Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden_Figures,_2016In some respects, this feels very much like a paint by numbers biopic that takes us through the many paces of such a narrative. The rise, fall, conflict, and self-actualization of our heroes that navigates us to the film’s conclusion.

But this is also unequivocally a story that necessitated a telling for the very fact that stories like these have been hidden for decades — swept under the rug if you will. Because first and foremost Caucasians were usually the ones at the center of the master narrative of history and namely white males at that.

In one of my courses in university, the term of intersectionality would have undoubtedly cropped up in conversation right about now to denote a doubly marginalized group (African-American women). Feel free to consider the term if you are so inclined because there are others who can probably bring a lot more to the table on issues of gender and race and oftentimes those are very necessary conversations to entertain.

However, I am more interested in the actual story in question and so I will jump right to that topic. At its core, there are three women who you have probably never heard but that’s only a part of it. It’s that and the fact that they were integral cogs in something truly extraordinary.

Our first person of note Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who is promoted to the Space Task Group, given the pressure following the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik and Johnson’s unreputed skill in analytical geometry. She moves from her own segregated division to an environment full of passive-aggressive bigotry and whites-only bathrooms. In her home life, she raises three daughters while falling in love with a handsome National Guardsman (Mahershala Ali).

The firecracker among her friends is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who has aspirations to finish her schooling so that she can become a full-fledged engineer. Lastly, is the sagely one, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who has seen a great deal of the world and continually shows tremendous qualities of leadership over her segregated branch which she leads with a self-possessed wisdom. One would gather these skills would apply well to any arena and so they do eventually.

For our parents’ generations events such as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the Challenger, Explosion left an indelible mark on society and it was all for the sake of exploring the great unknown of outer space. Those later triumphs and, yes, even the tragedies would not have come into being if it wasn’t for some of the unsung individuals who got John Glenn off the ground in 1962 as we desperately tried to counter Russia’s Sputnik successes.

There’s also a slightly refreshing reversal of the age-old supporting character archetypes where this film dares to put its white characters in secondary roles while still giving them a decent amount of importance in the overall trajectory of this narrative.

Kevin Costner is the most rewarding supporting character as the head of NASA who is looking for results more than anything and that causes him to push past the accepted walls of racial hierarchy not necessarily because he’s trying to make a social statement but because he wants to get the job done. Skin color has no bearing on whether or not someone is savvy and can get John Glenn into the wild blue yonder.

Jim Parsons part does not stretch the boundaries of his Sheldon Cooper image but it is underlined by a bit of prejudicial malice as is Kirsten Dunst’s turn which no doubt adds a touch of realism representative of the defacto bigotry of the era. Meanwhile, Pharrell Williams score of sorts while somehow anachronistic undoubtedly imbues these three women with a spark of energy following every step of progress they make with NASA.

The film’s decidedly punny title aside, Hidden figures is still full of joy even if it’s only a minor pleasure as a film. Because in some instances it doesn’t seem to take its material all that seriously and sometimes that is more refreshing than a dour and self-important exploration. Still, it takes itself out of the running among the greatest biopics for that very reason. It’s a bit too formulaic and probably too tongue-in-cheek with historical events. That cannot take away the full impact of this history or the enjoyment value of the film. We should do well do appreciate them both. The talent as well for that matter.

3.5/5 Stars

Bull Durham (1988)

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Bull Durham is actually a fairly religious film. The only catch is the fact that the religion in question is baseball with its multitude of superstitions, curses, annual rituals, and rites of passage performed daily by all those playing in the games or sitting in the bleachers cheering on their club. There’s even a shrine set up to late-great Yankee backstop Thurman Munson. The other religious sects, namely Christians and adherents to voodoo, are shown as real airheads but really everyone in this film is a bit of a laugh.

I personally found the contemporary comedy Major Leagues (1989) a fairly nasty sports film but what sets Bull Durham apart is that good sense of fun while still truly finding the joy in baseball. Because it truly is a joy. I will stand by that as a lifelong lover of the game even if I hung up my spikes in middle school.

There are still very few feelings so exhilarating as throwing a baseball and hearing the crack (or ping) of the bat as the ball goes soaring into the outfield for a base hit. Or that great moment when you make that diving catch or get that winning hit and everyone cheers you on. Whenever the ball comes down the pipe in slo-mo and it feels like you can crush it to kingdom come. I experienced each of these wonderful sensations at least once in my middling career as a kid.

But most of the time, the experience is made up of a lot of strikeouts, errors, getting hit by pitches, and that’s just as much a part of the game as all those previously mentioned aspects. In such a way, it seems like baseball has always been wrapped up in the human experience and that what allows it connect all people.

This film, in particular, is a bit of a love triangle. Baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is annually immersed in the baseball culture of the Single-A, Minor League team The Durham Bulls. Each season she takes a young player under her wing, teaching them about the game, and holding court with them until they move on.

Her latest protege is the big strapping, bubbleheaded, heat-throwing pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Though Nuke has a big league arm he also can’t throw a strike. It’s the veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who is brought in by the management to refine their young talent. They meet in a local bar for the first time only to almost get into a fist fight until Crash cooly asserts, “You couldn’t hit water if you were falling in it!” And it’s true. But under the tutelage of Anne and the wry experience of Crash, Nuke turns into something. Someone who actually has a chance at “The Show.”

Crash was there once for 21 days but he never had the talent of this young kid. So he must watch others move on to their big chance as he stays behind and grinds out his career away from the scrutiny of the bright lights and big contracts. And it’s in Bull Durham where something becomes increasingly clear.

We so often think of sports as glamorous shows of skill by superstars with million dollar paychecks which is in one sense true. But for every one of those stories, there are probably a thousand more who will never be known. No one cares if Crash winds up with the most career home runs in Single-A, except Anne that is. He ends up scrounging around for another job. Maybe a catcher for a different club or a small time management position. In fact, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the Annies and the Crashes because their whole life is baseball and yet in sporting terms, they’re past their prime. Thankfully they can have each other to dance through life together.

Bull Durham has it’s profane moments, it’s slow patches, and some good ones too but it’s the goods ones that usually stand out and the very fact that this film genuinely seems to care about baseball — but that does not mean there’s simply reverence — there’s enough respect to show the inane stuff too. It’s treated as American’s Pastime. But even that past time had the “Clown Prince of Baseball” (Max Patkin) who is also fittingly featured in this one.

Some of the best moments happen on the diamond with our two ballplayers giving themselves mental pep talks whether it’s predicting the next pitch in the batter’s box or going through the signs. When they’re gathered around the mound not to talk strategy but to discuss what wedding present they should get for their newly hitched teammate. And of course, every time Nuke shakes off one of his catcher’s signals, Crash proceeds to tell the opposing hitter what’s coming as payback. That’s when baseball is fun. Because it is a game. When you lose sight of that it ceases to evoke the same pleasures.

3.5/5 Stars

No Way Out (1987)

No_Way_Out_(1987_film)_posterIn the 1970s political paranoia involved issues in the realm of Watergate. Government conspiracy and that type of thing perfectly embodied by some of Alan Pakula’s best films. But it’s important to realize in order to better understand this particular thriller, the 1980s were a decade fraught with fears of Soviet infiltration compromising our national security. The Cold War was still a part of the public consciousness even after being a part of life for such a long time already. So No Way Out has a bit of Pakula’s apprehension in government and maybe even a bit of the showmanship of Psycho with some truly jarring twists.

The conflict is surprisingly close and even if it involves the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon and various other arms of government, Roger Donalson’s film only takes great interest in maybe three or four characters really.

From early on its evident that Kevin Costner is our everyman and the person who we will be investing our time in for the rest of the film. It’s a star-making performance to add to a string of classics including the Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves.

The always capable Gene Hackman takes on the role of Secretary of Defense and his ultra-loyal right-hand man Will Patton goes to great lengths to protect his superior. They are key to the storyline as is Lt. Commander Tom Farrell’s girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who also moonlights as the Secretary’s mistress. Her character is lively and a crucial player but over time it becomes evident that above all else she’s used to serve the plot and ratchet up the tension.

Already you can begin to see the complications and their ensuing implications. But that is only the beginning of No Way Out because in its latter half it drops off the deep end with a seismic shift that shakes up everything we knew before about this world.

It’s in these moments that I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d seen this before somewhere and it’s easy to see the striking resemblance to the 1940s noir The Big Clock. On further examination, the two stories do share some of the same plot points from Kenneth Fearing’s novel but this is certainly a re-imagining meant for the 1980s transposed to a politically charged arena.

Once more we have the authorities looking for a phantom man but the said man seems to be the only one who knows he is innocent. Off such a foundation No Way Out builds a pulse-pounding narrative that at times feels utterly absurd but it also tapped into the fears of that age and even this one that our highest modes of government are being undermined by our enemies. The Big Clock boasted a more idiosyncratic and colorful script but No Way Out certainly works well as a highly underrated thriller.

My initial assumption would have been that Hackman would have played a bigger role and potentially had a shot of pulling the spotlight away from Costner but our lead remains our lead to the very end, dashing in a uniform and incredibly fearless when it comes to defying authority.

If nothing else it leads to a vacuous car chase that ends up on foot in a Subway station. Hackman and Fernando Rey did a better job of it in The French Connection but that does not take away an ounce of the enjoyment. Because whether you’re ultimately a fan of them or not, No Way Out does have some monumental twists that will either leave you scratching your heads incredulously or cause you to fly off the handle in indignance.  If you crave a good old-fashioned political thriller 80s-style No Way Out is worth it.

3.5/5 Stars