With Astronauts gracing the covers of LIFE and Look and other weekly magazines, the American space program was big news in the 60’s. These men were presented as the epitome of American maleness, and the only females we saw who were part of the space program were the women who quilted the multiple layers of fabric for each custom-fitted space suit! 50 years later, Theodore Melfi’s perfectly named film Hidden Figures brings the unsung heroes of the space program out from the shadows—and we finally discover that several of the mathematical geniuses who made the program a success were female African Americans! In this retelling of the quintessential American fable, those dashing spacemen are little more than passengers aboard the heaving, clunking, fuel-spewing hunk of hardware that broke gravity’s inexorable hold of we frail human beings. It’s nice to have a film where the audience cheers for the underlying decency and determined humanity epitomized by the three women combating the solidly built wall of racism, sexism and chauvinism that were signatures for that time and place.
In the mid-80‘s, James Earl Jones personified Troy, the angry, powerful father-figure in the Broadway version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Now, after numerous stage performances in the same role, Denzel Washington directs and plays Troy as an angry, powerful, yet affable father. Troy’s anger comes from the bitterness of being a former “star” in baseball’s Negro League yet being to old to play in the “Big Leagues” after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier.” He toils as a garbage man to pay the bills on the house with a cement-paved backyard where he mixes charm and violence to intimidate his long-suffering wife of 20 years, his 2 boys from different mothers, and his brain-injured, war-vet, brother. Denzel directs Oscar-worthy performances from the entire ensemble.
The emotional minefield of an adoptee searching out his birth-mother is brilliantly portrayed in Garth Davis’ new film, Lion. Presented in two parts, the first section focuses on an India-born 5-year-old who boards the wrong train, and gets off 900 miles from home in a Kolkata slum where kids are snatched off the streets to be sold as slaves and sex workers. The boy ends up in an orphanage and actively participates in selecting his new Tasmanian parents. Flash forward to the second part where an Aussie-accented hospitality-management student uses Google Maps and other modern technologies to track down his birthplace—and his lost mother while his American girlfriend helps to keep his “new” parents in the dark. Astoundingly acted, directed, written and photographed, this is one of the year’s best!
Just as the title, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, says, the story is straight out of the Star Wars mythology—albeit with a murkier, darker underbelly. One major change is that multicultural casting has finally caught up with the ubiquitous, multi-racial bonhomie that Star Trek had from its beginnings. Crammed into a timeline roughly tied to the Rebel Alliance history casually mentioned in Episode 4 (The first movie released), the talking heads sequences feature a feisty daughter of a weapons scientist who teams up with a lifelong Rebel and his droid, and a spiritual warrior, with his blind, master martial artist buddy. Chasing after a McGuffin reputed to have world-saving powers, the film quickly shifts to the flying dogfights, explosions, near-misses, and girl-boy bumping-into-each-other events fans love—not only in deep space, but on the sands of a beautiful tropical-beach-like planet.
In a dramatic break with March of the Penguins style nature documentary, filmmakers Jacques Cluzaud and Jacques Perrin forego having a stentorian voice-over artfully explaining the on-screen goings-on in Seasons. Instead, they let the wild critters share their stories by acting like, well, animals! The setting is an “eat or be eaten” primeval forest unthawing from the last ice-age. During most of the 80,000 year timeline, the animals are the kings of the forest, but gradually, bipeds with opposable thumbs take charge—and alter the forest ecosystem forever. Shot over several years in the deep timber of Norway, Poland, Scotland, France, Romania and Italy, the majority of the film involves animals foraging for food—which most often means preying on other animals. The circle of life has never been more beautifully and honestly presented. With a few minor exceptions (i.e. the birth of a fawn) the filmmakers avoid Disneyfying the goings-on, and just let the wonder of nature tell how what we humans call progress, the furry critters would label destruction.
Jackie is a film about finding inner strength, grace, and courage at the exact time millions of us need much of the same. For the youngsters among you who don’t know, the single name “Jackie” identified First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy long before the fateful “day in Dallas” when her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed. Director Pablo Larrain recreates that fateful day—and the somber minutes, hours and days that follow, with nuanced artistry. Shot on 16 mm film, the images are reminiscent of ones shot at the time, but artfully constructed in the director’s masterful collaboration with screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, composer Mica Levi and lead actor, Natalie Portman.
Using Pacific Island voice talents and heightened sensitivity to Polynesian heritages, Disney has created a fable of a strong, powerful and mystically-guided teen heroine who boldly goes where no woman has gone before. Moana communes with the ocean itself to venture into the deep and dangerous waters beyond the reef on a quest to retrieve the goddess Te Fiti’s heart from the powerful and mischievous demi-god, Maui. Along the way she must grapple with the responsibilities of being the chief’s daughter, ferocious coconut warriors, voracious crabs and the lava monster, Taka. The animation is masterful, the songs (by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i) are whistle-worthy, and the characters are much more positive than Elsa, the wildly popular selfishly vindictive snow princess from Frozen. So enter the theater with your heart and soul and inner child ready to embrace and revel in the totality of this outstanding film.
From the inventive mind of J.K. Rowling comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a tale of a British wizard (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in the middle of the Jazz Age in New York City circa 1926 smuggling a suitcase overstuffed with growling mystical beasties through customs. When (surprise surprise) some of these creatures escape, the mild-mannered wizard must find his way around and through flappers, speakeasies, machine guns and a cadre of witch-hating naysayers using only quietly whispered words of tenderness and love. It’s a magical ride, with parallels easily made about a time and place which openly despises newly arrived immigrants and their old-fashioned, secretive manners and muddles.
Shuhlberg, Mark O’Brien Director: Denis Villeneuve Ever since H.G. Welles wrote his War of the Worlds, we humans have been trained to believe that space aliens are coming to Earth to kill everyone (or, in the classic B-movie mindset, enslave our beautiful women). I am pleased to say that the notable exceptions to this atavistic fear (E. T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc.), include a worthy newcomer—Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. When eight alien craft appear in the skies above our home planet, the military doesn’t immediately respond with guns and rockets, it wakes a female linguist (Amy Adams) up in the middle of the night, shoots her full of antibiotics, encapsulates her in a space suit and sends her to meet the aliens armed with only her wits, her intelligence, and a Magic Marker. At her side is an astrophysicist (Jeremy Renner) who serves as her gofer, while safe within the command center, Forrest Whitaker is the military commander with his finger twitching over the attack button. Unlike the big-eyed bipedal creatures we have seen before, these aliens are “something completely different.” With no sense of time as we know it (i.e. past, present, future), their written “language” looks like inkblots, and the secret to communicating with them is to “show, not tell.”
Dr. Strange (PG-13) Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Benjamin Bratt Director: Scott Derickson Famed for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, and the mathematician who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma Code, Benedict Cumberbatch dons the “Marvelous Cloak of Levitation” playing the Marvel Comic super-magician, Dr. Strange. The first two-thirds of the film are great fun, as a slew of instantly recognizable actors add their skills to the astounding feats of legerdemain. The last third falls into the seemingly unbreakable requirement that all movies in the so-called “Marvel Universe” end with senseless CG battles between “Good” and Evil” that cause inestimable amounts of collateral damage to hapless “mortals” (like you and me). On a positive note, the horrific car crash that destroys Dr. Strange’s surgical skills, is a strong public service message for avoiding texting while driving. 3 pieces of inventive and magical toast