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Historical

After getting through the hackneyed “man leaves wife and daughter to go to the sea” introduction, made more unpleasant by the spunky, Nickelodeonesque cutie pie daughter of oil rig safety engineer Mark Wahlberg and wife Kate Hudson, Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day)  disaster flick settles down nicely.  The pace is taut, the action gripping, the explanation of foreign concepts effective, and the clash of personalities (true blue safety guys Wahlberg and Kurt Russell versus corporate, dollar-watching rig manager John Malkovich) not too heavy-handed.  A decent expenditure of time, but as my daughter remarked, probably better delivered as a documentary.

The movie hewed pretty close to the facts, but, incredibly, left one off that perhaps seemed to incredible to portray:  college kids were fishing under the rig when it blew up.

 

I am a huge fan of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories), and in particular, his methodical, textured and grounded style of filmmaking. And boy does he exhibit all of those qualities in Loving, the story of the Virginia couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and the hardest working man in show business, Joel Edgerton) at the heart of the Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage.  Nichols’s depiction of their small Caroline County Virginia town, with its slow pace and cloistered mentality, eschews the Hollywoodization of most civil rights flicks.  The system is wrong and cruel, and the instruments of same (the police, the courts) are in service of that wrong, but these are just people, neither mustache twirling villains or radiant, untouchable martyrs.

The problem with the film, however, is that not every historical figure is deserving of a movie treatment. George Patton, sure, but Omar Bradley?  The fact is, the Lovings, as presented by Nichols, are so simple, so unremarkable, that they feel less like leaves caught in a whirlwind or champions for their own cause and more like bystanders.  Mistreated bystanders, but mere bystanders nonetheless.  Negga shows some deftness in delivering her culture shock at having to escape to the city, and you can see a steel in her spine stiffen at the injustice at play (the Lovings were essentially banished from Virginia).  But Edgerton is so internal and non-demonstrative that he doesn’t even classify as inscrutable.  He’s just a dud, bordering on the disinterested.

It is almost to Nichol’s credit that this film is so boring.  He steadfastly refuses to dramatize.  But boring and entertainment are not reconcilable.

Perhaps Nichols sensed this flaw, because while he gets estimable but sober help from Bill Camp and Martin Csokas as the local attorney and sheriff who, respectively, assist and plague the Lovings, he tries ever so slightly to give the audience some flash in the form of comic actor Nick Kroll, as the ACLU lawyer for the couple. The gambit fails.  Kroll is, frankly, a lousy, one-note dramatic actor and it almost feels like he wants to start cracking up.  The effect is weird and off-putting.

Ultimately, this film feels like an obligation.  If you feel so obliged, go to it.

Filmed in the Amazonia region of Columbia in black and white, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra give us the life of a shaman, Karamakate, as a young and old man making the same journey, to find the rare plant yakruna.  The first trek is on behalf of a dying German ethnographer who has contracted a disease only the plant can cure; the second occurs 40 years later, as an American explorer seeks the plant for its rubber yield, a find that will aid the U.S. in World War II.  The young Karamakate is angry, as he points out the wreckage inflicted upon his home by the encroachment of the whites (essentially, the “rubber wars” of Chile and Peru, which resulted in the enslavement of some indigenous tribes).  In his second journey, he is wiser, resigned to complete a task unfinished in his youth.

This is heavy stuff with a strong reliance on Joseph Conrad.  Indeed, a Jesuit mission happened upon by Karamakate in his youth becomes a Kurtzian religious cult of a Jim Jonesian quality in the 40 years that passes.

The film drags a bit, but the back-and-forth keeps the pace quick enough.  The culture clashes are memorable and the political import, if not subtle, is fleshed out.  More importantly, save for a cheezy drug trip that feels more like Epcot than kissing the sky, the look of the picture is gorgeous.

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Three extraordinary African-American women work in segregated Hampton Virginia to assist NASA in its endeavors to put a man in space. Along the way, they confront everyday casual racism, structural impediments imposed because of their color and gender, and the general pressures of life. There are sweeping moments, a few speeches, some comic relief, and some genuinely tender exchanges (the best bits are between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, respectively, underling and her supervisor, as they negotiate their roles, hidden frustrations and biases). At its best, this is a pleasant and occasionally winning semi historical drama. At its worst, it is Hallmark Channel tripe, uneven (the insistence on telling three stories short-changes all of them; there is just too much going on, giving the characters short-shrift) and unoriginal.

It took me a little time to find the analog to this picture, but eventually, I settled on it. Hidden Figures is very much like another inferior film that was all the buzz at Oscar time but proved entirely underwhelming in the viewing: The Imitation Game . That film was loaded with melodrama and schmaltz, and it too played fast and loose with the history in an effort to elicit an emotional response that, upon reflection, seemed the product of manipulation rather than honest presentation. In the process, it jettisoned a much more interesting reality – that protagonist Alan Turing’s homosexuality was not as closeted and did not create the frailty depicted in the film – to serve a well-worn narrative, the long-suffering, noble and unheralded hero, maligned for his essence whilst saving England from the Nazis.  Snooooorrrrreeeee.

In researching the fact versus fiction aspects of this film, I was struck by the following in History v. Hollywood:

Did Katherine Johnson feel the segregation of the outside world while working at NASA?

No. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research,” says the real Katherine G. Johnson. “You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Even though much of the racism coming from Katherine’s coworkers in the movie seems to be largely made up (in real life she claimed to be treated as a peer), the movie’s depiction of state laws regarding the use of separate bathrooms, buses, etc. was very real. African-American computers had also been put in the segregated west section of the Langley campus and were dubbed the “West Computers.” -WHROTV Interview

In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, she writes about a cardboard sign on one of the tables in the back of NASA Langley’s cafeteria during the early 1940s that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” This particularly struck a nerve with the women because it seemed especially ridiculous and demeaning in a place where research and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. It was Miriam Mann, a member of the West Computers, who finally decided to remove the sign, and when an unknown hand would make a new sign a few days later, Miriam would shove that sign into her purse too. Eventually, the signs stopped reappearing at some point during the war.

Now, juxtapose this extremely interesting recitation of what actually happened from Johnson with the cookie cutter incidents used in the film. A colored only coffee pot – untrue.  Johnson having to go to the bathroom in a separate place – nope, she used the unmarked whites bathroom. Being mistaken for a janitor on her first day working with a made up character played by Kevin Costner – made up.  The smashing of a “Colored Only” sign with a sledgehammer by Costner – untrue (and at the expense of the great story about the cardboard signs so persistently and surreptitiously discarded by the real life figure).

So, the real Johnson states that she didn’t really even feel segregation in her workplace yet the screenwriters make it a factor in every single aspect of her work life. These decisions are bad decisions for two reasons. First, we have seen all of the standard tropes before. They tell us nothing new. They are boring. And they are so stale they feel counterfeit.  Second, and most importantly, they substitute Katherine Johnson’s real story, which sounds interesting as hell and very nuanced, with this comforting and comfortable pap written by these two:

(Writers of Mean Girls 2 and St. Vincent)

As with The Imitation Game, everyone applauded at the end, so, there’s that.

 

Under normal circumstances, this is a 4, maybe even a 5 star film.  Clint Eastwood’s assured meditation on trauma and heroism is briskly plotted and Tom Hanks –as he often does with quiet, internal characters (see Apollo 13, Road to Perdition, Cast Away, Captain Phillips) – renders Captain Sully Sullenberger with poise and introspection.  As we all know, Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of 155 crew and passengers by doing the near-impossible – landing his passenger aircraft on the Hudson River after a bird strike – and  Hanks shows all of the intricate frailties of the man as he weathers the resultant pressures of PTSD, a federal investigation, and his own self doubt.

Alas, I have to stick it to this film, because Eastwood cheats.  And he admitted he cheated.   Upon evaluating the story, Eastwood is reported to have said, “Where’s the antagonist?”  So he went hunting and found one, transmogrifying the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) – the governmental body charged with investigating the incident – into a panel of witch hunters.  Well, maybe that is too strong, but the performances by two of  the members – replete with sneering, condescending charges that Sully could have made Newark or Teterboro airports to land – veer into the cartoonish, and in something so instrumental to the story, that is really problematic.  Indeed, Eastwood did not use the real names of the NTSB panel, which speaks volumes.

In the critical scene, the NTSB uses a computer simulation to show that Sully could have landed at two airports rather than on the river.  But Sully, old salt that he is, demands they put in 35 more seconds for reaction time.  The bureaucrats reluctantly do so, and voila!  The planes crash.  Very dramatic, but in reality, the NTSB was the body that suggested the adding of time.  As reported by a member of the NTSB team, “There was no effort to crucify him or embarrass him.  If there were questions, it was to learn things.” Another member stated, “I think we’re getting the dirty end of the stick here.”

The sad part is that the film didn’t need such an antagonist.  It’s a gripping, well-told, simple story that stands on its own without the bogeyman.  If you are not afraid of the bogeyman, I highly recommend the picture .

A charming film, with surprisingly substantial performances by Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory).  The year is 1944 and Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a patron of music in New York City.  She also has aspirations to perform and her singing voice is, well, it is what it is.  Through the protective machinations of her husband (Grant) and the support of her young accompianist (?) (Helberg), she gives rare public performances, until she squirms out of her protective bubble . . . to Carnegie Hall.

I got down on Streep after two lazy and insufferable performances (the execrable Ricki and the Flash and the loud, gaudy August: Osage County), but she’s back on her game here, infusing in Foster Jenkins a gusto and vulnerability that justifies the latitude she is given by those around her.   The filmmakers portray Foster Jenkins as wholly ignorant of her shortcomings (history suggests she may have been in on the joke), but the decision pays dividends in the creation of greater empathy for her character.  Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) has a way, even in this somewhat broad comedy, of finding the little moments that connect characters, tapping into the hardest of hearts.  A beautiful, simple scene where Helberg and Streep play piano together is one of several such moments.

By the way, Foster Jenkins suffered from syphilis, which I immediately studied (i.e., “Googled”).  I was aghast to learn of its prevalence.  From Essays in History:

Around the turn of the twentieth century, syphilis was a public health disaster in the United States of America. Because of the lack of official reporting of cases to public authorities, estimates of its incidence are difficult to obtain; however, the figure has been estimated conservatively at ten percent to fifteen percent of the general population from about 1900 to 1920, although its occurrence was presumed to be higher among men than women.

 

The story is now lore. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked outside her Queens apartment. Her assailant stabbed her, ran, and then returned to rape her and finish the job. 37 witnesses turned away. They looked out the window and saw Kitty being stabbed. They heard her pitiful screams. Fearful, callous and/or a sign of the times in our urban hellholes, they drew their blinds and did nothing.

Turns out it’s all bullshit.  While it appears two people may have seen her and elected not to intervene, one did, screaming at her assailant to get away yet unaware that she had been injured.  A neighbor actually did go down to the street (Genovese died in her arms), many of the “witnesses” who are still alive state that they called the police or the extent of their “witnessing” was merely hearing a scream down on the street and then, not hearing more, thinking nothing more of it.

Ah, but what a story. The first half of documentarian James Solomon’s riveting re-investigation – which utilizes interviews, old documentation, photos, footage and animation to put us on that street or in one of the overlooking apartments – destroys the myth. As relayed by one reporter who had his doubts, “it didn’t make any sense” but because it was being propagated by the powerful and highly influential The New York Times, doubts were shelved because “It would have ruined the story.” That story was under the care and feeding of then-editor Abe Rosenthal, who wrote a book about the murder and jealously protected the myth, even going to the extremes of haranguing reporters decades later when the Times re-investigated and came clean on its excesses. In an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame, who was then a radio reporter, his candor is both laudatory and depressing. Yes, he says cheerfully, the story was shot full of holes, but it is a great story and the Times was pushing it. What’s not to like? From there, the story embedded itself in the national psyche, a development Solomon firmly establishes.

This is an important film.  In an age where one would think, given the plethora of alternative sources of news and investigation, that such a meme could not take hold, it’s just the opposite. When the forces want to deliver you a narrative, be it for perceived social good or simple economic gain in the form of extended play, they can be overwhelming.  I remember reading the UVA  rape story in Rolling Stone and with a daughter at college, being incensed and affected.   I then re-read it, and it just seemed . . . thin. There was not one named source, yet, it was so utterly sensational as to be irresistible. Indeed, there was an entire phalanx of denunciations, movements, calls to action, tut-tutting about rape culture and privilege, etc . . .  And the entire story was a fanciful creation of a disturbed, pathetic woman. It does not stand alone.  Remember every false narrative offered in the MOVE bombing in 1980s Philadelphia, the Matthew Shepard murder, the “rape” by the Duke lacrosse team, the recent Ferguson shooting, and on and on.

The second half of the film centers more on the emotional impact of the murder on the Genovese family. It is her tortured brother Bill who is most affected, and he is our guide back into history, but the shrapnel emanating from her death did damage to every member of the family (both parents suffered early strokes and Kitty’s father died very young). On the hopeful side, as he deconstructs the fable, he revives his sister, replacing the myth with a living, breathing neighborhood barmaid who had roots in the neighborhood, including a female lover.

A must see, the film will instill in you a healthy reserve and skepticism of anything you hear in the heat of the moment.  Or, it should.