Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

Wanted


Wanted

Angelina Jolie always gets her shot.

(2008) Fantasy Action (Universal) James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terrence Stamp, Common, Thomas Kretschmann, Kristen Hager, Marc Warren, David O’Hara, Konstantin Khabensky, Chris Pratt, Lorna Scott.  Directed by Timur Bekmambitov

Some of us fall into a vocation due to circumstances. Others pursue a career with a vengeance. However, there are those who are almost pre-determined into a role because of genetics.

Wesley (McAvoy) is a cube drone whose life is a series of unending humiliations; his boss bullies him, his girlfriend openly cheats on him. His life is going nowhere and what’s worse, he knows it and doesn’t think it’s ever going to change.

But change it does (trust me, nobody wants to see a movie about a doormat for two hours). A beautiful woman who identifies herself as Fox (Jolie) saves him from a gunman and the two indulge in a wild car chase in the city of Chicago. Wesley is brought into the world of the Fraternity, a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of assassins who have been trained to perform impossible kills, curving bullets to defy gravity and engaging in single hand-to-hand combat that would make Jackie Chan jealous. The Fraternity is led by Sloan (Freeman), a taciturn killer himself. He gets his marching orders from the Loom of Fate whose fabric contains skewed threads that act as a kind of binary code. It’s very complicated and weird.

Wesley finds out that his father was once one of their members but was murdered recently and the man who murdered him is after Wesley but before he can go up against someone like that, Wesley is going to have to train and I mean big time. When he gets hurt, he’s put in a special wax bath that heals his wounds.

Soon he’s ready for his first kill and it turns out Wesley has quite a knack. Genetics, you see. Soon Wesley is embroiled in the mystery of his father’s assassination and discovers revenge can lead to all manner of questions, some of which have some dangerous answers.

This is Bekmambitov’s first English language film after the excellent Russian CGI-fests Night Watch and Day Watch. He has a definite visual style and an affinity for action. These are some of the most innovative action sequences since The Matrix which is high praise indeed.

McAvoy was apparently a hard sell to the studio because of his somewhat understated quality but here he proves himself capable of leading an action movie (which he has done since in X-Men: First Class this past summer). He plays both the nebbish and the stone cold killer with equal believability which is vital for the success of the movie.

Jolie is as good a female action star as there’s ever been and you can tell she was born for roles like this. A femme fatale with a cold exterior and colder interior, she’s sexy and deadly. Although she’s too big a star to do it now, she’d make the ultimate Bond girl. She does her stunts with the grace and elegance of a dancer.

Bekmambitov has a wonderful visual style that draws a distinct line between the dreary cubicle-dweller’s life and the life of a career assassin. The colors are muted and drab in the former; vivid and electric in the latter. The pace is mile-a-minute and although there’s kind of a lull when the big twist is revealed, it picks up towards the end.

This is mindless summer fun that defies logic but so what? Those who studied even the most remedial physics will know that this stuff doesn’t ever happen but this isn’t the real world, it’s movies so you physics majors can take your objections and stick them where it’s anatomically impossible to put them.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing stunts and a wonderful visual sense. Jolie seems to hit her stride in these sorts of action roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stretches believability to the breaking point.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence – some of it gruesome. There’s also a bit of bad language and a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shooting in Chicago at the same time The Dark Knight was. Wanted creator Mark Millar was caught sneaking onto TDK set to check out the Batpod by producer Lauren Shuler Donner and was escorted off the set.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a motion comic and on the Blu-Ray edition, the Universal U-Control feature puts assassin profiles on the screen whenever new assassins pop up.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $341.4M on a $75M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond