The Front

This 1976 film, which didn’t attract a lot of attention when it was first released, is surprisingly good. and once again seems very topical.

Woody Allen, in a rare (and surprisingly restrained) dramatic performance, plays a guy who agrees to act as a “front” for four blacklisted writers.  Things don’t go as smoothly as everyone expects.  In the hyper-paranoid environment of the early 1950s, having no background is almost as suspicious as having a “lefty” one.

Although two of the principal actors (Allen and Zero Mostel) are best known for their comic work, and there are some funny scenes, this is no comedy.  The scenes between Allen, struggling to balance the ethics of his new job with the large amounts of money he is “earning,” and Mostel, as a guy who has spent his whole life as a successful entertainer and now can’t get a job doing standup in the Borscht Belt, are wonderfully done, and powerfully affecting.

The film’s director, writer and two of its principal stars (Mostel and Herschel Bernardi) were all themselves victim of the blacklist. This movie is obviously personal for many of the participants.  But despite (or maybe because) of that, they just let the story play out as it did in real life, without a lot of added drama or after-the-fact preachiness.  The movie is all the more powerful for that restraint.  It also does a better job than Trumbo, I think, in laying out the anti-Semitic undertones behind a lot of the investigations into the entertainment industry.  Indeed, “Hollywood” is still code for “Jews” in certain quarters.

Available on Amazon streaming for $2.99 — hard to quarrel with that.

Weird Trivia:  Both Mostel and Bernardi did a lot of work on Broadway.  Mostel is famous for having originated the role of Tevye in the long-running Fiddler on the Roof.  When Mostel ultimately left the production, he was replaced by Bernardi.

Loving (HBO)

Virginia, 1958 — a young man wants to marry his girlfriend, pregnant with their first child, but a state law banning interracial marriage makes that impossible.  So they travel to DC to get married (legally) then return to their home way out in the country, hoping to fly under the radar.  Nope.  Armed police burst into their bedroom, arrest them, and throw them in jail.  Lacking money for a real attorney, they accept the judge’s outrageous bargain – they can avoid a lengthy prison sentence if they move to DC.

Some years later, the wife, unhappy with DC, writes a letter to to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who refers her to the ACLU.  The ACLU lawyers, somewhat disingenuously, say they can help (when they can promise no such thing).  Virginia rules against them, but fortunately SCOTUS takes their case, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The film features fine, understated performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (why the filmmakers cast Australian and Ethiopian-born actors to play these American characters is a question, I guess, for another day).  The screenplay’s “just the facts” style avoids grandstanding and lets the awful facts (including the fact that the local police won’t let the husband bail his pregnant wife out of jail) speak for themselves, which is dramatic enough.  I wish they had spent more time on the courtroom arguments, but I would, wouldn’t I?

Highly recommended.

Some other thoughts:  SCOTUS could have decided this case on narrow grounds, as a full faith and credit case, and ordered Virginia to recognize a marriage legally contracted in DC.  Wisely, however, they decided to take on the entire issue of laws banning interracial marriage.  Perhaps their decision was made easier by the blatantly racist, pseudo-religious language of the state court’s opinion, which based its judgment, essentially, on the assertion that God created separate races and put them in separate continents for a reason.

The laws against interracial marriage in the US have a more complex history than I had realized.  Although they were common, they were never universal.  Some states (NY, Connecticut, Minnesota) never had such laws, and others (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts) got rid of them early on.  The California Supreme Court invalidated California’s law in 1948 on 14th Amendment grounds, and a bunch of other states (mostly in the West) repealed their laws in the years following that decision.  At the time of the SCOTUS decision in Loving v. Virginia, though, there were still 16 states which banned interracial marriage, all in the South.

The Wikipedia article has some helpful charts at the end:


A young Polish woman, brought up in a Catholic orphanage right after the war, is about to become a nun.  Just before she takes her final vows, she gets two astonishing revelations — she has an aunt, and she was born Jewish.  She contacts the aunt, and after some initial reluctance the two women decide to visit their erstwhile village to find out what happened to the rest of their family.

You may think that everything important to say about the Holocaust has already been said — but then a movie like this comes along and punches you in the gut, by making you really feel the pain of a single family’s losses.  It also addresses, unusually, the plight of the survivors, who have lost not only their relatives but their entire world.

Shot in black and white, this film takes a quiet approach to its momentous subject, and is all the more effective for that. Highly recommended.

Hidden Figures

This movie about the contributions of young black women working at NASA in the early days of the Mercury program was pretty good, as you might expect, considering that most of its success came from word of mouth.  But it might have been even better one.

In the early 1960s, IBM mainframes were new and untested and most math computations were still done by human “computers.”  Even after the IBM went online, many of the flight engineers (not to mention the astronauts) wanted to make sure that a human being verified the numbers. To fill these positions, NASA recruited women math and engineering graduates at historically black colleges in the Jim Crow South.  Although these women were initially assigned to a segregated “colored computer center,”many were quickly sent over to work with teams in the main NASA building, across the parking lot, in Langley Virginia.  The stories of three of these women are the focus of this movie.  All of them had long and successful careers at NASA; one of them, still alive at 98, appeared at the Oscars.

As is typical for this type of movie, some of the least believable incidents actually occurred (with a few modifications made for dramatic effect).  John Glenn really did ask Katharine to recheck his trajectories (although he did it before the flight, not on the launch pad).  And Katherine’s tirade about having to cross the parking lot just to go to the bathroom really did end segregated rest rooms at NASA (although it was a different woman whose speech precipitated the change).

The movie goes off track a bit in deciding to create two composite characters to demonstrate the stone-cold institutional racism of the day.  This is unfair to NASA, most of whose employees were very sympathetic to the issues affecting their co-workers.  But it also understates the real problem — few racists are as obvious and explicit about their racism as the fake characters in this movie. Many racists are charming and gregarious, and much more dangerous for that.

The movie is at its best, and is most effective, when it depicts the significant racial barriers that did exist — from segregated buses and drinking fountains to restrictions on what books could be borrowed from public libraries — in a matter-of-fact way.  It came as more of a surprise than it should have that, 7 years after Brown v. Board,  one of the women had to get a court order to attend an engineering certification class at a local all-white high school.  I also liked the historically accurate depiction of John Glenn’s troubled flight — I well remember, watching the TV coverage as a child, that when Glenn entered the communications “blackout” on re-entry there was some doubt that he would emerge safely on the other side.  The depiction of the segregated but reasonably prosperous northern Virginia suburb where the women lived also seemed authentic.

The three lead actresses — Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae — are all excellent, as are Kevin Costner and Mahershala Ali in supporting roles.  (Ironically, Ali has more screen time in this movie than in Moonlight, the one he won the Oscar for).

Highly recommended.

Historical footnote — the Pentagon, built in the late 1940s, apparently has twice as many bathrooms as is typical for buildings of its size.  That’s because the building, even though it was meant to house part of the federal government, was still subject to the building codes of the Jim Crow South, which required separate bathrooms for white and black employees.  I understand, however, that the bathrooms at the Pentagon were never segregated in practice.

La La Land

Given the ecstatic reception this movie got from most critics, I was surprised at how mediocre it was.  Sure it looks great — everything is shot in what is, or is made to look like, Technicolor, including the costumes.  The location shooting is outstanding — LA has rarely looked better, particularly at sunset.  But the music and dance numbers are awful — barely at the level of a good high school production.  And I don’t mean TV high school, but your high school.  And while the characters played by the two lead actors, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, are supposed to be in love, there’s so little chemistry between them it’s hard to believe they even like each other.  How Emma Stone won an Oscar for this vapid and insipid performance is beyond me.  One of the few bright spots in this movie, outside of the cinematography, are the scenes involving John Legend, who is a better musician than anyone else involved in this movie — and a better actor too.

The last 15 minutes or so of the movie is an epilogue, told partly in live action and partly in a fantasy dreamscape, which presents the musings of one character on how things might have turned out had different choices been made.  It’s magical, and an indication of what this director might be capable of in a future movie.  But it comes far too late to save this one.

Rogue One

(watched in flight)

I wasn’t expecting much, given the generally mediocre reviews, but I thought this Star Wars prequel was surprisingly good.  The story is simply told — young girl abandoned in childhood searches for her father, who has an important secret.  She meets other people, who offer to help her, and her quest winds up helping them as well.

As may be apparent, the movie doesn’t stray far from the George Lucas universe.  There are new planets and new characters, but they’re mostly just variations of people and places we’ve seen before.  On the other hand, the George Lucas universe is no bad place to be, And if the movie doesn’t have some of the thrilling flights of imagination of Lucas at his best, it also avoids the moral confusion and weird storylines of Lucas at his worst.

The special effects are pretty good, but not over the top, and work well even on the small screen. There are enough references to previous Star Wars movies (the blue milk, dancing holograms, some iconic lines) to make long-time fans happy, but enough new plot twists that those fans won’t think they’ve seen this movie before (looking at YOU, Force Awakens).

What sets this movie apart from most other Star Wars films, though, is the presence of quality actors.  Felicity Jones is very good as the protagonist, and the supporting cast, including outstanding actors like Mads Mikkelson and Forrest Whitaker, is excellent as well.  The movie gives a glimpse of what the Lucas prequels might have been like with a more actor-focused director.


(watched in flight)

The plot is ridiculous, the characters are unidimensional, the history is crackpot.  But it’s got actors that are fun to watch (starting with Tom Hanks), more action than dialogue, and some outstanding locations (Florence, Venice, and the less frequently-seen Istanbul).  In short, it’s the perfect airplane movie.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy — but remember to turn your brain off first.

Note on crackpot history — Dan Brown, as in most of his work, takes a historical phenomenon and draws exactly the wrong conclusions.  Some historians do believe, as one of the characters in this movie does, that the Black Death jumpstarted the Renaissance.  But that was a case of accidental timing.  Europe was already emerging from feudalism when the plague hit, and the resulting labor shortages hastened the end of serfdom and, ultimately, fostered the development of labor-saving machinery.  But that doesn’t mean, as the chief villain in this movie proposes, that creating a new plague will push the world forward.  It’s far more likely that devastating plagues will destroy civilizations than rebuild them.  The plague of Justinian, for example, pretty much eliminated the remnants of the Roman Empire in western Europe. And even after the Black Death, it took many European cities decades to recover.  As I said, remember to turn your brain off.


Scientists in the future, seeking to avoid some unspecified calamity a few years from now, send travelers back through time to try and prevent it.  The travelers jump into the bodies of folks who are about to die, in order to carry out a variety of missions designed to change the past.  Although scenario is somewhat similar to Twelve Monkeys, here we never see the future dystopia — virtually all the action takes place in the present day.  And here there are hundreds of travelers, scattered in small teams around the globe.  The travelers, despite their advanced technology, encounter unexpected difficulties — one guy discovers, for example, that his “host” was a drug addict, with a physical addiction that he has to deal with.  And it quickly becomes obvious that the future government in charge of designing time-changing missions may be making other mistakes as well, and risk actually making the future worse.  A large part of the plot deals with how the travelers struggle with how far “off-book” they can, or should go.  Very well done.

Series 1 currently available on Netflix. Series 2 will be available later this year.

Twelve Monkeys (Amazon / Syfy)

A few years from now, an epidemic kills some huge fraction of Earth’s human population, leading to the virtual collapse of human civilization.  A small group of scientists develop time travel, and sends individual travellers back to our era to try to stop the epidemic.  Changing the past is hard.  And if you do manage it, other stuff happens that you might not expect, and that you might not like

The show is based on the same book as the 1990s movie, and follows the same basic story line, with a few tweaks.  In the movie, the Army of the 12 Monkeys was basically a McGuffin; here, it’s an important part of the plot. And the character played by Brad Pitt in the movie is played by a woman here.  But where the movie ended with the death of the original traveler (Bruce Willis), here, the traveler survives to try again.  And again.  It’s more interesting than you might imagine, although some of the episodes are better than others.   Like many sci/fi programs without big budgets for special effects, the show spends more time on plot and character development, to good effect.  The writers also have a refreshingly light touch in dealing with this bleak scenario — I’m pretty sure they set a series of episodes in the 1940s just because the costumes would be cool.

Series 1 and 2 available for purchase on Amazon.  Series 3 premieres at the end of April on SyFy.

The Expanse (Amazon/Syfy)

This series uses a classic near-future sci/fi scenario, where Earth has colonized other worlds in the solar system.  The Mars colony has become independent, but Earth still operates (and oppresses) mining colonies in the asteroid belt.  As the story begins, a Belter ship answers a distress call from another ship outside the normal shipping lanes.  Things do not go well.

The series is part space detective story, part political thriller, and part speculative fiction about a Bladerunneresque society in the Belt.  One of the things I like about this program is that all this future technology, while advanced, doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. The Belter ship is held together, more or less, with the 22nd Century equivalent of duct tape — there’s even a rat onboard.  The special effects, particularly the spaceships, are surprisingly good, considering that it’s TV.  But the money spent on special effects was not at the expense of plot or character development.  There’s even a bit of humor — the detective who always wears a hat (even on a world with no outdoors), and a Mormon elder trying to bankroll a ship capable of interstellar travel — still looking for Planet Kolob, I guess.  Best of all, the show follows a conventional narrative structure — beginning, middle, and end.  There are some flashbacks, but you always know what time period you’re looking at.  Highly recommended.

Series 1 available on Amazon (free for Prime subscribers).  Series 2 currently running on SyFy, and available for purchase on Amazon.