Movie Review: Hidden Figures

We first meet the three African-American ladies at the center of Hidden Figures as their car has broken down on their way to work.  A Caucasian policeman stops by asking what the problem is.  Because the time is 1961, we think the policeman will display the then common racist attitudes and not treat them kindly.  However, once they show proof of their identification as employees at NASA, the policeman decides to escort them to work after one of the ladies gets the car fixed.

The scene provides the key to the film’s underlying theme, which is about how racial and gender equality simply makes things uniformly efficient.  Many others working at NASA throughout the film are slower to pick up on that message even when they all share the common national goal to get a man into space orbit.  However, once the ladies and the policeman know they share the common goal, they do the most logical step which is to get to the destination.

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The movie is based on the true story of three women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).  Vaughan leads the team (in duties, if not in title) and the three work as part of a team of black female mathematicians performing computations by hand in the West Area Computers division (where their department sign reads “Colored Computers”).  When their overseeing supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) informs that the Space Task Group need a new computer, Johnson gets scouted in the group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  Russia has already launched its artificial satellite, spiking worries that they will have the ability to spy on the US in the space race.

Johnson, whom we see has a naturally gifted mathematical mind from childhood, is the first black person to join the group and is not treated respectfully at first.  One of the engineers assumes she is a custodian and piles a trash can on her work items on her first day.  When she tries to drink coffee from a common coffee pot, the others place a separate smaller coffee pot labeled for “Coloreds” with no coffee in it.  However, as the team will soon realize, such racist attitudes, especially embodied by the head engineer, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), impede on her work and thus everyone else’s.  When Harrison, who pushes everyone to get the first astronaut into orbit, sees the impediment after an impassioned breakdown from Johnson, the film gets one of its more satisfying moments smashing down the racist attitudes.

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The story finds time for all three women in their personal and professional lives.  Each of them faces uphill battles against the segregation attitudes in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights Movement.  Vaughan is not officially given the title of supervisor by Mitchell despite all the responsibilities she performs in such a role.  She is also not given access to the resources in the library that she needs to learn programming in FORTRAN.  Jackson strives to be a female engineer at NASA but must attend classes at a school that has never accepted black people.

In all three characters’ stories, Henson and Spencer portray their characters strongly as usual and singer Monáe, along with the recent Moonlight, shows herself as a solid actress playing spunky characters.  Costner is a good choice for Harrison, giving echoes of a similar role from Thirteen Days as an adviser to John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The reliable Mahershala Ali provides nice support as a military colonel who romances Henson’s Johnson, who has been widowed with three children.

The director, Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, knows the moments of change that he must hit and is able to do so with some humor.  Some of it is a bit too on-the-nose as when Johnson looks at Stafford’s calculations scratched with permanent markings (refusing to have them checked) under the light, encouraging others to also “see the light.”  However, it is mostly effective, as in one of the best scenes that I will avoid describing too much about.  The scene is set up with shots framed to show Spencer’s Vaughan and Dunst’s Mitchell looking at the same mirror as if each is finally looking at the other as her own reflection.  The way it pays off plays to Spencer’s unique specialization in characters who can size other people up.

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Of course, the movie, as all those “based on a true story” are, plays fast and loose with some facts.  Most of the Caucasian characters are composites and the discriminatory attitudes Johnson faced in her working team were not as strong as the movie delineates.  However, many of the facts in the movie did happen, as when the astronaut, John Glenn (portrayed positively by Glen Powell), called on Johnson to verify the trajectory calculations before the launch.  As a general rule, I see good movies “based on a true story” as the emotional key for me to do the research on the facts (for a helpful analysis comparing the facts and the movie, look at this link).

Emotions are what allow for the larger theme to be conveyed more effectively.  In its broad strokes, the movie gives a solid dimension as to why equality is considered progress.  Just as the computing machines we use depend on various moving parts working together, it is progress in us doing our jobs better.

Rating: 76/100

USA.  2016.  Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Theodore Melfi.  Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi.  Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Biscoe, and Donna Biscoe.  Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.

Film Genres in a Nutshell

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In a rather silly vein, I decided to come up with one-line blurbs to define the essence of each genre in film.  So here goes:

Action: They kill people, I kill time.

Romance: They kiss, I blush.

Horror: They jump out, I get my safety blanket.

Drama: They emote, I try not to.

Sci-Fi: They fly, I can’t.

Fantasy: They believe in fairies, I don’t.

Animation: They stretch reality, I’m stuck in mine.

Mystery: They knot, I untangle.

Crime: They did it, I know it wasn’t me.

Comedy: They goof up, I laugh.

Documentary: They inform, I am appalled.

History: They portray, I skip a class (because I saw the movie).

Thriller: They pursue, I leave fingernail marks on my dashboard.

Musical: They sing, I crack my voice.

Film-Noir: They have a femme fatale, I see that she is muy mal.

Special mention goes to my friend, Sonia Schnee for being a bouncing board to think these up.

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

The emotion can manifest itself at the most unexpected time.  When you forget where you parked your car.  Or when the food falls out of the freezer.  Or when you are shoveling the snow in your driveway.  Or when a random passerby gets in your face about how you are talking to your nephew.  Or when you are just having casual conversation with a person.

Grief is that emotion and it has the power fueled by memory to suddenly bubble to the surface at any moment.  The elegiac beauty of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the subtlest and most perceptive film about grief that I have ever seen, is how it internalizes the emotion so well to show what most people do with grief: barely hold it in.  Grief does not necessarily result in a breakdown of tears, though it sometimes does.  Rather, for the film’s protagonist, Lee Chandler (an absolutely majestic Casey Affleck), the pervading grief from a past incident has shrunken him smaller.  As he works as a general custodial handy man for people’s households, he goes on living life in Boston holding his grief in the pockets of his soul.  However, from his hunched shoulders, his speech, and his sunken eyes, we can see that he is internally on edge fearing the next time he will get struck by a pang of grief.  He is the last person who deserves to hear further news that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died due to a heart failure at the beginning of this story.

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We see from the film’s carefully timed flashbacks that Joe was a real bedrock for Lee.  When the past incident happened in Lee’s life, Joe was the one there to get him through.  The brothers, along with Joe’s son, Patrick would go on fishing trips out to the sea in Manchester when they were younger.  Due to the strong bond they shared, it may have seemed natural to Joe in his will to assign Lee be the legal guardian to Patrick (played in present as a teenager by Lucas Hedges), after his alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol) left them.  However, Lee is astonished and unprepared to take on the responsibility.

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You may think the film is a dispiriting affair from what I have described but that would only be true if it focused solely on the pangs of grief.  What makes this movie incomparably richer is that it also finds the moments of joy that allow life to go on anyway.  Despite the pervading power of grief, we can eventually find something in and around us to get us through in between these moments.  It may not be the kind of big epiphany where the sun rises and all the pain is wiped away.  But it is in those small pockets of respite and humor that can be just as unexpected as the moments of grief.  As this movie shows, the humor is not of the kind that makes you laugh out loud but the kind that comes from the elasticity of sharing a close bond with someone or simply recognizing little details or quirks in life.

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Much of the story’s emotional complexity is in the central relationship between Lee and Patrick.  It is not that they open up their feelings frankly to each other or reminisce together explicitly often about what kind of guy Joe was.  Lee is too withdrawn for that and Patrick occupies himself by trying to play hockey and going through adolescent troubles like balancing time between his two girlfriends.  But in the way they talk, you know they have a common history and rapport and their company with each other keeps them going.  There is also Lee’s close friend, George (C.J. Wilson), who provides the kind of gentle comfort of simply being there even if he is a little clumsy at times (one of the film’s funnier moments shows him shouting to his wife across the room during Joe’s wake asking if Lee has eaten).

Lee possibly could make a natural guardian to Patrick as the latter finishes his last two years in high school.  However, for, Lee, returning to Manchester opens up a lot of old wounds.  There is that pivotal event in his life that looms over and follows him like a gray cloud everywhere, even in the faces of random people who give him stares at a bar.  That event led to the dissolution of his loving marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams).  When she and Lee finally meet in a devastating scene, we see the feelings they shared were simmering just barely below the surface.

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I realize that I may have written little more than a glorified series of reflections without making much reference to the actors or the technical qualities of the film.  I could more critically analyze why I think playwright turned writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has made his best movie after two previous terrific films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret.   I could talk more about how I think the film’s structure edited by Jennifer Lame inserts the flashbacks effectively to reflect the uncontrollable nature of memory and, along with the subtle choral music by Lesley Barber, inspires the emotional introspections it does.  I could write in more detail about my small wish to have the female characters to show more shadings than emotional frailty or being a potential killjoy for male behavior.

However, I would rather let the reflections from this movie wash over me.  I have had memories of a loved one pop in my head when I was typing at work.  I did grow more frustrated than I normally would after a sad event when I misplaced my keys.  I have found solace in a family member or friend who calls me to take me away from my moment of grief.  I did find a certain peace of mind when I observed something that helped me reminisce a cherished memory with a loved one.  The highest praise that I can pay Manchester by the Sea that it has put feelings so identifiable that I feel that I cathartically lived through them.

Rating: 95/100

USA.  2016.  Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, and Matthew Broderick.  Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.

Movie Review: La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is like a delectable blender of the most dazzling qualities of old school musicals.  The 21st century has seen no shortage of attempts to bring the traditional musical back into the mainstream from Moulin Rouge, Chicago, and a slew of other Broadway adaptations.  All of them feel like pale warm-ups to La La Land, which is the real deal.  From its astonishing opening musical number set in a traffic jam to its closing musical number, the movie splendidly captures the look, sound and feel of the golden era of musicals for the modern age.

I would happily see La La Land a second and third time just for that opening number.  It begins in gridlock traffic in Los Angeles on a bridge (where a real bridge section was apparently closed down for filming) as the camera floats through and stops at a young female driver leaning back in her car.  She softly starts singing a tune and joyously walks around to other young drivers in the traffic as if to tap the others in the shoulder in musical fashion.  The camera glides as each driver picks up his or her cue until the drivers make music out of their car horns and dance on top of their cars to ingest the sunny weather (the song is aptly called “Another Day of Sun”).  Crucially, while probably enhanced by CGI to stitch a few disparate long takes, the sequence contains no visible cut that would hamper the actors and camera respectively dancing and gliding through.

lalaland0It is a fitting setup for a story about aspiring dreamers in modern day LA.  The opening number ends as the scene rests on two of them, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).  She is an aspiring Hollywood actress and he is a jazz pianist who hopes to open a jazz club.  It is not a cute meeting at first as they pass each other as rude drivers on the freeway.  After a refreshing series of moments in which they humorously grate on each other (including a clever joke about Priuses), they eventually fall in love, she leaving her uncaring boyfriend behind.  The movie contrives two homages to classic movies to make that happen.  One is an invitation from him to show her a revival of Rebel Without a Cause.  The other is an exuberant evening sequence of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers style singing and tap dancing, choreographed by Mandy Moore (no relation to the singer).

lalaland2This is 31-year old writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the more abrasive but equally brilliant Whiplash.  While this movie shares some of the same themes, a dedication to loving jazz music, and a welcome cameo by J.K. Simmons who won an Oscar® for that previous film, I did not expect his follow-up to be this graceful and charming.  Chazelle and his musical composer, Justin Hurwitz, who met as Harvard roommates in college, reportedly started a fruitful collaboration as Chazelle asked Hurwitz if he would compose his movies about music.   If they continue to make more musically themed movies down the road, it will be intriguing to see the moods and shades they may explore between abrasive and charming.

In addition to the said classic homages, the movie draws from several other key inspirations, from Singin’ in the Rain to most notably Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. One characteristic of those musicals that La La Land embraces is the vibrancy of color to support the musicality.  With costume designer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shoots in the wider Cinemascope format, Chazelle makes that quality all of his own with a color palette that is every bit as radiant as his influences.  If the older films were often set in sunny or rainy environs, the cinematography here, after the opening, brings out the radiance of stars in the night to complement the film’s key thematic tune, “City of Stars.”  Against this backdrop, the bright, candy-colored costuming comes most strikingly to life, especially in a song sequence that has Mia and her friends prepare to go to an LA party and confidently strut on the street in sync holding their different colored dresses.

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For all the film’s glittering visual artifice, however, Chazelle wisely does not drive his story into complete fairy tale fantasy with reality in the rear view mirror.  As their relationship grows, both Mia and Sebastian face setback after setback in their attempts to fulfill their aspirations.  While she barely scrapes by working as a coffee barista with one failed addition after another, he has trouble setting up his own club with which he hopes to preserve the fading essence of traditional jazz.  To support himself, he joins a friend, Keith (John Legend) in a contemporary touring band that goes against his core musical philosophy and imposes long periods of separation on the couple.  All of this leads to an emotional argument played as straight drama when the scales balancing between their relationship and their individual dreams tip over.   After Stone and Gosling shared the screen as supporting players in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, it is a pleasure to see their effortless chemistry, both positive and negative, ground the story while they do their own singing.

The film is not perfect.  The number that impressively begins in the aforementioned dress-up scene ends in the LA party on a melody that musically feels like a repetition of the spectacular opening number.  An early scene with Sebastian and his very matter-of-fact sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) is also not written with as much care and wit to really make an impression in the story.  In addition, as much as I like Ryan Gosling for his dedication to the interesting roles he chooses, one complaint that I have is that he does not seem to register much emotion when honing his technique.  A more subtly expressive actor could have conveyed a slight sense of joy in, for example, the scene where he is defiantly playing his own piano music at the nightclub run by J.K. Simmons’ character (which, to Gosling’s credit, he committedly learned to play himself).  Stone, in contrast, sells every moment of bliss, as when she is dancing with Gosling against the evening backdrop or the observatory, and every moment of heartbreak, as when she sings in another standout moment at an audition, “Here’s to the hearts who dream…”

All the quibbles recede against the numerous pleasures of La La Land, however, as it all culminates in a show-stopping closing musical number.  I would not dream of revealing too much about it other than to say that it serves as a beautiful musical reflection meshing reality and fantasy.  As that number swells and gets better, it crystallizes one of the truest reasons for why we go to old-fashioned musicals in the first place: escapist wish fulfillment.

Rating: 90/100

USA.  2016. Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson.  Rated PG-13 for some language.

Introduction

ticket-clipart-4ibpxg5igHello, my name is Joo-Wang John Lee.  There are three things that I am most passionate about in life: my faith as a devout Christian, my work as a computer programmer, and my hobby to ponder and appreciate about all things in cinema.  This is the blog that will help me pursue the third of my passions.

I have seen movies as one of the best mediums to learn things that I could not experience directly, feel emotions to help empathize with others, and even discover and gauge what my own values and virtues are.  To me, film is not only a fascinating form of visual entertainment but also a way to walk in the lives of others and share with their joy, tears, laughter, serenity, anxiety, enlightenment, amazement, horror, and more.

In starting this blog, I hope to share with others some of my appreciation of all things cinematic.  Some articles will be movie reviews, others may be goofy observations, and still others may be highlights on key figures in movies.  I hope you enjoy reading and thank you for visiting.