Hidden Figures

Ted Melfi’s crowd-pleaser needs to do more to enact real change in race opportunity

It’s hard to be cynical about a movie as crowd pleasing as Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” This is an underserved story about the African American women who made a major, untold contribution to the space race, and it’s finding an audience.

But here’s the scene that threw me for a whirl: Katherine Johnson has earned a spot in the main room calculating rocket trajectory, but everyday she runs off to the bathroom back in the “colored” section of the NASA campus. “I have no idea where your bathroom is,” a preoccupied and disinterested secretary says to her with just a pinch of salt. Her boss, played by Kevin Costner, chews her out wondering where she disappears to each day. And in a moment of desperation, she pleads that she’s working extra tirelessly to do her job and overcome these absurd segregation barriers. After hearing that, Costner agrees. He takes a sledgehammer to the “coloreds only” bathroom sign and declares free bathrooms for all. Continue reading “Hidden Figures”

Midnight Special

Michael Shannon stars in this mysterious and surprising sci-fi of fathers and sons.

MidnightSpecialPosterWith “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’s fourth film (“Mud, “Take Shelter”), Nichols remains the best emerging American director today, capable of infusing any genre with earthy, Americana trappings and unpacking the intimate character drama within. “Midnight Special” channels sci-fi, noir and family melodrama in unpredictable, startling ways and resembles a modern day stab at the personal conflict of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the spirituality of “Contact.”

Except the story of “Midnight Special” defies easy classification and blends genres with thrilling results. At its very core a chase film, “Midnight Special” begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run for having abducted a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). He and a former cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to get Alton to an undisclosed location while evading a religious cult who sees Alton as their savior and the FBI who believes Alton knows confidential government information. Roy however is really Alton’s birth father, separated from him by the cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).

Above the sci-fi tension and conspiracy theories, the father-son dynamic between Alton and Roy truly drives “Midnight Special.” Alton possesses untold powers that change and grow more intense and severe the more they remain unchecked, from being able to unconsciously tap into radio frequencies to locking eyes with powerful blue tractor beams of light. Roy can’t fully comprehend all that’s happening to Alton, covering his eyes with blue swim goggles and transporting him only at night, but he displays a need to protect him above any greater cause the boy might represent to the cult or to the government.

As a result, Shannon proves a touching father figure. His eyes and body language are more muted and less intense than in many of his other fiery roles, but he’s gruff and a man of few words in a way that will be familiar to many fathers and sons. “I like worrying about you. I’ll always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal,” he says. All this family drama weaves wonderfully within “Midnight Special’s” denser scientific jargon and spiritual underpinnings. The ambiguous nature of Alton’s abilities and ties to another world all serve the film’s mystery and suspense.

And “Midnight Special” is highly entertaining and beguiling. Nichols seeps the film in darkness and other-worldly lens flares. The quiet, procedural and noir-like filmmaking make Alton’s skills all the more startling when the fireworks begin. “Midnight Special” even has a sense of humor. Adam Driver (“Girls,” “The Force Awakens”) as the NSA analyst tracking Alton is out of place in the best way possible. He has an awkward, nerdy charm that’s practically foreign to the more rural sensibilities of the rest of the cast.

With “Midnight Special” Nichols has proven that he can take a larger budget and still deliver the intimate character drama of an indie. As a director and screenwriter, Nichols has as much untapped potential as Alton.

4 stars

On the Road

“On the Road” was well before my time. In fact, the names Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs mean significantly less to this generation of millennials. It’s not a book you necessarily read in high school anymore.

And yet the Beat Generation still holds a lot of importance for today’s young people. Kerouac embodied the simple question of “How are we to live,” and Director Walter Salles answers him with a film about picking up and going, finding ways to live through drugs, jazz, driving and lots of sex while leaving some of the things you love behind.

Both the book and the movie chart the adventures of the Kerouac persona Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a free-spirited writer with a sense of adventure and daring. He’s motivated by Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) and his girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart) to travel the American open road, living and working on ranches and parking wherever there’s excitement. Dean is the kind of untamed, wild creature who acts on instinct and can survive at it much longer than you can. It’s his wispy, mysterious spirit that keeps the story going. They’re charting their journey as they go, and even the movie doesn’t know where they’re headed.

Sam Riley’s bouncing and flailing and Kristen Stewart’s free-form swaying to the tune “Salt Peanuts” in a New Year’s Eve party scene is vividly captured by a camera that jumps and dances just as freely. It moves aimlessly, but with alacrity and sexual energy. The editing too has a mind of its own, leaping and moving from spot to spot with sporadic attention, just caught up in all the timeless images and energy.

Salles then has created a movie as animalistic as its heroes, beautifully unorthodox and poetic at times and completely bonkers, clumsy and misguided at others. Characters evaporate from the movie, as does the little plot it sustains, but “On the Road” always has at least some direction, a journey for truth and meaning in life and not just being completely lost.

If “On the Road” doesn’t sustain its energy as hard as its characters try, it’s because what could match the rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness prose that made Kerouac’s book so iconic, and so unfilmable?

3 stars

Melancholia

I’ve compared nearly half of the great movies this year to “The Tree of Life,” and this review will be no different, but the comparisons should really go the other way to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Arguably a better film than Terrence Malick’s and the polar opposite in tone, von Trier’s elegantly bleak way of defining life is to end it.

Rather than witnessing the birth of the Earth, “Melancholia” reveals to us in all its destructive glory the end of the world as another planet collides with Earth. Perhaps only the dour Dane von Trier could truly show the absolute majesty of oblivion. His opening sequence of operatic surrealism recalls Fellini and Kubrick. Time literally slows watching it. Nature, death and sci-fi as a genre are re-imagined in this picturesque procession of painterly beauty and celestial wonder. Continue reading “Melancholia”