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Review: Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson triumphantly articulates the pained dignity of Katherine Johnson’s pent-up frustration.

2.5

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Hidden Figures
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures sheds light on a little-known corner of history by outlining the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. When the story begins in 1961, NASA doesn’t yet have electronic computers, so it has to rely on people to calculate the mathematical data needed to successfully launch space missions. The open and unapologetic sexism of the time is reflected in the gender-stratified jobs: All the so-called “computers” are women, while only men get the more prestigious and better-paid jobs that involve using the numbers crunched by the women to launch rockets into space. And, since this is the Jim Crow South, the African-American computers all work in the same room, behind a door labeled “Colored Computers.”

The resistance these women have to overcome just to do their jobs provides much of the film’s drama. In one scene, the fact that Dorothy’s car stalls out on a country road on their way to work morphs from mere inconvenience to menace when the three are approached by a casually disdainful white cop. Dorothy, the de facto supervisor for the Colored Computer group, keeps trying fruitlessly to get a title and raise to go with her added responsibilities. She also has to teach herself and the others in her group how to program computers in order to save their jobs when NASA prepares to shift to electronic computers, though it means stealing a book from the public library, since there are no computer manuals in the “colored” section. To get the engineering degree that’s been denied her, Mary sues to attend a white high school that’s the only place in the area that offers the courses she needs.

The bulk of the film’s focus is on Johnson, a brilliant mathematician who makes it out of the Colored Computer ghetto, tapped to join the men in the high-status room when they need a computer to check figures aimed at sending the first American into space, only to find challenges at every turn. Half the numbers she’s supposed to double-check are blacked out, supposedly because she doesn’t have security clearance, by her supervisor, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who’s outraged by the notion that she might know more about anything than he and his men, and the run-walk she has to take to the one “colored” bathroom on campus forces her to be away from her desk for extended periods when she’s supposed to be churning out figures.

Their white supervisors display a realistic range of reactions to the women, from Stafford’s catty stiff-arming of Johnson to the casual neglect of Stafford’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who only cares about getting the best possible results, regardless of who delivers them, but is too preoccupied to notice the roadblocks Stafford keeps throwing in Johnson’s way. In a satisfying exchange inside a ladies’ restroom, Dorothy’s icily obstructionist boss, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst), says that she has “nothing against y’all,” to which Dorothy drily responds: “I know. I know you probably believe that.”

The women’s dogged refusal to cede their places on a team that keeps trying to reject them is a moving display of heroism, and a constant source of dramatic tension. Johnson gets a few opportunities to blast at the ignorance and prejudice she faces, most notably in a scene toward the end when she stands ramrod straight in a roomful of oblivious white men and speaks her truth, but the real triumph of Henson’s performance is her articulation of Johnson’s pent-up frustration in all its pained dignity. Black women simply couldn’t function in that time and place if they voiced their anger at every insult, and Henson makes clear the effort required to maintain Johnson’s self-control, from her determined trot on those long treks to the bathroom, clutching her work to her chest, to the way she pauses to tamp down her anger before speaking or tightens her lips when observing some new outrage.

Interestingly, Johnson’s story intersects dramatically with that of a far more conventional and widely lauded American hero. NASA was having trouble with its brand new electronic computers and spaceships had been exploding with distressing frequency on takeoff or landing when John Glenn was preparing to be the first American astronaut to go into orbit. Glenn asked NASA to tap Johnson to recalculate the trajectory of his reentry, saying he would trust the figures if she said they were good. He literally put his life into her hands, in a powerful illustration of the essential nature of the contributions made by “hidden figures” like Johnson—and of the fact that a nation becomes stronger when it provides equal opportunities to all its citizens.

The treatment of the women’s personal lives is far weaker. The actors who play Johnson’s young children are so wooden that Henson might as well be acting against a green screen when she appears with them. The dialogue is more baldly expository in these scenes too, like when Johnson tells her three girls that their dad is “with the angels,” so “I have to be Mommy and Daddy.” Mahershala Ali is sadly underutilized as Johnson’s suitor, whose presence in her life consists of three scenes: the one where they meet at a church barbecue and he insults her by implying that women can’t do science; the one where he apologizes and they slow dance; and the one where he proposes while her family serves as a picture-perfect backdrop.

Scenes like those give the women’s lives a sense of pat predictability and triumphal inevitability that sells their achievements short, as does the one where Katherine finally tells Harrison why she’s taking those long “breaks” during the day and he reacts by marching over to the “colored” bathroom to knock down the sign and declare all of NASA’s bathrooms color-free from that day forward. If only change came that quickly and easily.

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst Director: Theodore Melfi Screenwriter: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG min Rating: PG Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Hippy-Dippy Out of Blue Suggests a New-Age Law & Order

Carol Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.

1.5

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Out of Blue

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue begins with images of a supernova as an ostensibly brilliant astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), wonderingly intones that we’re all made of stardust. This meaningless observation, cribbed from Joni Mitchell’s hippy-dippy “Woodstock,” is an appropriate opening to a film that will prove to be every bit as trite, over-reaching, and goofy as its opening lines. With its endless references to black holes, the multiverse, and Schrödinger’s cat—the last of which is outlined in detail not once but twice—Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.

Loosely based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis, Out of Blue attempts to combine the heady philosophizing of True Detective with the home-spun surrealism of Twin Peaks, but Morley’s writing is so ham-handed and her directing so blandly nondescript that the film ends up feeling more like a protracted new-age spin on Law & Order. It doesn’t speak well of Out of Blue that the film is at its most compelling when it’s just straight-up ripping off David Lynch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as in a dream sequence where Jennifer lip synchs to an old-timey country song on a bandstand that looks nearly identical to the Roadhouse stage.

The plot, too, is suspiciously reminiscent of Twin Peaks: An enigmatic detective, Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), investigates the brutal murder of a pretty young blonde (Gummer), which brings her into contact with an assortment of local oddballs. Out of Blue lacks the regional specificity of Lynch’s series—the film is set in New Orleans but you wouldn’t know that from what’s on screen—and its eccentrics, while played by fascinating character actors like Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver, and James Caan, are too vaguely drawn to be particularly memorable. But the biggest misstep is Mike herself, a blank-slate cipher who spends much of the film muttering clues under her breath and staring into the middle distance.

Of course, Mike has a dark past herself, one which, naturally, is intertwined with the mystery she’s trying to solve. Clarkson does her best to imbue the role with a certain offbeat gravitas, but Mike is too confusedly conceived to generate any real interest in her backstory, much less to carry the narrative. Morley hangs a lot of eccentricities on the character—she drives a vintage car, listens to the Eels, and, in one particularly baffling scene, climbs on stage at a strip club and starts writhing on the dancers—but none of these cohere into a comprehensible whole. To the end, Mike’s quirks exude a grab-bag-like feeling, ensuring that she remains an enigma amid the comings and goings of so many wacky side characters and all the pseudo-metaphysical blather of Morley’s muddled, unconvincing, and dull script.

Cast: Mamie Gummer, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Alyshia Ochse, Gary Grubbs, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Thomas Francis Murphy, Carol Sutton, Lawrence Turner Director: Carol Morley Screenwriter: Carol Morley Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

3

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Genesis
Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Dragged Across Concrete Is an Uncanny Shot of Pulp Fiction

With his latest, S. Craig Zahler doubles down on the best and worst elements of the pulp film.

3.5

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Dragged Across Concrete
Photo: Summit Entertainment

With Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now Dragged Across Concrete, writer-director S. Craig Zahler has refined a highly particular style of pulp that runs both hot and cold. The tone is communicated up front by the films’ titles, which are garish and plainspoken, as if to say that operatically bad shit happens as a matter of course.

That’s the attitude that Zahler’s characters adopt as well, as they tend to face atrocity with the air of people who derive their strength from low expectations. Violence erupts in Zahler’s films with an offhand suddenness that’s often authentically shocking, which is heightened by a variety of formalist contradictions. Zahler pays intricate attention to deliberately crummy, vague, “universal” settings, and invests stereotypical characters with behavioral curlicues that render them just human enough so that their deaths sting. Zahler’s scenarios are deliberately absurd, yet he pumps them up with all sorts of odd, nearly docudramatic details, and this mixture of the banal and the hyper-specific imbues his films with an element of the uncanny.

Following a bruiser as he killed his way toward the inner sanctum of a surreally hellish prison, Brawl in Cell Block 99 was pointedly unpolitical—implying, in a macho manner typical of revenge films—that politics are a luxury for those who’re insulated from the “real world” of killed-or-be-killed. Which is to say that this apolitical texture is actually reactionary, suggesting, via omission, the essential futility of liberal humanist ideals. Dragged Across Concrete renders this idea much more explicit. The film’s theme is articulated when the poor and multiple sclerosis-plagued Melanie Ridgeman (Laurie Holden) says that she’s as liberal as an ex-cop can be, and that she never thought she was racist until she moved into her current neighborhood, which is low-income and rife with juvenile delinquents of color, who’re shown, in a reductive scene, to harass Melanie’s daughter.

The various cops and criminals of Dragged Across Concrete, white as well as of color, take the fraudulence of liberal beliefs as a given, writing them off as fantasies indulged by a populace that’s prosperous enough to evade their ramifications. (This theme is in the air right now, also driving Jordan Peele’s Us.) The film’s plot kicks into gear when Melanie’s husband, Detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), and his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are suspended for exerting excessive force while arresting a Hispanic drug dealer, which a civilian films on a phone. Zahler acknowledges the detectives’ cruelty, while, per the dictates of the crime genre, also allowing us to revel in their bitterness and power.

This have-it-both-ways quality is another of Zahler’s provocations, as he’s explicitly saying that we come to these sorts of films to see the rough and cathartic exertion of force, and in spite of whether we think that force jibes with our real-world ideals. Zahler is right. The cruelty of his films, which is laced with a biting wit, has a way of clearing pop-cultural air that’s often inhabited by preachy think pieces and well-meaning Oscar bait, or even by genre films that nevertheless feel the need to solicit approval via a redemptive theme. Zahler heads for the gutter instead, asking us to empathize with characters who refute our idealisms.

After subduing the drug dealer, Ridgeman torments the dealer’s sexual partner, Rosalinda (Liannet Borrego), by showering her with cold water and forcing her to stand in a bedroom in her underwear while they question her. This footage isn’t filmed by other parties, so the extent of Ridgeman and Tony’s vigilante tactics are unknown by the public, prompting us to wonder what else they’ve gotten away with over the years. Yet they feel cheated for being suspended—feelings which their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson), casually shares. Such scenes elucidate the thorny specificity of Zahler’s vision while deliberately screwing with our moral compass. Ridgeman and Tony’s treatment of Rosalinda is disgusting and Zahler sensitively dramatizes her humiliation. So are the racist jokes the cops exchange with Calvert, though the actors’ performances and Zahler’s dialogue and staging are kinetically snappy. Zahler recreates that discombobulating split in sympathies you may have when someone you like says they voted for Trump, or rues the days of comparatively less fettered police brutality.

Yet there’s also a sense that Zahler is outside of Ridgeman and Tony’s self-pity; one suspects that politics mostly matter to the filmmaker in terms of aesthetic. If he’s nostalgic for the good old days, presumably before our culture grew so “politically correct,” that nostalgia is primarily directed toward genre films. Zahler is fighting for art’s right to be offensive and disreputable, voicing sentiments that are shared by many people in this country which cannot, and should not, be aired without scrutiny. He grooves on straight talk, however nasty, fashioning crime thrillers that force even liberal audiences to confront their inner fascists.

Zahler particularly appears to miss the days when violent Mel Gibson vehicles were relevant, and he concocts a role for Gibson that weds the actor’s own prejudices and controversies with his masochistic “Mad Mel” persona—two sides that were always closely intertwined anyway. Gibson rises to the occasion with a tightly coiled performance that’s so unapologetically closed-off that it’s deeply and disturbingly poignant, bringing to mind the conflicted range of emotions that’s elicited by John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers. Ridgeman’s feelings of being put out to pasture are aligned with Gibson’s stint in movie jail after recordings of his abusive rants at his wife were released. It’s no accidental coincidence that recordings destroy Ridgeman not once but twice over the course of Dragged Across Concrete.

Ridgeman is the film’s central avatar of rage—an embodiment of working-class American discontent that Zahler reveals to be shared by characters of varying colors, genders, and social statuses, most notably Henry (Tory Kittles), an African-American ex-con with limited options, with whom Ridgeman forges an uneasy alliance. Tellingly, given the aversion of Dragged Across Concrete to left-wing politeness, their emotional epiphany springs from their mutual willingness to call one another, and to each be called, the n-word.

Zahler takes a standard action-movie scenario—in which crooked cops try to rob drug dealers—and stretches it out to an epic, ultraviolent, and comic study of the petty, often working-class-centric nonsense that stymies people on a daily basis. When Henry rousts his mother’s john out of the house, Zahler lingers on the man as he fumbles with the locks on the door. Following Ridgeman and Tony as they tail a requisitely heartless Eurotrash killer, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), Zahler fashions an elaborate and ingenious set piece that alternates between two cars’ worth of men talking strategy. When a struggling mother, Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), returns to work at a bank after a prolonged maternal leave, Zahler devotes a lengthy, weirdly touching and funny moment to the speech her verbose boss, Mr. Edmington (Fred Melamed), gives for the occasion. And this scene only intensifies the pain of what follows, which Zahler foreshadows with a masterful composition where we see a van of killers pass Kelly in the reflection of a window as she checks her make-up.

Dragged Across Concrete is a lurid ode to detail—to the professionalism that Zahler questionably admires in Ridgeman and Tony. (His lack of sentimentality, in the tradition of pulp writing, is ironically quite sentimental.) The film’s settings, like those of Brawl in Cell Block 99, are drab and anonymous, though Zahler shoots them with an exhilaratingly pared-down sense of purpose, with sharp physical details that complement the unexpected narrative flourishes. These backdrops suggest every place and no place at once, and are rendered with hard lighting and symmetrical framing that recalls the glory days of John Carpenter. The film’s dialogue is terse, intelligent, yet often somehow un-showy, suggesting the flip and funny things people often say while at work, which are rarely captured in cinema. These qualities cohabitate with a deliberately nasty vision of America—a union that Zahler embraces for its intense and suggestive social tension. He’s already a master of the pulp film, and with Dragged Across Concrete he doubles down on its best and worst elements.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter, Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Thomas Kretschmann, Liannet Borrego, Justine Warrington, Fred Melamed Director: S. Craig Zahler Screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 162 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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