Movie Review: Hidden Figures   January 14th, 2017

I took a break from looking at dystopian futures to watch “Hidden Figures” a story from the promising and tumultuous time in history. The film chronicles three African-American women, working as “human computers” at their jobs providing NASA with rocket trajectory calculations in the beginning of the 1960s, the early days of the space race. As with all films based on true stories, it’s hard to know what is actual history and what is narrative license.

Certainly the work and achievements of Katherine G. Johnson (mathematician), Mary Jackson (engineer) and Dorothy Vaughan (supervisor and programmer of IBM electronic computers) are well known. It’s never sure how many of the details filling in between the facts are genuine or for story. I would like to the book the film was inspired on at some point to find out more of the picture.

Even understanding that history and narrative are usually different animals, and taking that into account. The film is interesting, engaging and entertaining. Besides the human interest and Civil Rights achievements, I also enjoyed seeing a world where space-flight mathematics are carried out on paper and blackboards, as the digital age and the first IBM computers were emerging on the scene. At one point Dorothy Vaughan happens upon a FORTRAN book and that made me smile, remembering my time using the language back in engineering school.

At times the film feels jovial in the face of the daily reminders of dealing with segregation, and in places the tone feels slightly off, but then again that conscious decision keeps the film from being dark and brooding. The mood is upbeat and the story instead focuses on the themes of achievements and progress. Confrontations happen, then the plot moves on. There are both allies and adversaries shown, and while things might be oversimplified for use of plot efficiency, the characters are all portrayed with some nuance and they feel human rather than as caricatures.

The film also shows a few instances where people end up rethinking the status quo, not from moral arguments, but from personal interactions or tangential experiences. Director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, doesn’t desegregate the bathrooms because it’s the just thing to do, he does it because it’s stupid and inefficient, and getting the launch and landing calculations completed are more important. I don’t know if those events actually played out as told, but it rings true to human nature.

Overall the pacing is snappy and the plot is tight, with the narrative moving between the characters’ personal and work lives as well as following NASA’s projects’ missions. The film makes good use of archival news footage for rocket launches added along the way, culminating in John Glenn’s historic Mercury 7 flight, with a familiar credits montage depicting what happens in the women’s careers to show the rest of the story.

Dystoporama Review: They Live   January 13th, 2017

Our alien overlords just tell it like it is… if you’re wearing the sunglasses.

Given the impending dumpster fire in Washington and the overall zeitgeist of the current news outlets and social media theses days, I have decided to entertain myself with science fiction. I’m planning a blog project to review dystopian films and literature as an escape and also a creative exercise. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it up, but I’m naming the project “Dystoporama 2017” and would love to make it a year-long project, if I have the stamina and attention span.

I watched “They Live” this past weekend. It’s a 1988 film directed by John Carpenter. I’d seen it twice before, but it has been probably eighteen years since the last viewing. It was pretty much as goofy and as fun as I remembered. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review: Sing   January 11th, 2017

I recently went and saw the new animated movie “Sing”. It was no “Zootopia,” which of course is a high bar, but it was pretty good.

I liked how the world looked believable with all the different animals and they played around with the different species, like gags with fish jumping up a water ladder next to stairs. They played with size differences with the animals as well, like tall giraffes and a couple of small mice.

The animation was quite good and I liked the character designs, and laughed at some of the exaggerated long necks and bodies of the sheep and llamas.
The story was nice and it had some good character-driven plot. It was cute and had a lot of sweetness to it, which I appreciate. I’m happy I saw it.

I was thinking more about “Sing” today. I saw someone it to “Cats Don’t Dance,” which is fair as both movies feature a cast of funny animals putting on a musical show. What is interesting with “Sing” however, is that there is no actual villain in the film.

The premise of the show is to try and save a failing theater, which is a familiar trope, and while the bank wants to repossess the property if they don’t get their money, there isn’t someone, such as a rival business owner or developer, who say wants to tear it down and replace it with a mini-mall.

There is a chaotic element where a Frank Sinatra-esque mouse is pursued by wise-guy bears who he cheated out of gambling money, but for the most part the plot revolves around the characters facing their own issues. There’s the jilted porcupine struggling to find her own voice, the middle-aged pig housewife who wants to recapture some glory of her younger days, the elephant with crippling stage fright, the gorilla with father issues, and even the koala director who may be a lovable dreamer, but is also a huckster.

It’s refreshing to see a film where characters’ struggles and story arcs are enough without needing to invent villains. I’m reminded of another film where this was pointed out to me, in 2014’s “Chef.” It was nice to see a story where everyone was rooting for the main character and the journey about family, creative rediscovery an Americana road trip and celebration of food was enough without needing ridiculous manufactured drama. There are advisories in both films, but they serve to motivate the characters to something better, rather than needing to be the bad guys.

Steven Universe   June 19th, 2015

I’ve been enjoying the animated show Steven Universe. It starts slow and has a slow burn, but thanks to friends’s insistences I stuck with it and it’s been worth it.

It starts out quirky and silly. Anyone who appreciates the odd quirkiness of other shows like Adventure Time, The Regular Show, or Gravity Falls would probably enjoy Steven Universe. What’s nice is that there is an underlying story arc which is revealed which has a darker and more compelling narrative. I’m just starting to see that in the middle of Volume 2 and I’m impressed and getting hooked.

The other nice thing about the show is that it’s obviously meant for kids as a coming of age story. There are allegories for things kids might have to deal with like losing parents due to a divorce or death, all handled very thoughtfully and subtly as the emerging narrative. It has some very nice emotional character scenes which do “give me feels.”

The writing is skillfully done to offer things too all age levels; there are things that kids, teenagers and adults will all see differently. The show has allusions to gender, attraction, relationships (romantic and family), all done in a very family-friendly way.

The episode “Alone Together” has what is the best allegory of going through the strangeness of adolescence I’ve seen. The sly reveal that both Sadie and Lars from the donut show were crushing on Stevonnie was absolutely adorable.

The titular character, Steven, can be annoying at times, but I also realized he’s a good portrayal of how kids actually think and act and the silly, dumb stuff they can do. He is also the every-man character, our window into the magical universe, as well as the novice on his way to training.

I’m about halfway through the episodes that are out there now and I’m very much enjoying them. Thanks for the recommendations, friends!

The local movie theater is showing some retro films this summer. Last night I caught Pulp Fiction. I know it’s a movie I could watch on video, but it was nice seeing it on the big screen again after 21 years. It brought me back to the time when I was just discovering movies as art, so it was nice to reconnect with it.

It was fun seeing Quentin Tarantino’s style emerge in his sophomore film, and the narrative structure still held up very well. Rather than being just an artifice, I liked how the non-linear story worked in the individual vignettes to show the arcs of the various characters.

I could see some of Tarantino’s self-indulgence in dwelling on minutia which was frustrating in Death Proof. In this things worked well though and while a couple of scenes ran long, there was nothing egregious. Plus now as then, I loved the fondness for Americana pop culture and it made a wonderful cinematic time capsule; Buddy Holly’s not a very good waiter.

It was fun revisiting the mystery of what’s in the briefcase. I can believe it’s just supposed to be a MacGuffin. However, given the themes of grace amongst the chaos and redemption, the fan theory of it being Marsellus Wallace’s soul is very fitting. I’ve heard proof on both fronts, and figure personal interpretation is more meaningful.