Hidden Figures

hfDirector: Theodore Melfi

Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner

No matter how you felt about 2016, I think most of us could use a little pick-me-up in 2017. Well, enter Hidden Figures to provide a brief respite with a little chicken soup for the soul right when we desperately need it.

Hidden Figures is the true story about a group of African American women employed by NASA who were instrumental in the success of the now iconic and historic space missions of the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who along with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work as human computers for NASA, doing calculations that the engineers need worked or verified. This proves to be a skilled yet monotonous task, and all the while the women working as Computers look on as the first International Business Machine (IBM) is being assembled across campus, threatening to render their roles obsolete.

An academic prodigy, Johnson’s prowess for Geometry gets her promoted to personal Computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of Guidance and Control, the branch responsible for calculating the trajectory for NASA’s first manned space launches. This sounds all well and good, but Harrison is not the warm, fuzzy type, and a room full of egotistical White, male engineers in the Jim Crow South does not exactly translate to a respectable work environment. The movie unfolds henceforth as tensions rise over the space race between America and Russia. Johnson must grapple with the hostilities of being a Black woman in a White man’s world while Jackson and Vaughan adapt to a changing world where computers are machines, not people.

There is a lot going on in this movie; far too much to summarize in a simple movie review. Each of the heroines’ stories is compelling and outstanding in its own special way. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi is wise to begin the film where he does and allow each of these characters to forge her own path in the face of societal and cultural stifling. While many of the tropes of traditional period biography are present, it’s the ones that don’t get played that make all of the difference. Several times, I set myself up for the inevitable and predictable harassment scene or cartoonish bigotry, and each time I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. Hidden Figures does not go for the cheap jab at your sensibilities, and instead takes the high road exposing the institutional racism of the time, not just the blatant form. We’ve seen many films depicting the shame and cruelty of “separate but equal,” but not as many that also reveal its inconvenience or question its complacency.

Furthermore, we have fantastic performances all around, of course from our leading ladies, but also from Costner and supporting players like Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. Movies like this do come around every year, but Hidden Figures feels uniquely appropriate for right now. Additionally, the film aptly depicts the great John Glenn whom we lost last year and who deserves to be lionized as part of this story as well. Melfi is fast becoming a go-to writer and director when it comes to creating emotional and satisfying films. His previous film, St. Vincent was equally crafted, and Hidden Figures furthers his budding trademark theme of exploring the unconventional (and sometimes “hidden”) goodness in the world.

Hidden Figures is not groundbreaking or particularly edgy. What it is, is a spectacular, and relatively unknown story of progress and perseverance, without feeling cheap or going to the same old well. It feels fresh and inspirational, and while not especially deep, it does make for a good time at the movies. A-

The Bling Ring

ImageSofia Coppola’s life of privilege is no secret; I mean she is a Coppola, daughter of Francis, and even appeared in all three Godfather films (she was one year old in the first one).  Privilege is an interesting topic, and the exposure of the jaded nature of the privileged is not a new subject for the film industry.  Coppola has forged this territory before first in 2003 with Lost in Translation, then in 2006 with Marie Antoinette, next in 2010 with Somewhere, and most recently with this year’s release of The Bling Ring.

Based on real events detailed in Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring is about a group of shallow, obsessive teens who rob celebrity homes in order to emulate their lifestyles.  After using the Internet to track celebrities’ whereabouts, Marc (Israel Broussard) and Rebecca (Katie Chang) begin hand picking the residences of out-of-town celebrities to burgle.  Their three close friends Nikki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) round out the ring of thieves who steal over $3 million worth of property in one year’s time.

This story is ripe for the hands of Coppola.  While known for searching for the sympathetic side of degenerative celeb culture, she is not quick to pardon the acts of these characters.  The Sleigh Bells’ song “Crown on the Ground” plays during the film’s opening credits suggesting the forthcoming loss of innocence and selfish deviance of the characters.   Coppola draws from Sales’s article to construct a twisted Bonnie & Clyde-like story with less-than admirable protagonists.  Here Coppola analyzes youth culture and its influences in an attempt to diagnose what has lead to this overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people.

While it is easy to blame Rebecca, Marc, and company for their ultimate predicament, Coppola does not place the blame solely on them.  Nikki and Sam’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann), religiously feeds her daughters Adderall because she is too consumed with vicariously preserving her own youth through her children’s experiences.  This pill/pharmaceutical culture is clearly linked to the excessive substance abuse carried out by these young characters.  Furthermore, Laurie lacks the backbone to provide a leadership role in these girls’ lives, yet attempts to home-school them with weak lessons about moral guidance.  This hypocrisy of adults presents an additional element to explain how and why the film plays out as it does.

Coppola also frames her film with confessionals from the “ring” after their inevitable capture.  In these confessionals, the young criminals speak frankly about how their society and surroundings damaged their self-image and consciousness to the point that they were motivated to do something about it.  Coppola proposes the question that with the media’s focus on saturating the market with the glamorous lives of the over-privileged youth who seemingly were handed fame and fortune, how is patience, hard work, and morality supposed to compete?  This is a disgusting question, and one that mature adults can easily answer, but the question is posed to immature, poorly guided young people, thus the answer is archetypically suggested by this film.

It is easy to dislike this film.  However, much like last spring’s Spring Breakers one must see the forest for the trees.  There is a mess here, but it is one often swept under the rug and films like this try to show what happens when too much dirt accumulates.  This notion is most realized when examining the captivating character of Nikki, played brilliantly by Emma Watson.  Nikki utters the film’s last words, which I will not spoil here, but the message is loud and clear and it resonates as Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays during the closing credits.  What I will say is that Watson has a cameo in Seth Rogan’s This is the End, and while that film certainly earns its title – perhaps this film is even more deserving.  The Bling Ring is one of Sofia Coppola’s best films in an impressively growing filmography.  Her subject matter may not vary much from film to film, but she has a knack for finding new, fresh ways to interpret a theme.  It can be a “tough pill to swallow” at times, but the film is an ambitious and well-made social satire that feeds off of the very problems it wishes to expose.  It is a weird yet substantial film!  A-

The Bling Ring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Go in with an open mind and broadened expectations.  Also keep an eye out for Sofia Coppola’s good luck charm, Kirsten Dunst who makes an uncredited third appearance in a Sofia Coppola film.

Marie-Antoinette

ImageBy popular demand from my followers, or should I say follower, I have decided to review the avant garde Pop bio-pic Marie-Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola. I missed this movie during its original run (by “missed” I mean “skipped” because I find Kirsten Dunst to be a half-step above Kristen Stewart in terms of acting ability). However, due to a recent trip to Paris and Versailles, the film suddenly had more of a draw to me. The film loosely follows the story of how monarch-to-be, Louis XVI (played by Jason Schwartzman) is matched up with Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette (Dunst) by his father for political reasons. Soon the teenage pair are ruling France from the decadent and hypnotizing palace of Versailles with little knowledge about or regard for the country’s well-being. This film has a unique style and tone. This is not your run-of-the-mill straight factual bio-pic. Coppola uses bright colors, modern music, and even out of place modern props like a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers in the background of one shot to play up the youth and inexperience of her heroine. Coppola looks to explain, albeit not excuse, the doomed couple’s flawed reign.

Even more important is the film’s setting. Marie-Antoinette is filmed entirely at the Palace of Versailles. This is a special privilege, not often permitted by the French government and it is crucial for the film’s full vision. Coppola not only saturates the film with youthful imagery, but she also utilizes the spellbinding mystique of Versailles itself in order to illustrate the tremendous disconnect young Louis and Marie-Antoinette must have felt from their constituency. The lavish luxury is palpable and, at times, even disgustingly over-the-top. Even with such a mouth-wateringly lush location, the film is often flat from the acting to the rather uneventful plot, purposeful as this may be. I am not clamoring for a fully historically accurate portrayal, but the film needs more than just two hours of moodiness. There is an obviously looming sense of doom throughout this film, and this feeling mixed with the childish depiction of the protagonists does foster a note of sympathy for the child rulers, which is a credit to the director. Overall, the film benefits from a unique vision and a setting that is one of a kind. These characteristics certainly help the film overcome some of its shortcomings. B-

 

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