done for a major, there would have at least been some Oscar talk for it.

Wood is an actor who is best known for his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and sometimes gets lumped in as a genre actor because of it, which he really isn’t. Yeah, he did Sin City but he tends to gravitate towards roles like these and he actually is as good as anyone at playing smart – that is, playing someone who is extremely intelligent. It’s a lot harder than you would think; most people who try to play smart usually come off as smug and while Wood does occasionally hit that border he never actually never crosses it.

Watling, a Spanish actress who has made occasional forays into American films (Talk To Her being her best-known) is a mysterious beauty who lights up the screen whenever she’s on it – even when dimly lit. She has to play someone who is having love affairs with men much older and much younger than her, and pulls it off nicely. She is really at the crux of the story in many ways, even though the story is ostensibly about Martin and Arthur.

The pacing here is pretty relaxed as you might guess. This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller by any means, although it might have worked better had it have been. It just seems a bit schizophrenic the way it’s set up, which in normal cases I think I would have appreciated the juxtaposition between the cerebral and the visceral but here it doesn’t work as well as I might have hoped.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted by Hurt and Wood. Watling is enticingly beautiful.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too cerebral for some. Moves too slowly for the viscera to work effectively.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some fairly gruesome images, a bit of nudity as well as implied sexuality, and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hurt as Arthur Seldom dresses as Guy Fawkes for a Guy Fawkes celebration; he also wore a Guy Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on recording the music for the film at the legendary Abbey Road studios (where the Beatles recorded).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4,803 on an unreported production budget. The movie tanked at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Name of the Rose

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Kill the Irishman