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Hidden Figures (2016)
Thoughtful Screenplay, Stellar Performances!
"Hidden Figures" tells the story of three courageous African-American women who were pioneers in their respective fields in the early years of NASA. The screenplay was outstanding, and the performances were uniformly excellent.
The film juggles the lives of three remarkable women. Dorothy Vaughn became the first African-American female supervisor at NASA in her work in computer programming. Mary Jackson fought the legal system in Virginia in order to register for night classes in order to improve her chances to become and engineer. And the film's primary focus is on Catherine G. Johnson, a brilliant student of mathematics, who was instrumental in calculating the data for the earliest American space launches.
The biggest historical drama depicted by the film is the launch of the Friendship 7 mission, described as one of the turning points in the space race with Colonel John Glenn returned safely to earth. Katherine Johnson worked behind the scenes, crossing the color barrier in one of the great intellects at NASA. At one point in the film, Johnson thinks outside of the box when she goes to the ancient calculations of Euler's Method, stunning her colleagues with a set of accurate numerical results. The hidden figures of mathematics emerge in the film, just as the three women come into their own as hidden figures in the early period of civil rights.
The film balances the space saga with the challenges of the three women faced in the era of Jim Crow. Much time is devoted to the daily humiliation of segregated restrooms, drinking fountains, and even coffee pots within the NASA organization. Kevin Costner is good as the crusty project manager, who recognizes the genius of Katherine Jackson. Kirsten Dunst plays the callous supervisor of the women, who finally comes round to supporting the promotion of Dorothy Vaughn.
The period style of the early 1960s was faithfully created by the filmmakers. Documentary footage of the early NASA missions helped to bring the hidden figures out of the background and place them in an era of ferment of change in American history.
The Comedian (2016)
It's All in the Material!
In an era of mindless, cookie cutter film comedies, the Taylor Hackford film "The Comedian" is a breath of fresh air. The generic comedies typically lack invention and genuine humor. But this film delivers because of the outstanding script. As with stand-up, it is all in the material! Thirty-five years have passed since Robert DeNiro starred as a fan who became obsessed with a well-known stand-up comic. "The Comedian" has the same edgy style that makes for great satire.
DeNiro's character Jackie Burke won acclaim for a sit com (like based on Jackie Gleason's Ralph Cramden), yet fell on hard times when the show ran its course. Now, at at 68, his bitterness in channeled into his comic routines. After he boils over and engages in fisticuffs with a rude fan, Jackie spends time in prison, then seeks to resurrect his career.
The cast was filled with a who's who list of stage, screen, and television actors (Cloris Leachman, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Patti LuPone, Brett Butler, Charles Grodin, and Lois Smith). But far from being cameos, each performer is given splendid dialogue that allows him or her to shine.
Along the way, Jackie has a romantic fling with a younger woman, Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who has also run afoul of the law. The two characters bond and she becomes pregnant. While the storyline is far-fetched, the film his held together by the snappy dialogue and the multiple scenes in which Jackie engages in improvised schticks. Leachman's performance as an aging comic is priceless when she collapses and dies during Jackie's raunchy roast during a banquet.
Much credit belongs to director Taylor Hackford, who has the perfect touch in creating the comic scenes. The film includes beautiful location shots of old New York and a jazzy score for moments of transition.
"The Comedian" is an unforgettable film experience and a textbook for satirical comic style. Not to be missed!
Good Cop, Bad Cop
In the Las Vegas that is depicted in "Sleepless," it is obvious that no one has the time to sleep because they are so hard at work in committing crimes. Jamie Foxx and Michelle Monaghan play the seemingly only honest cops on the Las Vegas course in this crime/action film.
Most of the film's action is the near demolition of a casino which is the location of non-stop chases and violence. The casino manager has hooked up with a local drug lord in a deal that goes sour when Foxx's undercover agent is close to blowing the lid off local police corruption. Yet even Foxx's decent cop gets in over his head with the double crosses.
At approximately the midpoint of "Sleepless," the film becomes comical with the incompetence of both the police and the crooks. Nothing goes as planned with a botched kidnapping of the cop's son, the mother leaving her job as a nurse at the hospital to shoot one of the crooks, and the both good cops betrayed by their partners.
The alert viewer may ponder this question at the close of the film: Whatever happened to the stash of cocaine the was the object of the non-stop action in this 90-minute fizzle of a film?
Kevin Wendell Crumb, etc.
The films of M. Night Shyamalan typically exploit the supernatural in order to develop a suspenseful story with well-rounded characters. Unfortunately, "Split" relies primarily on pop psychology to explore a troubled man's multiple personalities in what is called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The wildly speculative case study in the film includes one personality type that should be placed in a cage and out of harm of any bystanders.
The bystanders who come in the way of Kevin Wendell Crumb, who has a habit of ending his sentences with the expression "etcetera.," are three young women who are improbably kidnapped and held hostage by Kevin, etc. The one character who is more interesting that all of the characters rolled into Kevin, etc. is the young loner Casey Cooke. As developed in lurid detail through flashbacks, little Casey was an abused child who has learned to cope with her pedophile tormentor, Uncle John. Her survival skills will be put to the test by Kevin, etc.
A kindly psychiatrist (well performed by stage actress Betty Buckley) badly underestimates the capabilities of her patient. She deludes herself into believing that she has some control over the wide-ranging behavior of Kevin, etc. Her fatal mistake is to pay a visit to his home. The alert viewer will surely recognize that her fate is sealed when she arrives at his odd living quarters, which turn out to be the sub-basement of the Philadelphia zoo.
SPOILER ALERT FOLLOWS: M. Night Shyamalan's original ending for the film appears as an outtake in the DVD version of "Split." Curiously, the director changed the ending because he felt the original version was too dark. The deleted scene was to have Kevin seated atop a building decrying how unfortunate it was that most people go about their lives in an un-split manner, as opposed his subjective realities of multiple personalities. But in a film that is so unpleasant from the outset, it was difficult to see how changing the final scene could possibly have made the film any less depressing than it already was.
Genius.: Chapter Four (2017)
"Herr Einstein, It's Genius!"
This fourth episode of "Genius" traces the stunning developments of Albert Einstein's "annus mirabilus" (miraculous year) of 1905.
It was during that year that after Einstein's dissertation proposal was rejected by Professor Kliener, young Einstein wrote and published four papers that changed the world. Working under tremendous pressure at home and with lack of support from the university, Einstein's work finally comes to the attention of the distinguished scientist Max Planck. This will be a turning point for the genius.
Much of this episode details the relationship of Einstein and his wife, Maleva Maric, who was instrumental in assisting Einstein in his research. The film points out that Pierre Curie refused to accept the Nobel Prize unless his wife Marie was honored alongside him. By contrast, it never even occurred to Einstein to acknowledge Maleva in the publication of his articles. The program closes with a heartbroken Maleva, whom her husband callously treated after she gave up her own promising career to support him. Poor Maleva even had to endure a shrewish mother-in-law, who relegated her to the role of hausfrau.
This episode effectively developed the theme of Einstein's genius that emerged out of a constellation of leading scientists and breakthrough discoveries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the themes was Pierre Curie's assertion that "tools don't make discoveries; people do."
The unending curiosity of Einstein is explored with his thought experiments occurring in a market place while gazing at a clock, his playing with his little boy Alberti while contemplating the movements of a toy train, or his mind-wondering while pretending to work in the Bern patent office.
In the course of those thought experiments, Einstein comes to the realization that time is not absolute: the natural phenomenon of lightning is perceived differently by an individual standing still than someone who is standing on a moving train. In building on the Lorenz transformations, Einstein finally formulated his principle of relativity that essentially redefined the way we think about the universe.
The Dressmaker (2015)
The Curse of Tilly Dunnage
In the small farming town of Dungater in the outback of Austrlia, the dressmaker Tilly Dunnage returns home as the prodigal child to wreak havoc on her childhood stomping ground.
Kate Winslet plays Tilly, a character who believes she is cursed when a little boy was assaulting her in the playard at school. He died, and she believes she may have killed him. The film sets in motion a murder mystery about this past traumatic incident.
The film now moves into an absurd competition of dressmakers, who want to outfit the members of the town in the haute couture of Paris. Tilly once again demolishes the competition with her skills in fashion design.
Yet another film style is introduced with romantic comedy, when Tilly falls in love with a nice young man, who seeks to break the curse. He single-handedly solves the murder mystery story by discovering the truth about the schoolyard incident. But he has an untoward accident when he falls through a silo trap door to die of suffocation in a pit of sorghum.
Next, the film takes on the dimension of the horror story with a set of violent and ghoulish deaths of the hypocritical members of the Dungator community.
This mishmash of film styles never coalesces into a memorable film experience. Despite a good performance from Winslet, the entire idea of the film was nasty and unpleasant.
Genius.: Chapter Three (2017)
The Road to the Patent Office
As performed by a terrific young actor, the journey of Albert Einstein in this episode takes him away from halls of academe and the scientific laboratory and eventually landing in the lackluster world of a Swiss patent office.
Einstein's genius is depicted in this episode as the maverick intellect who is frustrated by the constraints of stodgy, authoritarian university professors. In one flash of self-recognition, the young Einstein asserts that "I'm only a dreamer." Einstein's genius was clearly stunted in the conventional academic world of Europe in the early twentieth century.
A subplot of this episode is the jealousy felt by scientist Philip Lenard, an anti-Semite who is out-hustled by Roentgen to the Nobel Prize. The scenes with Lenard set the stage for the anti-Semitism to be experienced by Einstein.
Much of this episode addresses life in Serbia for Mileva, who futilely waits for Einstein, delivers and loses a baby girl. The father never sees his child. Through his financial struggles and coping with the death of his father, Einstein finally reunites with Mileva and proposes marriage.
A sidebar to this episode is Einstein's hopeless attempts at tutoring students in order to earn a living. Once again, the maverick genius fails to provide practical lessons, and one of his charges has received lower grades AFTER the tutorials of Einstein. On the other hand, Einstein links up with a wealthy dilettante named Solovine, who pays for physics lessons as a pastime. Along with another reprobate aristocrat, the little group calls itself "The Olympia Academy." The time Einstein spends with his rakish friends allows him to indulge his imagination in "radiation packets" (Quanta) and how it might be impossible to explain the way light travels.
Winter Kills (1979)
Poorly Written and Stylistically Muddied Film
From 1976-78, the House Select Committee on Assassinations was the second government inquest into the death of President John F. Kennedy. The committee concluded the JFK was probably killed as the result of a conspiracy. But Robert Blakey, the Chief Counsel for the committee, subsequently began to float the unsubstantiated theory that organized crime was behind the death of President Kennedy. The 1979 film "Winter Kills" basically builds on that premise.
The film is a stylistic mess with some nearly farcical moments and scenes. For example, Sterling Hayden's character is a virtual reprise of his famous general of "Doctor Strangelove," a character loosely based on Curtis LeMay.
But "Winter Kills" is nonetheless presented to the viewer as a political and allegorical thriller with the premise of Jeff Bridges character seeking to discover the truth about the death of his older brother, the president modeled on JFK. The plot is enormously contrived with a series of meetings of Bridges with mafia dons, plus a Mati Hari like femme fatale, who may herself have been involved in the president's death.
The most ludicrous character portrayal is that of the family patriarch played by John Huston. SPOILER ALERT FOLLOWS: The film absurdly suggests that Huston's father was involved in a kind of Oedipal struggle with his son and that he participated in the killing his son.
In the final analysis, "Winter Kills" sheds no light on the JFK assassination, and the film plays more like a made-for-television movie, as opposed to a thoughtful feature film.
On the Edge with Big Max and Little Lion
In the opening scene of "Scarecrow," the character Max (Gene Hackman) has just been released from a six-year prison term and is walking down a hill carrying his suitcase. He then seeks to negotiate a small, barbed-wire fence, but gets enmeshed in the wire and tears his clothes. He then fails to observe a small incline ahead of him and tumbles down the hill on his ass. To add further humiliation, the entire act was observed by another hobo named Francis (or Lionel), as played by Al Pacino. Max prides himself on carefully planning everything out in advance. But he is caught in the lie in the earliest moments in the film.
Hackman and Pacino create two unforgettable characters in this oddly matched pair of drifters. While both Max and Lion are running from their past, the film does not dwell on the past or even the future in their shared pipe dream of starting a car wash operation in Pittsburgh. Rather, the focus is on their present adventures, or encounters.
Hackman is clearly infusing the character Max with his personal life story of a streetbrawler. At any given moment, his temper can flare and his smiling demeanor can turn on a dime. Pacino's character Lion is similarly on the edge with a disturbing proclivity to act out dramatic moments as a mask for his guilt at abandoning a woman whom he impregnated.
"Scarecrow" is successful in finding the right balance between the humor and the seething realities of the characters that lie beneath the surface. Nearly all of the small roles in the film are memorable, as the characters who come into contact with Max and Lion sense the danger under the congenial surface of the characters.
When "Scarecrow" was released in 1973, film critic Roger Ebert wrote a mediocre review, criticizing the screenplay and the film aesthetics. But those very values are what are so striking today with the decline of quality and risk-taking in films. For this reason, it is difficult to find any "road picture" in the past half century that rises to the level of "Scarecrow."
Henry's Crime (2010)
Clever & Entertaining!
There was an ingenious concept to this combination caper and romantic comedy. From start to finish, the film never takes itself too seriously, and the result is pure entertainment.
Much credit belongs to the screenwriter who blended the production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" occurring in an old Buffalo theater next to the city bank. The robbers (James Caan, Keanu Reeves) ingeniously burrow into the bank vault from beneath the theater in order to rob the bank.
The best scenes are from the Chekhov play, as reality blends with the stage drama in the relationship of Vera Farmiga's character Madame Ranevskaya and Reeves' Lopahkin. When the actors begin improvising lines, the audience loves it! One of the best characters in the film is the police officer who becomes the "inside man" for the bank heist. Some of the lines and deadpan humor are priceless, making "Henry's Crime" a true joy.