Hidden No More

I’m a history buff, and I love to discover history that has been lost or missed for decades. It often makes a good movie, as we’ve recently seen with Louis Zamperini (Unbroken) and Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). Now we can add the names Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson to that list, the triumvirate at the center of Hidden Figures. I’d been looking forward to this film from the first time I saw a trailer; I was not disappointed.

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) was a child prodigy in mathematics who grew up to work for NASA during the early days of the space race. She was a human computer, checking calculations made by scientists. This was at a time when prejudice held that science wasn’t suitable for either blacks or women. There was a full contingent of black women working at the main NASA facility at Langley, Virginia, before its later move to Houston. They were segregated into the West Building – the only place where there were “colored” bathrooms – under the de facto supervision of Dorothy (Octavia Spencer). It was de facto since the bureaucracy, embodied in the character of Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst), refused to give her the designation and the commensurate pay raise. Mary (Janelle Monae) was permanently assigned to the engineering group, a discipline in which she had distinct talent.

The movie chronicles the racism they faced even as they sought to help the country make the leap into space. It could be systemic, like the roadblocks in Mary’s way to prevent her from getting the education credit to be recognized as an engineer. It could be personal, like the engineer played by Jim Parsons who redacts much of his work before turning it over to Katherine, even though the redactions make proper checking impossible. Or it could be technological advancement like the IBM computer that stands to replace the West Building group, if the computer engineers can get it to work.

What makes the movie a winner is the wit and determination the women utilize to overcome the obstacles. In particular Henson knows how to deliver a devastating comeback with the sweetest smile, though she does also have one scene where Katherine’s frustrations explode in volcanic fury. Sitting in the audience, I wanted to cry out “You go, girl!”

Octavia Spencer is fantastic as always, especially in her scenes with Dunst that are a masterclass for actors. Next month she’ll be back on the screen in The Shack, playing God. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Almighty lobbied for her to be cast. A delightful surprise is singer Janelle Monae, who’d only done a couple of voice acting jobs before a double debut with Figures and Moonlight. She’s perfect as the sassy and smart Mary, holding her own with both Spencer and Henson like an experienced pro. The film also features Kevin Costner as NASA administrator Al Harrison. Costner has developed into a fine character actor, proving there is life after stardom.

Director/Producer/Screenwriter Theodore Melfi was known mostly for the Billy Murray film from 2014, St. Vincent. He collaborated with Allison Schroeder on adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book for the screen, and they did a stellar job of it. The dialog crackles, but this is also a movie where silent looks speak paragraphs. Particular kudos to Production Designer Wynn Thomas, Set Decorator Missy Parker, and Costume Designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, who nail the look of the early sixties.

It’s wonderful timing that Hidden Figures is being released now. It gives a very strong reminder that the “good old days” were not good for everyone, and lets us see not only how far we’ve come but how necessary it was that we made those changes. The movie ends with footage of the real Katherine Johnson, now in her 90s, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

These figures should never be hidden again.

Powerful as a Monster

English author Siobhan Dowd was an award-winning writer of four children’s books, but she fell ill with cancer while planning her fifth book and passed away in 2007. Her editor, with whom she’d discussed the book, asked another of her writers, Patrick Ness, if he’d write the book based on Dowd’s idea. Ness agreed, though he had the freedom to take the story wherever he felt it had to go. Jim Kay was recruited to illustrate the story. After its 2011 publication, “A Monster Calls” won the Carnegie and Greenway Medals for the best children’s book and the best illustrations, a rare double win. Now Ness has adapted A Monster Calls to the screen

“The story begins, as many stories do, with a boy and a nightmare.” Twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has a lot to deal with: he’s bullied every day by three lugheads at his school, his father left him and his mother and moved from England to California, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t know how to relate to him, and his mother (Felicity Jones) with whom he has his deepest personal connection is chronically sick. Then at 12:07 am, after awaking from a recurring nightmare, a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) comes to call on Conor. The monster informs Conor that he will tell him three stories. After that, Conor will need to tell him about his nightmare. The stories the monster tells, though, are like nothing Conor expects, filled with ambiguity and frustrating twists.

Twelve is an awkward age, the point of transition between childhood and adulthood. It’s also a time for a new awareness of the world around them, and A Monster Calls does an incredible job of portraying that change in Conor. The simplistic system of bad behavior followed by punishment breaks down, leaving him bewildered. When Conor eventually acts out at school but doesn’t receive the punishment he expects. It’s left to his school’s principal (Geraldine Chaplin in a poignant cameo role) to explain the change in a simple, devastating sentence.

The performances are incredible. Liam Neeson could read a grocery list and keep you spellbound, and Felicity Jones is having a stellar fall between this movie and Rogue One. But it’s a veteran and a novice that steal the movie. Sigourney Weaver takes the role of the grandmother that could have been a complete stereotype – at one point she actually tells Conor not to touch anything in her house – and invests the role with grace and humanity. The movie, though, belongs to MacDougall in his second film and his first lead role. He’s blessed with eyes that speak volumes even when he’s sitting still.

Director J.A. Bayona has worked mostly in his native Spain whose only other English film was the powerful story of the Boxing Day Tsunami, The Impossible, which consequentially also had a coming of age element to the story. He’ll likely be much better known soon as he’s been tabbed to direct the Jurassic World sequel due in 2018. Bayona blends the fantastic with the everyday and lets the story play out with heartrending power. Especially beautiful are the animation sequences that illustrate the monster’s stories. Led by Juan Ramon Pou, the water color style of the images are magical and capture the feel of children’s books.

We’re now well into award season and the theaters are filled with worthy films. It would be easy to overlook A Monster Calls, but that would be a crime. This is not just a story for tweens but one for everyone who once was a child and remembers the confusion and pain of the transition to adulthood. It also is a chance for those of us who have seen many years pass by to reconnect with the wonder of childhood.

Pack a couple of tissues when you see it; you’ll need them.

Prelude To Hope

In the original Star Wars – now Episode 4: A New Hope – there’s a tossed-off line when the rebels receive the Death Star plans from R2D2 to the effect that several people sacrificed themselves to get the information. Now, nearly 40 years after it was first mentioned, movie audiences get to see what happened in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was worth the wait.

The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of the usual introductory crawl, Rogue One begins with a sequence when Jyn was a child. Galen had left behind his job designing weapon systems for the Empire to hide away on a barren planet with his wife and Jyn. But the Empire isn’t done with Galen. When Imperial Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to force Galen back into the fold, Jyn manages to escape to a bolt hole where she’s later found by an ally of Galen, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Years later the now-adult Jyn continues to hide under an assumed name, even as she’s a prisoner of the Imperial Forces for committing petty crimes to survive. While being transferred, rebel fighters break Jyn out. She instead tries to break away from the rebels, only to be stopped by the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (motion-capture performed and voiced by Alan Tudyk). The rebels need Jyn to get to Gerrera, who’s broken from the Rebel Alliance to carry out his own battles. Gerrera is in possession of a defecting transport pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s escaped with a message from Galen. Jyn is dispatched with rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to get the pilot and the message. Along the way they pick up blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). But that mission morphs into a hero’s journey when they encounter the weapon Galen’s designed – the Death Star.

In visual style Rogue One varies from A New Hope, partially because the refinements in special effects have come so far in the past four decades. Director Gareth Edwards uses handheld cameras more than Lucas could, since computerized special effects can blend with the camera’s motion. Edwards began his career in SFX, then moved into directing, first with the low budget Monsters in 2010, then with the big budget remake of Godzilla in 2014. Rogue One’s budget was in the $200 million range, but Edwards puts it all up on the screen. The visuals are some of the best in the entire series.

But more than the images, Rogue One has an effective story that’s well-told by Edwards, and characters that you come to care about almost as deeply as Luke, Leia, and Han. The base story was developed by John Knoll (who has done special effects beginning with A New Hope and who was the visual effects supervisor on this film) along with Gary Whitta (who wrote The Book of Eli). The screenplay was then written by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, 2015’s Cinderella) along with Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton). Although the visual style’s different, the story blends seamlessly with A New Hope, so much so that the Machete order for viewing the first two trilogies should be augmented. That order is IV, V, II, III, VI and ignore Jar Jar Binks and Episode I completely, but now it has to start with Rogue One since it increases the impact of A New Hope.

Jones is perfect in the role of Jyn, blending the waif-like child searching for her father with the steel spine and dedication of a fighter. Part of the original Star Wars appeal was Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess who wouldn’t wait around for anyone to save her and could shoot a blaster with the best of them. For Leia, the change from princess to general in The Force Awakens was simply an acknowledgement of her power and Fisher’s embodiment of the role. The writing of Padme in Episodes I-III wasn’t as strong as Leia, but with Rey in A New Hope and now Jyn, the series has returned to the glory of fully realized, powerful women. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Luna gives strong support to Jones, while Yen and Jiang are indelible in their roles. For the movie to work, you also need a villain to match the heroes, and Mendelsohn provides a subtle but strong evil presence. You’ll also recognize several other characters that populate the story.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to Star Wars, there was concern about the Mouse-ification of the series. Were the new films going to be the equivalents of the Ewoks Adventures? The Force Awakens put that concern to bed, but Rogue One doused the bed with gas and burned it to a crisp. This is what Episodes I-III should have been.

With Carrie Fisher’s passing two days ago (as I write this), Rogue One has taken on an added poignancy. If you go to see it for the first time, remember to tuck a tissue in your pocket.

A Gilded Box

The pedigree of Nocturnal Animals made it a movie I wanted to see. Writer/Director Tom Ford had made his mark as a fashion designer and creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before making the well-received movie A Single Man, for which Colin Firth received a Best Actor nomination. I hadn’t seen that film, but the trailer for Nocturnal Animals marketed it as film noir, a genre I truly love. It was reasonable to expect Ford would bring a wonderful sense of style to the film.

The cast, too, was a selling point. Amy Adams is one of the best actresses in film, and I’d just been mesmerized by her performance in Arrival. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in anything he does. His performance in last year’s Nightcrawler was on par with De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Add to that a rich supporting cast that includes Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Arnie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Michael Sheen.

Let me say that Ford and the cast deliver what you would expect from them. But a key point for any film is the script, and that’s where Nocturnal Animals fails. Instead of being the kind of movie that you can chew on, it’s an empty box, gilded with gold and encrusted with jewels, but with nothing on the inside.

The problem is the source novel, “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. As one reviewer put it, Wright was “the epitome of the academic as novelist.” The book was published in 1993 and received great reviews, but its sales were spectacularly underwhelming. Wright tried a twist on thrillers to invest it with meaning and foreshadowing between the real world and the made-up world. He aimed for meaningful; he hit pretentious and vapid. Ford has embellished the externals of the story in the adaptation, but has kept the basic plot, and so has grafted the book’s weakness into the film.

Susan (Adams) has been married to Hutton Morrow (Hammer) for twenty years. Morrow is a successful businessman, though he’s going through a rough patch, while Susan runs a gallery and is active in the Los Angeles art scene. Out of the blue she receives an advance copy of the debut novel by her first husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal). Alone in her house for a long weekend, Susan reads the book, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.”

The majority of the movie is actually the adaptation of that interior novel. Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) sets out with his family on an overnight drive through Texas. In the wee hours of the morning in the empty western part of the state, they’re set upon by three men in what begins with a game of chicken and escalates to the brutal murders of Hastings’ wife and daughter. Police detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) warns Tony that it may take years to find the trio, but that he’ll keep looking.

Ford blends in the backstory of Susan and Edward’s early relationship, and uses the camera to juxtapose Susan and Tony, but the conceit of the novel is the interior thriller is a veiled reference to the earlier marriage and how it ended. That’s set up throughout the film, but it’s never paid off. On top of that, it’s not that compelling of a mystery. It’s like Wright knew the ingredients for a hard-boiled crime thriller, but he didn’t know how to mix them or the proportions to use, and it definitely wound up undercooked. All the style that Ford brings to the story and the competence of the cast can’t overcome that fundamental weakness.

One other factor for a good noir movie is a strong melodic line for the theme music. You can’t think of Otto Preminger’s Laura without hearing the theme music, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was strongly supported by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score. Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski has crafted a score that fits the bill.

If only the film itself had been better.

Expansion and Over-expansion

Over the course of the seven Harry Potter books (and eight movies), J.K. Rowling created a fulsome world of wizards and witches. Most readers and movie-goers reached the end of the series with a sense of satisfaction, and a certain sadness as well. It was similar for Star Wars fans when the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi. The expansion of Star Wars with the prequel trilogy wasn’t artistically successful except for Revenge of the Sith, and the best viewing order of those movies completely eliminates The Phantom Menace. Now, though, Star Wars has expanded in the other direction with the excellent The Force Awakens, and then Rogue One fills in the story directly before A New Hope. Rowling, too, has added to her creation cinematically, writing her first screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Thankfully it’s more Force Awakens than Phantom Menace.

The story plays off of the book that tried to eat Harry Potter’s shoe in an early scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban. By Harry’s day, Newt Scamander’s textbook is a classic and has increased the wizarding world’s understanding and appreciation of magical animals. But it’s a very different world when Newt (Eddie Redmayne) disembarks his boat in New York City in December 1926.

There’s a hidden wizard world in the United States just like in England, but strange occurrences are breaking through into the nomaj world (No Magic, the American version of Muggles). Newt carries a case filled with the beasts he’s studied, but through a series of misadventure a nomaj Newt met named Kowalski (Dan Folger) releases three of the beasts.

Newt runs afoul of former auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), but she’s currently out of favor with Graves (Colin Farrell), the head of the department. With Kowalski and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) in tow, Newt and Tina seek to recapture the escapees. But there’s danger from Chastity Barebone (Jenn Murray) and her children Credence and Modesty (Ezra Miller, Faith Wood-Blagrove) who are leading a crusade against magic.

Newt’s harder to identify with than Harry Potter, so it takes a bit to warm up to him. But Redmayne plays him with a cockeyed charm that works perfectly for the role and soon wins you over. Redmayne was the only choice for Newt and didn’t have to audition, which may have been a relief. He’d auditioned for the role of Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets and was turned down for the job. Waterston has been working for a while – she had a small role in Michael Clayton – but has recently appeared in Steve Jobs and Inherent Vice, and she has five projects coming out next year.

As the second leads, Alison Sudol and Dan Folger shine. Folger imbues his regular Joe character with both honor and a sense of wonder when his eyes are open to the world of wizards, and in the end his characterization touches your heart. Sudol lights up her scenes like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holiday rolled into one role. Sudol’s a regular on the Emmy-winning “Transparent” and also has a career as a musician, recording under the name A Fine Frenzy.

Farrell does best when he’s not carrying a movie. He provides a brooding and threatening presence that works well in counterpoint to Redmayne. Ezra Miller had made an impression in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (with former Hogwarts student Emma Watson) and an interesting role in Trainwreck. He’s moving into more action films after being cast as Barry Allen/The Flash in next year’s Justice League, to be followed by a stand-alone movie. There are several well-known actors in character roles, including Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, and in an unrecognizable cameo, Johnny Depp.

David Yates directed the final four Harry Potter films, so he’s intimately acquainted with the series. That comfort level helps the movie soar. Rowling had originally written the basis for the movie as a special book for Comic Relief in 2001. 80% of the books profits went to children’s charities around the world.

Fantastic Beasts is now planned to be a five movie series. The question is, will it be able to establish a strong enough story to last through a pentalogy. The first was good, but you never know when a phantom menace is lurking.

Coming of Age in a New Age

Back in the 1980s, the John Hughes coming-of-age flicks became a fixture of the
Cineplexes. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and others were embraced by the youth of that day – people the youth of today know as mom and dad. Since then there have been some excellent examples of the genre that are less formulaic and more heartfelt than humorous, such as Boyhood, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Juno, An Education, and Thirteen, among others. One of the accomplishments of The Edge of Seventeen is it blends serious with silly to capture the highs and lows (real and imagined) that pretty much everyone faces on the way to adulthood.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is the one on the edge. She’s been an outsider at school all her life, though she was fortunate when young to find a best friend who’s stuck with her ever since, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). It’s hard for Nadine because her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is firmly in the In Crowd at school, while her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) spouts platitudes as advice even as her own life is a mess. As a substitute father figure, Nadine has latched onto her favorite teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), even though he’s not happy to be cast in the role.

Then Nadine is thrown into a crisis when Krista falls for her brother and Nadine can’t handle sharing her. Swirling around like an uncontrollable whirlpool, Nadine becomes obsessed with a boy she only knows from a distance while missing a boy who sits near her in class (Hayden Szeto).

Writer/Director/Producer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a coming-of-age story that rings true to everyone who’s survived high school. While it fits with the current generation’s more profane style – things that would have caused angst in the 1980s don’t rate a bat of an eye here – the underlying traumas that life can throw at you are all too familiar. Yet Craig leavens the traumas with a bright wit and a light directorial touch that serves the movie well.

Given a fully-formed role to play, Hailee Steinfeld slips into Nadine and gives her best performance since True Grit. At 20, Steinfeld has begun to show that she will be a major performer for many years to come, with a successful start to a recording career to go along with carrying a movie like Edge where she’s center stage in almost every scene. I would not be surprised if Steinfeld winds up an EGOT before she finishes her career.

A delight of this movie is it’s not just one excellent role in a half-baked stew. Craig has invested the other roles with heart and character, and the actors deliver wonderful embodiments of these characters. Harrelson’s scenes with Steinfeld are a particular joy to watch, and Sedgwick is first-rate as a mother with her own maturity issues. The film’s almost stolen by Hayden Szeto whose character Erwin is almost as awkward and mixed up as Steinfeld’s, though with a desert-dry sense of humor.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen. It manages to tickle your funny bone and touch your heart at the same time.

It All Adds Up

In the movie The Accountant, there’s a telling exchange between a parent whose child’s been diagnosed with autism and a clinician. The parent asks, “Can our son lead a normal life?” The clinician comes back with, “Define normal.” Autism is an umbrella diagnosis rather than a specific. How it manifests itself differs widely. It can also bring with it gifts. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found children who have autism and average IQs may have math skills far superior to non-autistic children with similar IQs. It’s believed the condition allows the autistic child to reorganize their brain. Some people who would today likely be diagnosed with autism are Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton, Amadeus Mozart, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Accountant is a quite effective thriller that plays off of this fact. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an accountant with a small practice in Illinois. In flashback we see him as a child at a center in New England for children with autism. While his parents discuss his case with the director and Christian’s brother waits in obvious boredom, Christian dumps out a puzzle and begins to quickly assemble it upside down. He gets to the end but finds a piece missing, which sends him into a frenzy. He has to finish the puzzle. Christian calms when another resident, a young girl, finds the piece and gives it to him. Other flashbacks show how his father, a Marine, taught both his children to be strong and fight for their place in the world.

Thirty years later, Christian is asked to do a forensic audit for a robotics firm that’s about to go public. A young bookkeeper, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), has discovered irregularities and has alerted the two people in charge of the firm (John Lithgow, Jean Smart). At the same time we see Brax (Jon Bernthal) threaten a European trader with death if he doesn’t stop shorting stocks on the company owned by Brax’s employer. Also concurrent, the head of financial crimes at the Treasury, Ray King (J.K. Simmons) calls one of his investigators in for a meeting. King starts by revealing he knows Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) lied about her background to get the job, omitting juvenile convictions. He offers her a chance expunged her history if she can track down a man King calls the Accountant. There are pictures of him consorting with drug cartel kingpins, organized crime bosses, and other criminal organizations, though none catch his face.

The plot of The Accountant flies along from the start like a jet plane doing an acrobatics routine with plenty of twists and turns. Writer Bill Dubuque only has two previous credits, including co-writing the screenplay for the Robert Downey Jr/Robert Duvall legal thriller The Judge, but with this original script he’s created a story that thrills but also humanizes and personalizes autism. Director Gavin O’Connor has worked as both a director and producer in film as well as TV. He directed Miracle in 2004, starring Kurt Russell, and Warrior with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, and he directed the pilot and executive produced “The Americans,” one of the best series currently on TV. He works the script with a firm and dexterous hand.

Affleck gives one of the better performances of his career as the withdrawn, honorable Wolff. He captures the oddities of the character without show or flair but with an interiorization of the person. Kendrick gives her own twist on awkward as she finds herself attracted to Wolff. She had some help preparing for the role. Her mother is an accountant and tutored her daughter in the financial aspect of the story.

The other cast members are effective in their roles, in particular Bernthal as the lethal Drax. The movie also has Jeffrey Tambor in a small but pivotal role as Wolff’s mentor and entre into the world of criminal accountancy.

You could think of The Accountant as Jason Bourne meets Rainman, with The Firm thrown in. Those aren’t bad movies to be compared to, but The Accountant actually stands strong on its own. In the future it could be the movie to which other films are compared.