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.

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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.

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.

The Hollow Crown, Part II (BBC)

This British TV series (3 2-hour episodes) provides the rare opportunity to see Richard III together with its prequel, the rarely-produced story of Henry VI.  The production values are very high.  The cast is uniformly excellent, offering top-flight actors even in the smaller roles. The directors used period homes, castles and cathedrals for greater authenticity, and the outdoor scenes are actually filmed outdoors. The language is delivered, for the most part, in a naturalistic, accessible style, without the “declaiming” that mars many British productions.  I have some quibbles with certain of the artistic choices, as noted below.  But in general these productions are very fine.

The three parts of Henry VI have been condensed into the first 2 episodes.  For the most part, that’s a good thing, since these plays aren’t Shakespeare’s best.  They cut out most of the stuff about Joan of Arc (just as well, since she’s written as an unsympathetic character that would be jarring to most modern audiences).  And by eliminating the subplot about Jack Cade’s rebellion, they cut the play’s most famous (and most famously misunderstood) line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  But I suppose that couldn’t be helped.

The first part of Henry VI is by far the stronger of the two.  Henry VI acceded to the throne upon his father’s death, when he was still an infant.  His uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was named as regent.  Twenty-odd years later, after Henry achieves his majority, other courtiers manage to get Henry to first depose Humphrey, then execute him.  The story of a boy king turning against his uncle as an adult goes a long way towards explaining, though not condoning, Richard’s murder of his nephews some decades later.

The part of uncle Humphrey is played by Hugh Bonneville, best known to American audiences as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.  I had no idea he was such a good actor.

The second part of Henry VI is still tedious, even with all the cuts.  And although the deaths are in the play, the copious amounts of blood are a modern invention.  I’m not sure  it adds anything.

As to Richard III, what can I say?  It’s one of Shakespeare’s great plays, and this version is credible enough.

Here’s where some of the artistic choices started to bother me.  Richard III starts 10 years after the end of the last part of Henry VI. In an early scene,Richard courts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son Edward, Prince of Wales, who was killed at the end of Henry VI.  Many standalone productions of Richard III alter the timeline to show Richard wooing Anne at Edward’s funeral — which is, in fact, closer to the truth. (Richard married Anne a year after Edward’s death, and they had a son, who died young.)    Here, they stick to the play’s text, which implies a 10 year gap between Edward’s death and Richard’s marriage.  Why keep the gap, even though they are presenting the plays together as a continuous whole?  They even have a new actress to play Richard’s mother, which doesn’t sit right, even if it is Judy Dench — especially since all the other parts from the earlier plays are played by the same actors.

The biggest problem with this production, though, is Richard himself.  There are two ways to play Richard III.  The “traditional” route is to play Richard as grotesque monster, a man whose soul is as twisted as his body.  The other route, which I prefer, is to portray Richard as man who might have been great, but whose mental chip on his shoulder eventually deforms his soul more than his physical one — more Michael Corleone than Scarface.  Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch chooses the traditional route.   He is a fine actor, who delivers his lines very well and chews scenery with the best of them.   But his Richard is never a sympathetic character.  You can’t wait for him to hurry up and die already, which means the play doesn’t have the emotional resonance a true tragedy might have had.

Genius

Thomas Wolfe, a young novelist from back-of-beyond North Carolina, convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, writes to all the publishers in New York.  Max Perkins, editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, agrees to publish him.  Wolfe is a totally undisciplined writer, and his manuscript needs a lot of work.  Somehow, the collaboration works, and the book is a commercial success.  At that point, Wolfe dumps Perkins, as he seems to have dumped nearly everyone he no longer needs.   Wolfe dies young, so we never know what else he might have written with a normal life span.

This movie has an interesting story, a good script, and a terrific cast.  Yet somehow it falls flat.  I think it’s because two of the three leads, while fine actors, are badly miscast.

Jude Law, an often under-rated actor, gives a fantastic performance as Wolfe, a man from nowhere who somehow speaks in flamboyant poetry, and who experiences life in all its majesty with a passionate intensity (and not much concern for anyone else).

I can’t say as much for Nicole Kidman, who plays Aline Bernstein, the woman who left her husband and family for Wolfe and bankrolled him before he became famous.  In real life, Bernstein was short, plain, and significantly older than Wolfe; Kidman is none of those things, Bernstein’s bizarre, public suicide attempt, while faithfully reproduced, is not credible in Kidman’s portrayal — as an actress, Kidman is simply too beautiful, too resilient, and has too much dignity for us to bridge the gap between movie and reality.    It’s as if Robert Redford had played the lead in The Graduate instead of Dustin Hoffman (don’t laugh — Redford auditioned for the role).

The bigger problem, though, is with Colin Firth, a fine actor who seems to have completely misunderstood his character.  We are told that Perkins has “the gift of friendship.”  But as portrayed by Firth, he is taciturn and morose.  We see the joy he gets from reading Wolfe’s work — but not how he conveys his admiration to the author himself.  Maybe it’s the hat.  Perkins was known for wearing hats everywhere, even at the dinner table.  But since nobody in the movie mentions it, even as a jocular aside (“Whatever you do, don’t ask him about his hat”), it just comes across as weird.

Two scenes in the movie give a tantalizing hint of how good this movie could have been.  One is a scene between Perkins and Hemingway (Dominic West !).  The two men engage in a kind of easy camaraderie and mutual respect that likely made Perkins such a genius editor.  But we don’t ever see that side of him again.  The second scene occurs towards the end of the movie, when Perkins meets Wolfe’s mother, an aging country woman who eagerly starts speaking to him in flamboyant poetry. Now we know where Tom came from — but where did she?

Postcript:  Firth based his accent on Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was famously fired by Richard Nixon in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”  Cox apparently sounded a lot like Perkins, and with good reason — he was his nephew.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Ramanujan, a self-trained mathematician unable to find an academic position in India, had a poorly played job as a clerk.   Convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, he sends letters with samples of his work to major British universities.  He receives a reply from Professor G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, who invites him to come to the university.  Things do not go smoothly — many of Hardy’s colleagues are not all that enthusiastic at the idea of working with an uneducated (in their view) Indian.  Even those who accepted his mathematical genius regarded him with a kind of bemused condescension, considering him kind of an idiot savant — someone with genuine insights, but no idea how he got there.  And the social differences loomed large.  Ramanujan, although he lived in abject poverty,  was a Brahmin, used to thinking of himself as a superior being by virtue of his birth.  This did not go over well with his English colleagues, who thought of themselves as sole masters of the universe.  And how did a vegetarian manage to survive in an England where even vegetables were often cooked in lard?

Ramanujan, as it turned out, was capable of producing the rigorous proofs Prof. Hardy thought were necessary for his work to be taken seriously.  So the two men eventually developed a working partnership, if not true friendship.  But Ramanujan could never answer Hardy’s persistent question — where do you get these insights?   Perhaps, said Ramanujan, it is because God speaks to me.  Given that much of Ramanujan’s work was in what mathematicians would call infinite series, that’s as good an answer as any.

The movie works, I think, because of the strong performances of the two leads, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.  Irons is a fine actor, who has been known to chew the scenery when he is bored with a role.  He is not bored here, and finds the right balance between social awkwardness and political savvy (he is, as it turns out, an adept player of academic politics).  Patel likewise finds the right line in a difficult part, balancing a man aware of his supreme intellectual gifts but one who nevertheless depended on friendship and family support, both of which were sorely lacking in his new world.

Ramanujan returned to India after WWI, and died young, so we don’t know what he might have accomplished with a normal life span.  His work was recognized as brilliant in his own time.  But as is common in number theory, few practical applications for his work were found for many decades.  These days, his work is used in advanced cryptography and to explain the physics of black holes.

The Night Of (HBO)

Naz Khan, a Pakistani-American college student in NY, “borrows” his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan.  On the way, he sees a pretty lady looking for a ride, and he decides to pick up a “fare.”  One thing leads to another, and he winds up going to her apartment, doing way too much booze and drugs.  He wakes up, in the middle of the night, and finds out that pretty lady has been viciously stabbed in her bed.   Panicking, he runs, gets back in the cab, makes an illegal left turn, and gets stopped by the police.  Pretty soon, he’s the prime suspect in the girl’s murder.

Although the mini-series appears to be a routine murder mystery, it is more of an examination of the American judicial system, particularly as it plays out with respect to poor or unsophisticated defendants.  The police don’t bother to do a competent investigation, since the case appears open and shut.  Lacking good representation, Naz is denied bail and sent to Rikers Island, where is is mixed in with career criminals.  The big-firm lawyer who takes his case on a pro bono basis loses interest when Naz refuses a plea deal.

Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter, also wrote Schindler’s List, and the series benefits from a number of complex, very well drawn characters.  The prison scenes are particularly good and, I’m afraid, all too realistic.  The trial scenes are marred by what appear to be a lot of very basic errors — has no one heard of the hearsay rule?  For all I know, though, the low quality of the proceedings on both sides may be the norm for these kinds of cases, which may be part of the point.

This was originally a passion project for James Gandolfini, TV’s Tony Soprano.   After he died, the role of the jailhouse lawyer who eventually defends Naz was taken by John Turturro, a pretty good actor who lacks the emotional intensity Gandolfini might have brought to the role (a silly subplot involving panic-induced eczema doesn’t really substitute).  Riz Ahmed, a British actor, is very good as Naz.  And the supporting characters are generally excellent as well, particularly Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar in The Wire) who plays the Big Dog prisoner at Riker’s Island.

Worth seeing, but I’m not sure where (or when) it will be available if you don’t have HBO.

Call the Midwife (PBS)

It may seem strange to recommend a show about midwives in London’s East End in the late 1950s to a group of guys.  There are a lot of stories about pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for newborns.  But over the course of its five seasons, this extraordinarily well-written series finds a way to cover a whole range of other kinds of issues,, not just those related to childbirth — unwanted pregnancies, forced adoptions, domestic violence, childhood illnesses — but also more general social issues, like substance abuse, racial and class prejudice, PTSD, the social problems of urban renewal, and even the rewards (and difficulties) of a religious vocation.  These issues are examined in a realistic, remarkably non-judgmental way.  Things don’t always work out, but the midwives (and the nuns they live with) try to do their best for the women they care for, however difficult the situation.

The show is particularly good at depicting the problems of the aging poor.  There were many civilian deaths in the East End during WWII, which means that many lost, not just fighting-age sons, but spouses and young children in the war, leaving many to grow old alone. In this show about birth, it’s noteworthy that some of the best episodes are about death.

Most interesting, to me at least, is what I would call the “medical sociology” aspects.  Whatever you think of government-run health care, it is undeniable that, in this poor part of London, the NHS brought first-world quality medical care to a population that had traditionally received charity care, or none at all.  (Indeed, some of the services, including frequent pre- and post-natal home visits, is probably better than a lot of women sometimes get today in the US). That dramatic improvement in access to medical care changed the relationship of people in these neighborhoods with their government, in ways not always easy to foresee.

Although the show was originally based on the memoirs of one young nurse, starting in Season 4, they ran out of source material and developed fictional storylines.  The later seasons remain well-written, but are perhaps a bit more political than the early ones (a doctor, faced with a measles epidemic, sighs, “If only we had a vaccine.”). But the “thalidomide” episodes, following the local medical practitioners as they slowly realize that the unprecedented birth defects they are seeing in newborns are actually the result of drugs they themselves have prescribed, are some of the best they’ve ever done.  All the same, the later episodes lack some of the quirkiness of the earlier “real-life” ones, like the story of identical twins who apparently share a husband — no scriptwriter would dare to make that up.

Parental advisory:  This is a show about childbirth.  There is at least one birth scene per episode, sometimes more.   The realities of childbirth are clearly presented, but are not overly explicit– e.g., you might see blood on a newborn’s head, and the occasional nipple as a newborn latches on.  But you won’t see any female genitalia..  No child over 12 will be traumatized.  Can’t promise the same for queasy adult males, though.