Hidden Figures

February 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

The space race made NASA a household name, and America became a powerhouse by winning the space race in 1969 when they put the first human on the moon. It’s the centerpiece to modern science, and one of the greatest achievements we always point to as a cornerstone to the gateway to the future. We all know Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, we all know the conspiracy–just kidding–the fact that the moon landing happened. But what a lot of people didn’t know, me included, was that behind those starch white shirts and coke bottle, horn-rimmed glasses, were a group of black women who were a big part of what made that all possible.

“Hidden Figures” tells the much needed story of 3 of them–Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and how their brilliant minds helped the process that led to the Apollo landing. That landing isn’t the focus of the film, though, its climax is set to sending the first American–John Glenn (Glen Powell)–into orbit. The Soviets had already achieved this, and in the beginning of the film, this is not well-received news by NASA. Especially not to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group. This puts pressure on them to make space travel happen, or else NASA could be possibly shut down due to its large cost.

Katherine is known as a “computer”, someone who can do equations and complex math on a whim. She is called upon to help the Task Group, since no one in the room knows how to do a specific kind of geometry. She works under Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who reports directly to Harrison. Of course, at this time, seeing a “colored” person, is a bit off-putting to the all-white group. But, as Harrison says, NASA only knows one color–and it isn’t white or black. It’s basically…math. So he accepts her, but not her lengthy bathroom breaks which becomes a bit of a plot point since the “colored” bathrooms are across the campus in another building, taking her away from her desk for nearly an hour each time she has to go.

Dorothy meanwhile is assigned as a supervisor–but not given the title–to the rest of the black women who work at NASA, the West Area Computers division. Mary Jackson also works there, but wants to be an engineer. At the time, there were no “colored” engineers. So, Jackson and Dorothy have to deal with their respective drawbacks. Even though they work for a highly esteemed organization, they are still segregated and kept down from what they want to be and achieve.

Katherine’s role becomes more prominent as her equations and solutions impress Harrison more and more, and it soon lands her right in the control room of NASA, preparing to set the coordinates of John Glenn’s first flight into outer space. A prior launch proves ineffective, with astronaut Gus Grissom piloting, due to failed numbers provided by an IBM (an actual computer as we know it). The IBM isn’t programmed correctly because it’s new and not exactly understood by the people who are working on it. However, Dorothy learns its “language”, and it becomes apparent that her desired position of Supervisor becomes more imminent. Mary is able to convince a judge to allow her night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain a certification to become an engineer.

Throughout this, with some dramatic moments and even some light humor, is a thoroughly entertaining educational film. It takes a few liberties with the actual history–but since many people don’t even know these three women existed, I’d say if anything it encourages you to find out more about them. You’ll find that some of the dramatic exaggerations may not have ever happened, but the effect they provide for the movie is pertinent and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s never used to push an agenda, or create a manipulative narrative. The film is very classy and reserved, allowing these characters to blossom in front of us naturally, well played by the actresses–especially Spencer.

There’s also a bit of romance to add a nice touch. Mahershala Ali plays Jim Johnson, who meets Katherine and the two fall in love. He’s military, and a bit dismissive at first of her role at NASA. But she warms to him, and the two develop a sweet relationship. Mary Jackson’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) is another nice addition, a little more aggressive as a civil rights activist. Then there’s Kirsten Dunst who plays probably the most overtly stereotypical “racist” character of Vivian Mitchell, supervisor to the West Area Computers. However, her character also has more to it than just being “the white lady racist”.

It’s an important history lesson that provides enough information to want to know more, and gives us a fully entertaining film from start to finish. You can’t ask for much more when it comes to historical dramas. And it’s nice to know that NASA integrated their best brains so that we could literally…touch the stars.

My rating: :D

Man of Steel

July 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“The world’s too big, Mom.”

“Make it small.”

Superman has been probably the most recognizable super hero ever created. Back in the 50’s, he made his way from comic book form into a TV legend. In the late 70’s, we finally saw Superman on the silver screen (I’m not counting “Mole Men”). Richard Donner did a spectacular job transcending the super hero into a gorgeous blue and red symbol of justice. He was kind, sensitive, and well…super. He was indestructable. Maybe we needed a hero like that during the waning days of the Cold War, I don’t know. But we embraced Superman.

Then, things got a little…weird. While “Superman II” was a fantastic sequel (either version you see), “Superman III” saw the decline in the franchise. And do we need to go into “Superman IV: Quest For Peace”? This marked the end of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman. We were given another taste in 2006 with the elephantine “Superman Returns”, a complete waste of time and money. And what we unfortunately didn’t realize was that between the mess of IV and “Returns”, we had 2 very good TV shows still making Superman a great story (“The Adventures of Lois & Clark” and “Smallville”).

I had always wanted to see “Smallville” be made into a feature film rather than see the franchise rebooted from the start again. But then Christopher Nolan stepped in, and things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

I wish, though, that it had headed to the right director. Zack Snyder, a notoriously whimsical visual director who seems to constantly be bereft of any thematical or narrative arc, takes the helm here and like he did with “Watchmen”, he makes an ambitious but completely lost movie. At least he didn’t permeate the film with stop-and-slow motion camerawork, though. And, he was given half a good script to work with.

Things get started a bit slowly, however. Not only is this an origin story for Superman, it’s also loaded with backstory for Krypton itself. The first fifteen minutes feel like it belongs more in a sci-fi action yarn than a superhero film. But we are given a handful of characters, Jor-El (well played by Russell Crowe), his wife Laura (Ayelet Zurer), and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Jor-El and Zod saw eye to eye on only one thing: that Krypton was dying. How they want to go about preserving the race beyond the planet’s demise is another matter. Zod is militaristic, so he stages a coup against the Council. Jor-El thinks this is not the way to go about things, and tries to send the first biological born child on Krypton to another planet to start a new race there. This infuriates Zod because he wants something called a ‘codex’ that is sent along with Kal-El, Jor-El’s son. Jor-El is murdered, and Zod and his gang are imprisoned. Krypton eventually falls apart.

But before that happens, Kal-El lands on earth, and we are immediately thrown into the future about 30 years to see an already grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who seems to already be intent on saving people with super powers. He saves people on a rig that’s on fire, and also saves the life of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while searching on a ship that came from Krypton that could tell him about his past. Lane was part of a research team that was excavating things in ice, and found the ship as well.

Clark has had a troubled past, we learn through flashbacks. As a kid, his father (extremely well played by Kevin Costner) believes these powers he has will be seen as a threat to human kind and tells him not to use them. Clark saves a bunch of kids on a bus and this disappoints his father. “What was I supposed to do, just let them die?” he asks. “Maybe,” his father trails off in response.

This father/son angle is the strongest part of the film. I wish it would have stayed on this path. There is a lot of guilt that Clark takes with him into adulthood, which also explains why he’s so intent on helping people. But this isn’t explored all that much because…

…Krypton is destroyed and the jailed rogues led by Zod are freed, and go searching for Kal-El. They find him, send a message to the world that “You Are Not Alone”, and then send a message to America that they need to give up the alien or be destroyed. Clark, who by now has been identified in print because of a leak by Lois Lane to a blogger, turns himself in.

After that, the film just becomes a joyless exercise in action and extremely noisy explosions. Now, in the middle of all this is a very quiet, patient story of a man who is told he has this great gift and can save mankind. Superman has always been a very Christlike story. He is both god and man. He has the power to save, heal, and he can make the world a better place. His struggle with his identity, and his struggle with his father’s acceptance and self-acceptance is a very good story. But it doesn’t pay off because Superman has to stop Zod.

And the biggest problem I have with this is that there is no dramatic tension between Zod and Superman. Zod is Jor-El’s nemesis, not Superman’s. Sure, Zod killed Superman’s father; but Superman never knew his father. He never even knew where he came from until he was an adult. Zod is simply a cosmic villain, and Shannon plays him at such a heightened, cartoonishly overzealous level that he’s never really anything more than a raving madman. His henchmen do a lot of dirty work, causing another “miniboss sndrome” (the film takes a detour to show us 10-15 minute long sequences of the hero vanquishing lesser villains just to fill space); and, to my surprise, Superman does some dirty work himself. He nearly demolishes half the city of New York while taking Zod with him.

This isn’t the Superman we love! Superman would never destroy anything; and if he did, he would do that thing where he spins around the world a bunch of times to fix what he had broken.

While Henry Cavill turns in a very good performance as Superman, Amy Adams seems very miscast and out of place as Lois; and the two share no chemistry. The only chemistry that really blossoms is between the young Clark and his father. There the movie is very good. It just doesn’t last long enough or follow through for me to completely buy the whole package. The special effects and fights are grandiose, but they grow very tired very quickly because we know how it’s going to end and I’m kind of tired of seeing New York City get demolished in the movies.

This movie was too big. When they made it smaller, it was effective and sound. Instead of going so big, they should’ve kept it smaller. Then it would have been, like young Clark, focused.

My rating: :?