Sunday, January 29, 2017


Rated: PG

STARS: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali
GENRE: Biopic/Drama

Hidden Figures, the "based upon a true story" tale of three young black women who worked for NASA in the Jim Crow era of segregation in Virginia in the early sixties, is the feelgood film of the year--so far (though the year's still young!)

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a math genius who spit out blackboards full of equations that would prove instrumental in getting John Glenn into space as the first man to orbit the earth in 1962. Her two friends and cohorts, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), had their own stories: Vaughn in her struggle to rise to a supervisory position within an organization that was male dominated and overtly racist; and Mary Jackson, who had to petition the court to allow her to attend classes at the all white University of Virginia so that she could fulfill requirements to get into NASA's engineering program.     

Just as it takes many hands and many minds to put a manned rocket into space, there are many hands and many minds that go into the making of a film. In the beginning, there was the word. Or rather, the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The movie, reportedly, is not a faithful rendering of the book--some creative license was taken with timelines, and some events were invented--all for dramatic effect--but that's typical of nearly all such film adaptations. So no demerits there.

A gold star goes to Pharrel Williams, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch for a musical score that adds punch to the most dramatic and uplifting scenes. And yes, they are manipulative scenes that will make your eyes water. After all, Hidden Figures is about some brave and spunky women who dealt with and overcame the astounding ignorance--the total disregard for human dignity--that was our American apartheid system which existed prior to the enactment of the groundbreaking Civil Rights legislation of 1964. 

BUT...all the white folks portrayed here are one dimensional. To the man (and woman), they are all condescending racist creeps, to one degree or another. Even the most sympathetic of the lot--project supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)--is so wrapped up in his work that he has to be shown by the women themselves the inherent unfairness of some of the workplace conditions they had to put up with. Like walking half a mile to the "colored" restrooms. But by stereotyping ALL of the Caucasians in this manner, Hidden Figures paints a skewed portrait of the way it really was in the early sixties, when a growing consciousness and the movement for civil rights was beginning to form. I was around then (as a young'un) and can attest that while not all of us were Bernie Sanders, not all of us were George Wallace either. So a few demerits for some blatant stereotyping.

As for the acting, Taraji P. Henson deserves an Oscar nomination for "Running In High Heels," as she dashes back and forth to the restroom on her breaks!

Grade:  B


Having seen the trailer for Hidden Figures at least a dozen times before actually viewing the film, I had some preconceived notions about what I'd be going to see. Ho hum, just another women's rights flick with black chicks. Boy, was I wrong! Not about the content but about how I would be drawn in emotionally. Racism is always 'box office gold' in film-making parlance. And Hidden Figures is no exception. What makes it unique is the woman's angle. And being about NASA doesn't hurt, either.

The performances were all top notch. But as I am a devoted Oscar follower, I must say that Octavia Spencer's "Best Supporting Actress" nomination is a bit puzzling. Yes, she was good as the never-getting-promoted victim of racial prejudice. But compared to the other two African American ladies who are nominated? Gimme a break. (I'm referring to Viola Davis in Fences and Naomie Harris in Moonlight.) I guess last year's all white brouhaha is to blame... Still, Hidden Figures is a must-see movie and definitely deserves its Best Film nomination.

I find very little to criticize. And at the end of two hours and seven minutes, I still wanted more. I especially loved how they showed the real women at the end of the film -- at different ages and stages of their lives. Very uplifting, indeed.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Rated: R

STARS: Trevante Rhodes, Naomi Harris, Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland
DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins
GENRE: Drama

Chiron is a skinny kid. A real quiet kid. He gets bullied at school. His mom is a crack whore, so no father figure. On top of that, Chiron has questions about his sexual identity. One day a man in his Miami neighborhood finds Chiron hiding out from some kids who are taunting him. The man is a good man. He has fatherly instincts. He becomes something of a surrogate dad to the boy. Oh yeah, the man is a dope dealer. Nobody's perfect, and ya gotta do what ya gotta do to get along in this world, eh? But it's the same shit he dispenses on the corner without a prescription that feed's Chiron's mother's habit. Life can be so ironic. And there you have Moonlight.

It's a coming of age story. It's a coming out story. Two for the price of one. Though it moves along sort of aimlessly. Like Chiron. Like his mom. Like the man who has taken Chiron under his wing. But there are 
plenty of hard hitting dramatic moments to keep you focused on what eventually develops into a poignant tale about a lost soul making his way through this world. And a love story of sorts. But the full brunt of that won't grab you until the heart-wrenching ending.  

Moonlight is told in three parts--following  the protagonist, Chiron, from young boy, to teenager, to young man. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes do the honors respectively. As one might expect, it is Rhodes' portrayal of the physically beefed up, yet emotionally vulnerable man Chiron has become that provides the most depth of character in what is a highly character driven film. Rhodes should receive an Oscar nod for supporting actor...if there's any justice in this world that is...but then the film reminds us that, of course, there isn't.  Naomi Harris also shines as Chiron's ever-desperate-for-her-next-fix mother.   

The creative camera work--there are more intimate close-ups than you'll find in a spaghetti western--will tell you you're in for something different with Moonlight from the get-go. You know that spinning 360 merry-go-round shot that is normally reserved for two lovers getting all goo goo eyed with one another? Director Barry Jenkins gives us that with two crack dealers just hanging out on the corner--for what reason I'm not sure, but I liked it. And the soundtrack. From languid hip-hop lush orchestral golden oldie love ballad. It surprises and delights at every turn.  

Grade:  B + 


After every movie Tim and I see, I ask him when I can start nagging him about sending me his review. It usually takes him a couple of days to put his thoughts in order. Most of the time, my opinions are instantaneous. "It's great!" "It sucks!" "I liked this part but I hated the ending." In the case of Moonlight, I'm actually glad Tim took his time. It gave me a chance to change my mind. (Sort of like when you first meet someone you think is terrific but, in retrospect, turns you off.)

Moonlight is definitely a "politically correct" film and will, in my opinion, receive kudos (and probably Oscar votes) from both the African American and LGBT communities. But for me, it was too fragmented. And when you have a main character who is painfully mute—justifiably so—it's difficult to wait...and wait...and wait for him to speak. I also found the transition from young black boy, to gawky teenager, to muscle-bound adult hard to follow. And to make it even more confusing, the main character used different names during these transitions.

Be that as it may, there were parts of this movie that had me totally involved. Emotional moments with his junkie mom begging him to love her; scary moments when the school bully taunted and tormented Chiron; touching moments when, as a vulnerable teenager, he questioned his sexuality. But overall, it had too many plotlines and too little focus.

Grade: C

Saturday, January 7, 2017

LION (2016)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Abhi Shek Bharate
DIRECTOR: Garth Davis
GENRE: Drama

The longing for "home"--wherever and whatever that might be--is universal, as we learned in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Adapted from the memoir The Longing For Home by Saroo Brierley, Lion chronicles the amazing story of a young boy separated from his family at the age of five, who follows a harrowing, circuitous route to find the place of his origin once again.

The young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother and older brother, Guddu (Abhi Shek Bharate), who eke out a hardscrabble existence in rural India. One day, while hopping trains with Guddu, Saroo becomes separated from his brother and mistakenly ends up on a train that carries him a thousand miles in the wrong direction. He disembarks in Calcutta, where he joins other children who sleep on the streets. He ends up in an orphanage, and is later adopted by a white Australian couple. Now he's a very long way from home. But his new mom, Sue (Nicole Kidman), and her husband love him dearly, and he grows to care for his adoptive parents as well.

Lion is a film in two distinctive parts. The first section is the tense and action filled story of the young Saroo. The second is a more cerebral tale of Saroo as a young man (Dev Patel) who is haunted by the memory of his family of origin--sensing that they have been searching for him all these years.

Saroo begins a laborious internet search, exacerbated by the fact he doesn't remember the proper spelling of his village, or have any idea where it is located. At first, he doesn't want to reveal to his adoptive parents what he's up to, not wishing to hurt them. But it eventually comes out. It has to.

Dev Patel, who has matured greatly as a serious actor, gives a first-rate performance. And Oscar winner Nicole Kidman--in my opinion there is no finer actress on the silver screen today--delivers a multi-layered, emotionally searing turn (in limited screen time) as a mother who only wants her son to be happy. The lovely Rooney Mara--also with a host of nominations and awards to her credit--has a similarly small part as Saroo's Australian girlfriend, Lucy, who rides that emotional roller coaster along with Sue when she learns of Saroo's intentions to make the trans-continental journey to connect with his roots. I always admire big stars who sign on for relatively small roles in certain films because it tells me their egos are firmly under control!

With gorgeous cinematography from Grieg Fraser, Lion is part adventure tale and travelogue (capturing the teeming beauty of India), and part love story in the many manifestations of the word that exist. A film that is surprising in its depth. And the ending will knock you out.

Suffice it to say that if you don't carry a box of tissues into the theater with you, you'll be sorry.

Grade:   A


Make that two boxes of tissues! (I was bawling at the end, unable to be objective about anything.) Despite its misleading title, Lion is a cinematic gem. There's nary a lion on-screen unless you count the courageous five-year-old Saroo, who survives in a city where he doesn't even speak the language. The child actor who plays him (Sunny Pawar) is unabashedly beautiful. Hell, I'd adopt him and I don't even like kids!

It's always difficult when a film has two definite storylines but, in this case, director Garth Davis did a masterful job holding my interest in both. He has very few movie credits, as he is better known as an internationally successful commercials director. But after Lion, I'll bet a lot of rupees his directorial skills will be in serious demand. The screenplay was created by the original author Saroo Brierly and Luke Davies. After seeing the film, I'd like to read the book. I'm sure his love story was explored in  more detail. For me, in the film version, it felt tacked on. I resented Lucy's neediness (i.e. love for Saroo), as I was way too caught up in his homeward journey to care about it. I also got impatient with his Google-searching. Yes, it was necessary. But how visually interesting is seeing fingers typing on a keyboard?

Still, this film is absolutely worth seeing. Aside from the emotional impact Lion has on its audiences, the scenery (from aerial shots of a desolate countryside, to the stampeding masses of human bodies in Calcutta) will take you out of your own story and into his.

Grade:  A