Friday, December 30, 2016

'Hidden Figures' Reminds Us That We Have A Long Way To Go, Baby

This review originally appeared on

Hidden Figures tells an inspiring story about four women much of the world had probably previously never heard of, whose work and perseverance in the face of institutionalized racism and sexism broke astronomical barriers — literally!
It's just too bad the movie itself is rather bland and predictable, formulated to make you get angry at the right places, cheer at the right places, and not really question whether we've really come that far at all.

The story centers on three black friends and coworkers at the NASA field center at Langley in Virginia in the early 1960s. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematician, but more specifically, a "computer;" Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a mathematician and supervisor of the "colored computers" division; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a computer and aspiring engineer.

The majority of their work consists of making advanced mathematical calculations for the early days of the NASA space program, when America was racing against Russia to make it into orbit, and eventually, to the moon. While all three women's stories are presented, the majority of the film centers on Katherine, who was a mathematical prodigy from an early age, and is placed on the Space Task Group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the division that will help calculate the figures needed to launch the first man into space.

She is the only African American on the team, as well as the only female computer, surrounded by a bunch of white men in short-sleeved button ups who at the least don't even notice she's there, and at the worst, are downright competitive and hostile. (Her main antagonist is played by Jim Parsons because of course.)

A major obstacle to her daily job centers on bathrooms, and the fact that the division she's working in has no "colored" bathrooms, forcing her to race a mile across the campus to the colored building every day just to be able to pee. Harrison eventually notices her frequent absences, and demands to know just where it is she disappears to every day. In a heated and tearful reply, Katherine explains, angrily exposing the ridiculousness of the situation. Soon after, Harrison is seen taking a sledgehammer to the Colored Bathroom signs, and declaring all bathrooms at the campus be integrated.

Both Katherine's speech and Harrison's sign destruction garnered applause from the audience, which illustrates a problem with both films like this (and how we're taught history, itself). The oppressed who stood up against their oppression deserve all the credit and applause in the world. But does a white man with nothing to lose really deserve applause for doing what is empirically right?

To the film's credit, none of the white people in it are overtly racist, but what they are has the same effect: They're complacent and convinced that segregation is just the way things are, and they should all just learn to live with it. At one point, Dorothy Vaughan's supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, tells her, "Despite what you think, I have nothing against you," to which Vaughan replies, "I'm sure you believe that." It's a statement that could certainly be said to a large portion of the voting public today.

All that said, the history of these women is inspiring, even if it didn't happen exactly as it did in the movie. The real Katherine Johnson has said in interviews she was never "aggressive," she just did her work, so it's questionable whether her confrontation over the bathrooms, among other moments where she stands her ground, ever happened. But watching a woman do her job for decades, sparking change by merely being excellent at her work, does not make for crowd pleasing cinema.

All of the actresses give fine performances, and have their Oscar-worthy scenes, perfect for "Your Consideration" submissions. I was surprised by what a natural actress Janelle Monáe is, something that was only hinted at in her small role in this year's Moonlight. Octavia Spencer plays headstrong but non-confrontational very well, as she has consistently in the past. And Taraji P. Henson is convincingly smart, even if she pushes her nerdy glasses up her nose one too many times. She also gets some choice scenes as a widow and single mother, as well as with a budding romance with a Lt. Colonel, played by Mahershala Ali.

There's nothing wrong with Hidden Figures, and uncomplicated movies like it. It's certainly doing good by shedding light on some figures who shouldn't remain hidden in history. It just has the unfortunate luck of coming out in a year full of constant reminders that while we may have come a long way, (baby), we have a lot further to go than we may have thought.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Icky Stalker Scenario Spoils Intriguing Premise Of 'Passengers'

This review originally appeared on

Passengers is being billed as an sci-fi action romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as two passengers on an interstellar voyage who accidentally wake up decades before they're set to arrive at their destination, with no way of going back into hibernation. And it kind of is, but with one whopping plot point they're leaving out of the ads.

Some may say this is a spoiler, but I say anyone who intends to see this movie has the right to know that it's not actually a story about two people who are put into an impossible situation who then find love and the will to get through it together.

Instead, it's a story about one guy, Jim, who accidentally wakes up almost 100 years too early during a journey from earth to a new colony planet, and after spending a year alone going crazy, decides he can't take it anymore, so he stalks one of the prettier sleeping passengers by learning all about her life...and then decides to wake her up too.

Knowing she won't be able to go back to sleep. Knowing he will, essentially, be murdering her.

I can already hear the counter arguments. It's a desperate situation! He's going to be stuck alone for the rest of his life! What would you do? (I can answer that! As someone who has never viewed the hypothetical threat of solitary confinement as anything other than a  potentially welcome break from the bullshit of other people, I think I'd be fine with it. Especially when there's a robot bartender that looks and sounds like Michael Sheen that I can spend the rest of my life talking and drinking with.)

And perhaps it is a juicy ethical dilemma. What makes the film's handling of it so gross is that Jim doesn't pick an interesting sleeping guy on the ship to keep him company. He picks a beautiful woman, named Aurora (ugh, the symbolism), because if he's going to condemn someone to death, why not have it be someone he'd want to have sex with? Not considering for once, of course, the possibility that she wouldn't want to have sex with him.

Of course he lies to her about just why she woke up, convincing her they're both victims of some kind of weird ship glitch. And of course, because this a big budget movie starring two very attractive and popular stars, she falls in love with him. And of course, his secret is eventually revealed, and she then hates him for what he's done. And of course, a big threat comes along that forces them to work together and realize what really matters.


It's too bad, because Jennifer Lawrence and Christ Pratt are both extremely likable actors, and the situation they're in is actually a pretty interesting one. One that would have been just as interesting without the icky stalker scenario, especially since it's really nothing but a story device that just forces the plot into a typical middle act wherein the people in love with each other hate each other until the final act, when they realize they actually do still love each other.

The space ship Avalon is a lot like the ship in Wall-E, except devoid of its thousands of obese passengers, and full of everything you could possibly want — as long as you've paid for the gold star package. (Jim, of course, has not.) There's the aforementioned bar, straight out of The Shining, along with restaurants with robot waiters who have French accents; a basketball court; and a movie theater that serves popcorn. There's also a genuinely cool and exciting scene centered on what would happen to a swimming pool if the ship were to suddenly lose its gravity.

Less compelling are the ridiculous action sequences that fill up Passengers' finale, as the duo tries to figure out why the ship is falling apart, and realize their only hope comes in trying to fix something outside of the ship, (it's always outside of the ship, isn't it?), which leads to a scenario straight out of The Abyss, and a situation that should have had me on the edge of my seat, but instead just caused my mind to wander, and wonder why, on a ship full of 5,000 passengers and crew, the sick bay would have only ONE medi-pod.

It could have been fun watching Jim and Aurora explore the Avalon, taking advantage of its amenities together, like an interstellar Adam and Eve. But we can't because Jim's horrific act taints the entire goddamn movie.

Monday, December 19, 2016

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' Is Colorful, Lively, And Predictable

This review originally appeared on

The touring company of Irving Berlin's White Christmas has returned to San Francisco for a ten day run through December 24th, at the Golden Gate Theater. It's a production that's colorful and lively, if a little too traditional.

The show is based on the classic 1954 movie White Christmas, which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The story is altered a bit, and the production filled out with classic Irving Berlin songs not in the original film, such as "I Love a Piano" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm". (Some songs seen in the original film have been axed, like the unfortunately named "Minstrel Number.")

Like the film, the show opens in 1944, somewhere in Europe, as the duo of Wallace and Davis sing White Christmas to their fellow troops. The show then jumps ahead 10 years, with the duo now world famous, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sean Montgomery plays Bob Wallace, the Bing Crosby role, and Jeremy Benton is Phil Davis, the Danny Kaye role.

Davis is written as a total horndog, though Benton plays him as though women are not the first thing on this guy's mind. Still, the plot must follow that Davis is so smitten with the Haynes sister act that he fools his partner into following them to an inn in wintery Vermont, where the promise of a winter wonderland causes an entire train car to sing "Snow."

Kerry Konte plays Betty Haynes, the Rosemary Clooney role. She's a redhead in this version, and she catches the eye of steadfast loner Bob. Meanwhile Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan) and Phil are smitten from their first meeting, illustrated in the lovely number, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," as the duo starts a dance on a dance floor that soon gives way to a stage filled with stars and fog.

Once the foursome makes it to the inn in an unfortunately temperate Vermont, Wallace and Davis learn that the owner is their beloved former Major General Henry Waverly (played by Conrad John Schuck, an actor I immediately recognized from his frequent appearances in the films of Robert Altman), who has fallen on some hard times, not helped by the sudden rash of vacancies due to the lack of snow.

So, in classic musical fashion, the duos decide to Put On a Show, and help raise publicity for the inn and funds for the Major General. The majority of the show is then a sort of show-within-a-show, as the a large cast of dancers and singers are brought in to rehearse for the big Christmas Eve event.

Lorna Luft plays the innkeeper Martha Watson, a role that was a non-musical part in the original movie. It's an expanded version of the character, and she's now a frequent foil of the Major General, as well as a potential love interest. (The closest thing the show has to a bawdy line comes from Watson, but I won't give away what's probably the show's only surprising moment.)

Luft's number "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is a nice addition to the show's songbook, but I didn't really need to have it reprised at the end by the character of Susan Waverly, the Major General's young niece; it was just a little too cutesy.

For me, the film's biggest problem is just how boring Bing Crosby is in the role of Bob Wallace. Why any woman would be smitten with him is just beyond me. Sean Montgomery has a bit more charisma, but I still didn't feel any real chemistry between him and Kerry Konte's Betty; she's no Rosemary Clooney.

One welcome change the musical makes from the film is in the misunderstanding that drives the second act. While it's still an "idiot plot," where everything would be sorted out in two seconds if the characters would just talk to each other, it's at least a misunderstanding that makes a lot more sense than the one in the movie did.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a classic ensemble musical, where the majority of the numbers are performed by a large group of dancers, with choreography I found a tad dull. Still, the show does have a payoff in its closing number, with the entire cast decked out in their red Christmas best, performing "I've Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm," followed by "White Christmas," as snow falls on the stage, (and if you sit close enough, you might get a few flakes in your hair). It was a finale that managed to temper the Scrooge in me, for a little while.

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's Hard Not To Be Swept Away By 'La La Land'

This review originally appeared on

I'm a bitter cynic who's long insisted I don't like musicals, even though there's more than one in my list of top 20 favorite movies, and just hearing songs from my favorite childhood animated films can cause me to burst into instantaneous tears.

When I learned a few years ago, after watching both versions of True Grit, that I didn't actually hate Westerns, I just hated bad Westerns, it made me realize the same holds true for my other generally disliked genre, musicals.

A bad musical can make you roll your eyes, cringe in embarrassment, and question the need for all that singing. But in a good musical, a sudden song and dance number can perfectly illuminate the inner feelings of its characters like nothing else. And when a musical is at its best, it can make the hearts of an audience swell. There's really no other way to explain it.

La La Land is a musical that understands that heart-swelling.

From the very beginning, the film announces its intentions of golden era cinema style in a modern setting, with a "Presented in CinemaScope" title card that leads to a widescreen frame presenting one of Los Angeles's worst aspects: Bumper to bumper freeway traffic.

But even the worst of L.A. (and really, that traffic is the only bad thing about the city that's ever shown in the film) is turned into something exciting and beautiful, as the drivers start to sing, and then get out of their cars to dance, leaping, jumping, and pirouetting in a six-minute musical number that looks like it was shot in one sweeping take. (It wasn't.)

Within that traffic jam are our hero, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and our heroine, Mia (Emma Stone), whose romantic comedy meet-cute moment includes horn honking and middle finger flipping.

Mia is a struggling actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, when she isn't rushing from audition to audition. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club, preferably in a venue he covets, a once legendary place that has been turned into a "samba tapas" restaurant.

Los Angeles is a giant small town, so it's inevitable that Mia and Sebastian should meet, more than once. It's the third time that's the charm, as they leave a party together in search of her parked car, a walk that ends with a song and dance number filmed against the purple sunset.

Director Damien Chazelle shoots these dance numbers the way they used to be shot, which is to say, the way they should be shot, as uninterrupted scenes that show the dancers in full frame — no manic cutting full of close-ups of tapping feet.

Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are merely adequate dancers, performing choreography by Mandy Moore (the other one) that is never too challenging. They're also merely adequate singers that, ironically, were this movie actually made during the golden era, would have probably been dubbed over by stronger voices.

I'm sure there are better singers and dancers out there who can also act, but the movie would then have to give up Gosling and Stone's immense natural charm and completely believable chemistry. So, in this case, I'll take two actors who can easily make me laugh and cry during the non-musical scenes over some Tony-level singing and dancing talents.

Plus, Chazelle understands the limitations of his stars, and makes up for it by placing them in numbers where the setting and the cinematography do the heavy lifting. One such scene is a first date at the Griffith Observatory that finds Mia and Seb literally floating on air while they quickly fall in love.

La La Land is unabashedly romantic, both in Mia and Seb's love story, and also in its love of Los Angeles, classic Hollywood, and jazz. It's hard not to be swept away by it. There are so many moments that left me wanting to clap with joy, and the ending managed to both break my swelling heart and make it swell again.

I just wish the central story wasn't so run-of-the-mill. I'm not sure anyone loves Hollywood as much as Hollywood seems to love itself. There have been countless stories about Hollywood hopefuls, and La La Land's is really not that new. Seb is talented but stubborn! He doesn't want to tarnish his artistic integrity and sell out, until, of course, he's given the opportunity, and the paycheck, that selling out can offer. Meanwhile, Mia is a dreamer whose optimism is being worn down... if only she could get that one big break!

And while La La Land's look certainly feels fresh, it's only because this style of musical hasn't been seen in a while. But it has been done. Martin Scorsese even did something similar with his 1977 film New York, New York, by using classic musical filming techniques paired with modern acting styles. At times the effect was jarring, and the film was a pretty big flop. But I can see a lot of its influence in La La Land, down to a male lead who just wants to open a "genuine" jazz club, and a female lead with Hollywood stars in her eyes.

Within the film, Sebastian complains about L.A. saying, "They worship everything and value nothing." I see it a little differently: they worship themselves, and then reward that worship with Oscars. And La La Land will probably get a lot of them.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Odd Casting Chills A Jumpy 'Jackie'

This review originally appeared on

Natalie Portman, who began her career as a child actress, moved on to play both a manic pixie girl and a sci-fi princess, has grown up to be a very controlled actress. Even when playing someone losing her mind, in Black Swan, the role that won her an Oscar, she never felt dangerous. So it's kind of perfect for her to be cast as Jackie Kennedy, one of the coolest cucumbers to ever enter the public eye.

At the center of the movie Jackie is an interview the former First Lady gives to someone only known as the Journalist (Billy Crudup). It's a weird set-up because the journalist seems completely bored, put out, and confrontational, as if he had been forced into interviewing Mrs. Kennedy a mere week after the murder of the President, instead of recognizing it to be the journalistic coup it is. (The character is loosely based on Theodore H. White, whose Life Magazine article "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," did indeed run a week after the assassination.)

In light of the Journalist's disposition, I don't blame this cinematic Jackie for being defensive, insisting that nothing will be going to print without her input and editing, something that even happens during the course of the interview itself. "Don't think for a minute I'm going to let you print that," she tells him after one exchange, puffing on her cigarette. "Also, I don't smoke."

The narrative jumps around, showing us a behind-the-scenes look at Jackie Kennedy's famous televised tour of the White House, conducted one year after her husband took office; the day of the assassination itself; and the days after, when Jackie had to plan the funeral, something she clearly felt was the most important contribution she'd ever make towards her husband's legacy.

But as a whole, the movie is very cold. Director Pablo Larraín shoots much of it in a very controlled, almost Kubrickian way. There are lots of close-ups of the actors talking directly at the camera, as well as slow tracking shots following the characters through the halls of the White House, and amongst the tombstones of misty Arlington National Cemetery. Peter Skarsgaard, who looks and sounds nothing like his subject, plays an oddly stoic Robert Kennedy. Greta Gerwig, as Nancy Tuckerman, hunches over tiny Portman (who is several inches shorter than the actual Jackie), in a role simply not suited to her quirky talents.

Jackie Kennedy's firsthand description of the assassination was never made public during her lifetime, but what the movie depicts is clearly modeled after the interview that was published posthumously, every gory detail of it. It's so visceral it almost feels exploitative.

It's the moments surrounding the event that are some of the film's strongest, and it's in those scenes, where Portman's performance — when her breathy take on Jackie's unique voice is quieted — that she has the most impact. The scene where she tearfully wipes her husband's blood of her face is no doubt the film's For Your Consideration clip, but better still are the scenes of a slightly drunk Jackie wandering her rooms, trying on ball gowns she'll now never need to wear at the White House, and the black dresses she will.

If Jackie the film accomplishes anything, it's to help to cement the fact that Jackie Kennedy did some extraordinary things following her husband's death. She chose to walk behind his casket in the funeral procession, vulnerable to a public that, just a few days prior, had proven to be deadly. She insisted her husband be buried in Washington D.C. and not his home state ("He belongs to the people," was her defense of that choice), and ultimately, it was she who helped to create the mythical President Kennedy and their Camelot, which was a lovely symbol for a President who, because of his assassination, wasn't allowed to create any real kind of legacy.