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”

2014 Oscar Predictions Round 3

“Her” and “American Hustle” give “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” a run for their money.

Checking Twitter in the past few weeks has been exhausting. It seems as though every hour there’s a new Top 10 list or set of nominations from a guild or critics group being handed out.

It’s not enough to merely list the best movies of the year but to give the best cast, score, soundtrack, performances, breakout performances, breakout directors, best movie posters, most underrated, most under the radar, best documentaries, best animated films, best foreign films and so on.

Would you know that each needs to be analyzed and has an impact on this thing we call the Oscar race? Critics awards in New York and L.A. (as dictated by people who live in New York and L.A.) hold a lot of influence, while others get laughed out of the room because they’re horrible barometers for the actual Oscar winner, as evidenced by statistics and numbers that often don’t hold up to a science anyway (ask Nate Silver).

What’s worse is when many of these Oscar pundits are shocked (SHOCKED) that a given critics’ group went the way it did. It’s as though every critics group is not just voting for the things they liked but are scrutinizing the “message” that a given selection will send. “Ooh, well we can’t choose ‘Gravity’ because that’ll make us look populist, but if we choose ‘American Hustle’ it’ll look like we were goaded by the most recent press screening, so we better choose ‘Her’ so that we keep our hip, indie cred.” How dare they not go for “12 Years a Slave” like everyone was sure they must?

The point is, all of these intangible drops in the pond do color the race as a whole. If we can pick up on those trends perhaps we can better predict. Suddenly it seems as though we have at least a four-horse race between “Gravity,” “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Her,” as all have picked up some major victories in the past few weeks. At the same time, certain contenders like Octavia Spencer, Tom Hanks or Paul Greengrass seem conspicuously absent from major nominations while people like Joaquin Phoenix, Will Forte and those behind “Before Midnight” look a lot less hopeless.

This remains anyone’s race, but somehow this wide open field feels a lot more treacherous.

* Designates a movie I’ve seen

Bulleted entries are Dark Horse candidates ranked in likelihood of getting in


Best Picture

  1. Gravity*
  2. American Hustle
  3. 12 Years a Slave*
  4. Her*
  5. Captain Phillips*
  6. Saving Mr. Banks*
  7. Inside Llewyn Davis*
  8. Nebraska*
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Lee Daniels’ The Butler*
  • Dallas Buyers Club*
  • Fruitvale Station*
  • Before Midnight*
  • Rush*
  • All is Lost*
  • Blue Jasmine*
  • August: Osage County*
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

If you want to make this easy, look at the American Film Institute’s unranked Top 10 list for the year, and that might be your Best Picture slate right there. Each of the movies selected has had well-rounded praise. “Gravity” is getting the populist vote, “American Hustle” scored with the New York film critics, “Her” with the Los Angeles critics and the National Board of Review, while “12 Years a Slave” has scored with everyone else.

As for the rest, the remaining films are using their winter season releases to drum up steam where those like “The Butler”, “Before Midnight” and “All is Lost” have to fight their way back into a crowded room. And those movies are getting no help from places like the Golden Globes. “The Butler” picked up a goose egg of nominations. But they did manage to shove “Rush” back into the hunt.

But Steve Pond has the reason above all why the cutoff may be at “The Wolf of Wall Street”: math. The Academy has yet to nominate 10 films under the new flexible rules, and in past years when the ballots were rerun, the magic number resulted in everywhere from five to nine movies, but never 10. Things could change, but as he explains, even the sheer numerical breakdown is against such an outcome. Continue reading “2014 Oscar Predictions Round 3”

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s debut drama “Fruitvale Station” depicts the true story murder of Oscar Grant in the Bay Area in 2008.

The Trayvon Martin incident stirred such outrage recently that any film released in its aftermath might be expected to incite a similar amount of anger. “Fruitvale Station,” this year’s Sundance Audience Award winner, depicts a similar incident that occurred in the Bay Area on New Year’s Eve in 2008. Although deeply rooted in racial roots and the plight of America’s working class, Ryan Coogler’s debut film invokes empathy and solemnity over political fervor.

“Fruitvale Station” is pure melodrama, a biopic of a man wrongly murdered at the BART train station after a misunderstanding with the police, some racial profiling and a cop too loose on his trigger finger. In an opening cell phone video of the actual event, we see police berating some not exactly docile black men. One of them stands and is pinned to the ground with the cop appearing to drive his knee into the back of the man’s skull. People on the train shout, “That’s not right man!” and “Let him go!” before a gun shot goes off and the video cuts to black.

One wonders what exactly happened on the day George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. And yet something like this shows that there is still some ambiguity.

Coogler’s film taps into that nuance and makes a slice of life profile of a man, 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who wasn’t quite a saint and might’ve even provoked his killer, but probably didn’t deserve this fate either.

It’s not as though Oscar’s life is riddled with tragedy or a fine example of how racism is alive and well. Coogler depicts little more than the day in the life of this man, and to see how ordinary and unsuspecting “Fruitvale Station” is provides the key to its power. Continue reading “Fruitvale Station”


“Smashed” is a touching, light, relatable story of a functioning alcoholic, an idea and persona that makes it that much more authentic.

Movies about alcoholism are always pitiful and tragic in nature. The characters in “Leaving Las Vegas” or even as far back as “The Lost Weekend” are at the lowest of low, and drinking is the end-all/be-all of problems.

“Smashed” tells a story about a functioning alcoholic, or someone who has survived this way for a long time. It recognizes that alcoholism is just a catalyst in people’s complex lives; the deeper problems are systemic. In that way, James Ponsoldt’s film feels infinitely more relatable. Continue reading “Smashed”

Oscars 2012: Will Win (Part 2)

See my picks for the remaining categories along with analysis, here.

Movies are an art, not a science. And yet The Academy, save for a few eye rolling hiccups each year, operates like clockwork. Predicting the winners at the Oscars is as simple as playing the horses at the track, so here’s your betting form for the big race on Sunday night.

Best Picture

The Artist: 80%

I was once in the camp that a silent film, no matter how good, could never win Best Picture in 2012. But now my odds hardly reflect how one-sided this race has become. Even though it’s a French film, “The Artist” is universal. It’s a crowd-pleaser, a star-maker, and the only Best Picture nominee filmed in Los Angeles. From the Golden Globe to the Director’s Guild to the surprising BAFTA win, the question is not if “The Artist” will win but how many Oscars it will win.

Hugo: 8%

Actually trumping “The Artist” in nominations and taking its cinematic nostalgia trip one step further, “Hugo” and a sweep of technical awards may propel this film to a Best Picture win.

The Descendants: 7%

Be it “The Social Network” or “Up in the Air,” critics and Academy voters respond to the 21st Century darling of the year, and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” is that film.

Midnight in Paris: 1.5%

The Help: 1%

The Tree of Life: 1%

Moneyball: .75%

War Horse: .5%

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: .25%

To address the remaining nominees, I don’t want to say they don’t stand a chance, but who am I kidding? If you had five nominees this year, your contenders outside of the top three would be “Midnight in Paris” and “The Help,” maybe “Moneyball.” So that says something for their chances. The other completely outside chance would be “The Tree of Life,” an important film that a number of critics have made a case for to win the Oscar based on how significant such a victory would seem in terms of cinema history. I don’t want to make any sort of case for “Extremely Loud,” but being here was its first big surprise, and winning could be its second. Continue reading “Oscars 2012: Will Win (Part 2)”

The Help

“The Help” isn’t really a drama about racism but about snobby, white Southern socialites.


What’s the real evil in civil rights era Jackson, Mississippi? Is it racism or controlling, white female socialites? “The Help” thinks it’s the former but the film is simply an entertaining movie about the latter.

It tells of how the budding young journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college to find she is more enlightened and intelligent than her prejudiced housewife friends and that the black maid that helped raise her as a child is gone from their home. She’s embarrassed by a rule that would force black servants to use a separate bathroom outside the house and decides to write a book from the perspective of the help.

Skeeter’s two most animated subjects are the life of the film. Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer) are fun, sassy, strong and complex individuals with a lot of stories about one of their employers, Hilly Holbrook. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hilly with spunk and whiplash tartness, but her character is a one-dimensional, bitchy control freak who determines who’s in and who’s out in her middle class WASP social circle of women. Continue reading “The Help”