Ida

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.

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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.

Inferno

(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.

A Bigger Splash

This is an interesting and beautifully photographed movie — I’m not sure it’s a good one.

A female rock superstar is recovering from throat surgery on an Italian island, with her boyfriend. She gets a phone call from her long-time manager (and, as we soon learn, her former boyfriend), who impulsively decides to visit with his teenaged daughter.   New boyfriend is not so happy.  Teenage daughter is bored and decides to seduce new boyfriend.  Rock star wishes they would all go away.  A pool is involved.

Tilda Swinton is less annoying than usual, perhaps because, as a character recovering from throat surgery, most of her part is in mime.  Dakota Johnson, best known for 50 Shades, shows surprising depth as a young girl who is aware of the fact that her looks drive men crazy, but isn’t quite ready to handle the fallout.  The real standout is Ralph Fiennes, in a role far outside his traditional comfort zone —  he sings!  he dances!  he cracks jokes!  The movie is almost worth seeing for his performance alone.  Almost.

Allied

Here’s a movie that has an outstanding cast, headed by Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard; an interesting story, based on a real incident, about a married couple working as intelligence agents for the UK in World War II; and a highly acclaimed director, Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Contact, Back to the Future).  Yet the movie isn’t really that good.  How did that happen?

My own theory is that the director couldn’t decide whether he was making a wartime romance, like Casablanca, or a spy thriller.  He decided he wanted to remake Casablanca.   Much of Allied seems intentionally designed to evoke that earlier movie — the early scenes in Morocco, the closing scene on a landing strip, even Cotillard’s costumes.  This was an unfortunate choice. Focusing on the romance, the director spends far too little time on the spy thriller aspects of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.  Important clues and plot twists occur in short, poorly staged scenes, which seem to go by too fast.  By the time you get to the dramatic closing scene, it doesn’t pack the emotional punch it should have had.

Casablanca took an unusual path to success — a second-rate story, with often cheesy dialogue, it happened to catch the national mood, offering an optimistic outlook during the darkest days of World War II.  Bogart and Bergman never appeared together in a movie again — perhaps realizing, as Zemeckis did not, that Casablanca was like a Stradivarius violin — whatever it was that made it great could not be repeated.

Pitt and Cotillard have good on-screen chemistry; I’d like to see them again sometime in a better movie.

Moonlight

A thoughtful and interesting film, about a somewhat smaller and more personal topic than is typical for an Oscar Best Picture winner.  The movie follows the life of a young boy, Chiron, growing up in a poor part of Miami, and is presented in three acts — elementary school, high school and young adulthood.  Chiron is small and quiet, and is often bullied.  He doesn’t get much help at home either — he is being “raised” by a single mother with a major substance abuse problem.  Like most “survivor” children, Chiron finds help from caring outsiders.   This is not a traditional Hollywood “kid succeeds against all odds movie.    But by the end, Chiron has become an honest, emotionally mature adult — whatever happens in the rest of his life, you feel sure he is not going to repeat the cycle of violence and abuse he grew up with.

Barry Jenkins is a relatively young director — this is only his third feature-length film.  His inexperience shows in some awkward transitions.   Characters disappear or have major things happen to them between acts — you might miss them if you’re not paying close attention to what seems like casual dialogue.  (The more experienced Richard Linklater handled similar episodic transitions in Boyhood much more deftly).  The characters of Chiron and his childhood friend Kevin are played by different actors in each act, which is confusing until you figure out who is who.  And the pace is very slow; even for someone like me, with a high tolerance for deliberately-paced movies, some of the scenes, particularly in the second act, tend to drag.  A

These relatively small flaws do not detract from the power of the third act, where a now young adult Chiron confronts some of the characters from his early life.  Suddenly a boy who could barely put three words together speaks powerfully and honestly about his own inner life.  It’s riveting stuff, and it projects a kind of emotional honesty that is rare in movies.

Highly recommended.

Arrival

I enjoyed this movie, and was tremendously moved by the ending, even though, having read the novella, I knew what was coming.

The story is simple enough — a dozen alien space ships suddenly appear above the earth.  Why are they here?  Various governments put together teams of specialists, from linguists to mathematicians, to attempt to communicate.  Stuff happens.

Amy Adams, as the master linguist, gives a wonderful performance.  It didn’t attract Oscar attention — Oscars tend to go to actors who play damaged people who undergo dramatic transformation.  Here, most of Adams’ character transformation takes place in her head.  But whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her.

Where the film really shines, though, is in its astonishing visual imagery.  It’s not merely pretty — although there are plenty of dramatic vistas. Nor is it merely a matter of special effects — although they way they depict the alien gravity field is remarkable.  It is a tour-de-force of visual imagination — from the odd-shaped “how can that possibly exist” alien spacecraft, to the weirdly beautiful pictograms, even to the fractal earrings your eye barely register.  I guess it’s not that surprising that the director is French, a country whose best art has always been visual   (Not all cultural stereotypes are false.)

Highly recommended.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

The second season, now available on Amazon, goes far beyond Phillip K. Dick’s book, which makes sense, since PKD didn’t really provide an ending.   The three protagonists — Frank, Juliana and Joe — follow their own story arcs this season.  Each character faces his own moral dilemmas,where the “right” decisions — either morally or operationally — are not immediately apparent.  We get a glimpse of life in 1960s Berlin, where the children of the elite dabble in forbidden music and psychedelic drugs.  Meanwhile, the younger generation of Americans is intent on being even better Nazis than the original Germans.

The Japanese trade minister, a hero of the first seasons, spends much of Season 2 wandering around in an alternate universe, which is startlingly like our own.  What’s more, he’s not the only one.  And there may be more than two worlds.  I’m not sure what the alternate universe storyline adds to the overall mix, but unlike certain other recent programs (cough, cough, Westworld), at least when you’re watching it’s pretty clear what timeline you’re on.

One of the strengths of this show is in the interesting, morally complex characters.  You might find yourself more sympathetic to the Japanese police chief than the ethically-challenged, “ends justify the means” Resistance.  Another strong point of the series is the set design. The folks who put this show together really thought about what an America in the 1960s, whose cultural development was retarded by a repressive government, might look like.  In large part, that means technological progress (solid state TVs, supersonic planes) far ahead of its time, but music, art and fashion stubbornly stuck in the early 1950s.  They come up with a look that is very similar to the world we know, but subtly just different enough, much like Battlestar Galactia.  (Speaking of BSG –  three members of the anti-Japanese resistance are played by actors who were human/Cylons on that program).