Hidden Figures

(USA 2016)

Houston, do you read me: NASA employed black people in its infancy during the early Sixties. What’s more, NASA’s first major project, Mercury, probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without three black female “computers,” or mathematicians, whose efforts literally put John Glenn and Friendship 7 into orbit. The result was a serious boost in American morale during the race against the Soviets into space and a boon to the Space Program under President Kennedy. So, with its historically significant and truly enlightening subject matter, what most caught me off guard about Hidden Figures is its tone, which is light, upbeat, cute, and often comical. While not in itself a bad thing, it’s not what I expected.

Unfortunately, that’s about all Hidden Figures offers that I didn’t expect. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy this film; I did. It’s a great story about remarkable people who actually lived. According to one subject, their real stories are not far off from this film (http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-hidden-figures-katherine-johnson-20170109-story.html). Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a recently widowed math whiz who works for NASA in Virginia, as a bookish nerd complete with glasses that keep sliding down her nose. She and her coworkers, smart and sassy Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and fiery and coquettish Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), quietly but forcefully demonstate their worth in an environment that doesn’t treat them as equals. While Katherine lugs binders and a calculator back and forth between her desk and the “colored” rest room clear across campus to figure out arcs and other shit I sure can’t, Dorothy teaches herself how to operate the new IBM that not even IBM technicians can set up correctly and Mary pushes her way into engineering classes at night in an all white, all male school. Director Theodore Melfi does a really nice job demonstrating institutionalized racism and sexism through characters who may not have anything against black people or women—as administrator Vivian Michael (Kristen Dunst) curtly tells Dorothy in one scene and unwilling research partner, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), makes clear to Katherine in another scene by redacting her name from a joint report they both wrote—but don’t recognize the issue.

Despite its merits, I found Hidden Figures to be slightly more sophisticated than a Lifetime movie. Melfi, who with Allison Schroeder adapted the screenplay from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, takes a pretty basic approach to the material. It’s so easy—obvious, even—to gage where the story is headed. John Glenn (Glen Powell) sings Katherine’s praises while a love interest develops for her in handsome Col. Jim (Mahershala Ali). So cute. Hidden Figures gets into civil rights issues, but only on a superficial level. There are a few overdone Oscar grabs, like a scene between Katherine and her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), that ends with him smashing the sign outside the “colored” ladies’ rest room, but no true show stoppers. Frankly, though, most of the actors here have appeared in better movies. Too bad, because this could’ve been a great film instead of just an okay one. Hidden Figures doesn’t quite do its trailblazing subjects justice.

127 minutes
Rated PG

(AMC River East) C+



(Australia/UK 2016)

Like any kid, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is enamored of his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Saroo shadows Guddu everywhere, helping him do things like steal coal from trains to trade for milk for their penurious mother (Priyanka Bose) and little sister (Khushi Solanki) in their tiny village in India. After begging his brother to take him to “work” with him in a nearby city one night, both boys quickly learn that Saroo is too young to hack the late shift. Guddu leaves Saroo on a bench at a train station, promising to be right back. Saroo dozes off, waking up on an empty platform in the middle of the night. Scared and maybe cold, he gets on a vacant train and drifts back to sleep in one of the compartments. He’s jolted up while the train is speeding through terrain he’s never seen before.

The train takes Saroo to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where he must fend for himself. He doesn’t know the city, the language, or even his mother’s name. Kolkata is dangerous for a kid: Saroo is nearly abducted at the train station. He meets Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a seemingly nice lady who takes him in. Saroo senses that her creepy friend Rawa (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has nefarious plans for him, so he bails. A man (Riddhi Sen) eating in a café takes Saroo to the police, who turn him over to an orphanage. They try to find Saroo’s mother, but he’s unable to provide any useful information. Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval) teaches him English and manners. An Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman), adopt him.

To use a line from the Beastie Boys, you think this story’s over but it’s ready to begin. Cut to 2008: Saroo (Dev Patel) is grown up, Westernized, and starting school for hospitality management. During introductions, he tells his classmates that he’s from Calcutta but that’s about all he knows. While attending a friend’s party, he goes to the kitchen to get a beer and sees a plate of jalebi, an orange deep-fried Indian pastry. It triggers his memory, and he becomes obsessed with finding his “real” family.

Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, Lion plays out as two movies: one about young Saroo, and the other about adult Saroo. On an emotional level, Lion is a beautiful and powerful accomplishment—I defy anyone not to feel something from this film, which deals with identity, family, and home. Even so, it’s flawed. First-time feature director Garth Davis is really heavy-handed with the tears, so much that Lion comes off as trying too hard—manipulative, even. Davis connects the two stories, but he treats them vastly differently. The pace of young Saroo’s story is far superior: it flows naturally, unlike adult Saroo’s, which is choppy and abrupt. Young Saroo’s story is insightful and lyrical, while adult Saroo’s is too often inelegant. I found the unevenness distracting. Plus, the apparitions of Guddu and Saroo’s mother in Australia got silly after awhile. It shouldn’t be difficult to tell from the first three paragraphs of this entry which story I found more engaging.

Even with its flaws, Lion is still a good movie—well worth the two hours it eats of your life. The acting all around is superb, though Lucy (Rooney Mara) is a bit superfluous. Patel is great, but Pawar is the star here; it’s hard to believe this is his first film. Sia’s “Never Give Up,” which plays over the closing credits, will get stuck in your head for days.

118 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B-



(USA 2016)

The quintessential American dream home is usually depicted with a white picket fence surrounding it, the fence symbolizing a certain idyllic middle class coziness. That’s not what trash collector Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who doubles as director) sees when he imagines the fence he’s building in his backyard in 1950s Pittsburgh; his fence is more practical and nefarious, intended to keep his family in and his demons out.

August Wilson’s Fences starts out on a bright note: like Johnny Kemp, Troy just got paid and it’s Friday night. He’s walking home from work with his bestie, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), for a drink in the backyard. Troy is jovial, recounting a confrontation with a superior (Christopher Mele) about his job assignment and singing the praises of his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). She takes a break from making dinner and steps outside, and he’s playful. All appears to be well.

The mood doesn’t stay bright for long: Troy gets mean when he drinks. The presence of his sons—Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a late-thirties jazz musician, and Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high school student—seems to worsen his mood. This is the Troy who occupies the rest of the story; he grows increasingly officious toward Cory after Rose tells him a college recruiter is wooing Cory with a football scholarship.

Troy is bitter, petty, and conflicted. He’s protective yet jealous of Cory; he loves Rose with all his heart, yet he betrays her in the worst way. Clearly a victim of circumstance, he exhibits the effects of a cycle of defeat: drinking, adultery, and resentment. Although Fences is not the same story, Troy has a lot in common with Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Despite their societal differences, both characters failed to achieve the American dream and carry a weighty rancor because of it—the worst of it coming from within. Where Loman faces obsolescence, Troy faces never having reached a position in which he was valued in the first place. His big moment was playing baseball in the Negro league for a few years when he was young; he never had an opportunity to move onto the majors because, he says, the nation just wasn’t ready for it (don’t even bring up Jackie Robinson).

Fences is very much about the drama inside the characters rather than around them. Washington, who with Davis performed the play on Broadway in 2010, takes a straightforward approach. Aside from some period sets and costumes, he foregoes frills in favor of character and dialogue. As a result, Fences is like watching a play; the slow pace and relative lack of action will not appeal to everyone, but the intensity of the performances—every one of them rock solid and (ugh, I really hate this word, but it’s accurate) electrifying—is all I need.

Race is inextricable from Troy’s story, but Fences digs deeper than that. An awful lot is going on here—themes of family, duty, respect, and forgiveness resonate with me (and probably most people). Wilson once commented in an interview with The Paris Review that  “[b]y looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.” (https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/839/august-wilson-the-art-of-theater-no-14-august-wilson). Whether the timing was planned or incidental, Fences is timely: despite the many advances that people of color have made since Troy’s world—including but certainly not limited to the first black president—things in the States today seem to be regressing. It’s disheartening to watch.

I never read any of his work, but I’ve known about Wilson for a long time not just from college literature and drama classes that mentioned him but also from productions of a few of his plays at the Goodman over the last decade. I’m embarrassed to say that Washington’s film adaptation of Fences is my first and only experience with the playwright. I loved it. Fences is one of ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, depicting the black experience in America during each decade of the 20th Century (http://www.august-wilson-theatre.com/plays.php). Washington signed on to the rather ambitious project of producing nine of them (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/25/506617435/denzel-washington-and-viola-davis-on-adapting-fences-and-honoring-august-wilson). I guess I’ll have a chance to see more.

139 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) A-


The Devil Wears Prada

(USA 2006)

Some movies you watch just because they start and you’re too damned lazy to see what else is on. Such is the case with The Devil Wears Prada, which served as the end of my Christmas night movie binge.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) just finished school and moved to New York City to become a journalist. While seeking employment with more weighty publications like The New Yorker, she snags a one-off interview for Runway magazine. Surprise: she gets the job—working as personal assistant to ball busting editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Andy’s job duties and a chance meeting with handsome magazine writer Simon Baker (Christian Thompson) cause friction in her personal relationships, especially her chef boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier). Is a job worth this much hassle?

Director David Frankel does a competent job with Aline Brosh McKenna’s screen adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel even if the end result is nothing special. The acting is fine, particularly Stanley Tucci as caddy and nelly designer Nigel. It’s nice to hear Madonna’s “Vogue” in one scene outside Andy’s car. The problem I have is the script, which is formulaic and predictable girl movie stuff: awkward girl in the big city reinvents herself and not just survives but excels in the face of adversity. Of course, there’s a happy ending. The Devil Wears Prada is not my cup of tea: it’s cute, but that’s about it.

109 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Bravo) D+


Hell or High Water

(USA 2016)

I just saw Hell or High Water four months ago:


Some might say it’s too soon to see it again. I beg to differ: I actually like it more the second time. That final scene on the porch is brilliant.

102 minutes
Rated R

(DirecTV) B+

The Hateful Eight

(USA 2015)

Flipping channels on a full stomach on Christmas after learning of 2016’s latest high profile death, this time pop star George Michael, I came upon The Hateful Eight airing on Showtime. Having last seen it only once when it opened its original thatrical run, I decided a year was long enough to wait to see it again.

My original post is here: https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/the-hateful-eight/

Nothing’s changed: even without the “roadshow attraction” extras, The Hateful Eight is still as good as the first time. And that’s fucking awesome.

187 minutes
Rated R

(Showtime) A+

The Handmaiden [Agassi]

(South Korea 2016)

“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naive.”


I wasn’t sure what to expect from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden [아가씨], but I’m glad I got to see it. One word: wow! A sexy, complex, and intriguing film to say the least, it’s a lavish visual and narrative cinematic experience. The trailer offers only a hint of what awaits.

Park wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung. They change the setting from Victorian Era Britain to 1930s Korea when it was under Japanese colonial rule before the end of World War II. Confession: I did not read the book. The change is brilliant, though, resulting in something far more tense, exotic, and erotic than I imagine it would have been had they stuck to the original concept.

The Handmaiden is a cutthroat tale of power, sex, and deception in the same vein as Dangerous Liasons, though by no means is it the same story. The title refers to “Tamako” (Kim Tae-ri), a young common girl hired to serve as a maid to mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko’s authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) runs the household, which has a crazy library of antique erotica and a basement used for punishment. The atmosphere is abusive and weird. So much so, in fact, that Lady Hideko’s aunt committed suicide—and she still hears her voice at night.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

“Tamako” has a secret: she’s really Sook-hee, a master pickpocket from a long line of con artists. Sook-hee is working with Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a dashing con man, on an elaborate scam to bilk Lady Hideko out of her fortune. Fujiwara, posing as a Count, is wooing Lady Hideko into marriage, after which he plans to commit her to her an insane asylum and take off with her money. Fujiwara has a secret, too: he’s double dealing with Lady Hideko, who wants to get away from her uncle. Their plot involves getting married, cashing out her inheritance, and committing her illiterate maid under her name, after which Lady Hideko assumes the identity of “Tamako”—while keeping her money, of course.

The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and nothing here is what it seems. Things get interesting and go another route when the two women’s relationship takes a sexual turn, and they like it.

The Handmaiden is an example of near perfect execution. The beginning and end are a little slow, but what’s in between is well worth the slightly draggy bookends. Divided into three parts, it tells the story from the different perpectives of the three scammers. We get more information with each part, and just when it looks like we know what’s coming—bam!, the proverbial rug is pulled out from underneath and the narrative goes somewhere else. The characters are really complex, and the acting here is excellent. The sex scenes are sensual but often have a humorous undertone. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is rich and layered with thoughtful camerawork that adds a nice voyeuristic touch to the whole film, liberally using long shots and peeking through doors and around screens. This is a film you can easily get lost in.

144 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+


The Brand New Testament [Le tout nouveau testament]

(Belgium/France/Luxembourg 2015)

Joan Osborne once posed the question, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us?” In Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament, God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a sloppy, angry middle-aged white guy with a very plain wife (Yolande Moreau). They live in a dark apartment in Brussels, where He works from home (she’s a homemaker with a thing for collecting baseball cards). His job is pretty easy: to heap misery onto the human race, which He watches over on a computer in a room with a card catalog that stretches to the sky. God’s preteen daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), is not impressed with Him or His arrogant, authoritarian, and sadistic ways. Inspired by her brother “JC” (David Murgia), who tells her how to get out of the apartment through the washing machine, Ea hatches a plan to revise the way things work and hopefully make the world a better place: while Our Father is asleep on the couch, she sends a text message to everyone on Earth that reveals the date and exact time of their death, locks God’s computer, and runs away from home in search of six apostles to tell their stories—the Brand New Testament.

This film could have made a weighty statement, but it doesn’t. Instead, The Brand New Testament, executed with a hefty dose of fantasy and fabulism, is a fluffy affair. While all six apostles lack something—love, passion, an arm—they’re comical despite their sadness. Some of their subplots are better than others, particularly Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a beautiful woman with a secret, and Willy (Romain Gelin), a young boy with cancer who wants to be a girl. Catherine Deneuve plays a neglected and bored housewife, and it’s truly surreal to see her in a role where she gets fucked by a street gigolo (Bilal Aya) and ends up leaving her husband (Johan Leysen) for a gorilla (Kiko Mirales). That’s right, a gorilla. Clever Biblical references, especially to the numbers 12 and 18, are generously sprinkled throughout the script. There’s even a point in here about gender politics. For all its charms, though, The Brand New Testament is a much better concept than a finished product.

112 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) C


Manchester by the Sea

(USA 2016)

Home is where the heart is, but for Boston area janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) it’s where the heartbreak is. Withdrawn into a dreary and meager existence, he spends his days repairing tubs and toilets, listening to tenants bitch (and in one case talk on the phone about doing him), and shoveling snow at the apartment building where he lives in a dark basement with hardly any furniture and apparently one window. He spends his nights drinking himself stupid—so stupid he gets into the occasional brawl. He gets some positive attention here and there but never responds or engages. He’s dead inside for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.

Flashbacks show that Lee wasn’t always broken. He was married with three children. He had a home. He had friends and a social life. He spent a lot of time with his only sibling, older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and his nephew, Joe’s only kid Patrick (Ben O’Brien), on Joe’s boat. Joe’s wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol) is no longer in the picture. Neither is Lee’s, Randi (Michelle Williams).

One cold morning, a friend (C.J. Wilson) calls Lee to inform him that Joe had another heart attack. Joe dies before Lee gets to the hospital in his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, about an hour up the coast from him. He has to tell Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who’s now in high school. Lee sticks around to help put together the funeral and look after his nephew. He gets pulled into a parental role, carting Patrick to hockey events and band —a rock band, not high school marching band—practice, and counseling him on matters of dating and sex. Both are surprised when Joe’s lawyer (Josh Hamilton) reveals his will: he made provisions for Lee to serve as Patrick’s guardian. Too bad Joe never said anything to Lee.

Manchester by the Sea has some truly depressing scenes. The backstory of what brought Lee to his current state is horrible—it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to be anyone’s guardian. One excruciating exchange between Randi and Lee turned on the waterworks—mine (and it takes some doing to get me to cry). Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is focused on loss, forgiveness, and the complicated nature of taking care of one’s own in tough times. Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography nicely translates that focus, giving the film its dreary, colorless look.

All that said, Manchester by the Sea really isn’t a depressing movie. Much of the dialogue between Lee and Patrick is amusing: snarky and smartass, they often end up arguing. They’re all macho but obviously have a bond they don’t ever bring up; instead, it shows subtly when they talk about Joe or the boat. Lonergan has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that makes this one more than melodrama. The frozen ground is too hard to dig, so Joe has to stay in a freezer until spring. Patrick tries hard to get into a bandmate’s (Anna Baryshnikov) pants, while her mother (Heather Burns) develops a thing for Lee. Patrick gets in touch with his mother, who to his disdain has become a born again Christian. Plus, her fiancé is played by Matthew Broderick. Nice touch!

Manchester by the Sea has a similar vibe as, say, a Smiths song. I like that. The rather abrupt ending doesn’t resolve much, which is something I’ve heard a few people complain about. It didn’t bother me.

137 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B+



(USA 2016)

“Brookline is no place to bury a president.”

—Jackie Kennedy (allegedly)

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy: her name conjures up specific images—pink Chanel, a pillbox hat, pearls, big sunglasses, all illuminated by her unshakable poise. Jackie, the new biopic by Peruvian director Pablo Larraín, portrays the iconic former First Lady in a light I didn’t quite expect: strategic. While it certainly isn’t flattering, it doesn’t come off as negative, either.

Taking place over the days following the assassination of J.F.K. (Caspar Phillipson), Jackie is essentially a character study that follows Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as she steadies and readies herself for both her husband’s funeral and the changes that lie ahead for her and her children (Sunnie Pelant, Aiden and Brody Weinberg). In the midst of her grief, she carefully and with an earnest sense of purpose culls various elements to assemble her husband’s legacy—which she begins with Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession.

From a technical standpoint, Jackie is impressive. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is lovely, using a pallet of drab, saturated tones that calls to mind Kodak snapshots from the time period to create a somber look that reads clearly as November. He offsets this visual effect nicely with splashes of vivid reds. If nothing else, Jackie is a pretty movie. Structured with split time sequences that go backward and forward, the attention to detail is excellent: the film does a great job reproducing not just the White House and Mrs. Kennedy’s 1962 televised tour of it, but the early ’60s generally. Portman plays her part capably; she’s convincing as Mrs. Kennedy despite her annoying tendency to overdo the drama.

That’s about it for the positive. For all the pains Jackie takes to look and play out perfect, it gets a lot wrong. Those New England accents aren’t quite right, and none of the actors seem able to stick with them. Peter Sarsgaard is epically miscast as Bobby Kennedy, whom he doesn’t even try to emulate. I didn’t realize who he is until well into the film. It’s no secret that Mrs. Kennedy smoked, but popping pills and drinking as she gets dressed in the morning? And telling a priest (John Hurt) that she should’ve been a shop girl or a stenographer? I doubt it. The graphic scene of J.F.K.’s assassination, stuck in somewhere past the middle of the film well after a harrowing and far more effective scene of Mrs. Kennedy staring into a mirror and wiping blood off her face, is completely unnecessary; it comes off as a crude way to shock the audience—I jumped in my seat when I saw it, but not in a good way. The sloppy appearance and condescendingly bored demeanor of the reporter (Billy Crudup) is bizarre; sitting there in his Oxford with his tie undone as he interviews Mrs. Kennedy, I couldn’t help but wonder if in reality she would’ve opened up to him let alone allowed him into her home. He may be handsome, but his entire presence bummed me out.

The “psychological portrait” approach is mildly interesting for a little while, but the intrigue wears off. Jackie is nothing insightful, groundbreaking, or thought provoking. It could have been far more compelling considering its subject—this is total Oscar fodder, but it’s done so dully. I hope Larraín’s other new biopic, Neruda, is better.

100 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) C-