REVIEW: Hidden Figures

4 01 2017

Hidden Figures” features three black female protagonists – or, rather, the film features what feels like a single protagonist with three different facets all fighting different incarnations of the same struggle. During the heat of the space race, this trio of women little known to history played a tremendous role in boosting the fortunes and morale of a nation that still treated them like second-class citizens.

The mathematical calculations of Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson helped ensure that John Glenn could orbit the earth safely, but she had to contend with institutional racism and sexism that hampered her performance. Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn learned how to work NASA’s first IBM computer, primarily because discriminatory hiring practices prevented her from traditional professional advancement. Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson became one of the agency’s most brilliant engineers, although in order to do so, she had to fight segregation in the courts to get the education she needed for the job.

While Henson might get the most screen time of the three – she’s the one whose romantic interests that writers Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder care to develop – the film really does feel like it possesses a set of co-leads. Their day-to-day struggles might be different, as are the people keeping them from reaching their full potential. Yet together, they provide each other with the strength to tear down the limitations holding them back: first within themselves, then in their workplace, and soon enough the world.

Even as “Hidden Figures” hews closer to the sentimentality of “The Help” than the strategizing of “Selma,” the film gives specificity and definition to each character. Though their hurdles might look the same, Melfi’s direction never allows them to become flattened out or treated as one in the same. The film could have foregone many scenes so obviously built around a vamp up to a Civil Rights-era declaration of humanity, but the cumulative effect of this inspiration and representation is tough to deny. These women were owed respect in their time, not only for their work but also for all they had to do in order to perform that work. It’s wonderful that the film brings their lives into the limelight. B+3stars

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REVIEW: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

20 01 2014

Economics majors may be get some major wish fulfillment through “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the latest reboot and recasting of Tom Clancy’s paperback protagonist. As the CIA’s best “analyst” on Wall Street, he’s a compliance officer with a badge! Ryan gets to audit some assets in Russia and uncovers a terrorist plot that’s being developed in tandem with an orchestrated economic meltdown.

While this may sound exciting, it’s far more appealing as a synopsis than as the actual movie that plays out. Kenneth Branagh’s take on Jack Ryan feels like a feature-length first act of a great film. Nothing ever seems to escalate to levels where we feel the need to engage and maybe worry. The action is drawn out rather than reigned in, and as a result, it feels like seeing an incomplete movie. The problem is reminiscent to those that plagued Branagh’s last outing, the first film of the “Thor” series.

Even scarier than Branagh’s directing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is his acting in it. Playing the villainous Russian banker Cheverin with a heinously slapdash accent, he’s hardly menacing or intimidating. I found myself pining for a Philip Seymour Hoffman, a revelation in “Mission: Impossible III,” to put Branagh out of his misery.

Perhaps more troubling, though, than not having an antagonist to root against is the lack of a protagonist to root for. Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan feels copied and posted from his work as Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” franchise. That’s not to say that one star cannot be at the helm of two series. But to be pulled off successfully, the two characters need to be distinct. For example, no one would mistake Robert Downey Jr’s smug Tony Stark from “Iron Man” for his cunning detective in “Sherlock Holmes.”

Pine’s bland acting brings nothing new to the Jack Ryan universe. His acting feels like it could be just any old script; he’s not creating a character that will really endure. As such, the only successful case that “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” makes is that its titular character should just be left behind in the ‘90s.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Man of Steel

20 07 2013

Look, it’s a bird!  No, it’s a plane!  Worse, it’s Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” a bomb of heroic proportions torpedoing its way towards a multiplex near you to steal 2 1/2 hours of your life and $10 of your money.  How this could have been touched by moviemaking Midas himself, Christopher Nolan, truly escapes me.

I personally saw nothing horrendously wrong with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” though I haven’t seen it since 2006 (a fact that may ultimately speak loudest to its quality).  However, I can point out a number of gaping flaws in “Man of Steel.”  It’s one thing to leave a movie nonplussed but another entirely to be angry.  If you hadn’t already guessed, I was the latter upon leaving this film.

Most issues seemed to spring from the lackluster story.  The film takes on the practically futile task of humanizing Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El, an invincible being.  He’s always had an identification problem because, well, how many of us can relate to someone who is essentially perfect?  (I’ll speak for myself and say that I certainly cannot.)  While the drama of Clark’s grappling with his power is relatively compelling, it’s told only in brief flashbacks.

And these scenes with his adoptive parents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, really only serve to play into the overarching Messianic allegory of the entire film.  I’m certainly not opposed to such grand implications, but they need to be done well (such as they were in Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables“).  “Man of Steel” feels completely disingenuous, exploiting spirituality for its own gain.  If it were any more obvious about its overloaded metaphor, Henry Cavill’s Superman would be wearing the letter t across his chest.

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SAVE YOURSELF from “The Company Men”

24 03 2012

It must be tough to make a movie about unemployment after “Up in the Air.”  After Jason Reitman’s film so ingeniously brought employees who had actually been downsized in front of the camera to tell their stories, it felt to me like there was no other way to ever achieve the same candid honesty.  I can imagine writer/director John Wells, who had to premiere his film “The Company Men” at Sundance only a month after Reitman’s hit theaters, probably muttered a few expletives under his breath when he realized he had to compete with it.

Yes, it does portray in pretty clear detail the effects of the 2008 financial collapse on the hard-working employee, but did it really pick the right protagonist?  Granted I really don’t care for Ben Affleck unless he’s behind the camera, yet his Bobby Walker is suffering a crisis of luxury, not one of necessity.  Is that the story of the recession?  Tears shed over selling the Porsche and spousal fights over the country club membership.  You would think that having to move back in with his parents temporarily was equivalent to moving below the poverty line.

When it’s not indulging us with the sob stories of siblings sharing beds (when the children who were really affected by the recession were sleeping on the floor), it’s giving us another indictment of post-too big to fail corporate America a la “Margin Call” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  We get it, Hollywood, you think the corporate world is full of sleazes like Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) who will actually say he works for the shareholders and not for the good of his employees.  The man can’t even muster up any sympathy when one of his longest-tenured staffers commits the most clichéd act of desperation in film!

Depression is a sentiment a movie needs to earn to be justified, and “The Company Men” ultimately just wallows in self-pity rather than putting its stark depiction of a catastrophic time in American history to good use.  When a protagonist seriously considers underemployment as a long-term alternative, then I start to question a film’s social compass.  Yes, psychological satisfaction is important from your vocation … but does it balance with the intrinsic disappointment from not realizing your own sense of worth and potential?  Such a decline in our guiding philosophy might be one of the sadder aspects of the recession.