“Hidden Figures”–A Gestalt for Our Time

 

Hidden FiguresThe story of three brilliant African American women pushing back against the pre-Civil Rights America of 1961 is a stunning, mostly hidden story which has particular relevance today.

“Hidden Figures” is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name and follows three black women– Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson– who worked in NASA’s Langley, Virginia computer department. They worked in a segregated basement but not on computers. These black engineers were referred to as “human computers”, calculating complex calculus equations by hand. Even the mathematical formulas were hidden in a sense, to be discovered by these three remarkable women. They were among the first NASA employees to understand the power and capabilities of a massive IBM mainframe brought to NASA to assist in America’s first space launch.

Known as “human computers”, we follow these three intellects as they painfully rise through the ranks of NASA facing hurdles at every step, even under the watchful and largely sympathetic boss, Al Harrison (well played by Kevin Costner). They face the dual barriers of sex and race, while attempting to balance work and family life as well.  Hidden Figures

This untold story of the unsung heroes–the brains behind the pioneering Space Race is the history of hidden figures who contributed to the pivotal moments in science and technology after Russia had successfully launched Yuri Gagarin on Sputnik.

The opening scene of “Hidden Figures” reveals the precarious situation and tightrope dance that these three friends have to maneuver. Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, and knows how to fix their car which breaks down on the way to NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who wants to stand up to the police officer who seems to be questioning why they are traveling on the highway at all. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) tries to signal to her friend to follow the playbook and let the officer take over, which he does, leading them to NASA. The tone is set for tiptoeing in a white man’s world.

At NASA we see Dorothy fight to be a supervisor, Mary struggle to attain the necessary educational certification to become an engineer, and Katherine receive the credit for her critical mathematical calibrations which enable NASA to launch and land safely. Even as Katherine continues to outperform her male colleagues, she still must drink coffee from a pot labeled “Colored” and have to walk 20 minutes each way to the building where the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is located.

Most of the screen time belongs to Katherine’s story and Taraji Henson chews up each scene with great humor and her signature feistiness. Her colleagues Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are equally dazzling and the ensemble acting is impeccable. Hidden Figures is notable for being a disavowal of easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected onto black women.

“Hidden Figures” is a marvelously entertaining and important film. Like the story of the Bletchley Circle of women codebreakers on the Enigma project during World War II (see my October 26, 2015 review of the Bletchley Park museum, “Bletchley Park: An Enigmatic Exploration” and my January 15, 2015 review of “Imitation Game”–Breaking the Code Breaker”. “Hidden Figures” is also an education in what our history books have failed to tell us.

Note: Katherine Goble Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans, on November 24, 2015 by President Obama. She was 97 at the time and is still living and active in STEM, a nonprofit program to encourage girls to study science and technology.

“Fences”–In or Out?

 

Fences“Some people build fences to keep people out–and other people build fences to keep people in”.

The film “Fences” (released Christmas Day 2016) is based on the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and screenplay by the brilliant playwright August Wilson (1945-2005).

“Fences” is set in 1950’s Pittsburgh.  Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) had been a promising baseball player in the Negro Leagues in a time before Jackie Robinson. After serving time in prison he meets Rose (Viola Davis) who believes in him and devotes her life to their family: his older son Lyons from a previous relationship and their son, Cory.

The drama is timeless and the quiet visual cinematography does not seem to date the place or the power of broken dreams in lives led on the fumes of racism.   “Fences” wisely employs most of the cast of its Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival. The actors’ familiarity with the characters translates into not only dizzying, heartbreaking performances but also the astonishing adaptation of their talent from theater to screen.

The transition from award-winning stage performances to equally worthy performances on film, the adjustment in acting techniques is astounding. Viola Davis on stage was so agitated, she looked like she was having a seizure as she gave her powerful soliloquy. On the silver screen, the camera caresses her face in a painful series of close-ups almost too devastating to watch as Viola Davis unforgettably expresses the way her husband has failed to see her for who she really is.   When the camera finally pulls back (as we viewers also wish to pull back), she is perfectly still.

Denzel Washington is less physical as well in the film version. The psychology of his damaged character lies beneath the surface as the camera lingers on his charm–and his luminescent smile– smothering his dark side. We see why his wife Rose would fall in love with him—and stay in spite of his infidelity and abusive nature. Parts of “Fences” are almost unendurable for the tragic nature of each character. Rose loves him, but once he breaks not only her heart but the rest of the family she protects, she icily destroys him: “You are a womanless man”.

Fathers acting out their pain onto their children appear throughout literature and film, and this quiet catastrophe is a masterpiece. We are born into a family and our family is born into us.   But this thought exemplifies Rose’s disbelief in the inevitability of this cycle. Rose represents hope.

August Wilson leaves the question open: When are we inheriting the sins of our parents and when do we move on? This is our legacy as humans. Can there be beauty and joy out of pain and suffering?

Note: Wilson wrote ten plays over two decades, portraying African-American life in Pittsburgh with a lyricism and poetry both Shakespearean in its conflicts and resonant of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in its scenes from a marriage and father-son conflict. Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” also comes to mind in its pioneering depiction of African American lives on the theatrical stage.  Some of Wilson’s other plays will be adapted for television by HBO and his play “Jitney” will come to Broadway this spring.

 

The Great Wall–Not Trump’s Version

The Great Wall

[Another guest post by Ray Hecht, who reviewed this movie on his website on January 5.  The movie has already been released in China where Ray resides but will not be released in the US until February.  The following review is abridged.]

The Great Wall was recently released in China with much hype. Directed by  the critically acclaimed  Zhang Yimou ( Raise the Red Lantern), and starring Matt Damon, it is  the first truly American and Chinese coproduction.

Unfortunately, the film has already been poorly received and critically panned in China. However,  it can still make for an enjoyable romp.

The Great Wall  succeeds at being an exciting fantasy adventure about Western explorers fighting monsters in an ancient Chinese setting. The story opens with horse-riding mercenaries seeking mysterious explosive black powder. Eventually they make it to the Great Wall, where they meet Damon’s love interest Commander Lin (played by Jing Tian).

Matt Damon’s costar,  Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), is excellent and usually outshines Damon in scenes they share. The pair of warriors have good chemistry as buddy action films, although with a somewhat predictable character arc.

The plot moves quickly. Monsters  called Taotie  are  hordes of demons in epic battles. The carefully honed craft of Chinese wushu-style film proves to be more engaging than the indulgences of high-end Hollywood CGI war in intricate face-to-face combat.  The moral lessons of trust and loyalty are heavy handed. The original story of the monsters and  color-coded uniforms for the Chinese army seem reminiscent of the Power Rangers TV show targeted for children. The climatic final battle in the capital city does give the viewer some satisfactory drama,  but overall The Great Wall is not meant to be taken seriously.

This reviewer recommends having modest expectations and enjoy it for what it is: A fun, Hollywood fantasy movie which just happens to take place in China.

The Great Wall will be released in America on February 17th.

 

Chinese New Year 2017–Year of the Red Rooster (Fire Cock) January 28, 2017–February 15, 2018

 

rooster-1aI don’t know about you, but this past Year of the Monkey was exhausting with its promises of unpredictability and turmoil! The craziest year in the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the (hyperactive) Monkey officially ends January 27th. Now the New Year of the Fire Rooster  which begins January 28 is going to bring fresh challenges requiring practical solutions! Everything you loved/hated about 2016 is still here in 2017 — there’s just going to be way, way more of it. That’s the good news/bad news.

In a Rooster Year, everyone can reap rewards by tapping into Rooster traits of loyalty, commitment, hard work, family values, and punctuality. After all, it’s the rooster who gives the wake-up call.  rooster

 

The Year of the Rooster 2017 is symbolized by two elements – with Yin fire sitting on top of metal.   Fire conquers metal, a destructive cycle in the universe.   In particular Yin Fire symbolizes a candle flame which is flickering and unstable. The Fire Rooster’s temper can become explosive. And Fire on Metal also symbolizes weapons (bullets and guns).  There will be international conflicts and clashes. Looking back in history, there are quite serious acts of violence related to Red Rooster days or year: 911, the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Osama Bin Laden’s assassination. The rooster promises explosions, fire and war in 2017.

 

The beginning of the Chinese New Year 2017 will be the most difficult. Each person will have to find the strength to cope. The entire 2017 is expected to be uneven, alternating between failure and fortune, defeat and success. 2017 will be quite stressful. The Year of the Rooster will be a powerful one, with no middle of the road when it comes to moving forward. Stick to practical and well-proven paths to ensure success, rather than risky ventures. The key to financial stability is save, save and save some more. Be very careful with budgets and financial investments since the Rooster is the spendthrift in the Chinese zodiac.

2017-chinese-zodiac-predictionsIf you are braver and more action-oriented than usual, you will not be defeated by difficulties and adversities. However, we will have to maintain flexibility, because we will be under the influence of the “king of the yard”.

Leaders, whose favorable elements are metal and earth, will enter a phase of good luck, including Putin and  Xi Jinping. There will be serious financial setbacks from August through October, with a long-term bearish market until the Year of the Tiger (2022).

Nothing to crow about.

My Top 19 Netflix/Amazon Movies and Series for 2016

 

netflix

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online and were not widely distributed through movie theaters.   Of the 43, here are my favorites.  It was much more difficult than in past years, since this year was absolutely stunning. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling.

The following list is not ranked –only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA  amazon-logo

1) “No”–Mad Men in Politics (June 19, 2016 review):  In this Chilean film, with uncanny similarities to the recent election in this country, we see how voting can be manipulated by brilliant promotional advertising. ”No” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2012.

2) “The Past” (Le Passe)–Does the Past Define Us? (July 24 review): “The Past” is a a web of intrigue of Rashomon proportions. Everyone tells their version of the truth, but they do not explain everything. As the story unfolds, each character is imprisoned by his or her own version of the past, reminding us of our own mistakes and unintended consequences.

3) “Buen Dia Ramon”–The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” (July 31 review): Ramon’s remarkable openness to accept the kindness of strangers and begrudge none of his hardships is rendered believable. Struggling to survive on the street, he sleeps in a train station, and becomes increasingly desperate to earn money to send home. Yet he never builds defenses, remaining optimistic and determined, with an innocent enthusiasm that is, at times, astonishing in its emotional generosity and guilelessness.

 4) “The Tunnel”–Turf War or Building Bridges  (August 7 review): “The Tunnel” is more than a dramatic police thriller about fighting crime. The dualities of culture and personality, people divided by politics and history, are fascinating to watch for their layers of complexity. The uneasy chemistry between the two main characters is a metaphor for the cultural gap and ideological boundaries separating all of us: the powerful from the powerless, and the self-interest and turf-war conflicts between nations. “

 5) “Bron“–The Original “Bridge” (October 16 review): This detective series outdoes its own standard of excellence in each succeeding season. The main character is a reserved, non-emotive personality. She is brusque where her male partners are the emotional, sensitive policemen trying to understand her behavior and lack of social skills. And as the series progresses, the viewer comes to admire her professional drive and ache for the damage and horrific backstory that makes Saga who she is.

 6) Requiem for the American Dream–A Pending Nightmare (December 5 review): This eerily prescient 2015 documentary narrated by Noam Chomsky was in development before the official announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Yet, in the “Ten Principles of the Concentration of Wealth and Power” the viewer sees the redesigning of the US economy.

 7) WadjdaA Feisty Little Girl (December 12 review): A delightful gem of a film celebrating the human spirit and a ten-year-old Saudi Arabian girl’s unwillingness to simply accept fate or broken dreams, “Wadjda” is a movie that will touch your heart.

PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL (US ONLY)

8)  “Truth” -And Nothing But (March 16 review): This movie raises the question: “What is truth? And how do we know?” Much like in a crime drama, the viewer follows the clues and the trail to the usual suspects. Based on a 2005 memoir, the wounds are still unhealed in this 12-year-old case.

9) “Confirmation”–The Sexual Harassment of Anita Hill (April 24 review): A drama that is more of a “street fight”, “Confirmation” portrays Senators Ted Kennedy, John Danforth and Joe Biden as unlikeable characters who engage in behind-the-scenes fights and backing down under political pressure. Not since “House of Cards” has there been seen such political ruthlessness and behind-the-scenes maneuverings.

10) “Closed Circuit”–We’re Under Surveillance (July 10 review): An adrenaline-pumping political thriller, portrays corrupt government forces who will stop at nothing. “Closed Circuit” is designed to raise the alarm over both the injustice of closed court hearings and the use of surveillance technology. We don’t know who’s watching or how they’re using what they see.

11) Weiner”– An Attention- Getter (September 11 review): Hubris, narcissism, tabloid spectacle and massive self-deception collide with the mesmerizing inevitability of a slow-motion trainwreck. “Weiner” is an engrossing, almost shamefully entertaining documentary about “politics at its most sensationalist and superficial.

12) Slavery by Another Name”– The Re-enslavement of Black Americans in the US (September 17 review): This documentary eviscerates one of America’s most cherished myths: the belief that slavery ended in 1863. Conveniently overlooked by the nation and perpetrated across an enormous region over many years, the institution of forced labor as a fixture of African American life perniciously suffocated their aspirations and opportunities for their families and their very existence.

13) Snowden –A Companion Piece to “Citizenfour” (October 9 review): In what is now the most well-known disclosure of US intelligence and surveillance practices, “Snowden” has opened a window to how counterintelligence is carried out in the global arena. A must-see for 2016 or 2017!

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

14) “The Night Manager”(May 3 review):   Like a Bond movie, part of the  pleasure in watching this story unfold is suspending one’s disbelief at the preposterous plot lines and heroic battles. Suffice it to say the spycraft in this series is entertaining with a quirky subplot on the sad bureaucratic lives of government intelligence officers.

15) Bates Motel (Seasons 1-3)– Mother-Son Obsession (June 13 review):   A prequel to “Psycho”, in “Bates Motel” we see the twisted relationship between Norma and her son –the heart of the narrative—which drives the narrative to an end we expect but nonetheless gasp at. “Bates Motel” dares to touch this subject matter in such a brilliant and fearless manner. A tour-de-force like no other!

16) Bates Motel–Season 4— A Masterpiece (November 1 review): This controversial season takes us to where only the intrepid can bear to see such damage inflicted so ferociously on family. “Bates Motel” dares to touch the unspeakable in such a brilliant and fearless manner.

17) “The Night Of” –A Tale of Darkness (August 14 review): The connective tissue holding together the evidence both for and against Naz, a young Pakistani American indicted for murder, constantly shifts the viewer’s assessment of his guilt or innocence. This dark tale is addictive, deeply moving, compulsive television!

 18) Goliath–A New Amazon Prime Winner (October 23 review): Part film noir, part legal drama “Goliath” tells the story of a derelict, drunken grizzled lawyer who is a bottom-feeder taking on a case which turns out to be against his former partner. A nightmare of Shakespearean proportions, closed circuit surveillance system and a vicious fight add to the twisted conclusion.

19) The Crown–Glory to Her Highness (November 30 review): The anachronistic British aristocracy must sensitively negotiate its relationship with its public. “The Crown” is the story of a conflict between private and public, between the personal feelings of a wife, mother, and sister and the queen (Elizabeth II). At its core, however, this is a character study and a family drama. Do you put personal fulfillment over political duty and obligation?