Friday, January 13, 2017

Nosh 48: 'Hidden Figures,' "Lion' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Hidden Figures and Lion

Hidden Figures
For half a century a running gag in sci-fi has been Mars Needs Women, a dopey TV film in which Tommy Kirk leads an ambassadorial delegation from Mars. NASA Needs Black Women would certainly have been a catchier title than Hidden Figures, but the aim here is not satirical kitsch. At times formulaic, and fairly prim in its archival nostalgia, this retrieval of almost forgotten history is also smart and human, a salute that deserves its success.

Ostensibly the star is hefty, high-smiling Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, a keg of sass and savvy who heads a team of gifted black women recruited to work on the space agency’s computation force. Not given a formal rank, she is isolated with her “girls” in a drab section of the NASA compound in segregated Virginia. Spencer steals any scene she cares to, but director Theodore Melfi keeps her under control, with no loss of buzz. He gives time to pretty Janelle Monae as spark-tongued Mary Jackson, who goes for a degree in engineering despite racist obstacles. And gives even more time to Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a math wiz who became the Apollo 7 program’s secret intellectual weapon. Meanwhile, the Russians were in Sputnik heaven and IBM was installing a huge, main-frame computer that would threaten many of the women’s jobs.

It is Henson, ripened beyond Shug in Hustle & Flow (2005) and her sexy Vernell, “finer than frog’s hair” in Talk to Me (2007), who most rivets attention. Her facial lines angle complex feelings in multiple directions, and when she runs (in heels) across the NASA campus to find the one “colored women’s” rest room, the story eviscerates the stilted absurdity of complacent racism in the JFK era (1961 and ’62). Katherine stuns the white males of the top brain team with her rapid brilliance; her dead-on calculations saved astronaut lives. Crucially she impresses big boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, whose flat-top hair and terse, gum-chewing manner accent an ace portrait of authority under constant pressure). And as a tough, snippy manager who is also a blithe racist, Kirsten Dunst abandons her previous girlishness for real maturity.

Some of the scenes of family life and romance lock in snugly, a little too polished for period display. Many of the white nerds in white shirts are interchangeable, and maybe a balding actor should have been chosen to play John Glenn (he went into orbit at age 40 and was charismatic even without much hair on top). Clearly, the math-driven science is flashed at us with small hope of our comprehension, and Melfi is a crafty but custodial director. Such limits do not deflate the story’s moving power. Really, who knew? And who back then, apart from insiders, cared? Hidden Figures brings back the triumph and tensions of unique women in a very special era of routine fear and brave optimism. In space the planet that Glenn sees is neither black nor white. It is, beautifully, our very own wild, blue yonder.

There have been plenty of good movies about lost children – The Kid, The Wizard of Oz, The Search, Oliver Twist, The Quiet One, Shoeshine and Pixote come fast to mind – but Garth Davis’s film Lion has a special bite. It’s the real story of Saroo, a poor Indian separated from his older brother at age 5. He got on a train that happened to be a “ghost train” rumbling, without passengers (except for Saroo), to distant Calcutta. After avoiding potential sex slavery, he was dropped into a dismal orphanage, until a welfare worker secured his adoption by a loving Australian couple in Tasmania. Saroo is played as a boy by Sunny Pawar, whose dark, troubled face justifies his first name with a remarkable smile. This is certainly no Apu Trilogy, but the Indian scenes of the homesick boy are vividly tense and disturbing, and very well photographed by Greig Fraser.

Lion (the title translates Saroo’s birth name) loses some power in comfy, bourgeois Tasmania, where the child grows into buffed stud Dev Patel, Hollywood’s favorite British Indian actor. The Aussie payoff is Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s new, very committed mother. In two key scenes Kidman, with no reach for glam, shows just what an experienced star talent can bring to a movie. Dev Patel sometimes looks like a wandering Jesus who misses Mary, but he sustains interest. How Saroo gets back to India, and what he finds, makes an emotional climax as satisfyingly heartfelt as any film has recently had. 

SALAD (A List)
These 32 Little-Seen Marvels merit more of an audience. In order of arrival: Menilmontant (Dmitri Kirsanov, 1924), Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931), Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935), The Sea Wolf (Michael Curtiz, 1941), Monsieur Vincent (Maurice Cloche, 1947),  Last Holiday (Henry Cass, 1950), Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica, 1951), Five Fingers (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1952), Crime Wave (Andre de Toth, 1953), French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955), Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957), The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1958), Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959), Blast of Silence (Allan Baron, 1961), High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963), Crime and Punishment (Lev Kulijanov, 1970), Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle, 1971), Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973), The Outfit (John Flynn, 1973), California Split (Robert Altman, 1974), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (Paul Mazursky, 1976), Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979), Saint Jack (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979), High Season (Clare Peploe,1987), Big Night (Stanley Tucci, 1996), The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland, 1994), Mac (John Turturro, 1997), Catarina in the Big City (Paolo Virzi, 2005), Colma: The Musical (Richard Wong, 2006), Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, 2008) and Aquarius (Kleber Mendonca, 2015).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In 1982 Citizen Welles recalled a special instance of Hearst retribution in the wake of Citizen Kane: “I was lecturing, I think it was Pittsburgh… and a detective came up to me as I was having supper (and said) don’t go back to your hotel … I said ‘Why not?,’ and he said they’ve got a 14 year-old girl in the closet and two cameramen waiting for you to come in. And of course I would have gone to jail … I never went back to the hotel. I just waited until the train in the morning. I’ve often wondered what happened to the cameramen and the girl waiting all night for me to arrive.”  (From Walking Shadows: Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst and Citizen Kane, by John Evangelist Walsh).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The personal impact of a great film from a great town: “Facing Rome’s Trevi fountain in 1972, I expose a Polaroid print of memory: Houston’s Tower Theater, ablaze in light for the 1961 premiere of La Dolce Vita, as my teenage self sneaks into the throng. The Vatican had denounced an ‘epic debauch,’ and debate steamed like lava. I still agree with critic Robert Hughes who, decades after first exploring Rome, avowed that ‘no film has ever fascinated me more.” (From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)  

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Harry Dean Stanton and Brad Dourif in the crazy Dixie of Wise Blood (New Line Cinema 1979; director John Huston, cinematographer Gerry Fisher).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

No comments:

Post a Comment