“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES”was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1920s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1920s

1-Some Like It Hot

1. “Some Like It Hot” (1959) – Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond this still hilarious tale about two Chicago jazz musicians who witness a mob hit and flee by joining an all-girls band headed for Florida, disguised as women. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon starred.

2-Bullets Over Broadway

2. “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994) – Woody Allen directed and co-wrote with Douglas McGrath this funny tale about a struggling playwright forced to cast a mobster’s untalented girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced. John Cusack, Oscar winner Dianne Weist, Jennifer Tilly, and Chazz Palminteri starred.

3-Singin in the Rain

3. “Singin in the Rain” (1952) – A movie studio in 1927 Hollywood is forced to make the difficult and rather funny transition from silent pictures to talkies. Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this highly entertaining film that was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen.

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4. “The Great Gatsby” (2013) Baz Luhrmann produced and directed this energetic and what I believe is the best adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire star.

5-Five Little Pigs

5. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Although presently set in the late 1930s, this excellent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel features many flashbacks in which a philandering painter was murdered in the 1920s. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.

6-The Cats Meow

6. “The Cat’s Meow” (2001) – Peter Bogdanovich directed this well-made, fictionalized account of producer Thomas Ince’s mysterious death aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in November 1924. Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes starred.

7-The Painted Veil

7. “The Painted Veil” (2006) – John Curran directed this excellent adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about a British doctor trapped in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful who goes to a small Chinese village to fight a cholera outbreak. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg and Liev Schreiber starred.

8-Changeling

8. “Changeling” (2008) – Clint Eastwood directed this excellent account of a real-life missing persons case and police corruption in 1928 Los Angeles. Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore starred.

9-Chicago

9. “Chicago” (2002) – Rob Marshall directed this excellent adaptation of the 1975 stage musical about celebrity, scandal, and corruption in Jazz Age Chicago. Renee Zellweger, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, and Richard Gere starred.

10-Millers Crossing

10. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) – The Coen Brothers co-wrote and co-directed this intriguing crime drama about an adviser to a Prohibition-era crime boss who tries to keep the peace between warring mobs, but gets caught in divided loyalties. Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney and John Tuturro starred.

Favorite Movies and Television Set During the EARLY AMERICA Period

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions set during the Early America Period (1783-1828):

 

FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE EARLY AMERICA PERIOD

1

“John Adams” (2008) – Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney deservedly won both Emmys and Golden Globes for their excellent portrayals of John and Abagail Adams in this excellent seven-part miniseries about the 2nd U.S. president.

2

“The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer on his way home from market, who helps a runaway slave evade her master.

3

“Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This adventure conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York starred.

4

“Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne DeCarlo starred in this entertaining costume romp about a Boston-born entertainer who falls for a pirate with a secret identity as a respectable New Orleans aristocrat. Directed by Fredrick De Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend, Robert Douglas, Andrea King and Elsa Lancaster.

5

“Interview With a Vampire” (1994) – Neil Jordan directed this fascinating adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel about a pair of vampires during a period of 200 years. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater co-starred.

6

“Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in the PBS movie about a Detroit teen who is transported back in time to 1822 South Carolina, where he finds himself about to participate in a slave revolt instigated by one Denmark Vessey.

7

“Sleepy Hollow” (1999) – Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in this adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

8

“The Seekers” (1979) – This adaptation of John Jakes’ 1975 novel about the Kent family’s experiences from 1794 to 1814. Randolph Mantooth, Timothy Patrick Murphy and George Hamilton starred.

9

“Many Rivers to Cross” (1955) – Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker starred in this western-comedy about a footloose frontiersman in early Kentucky, who is targeted by a spirited spinster for marriage. Directed by Roy Rowland.

“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play. 

The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW”struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie,“CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the“California Curse”:

“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California..so pay close attention, my dear. You See this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after ten years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.