Hidden Figures

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2016

Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/20th Century Fox

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Produced by Donna Gigliotto/Peter Chernin/Pharrell Williams/Jenno Topping/Theodore Melfi

Screenplay by Alison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi

Based on “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

There are two stories of heroism running side-by-side in HIDDEN FIGURES. There’s the one we all know because it’s been so documented, told and re-told in so many ways (most memorably in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”) that it has become part of American legend. It’s the story of the 1960’s space race between America and Russia as NASA struggled to put a man in a spacecraft into orbit with the eventual goal of putting an American man on the moon before Russia.

Then there’s the other story that I myself had never heard of before in any way shape or form and I am just grateful that this story has at last been told. Because it’s just as much a heroic tale as that of those Project Mercury astronauts. In the 1960s, NASA did not as yet have electronic computers so they had to rely on women with extraordinary mathematical skills to calculate the data needed. These women were actually called “computers” and they were African-American.

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In 1962 the American space program is in trouble. Sputnik 1 has been successfully launched and is merrily orbiting the Earth. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the director of the Space Task Group, the team primarily in charge of getting astronauts up into space. Hopefully without the rockets blowing up on the launch pad. Harrison is under a lot of pressure to get America into the space race in a big way and he needs someone who can do analytic geometry, do it quickly and do it right. The acting supervisor of the Colored Computers Group Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) says that there’s only one woman for the job; Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) who as a child was a mathematical prodigy, beginning college at the age of 15.

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Mathematical genius or not, Katherine is still a black woman in the Jim Crow South and as such is still looked at as being just that: a black woman. No more and no less. She can’t even drink coffee from the same pot as her co-workers and has to walk/run half a mile back to the building where she used to work to relieve herself as the building housing the Space Task group has no Colored restroom. Not to mention the harassment she has to deal with from her immediate supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who gives her incomplete data, saying that she does not have the proper security clearances but yet he still expects her to make sense out of it and turn in accurate calculations.

Meanwhile, Dorothy engages in a battle of wills with her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who not only refuses to promote Dorothy but actively looks forward to the day when the technicians from IBM will finish installing an IBM 7090 that will replace Dorothy and her girls. But Dorothy has a trick up her sleeve: she’ll teach herself how to program the 7090. Their friend Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who is working on the space capsule itself correctly identifies a flaw in the heat shield which impresses her boss, Dr. Zielinski (Oleg Krupa) to the point that he demands she go to school at night to get an engineering degree so that she’ll be fully qualified to work on the project. Problem is that engineering schools are segregated. But every problem has a solution and Mary’s is that she will go to court and petition for her right to go to school.

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The three stories of how these women work together and separately to accomplish their goals, achieve their dreams and oh, yes…help put American astronauts into space is an incredibly fascinating one told with an astounding amount of heart. And as much as I cannot stand anything having to do with math, if you had told me I’d be on the edge of my seat worrying about the fate of mathematicians I’d have thought you had lost your mind. But thanks to exceptionally strong acting and solid directing, HIDDEN FIGURES does turn out to be quite suspenseful at times, even though we all know that the space program was eventually a success. But this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s the revealing of a secret part of what up until now I had always thought was one of the most well documented periods of American history.

The cast is top notch. Kevin Costner recognizes that he’s got a supporting role here and so stays in his place, only taking center stage in one or two pivotal scenes but then quietly stepping back to let the real stars of the movie continue to do their thing. A couple of people I know upon hearing that Taraji P. Henson was one of those stars said to me; “You mean Cookie from ‘Empire?’ Can she act?” Which told me that they didn’t know a thing about her because Taraji P. Henson demonstrated years ago that she can act very well indeed. My wife Patricia pointed out something to me that I didn’t notice but upon reflection of certain scenes I can see exactly what she’s talking about. When you see the movie (and you will see it) notice how skillfully Taraji uses her glasses as a prop to enhance, disguise, amplify and demonstrate her emotional moods. And we all know Octavia Spencer turns in Academy Award performances like she invented them so there’s no reason to even go there. But I will say look for one pivotal scene she’s in which I’m convinced is a homage to a very famous scene in “The Right Stuff.” And as in his TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” Jim Parsons plays a brilliant manchild who’s a dick. But this one is way meaner in spirit than Sheldon Cooper. It’s a nice change of pace for him. Kirsten Dunst really surprised me in this one and she makes a fine adversary for Octavia Spencer to spar with.

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But it’s Janelle Monae who walks off with the MVP title for this movie. She was clearly born to be an actress and she never steps one foot wrong the entire running time of the movie, easily holding her own with her far more experienced co-stars. She’s a joy to watch anytime she’s onscreen, the rapport between her, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson genuine and uplifting. I don’t say this very often about a movie but I’m pleased and proud to be able to say this about HIDDEN FIGURES: everything you’ve heard about it is true and if you haven’t seen it yet, please do so at your earliest opportunity.

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Rated PG

127 Minutes

No Good Deed

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2014

Screen Gems

Directed by Sam Miller

Produced by Will Packer and Lee Clay

Executive Produced by Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson, Aimee Lagos, Lindsay Williams, Gleen S. Gainor, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Rob Hardy

Written by Aimee Lagos

I’ve always said that true racial equality will be established in this country when black actors/filmmakers can make romantic comedies and generic thrillers as badly as their white counterparts. That’s not to say that NO GOOD DEED is altogether a bad movie. Matter of fact I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a good time I was having watching it. I was never scared for the safety of certain characters or worried that the movie wasn’t going to play out exactly the way it did. But it sure was entertaining to watch.  But here’s the thing: it’s actually a movie where the ethnicity of the characters have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Seriously. The racial make-up of four of the main characters could be switched and have no effect on all on how the situations in the movie play out. Because in NO GOOD DEED the black characters make the same dumb mistakes white characters do and have done in similar movies that have been made for the past forty or fifty years. But since two of the main characters are played by Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson and they play their parts so well, we’re committed to seeing how this By-The-Numbers home invasion thriller plays out.

Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is a man who has…how shall I put it?…very serious issues with women. He’s the main suspect in the disappearance of five young ladies but there was no proof to put him away. What he was put away for was manslaughter, having killed a man in barroom brawl. Denied his parole he escapes while being returned to prison, killing two guards in the process.

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He then shows up at the home of Terri Granger (Taraji P. Henson) whose husband Jeffrey (Henry Simmons) is away for the weekend. Terri has tried to explain to her husband how badly she needs some adult company as she gave up her career as a lawyer to be a full-time stay at home mom, taking care of the infant Sam and young daughter Ryan.  It’s a plea that falls on deaf ears. But her best friend Meg (Leslie Bibb) offers to come by for a girls night and is surprised to find Colin there. Terri explains that Colin had a car accident and is waiting for a tow truck. It doesn’t take long before Terri thinks that maybe there’s something really wrong with her unexpected houseguest. Little things like the phone lines being cut…all the knives in the kitchen knife set block disappearing…and then Meg herself disappearing…

If you’ve been watching movies as long as I have then there’s not a single blessed thing in NO GOOD DEED that is going to surprise you. Well, maybe one thing that I wouldn’t dream of giving away. But on the whole this is a pretty standard thriller that is elevated by the performances of Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson. Who must have had some kind of deal with the cameraman as I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen a movie where the leading lady had so many gratuitous butt shots. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. But if you go see the movie, count the number of times you get a shot of Ms. Henson’s derriere for apparently no reason at all and then tell me I’m wrong.

The game of cat-and-mouse between Elba and Henson is highly interesting just on the strength of their considerable acting ability. Elba does curiously stimulating things with the conversations he initiates with Henson that appeals to this attention deprived woman.  I gotta admit that I watched in grudging admiration how this seriously deranged man is able to be charming and personable enough to be able to talk his way into this woman’s house. A woman who due to her background should know better than anybody else why you should never let a stranger into your house.

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Once the ante is upped and all the pretense between them dropped the movie then really gets going in an unexpected direction that will have you wondering exactly why the Idris Elba character is doing the things he’s doing but here comes that plot twist and the one “Ah-HA!” in the entire movie.

So should you see NO GOOD DEED? If you go see it, trust me that you’re not going to see it for deep characterization. The movie is a wonderfully lean 84 minutes which means that there is absolutely no fat on it at all. There’s just enough characterization to keep the movie’s plot going and that’s all the movie is: pure plot. Not that that’s a bad thing. A McDonald’s cheeseburger is designed to be a McDonald’s cheeseburger and no more. So it’s stupid to complain that it’s not a White Castle murderburger. If you want a White Castle murderburger then go to White Castle. NO GOOD DEED is designed to be an entertaining time waster, no more, no less. So don’t go in expecting it to be “Night of The Hunter” or “Wait Until Dark.”  But what enriches it and gives it an extra shot of adrenaline are the performances of Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson and they do their jobs exceptionally well and made this one worth my time and money.

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Rated PG-13

84 Minutes