Very few films were made until now about the beginnings of the American space program, and I am wondering why. Here is a true American saga that took place at a time that is still remembered by many of us. It’s a story with famous and anonymous heroes, a story that begins with the dismay and fear caused by the Soviets taking early lead in the race to space (with the launching of the Sputnik and with sending the first man in space) and ends in triumph with the Apollo program and the moon landings. And yet, Hollywood still has to approach the period and make the movies about this great story and the men that made it possible. Hidden Figures only partly fills some of this gap, looking at a little known aspect of the first space programs, from a specific perspective, with the emphasis on an unexpected and unknown aspect – the racial prejudice that faced and had to be overcome by the first Afro-American contributors to the program. It tells the story of (until now) little known heroes who not only were ‘colored’ but also all happened to be women.
Hidden Figures is a fiction film based on the nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by historian Margot Lee Shetterly. The script authors and director Theodore Melfi where extremely careful in the details, from dialogues that aim to be as close to reality as they are remembered by the heroes who lived the period (including apparently a scene that looks very Hollywood-like but apparently did happen, with John Glenn on the launching ramp of the very first flight asking for the computations to be checked by ‘the girl’ he met in the preparation meetings room) to details about how buildings, corridors, rooms, parking lots looked at the NASA compounds in Virginia. What is shocking today especially from a non-American perspective is the extent to which segregation and racial discrimination was part of life and of the books of laws a little more than half a century ago, in the country that was leading the democracy block in its fight against Communism, and was working to send its first men to space.
Yet, the ‘inspirational’ tone dominates the film, and the viewer has the feeling that almost every fact, action, or spoken dialog is in line with the point that the film aims to make. A more realistic or neutral approach would have made the message more convincing IMO. I did like the characters development, the fact that three women who are the lead characters in the film have each her own personality, talents, way of overcoming prejudice. The three actresses are Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe and I hope to see them in more (good) movies ahead. Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst are cast in supporting roles and they do a good job. Hidden Figures is a solid and in some places emotional film, but cannot break the convention of genre and style that it seems that the authors imposed on themselves.
When he is not making provocative statements at news conferences Lars von Trier makes movies. Some of them are shocking. Some of them are stunning. I did not like all his films (Dogville was too dry an experiment for me) and I am yet to see Nymphomaniac. Melancholia however falls in the category of those films of his which I love – together with the TV series The Kingdom and with Breaking the Waves. Many film makers dealt with the end of the world (and some with what comes after). The majority of them made catastrophic movies – in all sense you want to consider this. Lars van Trier made a poetic and amazingly beautiful film.
The film is divided in two parts, each deals closer with one of the two sisters belonging to a very rich and a troubled family living in a mansion surrounded by green pastures, with servants and black horses, with telescopes to entertain the hobby of watching the stars. Justine, the younger sister (Kirsten Dunst) gets married in the first part. It’s an unusual marriage, and the bride does not seem too happy about the event. Her behavior is close to erratic, and the aristocratic wedding party turns into a failure. Is she sick by the kind of mental depression that centuries ago was called melancholy? Does the mysterious planet in the sky that at some point covers one of the stars have any influence or connection with her state?
The second part focuses first on the other, elder sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is apparently the more mature of the two and controls the situation the day after and a few months after the breaking of the party, when Justine, in a visibly deteriorating state comes to the mansion. The mysterious gas planet now appears to be on collision path with Earth, or maybe not, as scientists and John, Charlotte’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland) believe. Soon the balance will be reversed, as the death dance played by the planets becomes more and more menacing. Justine, the younger sister who first felt the power of the planets will regain control and find the magic to face the inevitable, Claire will be the one to slide into despair, while John will be unable to use the rational, scientific approach to explain or cope with what happens.
This film is about the power of stars, about the irrelevance of the social relations when compared with the cosmic dimensions, about sanity and insanity and the balance between them. It’s fascinating and its beauty has the source in the splendid cinematography (by Manuel Alberto Claro) , in the superb cast (besides Dunst and Gainsbourg, a few other remarkable actors appear in the first half of the film – Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt). It’s simply the most beautiful film about the end of the world that I have seen, or even better – the most beautiful end of the world brought on screen.
There are a few, very few things one can rely on happening every year, since the 1990s. First there is a Christmas – and yes, also a Passover – taking place each year. Then, there is the Woody Allen film which is usually released late spring, usually in time for the Cannes festival. The film will be loved by some, hated by other, opinions are always divided. What is as sure as Christmas or Passover happening each year is that the Woody Allen film will not get the Academy Award for the best film or for directing. This is true also in 2016.
The yearly production of Woody Allen for 2016 is out. It is called ‘Cafe Society’ and the story happens in the LA and NYC of the 30s. Young New Yorker Bobby Dorfman lands in Hollywood where the brother of his very Jewish mother is a big film actors agent with even a bigger mouth and marriage of 25 years which he is on the verge of breaking up. The innocent kid soon meets the girl of his dreams who happens to be not available because … I will stop here to avoid any spoiler, but I would just mention that the whole story is sweet and conventional, full of humor with more or less expected twists, with a nostalgic approach in describing the movie world of the West Coast and the night-clubs scene of New York in the 30s and the Jewish family gathering almost all the stereotypes one expects and loves: the Jewish mother and the unsuccessful father, the womanizing uncle, the Jewish mobster son, and the lefty intellectual son-in-law. Over all this a delicate love story about two people who meet and fall in love, give up to the social conventions and to the accepted criteria of happiness, but deep in their souls cannot be happy, because happiness is what we feel and not what society decides it is. All on superb, nostalgic jazz music in the background taking the front in a couple of key scenes.
To some extend the Woody Allen who made this film resembles the heroes of this last film. It’s a less daring endeavor than some of the other films that he made in his 70s, for example Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. This is his first film in his 80s, and is a little different, more in a minor tone, with characters, background and themes that do not surprise or even try to surprise. A new stage in his career? ‘Cafe Society’ seems rather straight forward, but it actually succeeds in creating genuine emotion. Many good actors dream to appear in Allen’s movies, this time it’s the turn of Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell to deliver fine performances. Woody’s voice as a narrator is the only direct personal touch of a film maker that was accused by his detractors so many times to write and direct movies that are too much about himself. With Cafe Society he succeeded not only to make a film about other people’s life stories but also to make us care about them.
‘All Good Things’ is the only big screen feature film made until now by director Andrew Jarecki, who seems to have been involved previously with documentary movies, and we can feel this. Although he had for this movie at hands a splendid team of Hollywood actors who did a fine job he did not succeed to turn the juicy crime story upon which the film is based into a real compelling piece of cinema.
The story Jarecki is using is the highly publicized and never solved case of the disappearance in the early 80s of the wife of a rich class New Yorker, involved in the murky real-estate business of his family in the center of Manhattan. Twenty years and two more bodies later he was brought in Court, but his guilt was never proved and today he walks free. However the film does not focus on the investigation, but rather provides a convincing (on screen) theory of the way things happen, of the motivation and reasons of the crimes. It’s a dark story about moral misery and personal crisis in a family of super-riches. The problem is that it’s hard to define and possibly the distributors had a hard time advertising the genre and the story of the film. Crime stories fans will find themselves watching for more than half of the screening time a family drama, romance (the film starts like kind of a ‘Love Story’) quickly turns into disarray and domestic violence, reality does not necessarily make into cinematographic truth.
The best reasons to watch this film despite mixed reviews and not a very high mark on IMDb is however acting. Ryan Gosling can hardly do wrong on my taste, and here he is facing a complex role, in which he accompanies his deeply troubled hero from young age to late maturity, from the picks of the easy life of the New York socialites to the abyss of the life of a fugitive and transvestite. The even better news is that there is even better acting than Gosling’s in this film and I refer of course to Kirsten Dunst‘s role as the loving wife whose dream of marrying the nice and rich guy slowly descends into nightmare, and to the veteran Frank Langella who injects character and complexity in the role of the family father who is much more than a (anti)-moral symbol. At the end of the day and of the film the artistic truth of this story comes from a different place than the factual truth.