Friday, January 6, 2017


Opening today:

Hidden FiguresWe tend to think of NASA as part of the “New Frontier” and “Camelot” and the general unembarrassed optimistic idealism we associate, accurately or not, with the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. So it’s a slight jolt to realize that the space program, at least in its early days (then NACA, or the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics), was segregated.

It was, of course, decades before there were female or nonwhite astronauts, but in at least one facility, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the segregation was overt. A pool of female African-American “computers”—the term was applied to humans who performed complicated mathematical functions in those days—was relegated to a separate building and separate restrooms on the Langley campus until at least 1958.

This drama focuses on Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who, among many other career achievements, calculated flight trajectories for John Glenn’s first orbital Mercury mission in 1962. It also depicts Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the de facto supervisor of the department, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who became an aerospace engineer.

The director, St. Vincent’s Theodore Melfi, working from a script he wrote with Allison Schroeder (based, in turn, on Margot Lee Shetterley’s nonfiction book) seems to have compressed and conflated the chronology of events here for dramatic convenience, but he gets across the essentials of this remarkable story, another in the seemingly bottomless supply of belatedly-told instances of American achievement by women and minorities, in the face of outrageous intolerance. The style is standard inspirational uplift, and the characterizations aren’t deep, but the cast—the three leads and also Kevin Costner as the Langley big boss—are vibrant enough to fill in the blanks.

The bright primary-color cinematography and the midcentury period detail are parts of what make this cinematically inconsequential movie so pleasant. Another part, I confess, is the glamour of the lead actresses—I know we’re supposed to be celebrating their intellectual and social triumphs, but as they scurry around in their pencil skirts and glasses, they also show a lot of nerd chic.

A Monster CallsEnglish adolescent Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a lovely old country house with his adored, cancer-afflicted young mother (Felicity Jones). One night, after he and his mom have watched King Kong together, Conor receives a visit at his bedroom window from a monster; an enormous anthropomorphic tree, something like the green man of myth, who speaks in the rumbling tones of Liam Neeson.

Over the course of the film, The Monster tells Conor three odd stories of elusive meaning, something like Sufi parables, insisting that when he is done with his three, Conor must tell him a fourth story. Eventually he tells The Monster his story and, as with the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his own agonized, guilty secret is revealed.

This film, directed by J.A. Bayona, is based on the much-honored 2011 children’s novel by Patrick Ness, which was based, in turn, on an idea and some notes by the late writer Siobhan Dowd. It’s a poignant, handsomely-made piece of work, with beautiful animated sequences (illustrating The Monster’s stories) and fine acting, not only by MacDougall and Jones but by Toby Kebbell as Conor’s absentee dad and Sigourney Weaver as his stern, terrified grandmother. It’s also nice to see Geraldine Chaplin, in a small but effective role as an authority figure at Conor’s school.

Above all, it has a memorable presence in the great creaking, rustling, uprooted Monster. The special effects depicting him are lovely, and it’s nice to hear that urgently authoritative Neeson voice used for something other than threatening bad guys in lurid action movies.

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