Hidden Figures

with Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner.

hidden-figures-posterA trio of brilliant black women work on the space program at Langley in Virginia in 1961.  Obstacles abound:  sexism, racism, a few hundred white men stupider than you standing in your way.

The story begins in 1961 when the cold war demanded that NASA defeat the Russians in the space race.  Mathematicians sit in bullpens  cranking out the figures that will result in successful launch and landing ond ultimately an orbit around the earth.

Jim Parsons reprieves his role as a geek, Jim Stafford, one of the mathematicians working under an autocratic supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  But the movie is a tribute to the three women who prevailed over an unjust system that would deny them entry in the halls of power there they belonged– solving the math problems and science of engineering space flight.

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Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the star, working in Harrison’s office for manned space flight, trying out her formulas for the trajectory of the space capsule on the huge blackboard.

Octavia Spencer who plays Dorothy Vaughan works her magic.  Vaughan knows that  human computers will be replaced by machines, and learns FORTRAN on her own so that she can program them.  “Atta girl” she hums as she gets the behemoth machine to run for the first time.  White men had been floundering for days to do what she did in a minute.

Maybe we are all hungry for uplift but I found the happy ending just what I needed on the day after President Trump fired his Attorney General for trying to enforce the constitution.  It is more than heartening to see women overcome sexism and racism not through through the assistance of other more privileged white men, though John Glen gave them a boost.  It was through their great intelligence.

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Katherine Johnson at her desk 

 

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Leonard Cohen

This movie, made in 1972, during a 20 city tour, explores the fatigue, the technical snafus, the distractions, the allure, and the insanity that accompanies a bunch of musicians who must please a different audience every night one night after another in a rigorous schedule sort of like a campaign of battles fought by soldiers.  What if your mission is not made clear?  Or if the guns fail to fire?

And after a while, if the customers demand a refund because the equipment keeps backfiring and sending out reverb and static and screeching noises instead of music.

As a person, Cohen sails through the rocky shoals that a sexy musician like him must. Many women have crushes on him.   Women who back him up on vocals seem to have more than a professional relationship with him.  The camera crew itself dogs him on tour, and keeps insisting on extreme close ups of his face, and blacking out any detail that might help us understand why he is  going through mental anguish.

But then there are the brilliant songs, and his singing of them.newcastleThere is the inner peace and mystical aura of the man.  Cohen’s attractiveness draws crowds who hunger for more of him than he can provide. You understand the conflict. An artist of the first order is introspective, but is expected to singing songs to huge crowds night after night.

When I think of Bob Dylan, his contemporary, who wrote and still writes equally compelling songs, and how Dylan is on the Endless Tour, I cannot think of two artists more dissimilar.  Dylan thrives on performing.

The story of Cohen and his need to tour at the end of his life after being bamboozled by his business manager is well known.  But by then, in the years just before he died last year, he was able to present the songs without  giving up his soul.  In his thirties, when this movie was made, it is not so clear.

I only wish the filmmaker provided more information.  For instance, who was the footage of small children, and families of?  Why was the blonde woman shown so significantly?  Was it so hard to identify these people?   The impression I got from the film was that the filmmaker or his heirs were cashing in on Cohen’s recent death and pulled this relic out of storage.  They might have done a tiny bit of editing but just showed it with all of its flaws.  Still, I never tire of hearing him sign those great songs.

 

 

 

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Manchester by the Sea (Dir. K. Lonergan). 2016.

with Casey Affleck, Michele Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges.

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“I just can’t beat it” admits Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a downcast man who had suffered inconsolable loss already when his brother dies and leaves him in charge of his nephew , 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) .

Patrick lives in Manchester by the Sea where he assumed his father’s boat business would slip into his hands one day, just as easily as he juggles several girlfriends at once.  However, the Chandler temper sometimes gets the better of him, and like his uncle Lee, he can suddenly turn violent, as it does in a fracas on the ice during hockey practice.

The movie unfolds gracefully with a series of vignettes that frame Lee’s life as a handyman in a multiple dwelling where he deals with the usual plumbing mistakes, wiring malfunctions and other things that can make tenants cross and defensive.  We learn about Lee’s previous happier days with his wife and three children and as we travel back and forth in time, the relationship with his brother John and his nephew Patrick becomes clear.

Lonergan’s brilliance comes in flashes of dialogue between siblings who take responsibility for each other even when they’d rather not.  He has a dark palate brightened by flashes of humor. There is a comic scene where the director appears as a buttinsky questioning Lee’s parenting style when he argues with his nephew on the street.  Lee grows into his role as a protector and guardian of Patrick.  Patrick resists, yields, and is ultimately swayed to the similarity between this man and his father who has just died.

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Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges

Lucas Hedges as Patrick is superb, as are all the supporting cast especially Michelle Williams. Her key scene leads the path to redemption for Lee.  There are also beautifully structured scenes with Matthew Broderick as an Evangelical Christian recently hooked up with Patrick’s recovered mother.  And the band rehearsals with Patrick and his fellow musicians reflect the ugly power plays of teens.

If I have one complaint about the movie, it is that the music overwhelms at times as if grandly underlining the sorrow of certain scenes.

But overall, Lonergan has pulled off another beautifully written, well directed, and expertly acted movie, joining his other excellent movies, You Can Count on Me and Margaret.

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20th Century Women (directed by Mike Mills, 2016).

with Annette Bening, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann.

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Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) grows up with his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in the late 1970s in Santa Barbara California. Dorothea decides that she alone can’t provide everything it takes for her fifteen year old son to grow up into an honorable strong man.  So she enlists other people to help her.  She does not search far.  She simply asks those boarders who pay her rent to give her an assist.

These include Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twenty something photographer suffering from cervical cancer, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman in the midst of upgrading the magnificent piece of architecture they all live in, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a teenage girl who sneaks in at night to sleep with the young boy who she considers her closest friend.

There is rhapsodic photography of Jamie skateboarding around the curved roads of the California coast towns near Santa Barbara.  Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup do more than the heavy lifting required of the screenplay.  They carry the movie.  I am not sure that I swallow Annette Bening’s performance.  It is not all her fault.  There is something off putting about her performance, or even of the part.   It seems she took a master class in smoking cigarettes, as if that were the key to acting her role.   In fact there is a class on smoking Julie gives to Jamie who flunks it.  Julie should have taught Dorothea instead.

The narration by the boy looking back thirty years is at first charming, but increasingly intrusive, and then repetitive and annoying.  There is a stop and start rhythm to the editing that doesn’t carry the day.  But when the movie is at its best, it demonstrates the differences in generations beautifully.  Watching Gerwig fling herself about as she dances to punk music is a beautiful thing.  And Lucas Zumann is terrific as Jamie.

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Each day he takes down the stock prices of his mother’s portfolio.  Strangely, this becomes one of the most lovely affectionate things about the film.

 

 

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Fences. (dir. Denzel Washington). 2016.

with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson.

Based on the play by August Wilson.

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That the original work was a play made me yearn for the distance an audience gets, the view of the set at all times, and the actors’ relationship to that. In the movie, so often, the camera closes in on someone and forces us to focus on the face instead of the words.

Viola Davis and the other actors are splendid, especially Jovan Adepo playing his son Cory, and Stephen McKinley Henderson playing his friend, Bono. All of the minor characters are acted perfectly.

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I am glad that I saw this movie because I had always meant to watch August Wilson’s work.  But I wanted to out of duty rather than pleasure which is something I look for in a work of art.  And there is little pleasure to be had in Fences.  It is relentless work, to consider how ugly racism has shaped many of our finest men, how it is still reigning among us, and how it can twist a man into bitter anger.

The title of the play hints at what the Negro League star was swinging for when he came up to bat.  Troy was a great baseball player who went on to work in the sanitation department picking up people’s garbage.  His wife, Rose, is a compassionate woman, tending to the needs of all around her, including Troy’s brain damaged brother.

When August Wilson died, he was in the midst of writing the screenplay for Fences.  He had insisted that only a black director could direct it.  Denzel Washington who plays the lead, and is a very fine actor, with an accomplished career in front of the camera, is directing for the first time.  He uses too many extreme close ups, giving the impression that not only are the characters shouting at you, but the director is too.

 

 

 

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Neruda. Directed by Pablo Lorrain. 2016.

with Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco.

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Pablo Lorrain’s second movie this year (after Jackie, his first in English) could not be more different than Paterson, another movie (directed by Jim Jarmusch) about a poet.  Lorrain takes a poet in trouble with the law, a Chilean Senator at odds with his president, a Communist whose party has been outlawed, and members thrown into jail. Some of the scenes that show the conflict between Pablo Neruda and the president are almost comical, the sides are so different. The action begins with a narrator we do not know explaining the conflict, and how it will lead to exile and a police chase through the Andes as Neruda escapes to Argentina.

It doesn’t matter how realistic the story is, the basic feeling of the plot is that a popular poet is sometimes in trouble with everyone he knows, but he keeps writing.  He writes in his house with his second wife, he writes in the places he hides in, he writes on the road.  His love poems are clamored for, and memorized by an adoring public, Pablo Picasso takes up his cause, and eventually he lands in France where he is an international celebrity.

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Luis Gnecco plays Neruda

His antagonist, a policeman named Oscar Petuchonneau, is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, an excellent actor, whose quest to locate and capture the poet on the run becomes a kind of wild goose chase — perhaps a fantasy of how Neruda needed to have an enemy in order to create his work.

Because the chase became the crux of the story, and I was looking for more about the poet himself, I was less than satisfied with Neruda.  This is my problem, though, since the director never intended what I sought.   The scenes are well composed, the photography of the mountains is spectacular, and the poet is never less than a complicated human being.

It is probably enough that a poet has been committed to the screen, one whose work we will now look up and find revelatory.  Cinema may not be the best place to adapt poetry.  It is internal work we must do to absorb its meaning, and movies are all about the images and sound we see and hear immediately.  Neruda has plenty of these and they are beautiful.

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Is the police inspector real?

Here is one of my favorite Neruda poems which I found on the Academy of American Poets website.

Walking Around

Pablo Neruda, 19041973

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.

Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.

“Walking Around” from Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems, by Pablo Neruda and translated by Robert Bly (Boston: Becon Press, 1993). Used with permission of Robert Bly.

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Jackie. Directed by Pablo Larrain. 2016.

With Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup.

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Jackie takes place in the week between when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas in 1963, and when he was buried in Arlington Cemetery several days later. It  shows us the point of view of his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. Natalie Portman carries herself with Jackie’s  aristocratic manner, and wears the clothes and hair and jewelry just right.  She inhabits the woman in all of her glamor and self confidence.  The movie shows how much Jackie tried to control the events immediately following the death of her husband.  Can she decide how the funeral cortege will follow the casket? Will people be able to walk, as she originally intended, the way they did at Lincoln’s funeral, or were they going to need protection in the wake of Oswald’s murder?

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November 25, 1963

Natalie Portman On The Set Of 'Jackie' In DC

Jackie funeral cortege scene

The movie includes a series of scenes with a journalist (Billy Crudup) visiting Jackie a week after Kennedy is shot, as he asks her questions to fill in the spots the public wants to know about.  What did the bullet sound like? What do you really hope for as a legacy of your husband’s brief term? How did you tell the children?

The article in Life magazine, published in early December 1963, included some of the interviews with Theodore White shown on screen. I wonder why the film does not credit this as a source.  The canny widow told the journalist (who never has a name in the film, like so many other characters hovering around the periphery of overcrowded scenes — so many Kennedy siblings never identified, and the beloved social secretary only understood to be so toward the end of the film) that he is not allowed to print anything she says he can’t, and after many revealing quotes are given, she says immediately, of course I never said that.

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Jackie shows nerves of steel, yet you keep waiting for someone to do something human, like just give the woman a hug.  Considering how First Ladies have evolved over the past fifty years, it is telling that her crowning achievement was the redecoration of the White House, with restoration of historical furniture.  Women with brains were not allowed to do much more than adorn houses with not just furniture but also themselves.

Overbearing music begins the movie with the first blank screen when very loud violins play a sour refrain, signaling the audience how to feel before seeing a single image. Overwhelming the audience with music is usually a sign that the director has no confidence in the audience to understand what he is doing.  What he is doing is plain.  Jackie is a modern hero, a woman who survived a horror, and went on to lead a nation in grief for one week.  She trained us to think of the Kennedy administration as Camelot, a mythical ideal time.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Greta Gerwig as Nancy Dickerson, the ever present social secretary, Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, and Crudup as the journalist.  I don’t know why we needed quite so much of the re-enactment of the White House renovation tour, especially since the film is painstakingly made to look old and weathered.  This adds a note of pretense when the director was probably aiming toward the theme of historical meta-ness.  Or is it to show that the TV show of the White House was a dress rehearsal in how to present your husband’s legacy?   Jackie had plans, as did her husband, which were shattered on November 22, 1963.

 

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