Author Archives: scooper1958

In Theatres Now: “Fences ” (2016)


Troy (Denzel Washington) and his long-suffering wife, Rose (Viola Davis)

“Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”–from Fences


Fences, a film adaptation of the celebrated 1985 drama by playwright August Wilson (1945-2005), is about a man whose anger and bitterness results in tragic consequences for himself and those around him.

It is 1957, and 53-year old Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage collector in Pittsburgh.  Troy is African-American, and he once tried unsuccessfully to get into major league baseball, well before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  Troy is still bitter that circumstance and discrimination caused him to fail at making a name in sports.

Now his son Cory wishes to enter college through a football scholarship.  But Troy, mired in his own past, discourages the young man from aspiring to a future that he himself could not achieve.

What I’ve given you is the bare-bones of the plot.  There’s so much more that you can only experience by watching, listening, and immersing yourself in the wonderful language of August Wilson.  That’s the true delight of Fences; language rules this story and is most beautifully exemplified through the exchanges between Washington and character actor Stephen Henderson, who plays Troy’s friend Bono.  Henderson, better than anyone else in the film, puts across the rhythm and music of Wilson’s dialog.  His interplay with Washington feels like jazz improv between two seasoned musicians.

In addition to the aforementioned players, Viola Davis delivers a powerful supporting performance as Troy’s wife, Rose.

The title of this film, Fences, aptly describes Troy’s relationship with others.  Throughout the course of the story, he is engaged in repairing a fence that surrounds his home.  Meanwhile, we see him building a barrier around his heart which serves as protection from family, love….and ultimately, from life itself.


Fences is one of ten plays by Wilson known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle.”  The playwright set each one of his dramas within a specific decade of the 1900’s.  The entire group is meant to convey the African-American experience of the 20th century.  I have listed all ten plays as follows, with synopses (provided through

  • Gem of the Ocean (2003) – 1900s:  “Citizen Barlow enters the home of the 285-year-old Aunt Ester who guides him on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones.”
  • Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) – 1910s:  “The themes of racism and discrimination come to the fore in this play about a few freed African American slaves.”  Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – 1920s:  “Ma Rainey’s ambitions of recording an album of songs are jeopardized by the ambitions and decisions of her band.”  (Please note that Ma Rainey was a historical figure who was a precursor to blues artists like Bessie Smith).  Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
  • The Piano Lesson (1990) – 1930s:  “Brother and sister Boy Willie and Berniece clash over whether or not they should sell an ancient piano that was exchanged for their great grandfather’s wife and son in the days of slavery.” (Note:  TV/movie actor Charles S. Dutton played Boy Willie on Broadway in this play, and also was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.)  Won Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
  • Seven Guitars (1995) – 1940s:  “Starting with the funeral of one of the seven characters, the play tracks the events that lead to the death.”  Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
  • Fences (1987) – 1950s:  “Race relations are explored again in this tale which starts with a couple of garbage men who wonder why they can’t become garbage truck drivers.”  (Note:  To date, the only play of this series that has been adapted for film)  Won Pulitzer Prize and Tony.
  • Two Trains Running (1991) – 1960s:  “Looking at the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, this play details the uncertain future promised to African Americans at the time.”
  • Jitney (1982) – 1970s:  “Jitneys are unlicensed cab drivers operating in Pittsburgh’s Hill District when legal cabs won’t cover that area.  The play follows the hustle and bustle of their lives.”
  • King Hedley II (1999) – 1980s:  “One of Wilson’s darkest plays, an ex-con tries to start afresh by selling refrigerators with the intent of buying a video store.  Characters from Seven Guitars reappear throughout.”
  • Radio Golf (2005) – 1990s:  “Aunt Ester returns [from Gem of the Ocean] in this modern story of city politics and the quest from two moneyed Pittsburgh men to try and redevelop an area of Pittsburgh.”  Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

Note:  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen Henderson starred in a 2010 stage revival of Fences before Washington brought it to the screen as director and producer (with producers Todd Black and Scott Rudin).  It is the only play from the “Pittsburgh Cycle” that has been adapted as a feature film.


Pluses:  Excellent performances from supporting players Henderson and Davis.  Although not a perfect adaptation, this film encouraged me to scope out Internet stage productions of the drama.

Minus:  Unfortunately, this adaptation does not fully deliver the intensity of the staged play, and some sections are a bit tedious.  I have not seen any of Wilson’s plays live, but I took the time to watch a filmed staging of Fences on the Internet (not the stage production with Denzel Washington) prior to writing this review.  Even with the online filter, the staged version was more powerful than what I saw at the movie theatre.  Example:  There’s a speech in the movie where the main character tells his son why he has no responsibility to “like” him as his progeny.  Onscreen, the interaction is painful to watch.  Onstage, it’s absolutely devastating.

Cast:  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson

Director:  Denzel Washington

Rating:  PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some sexually suggestive references).  Despite the rating, I would think hard about taking your older children to this picture.  Be ready to have a conversation with them afterwards.  The film adaptation is worthwhile in a literary way, but it is very intense and tough even for adults to take.

In color.

Length:  139 minutes.



“August Wilson.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   21 February 2017.  Web.  21 February 2017.  Web.

In Theatres Now: “La La Land” (2016)



Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, dancing away over the City of Angels

Today’s blog concerns the musical comedy mish-mash that is La La Land.  No, I didn’t hate it.  But it sure frustrated the hell out of me.

As a film student, I learned a cinematic term called mise-en-scene.  Mise-en-scene refers to the holistic approach regarding a specific film genre (camera, actors, sets, costumes, lighting, dialog, etc.)  According to Wikipedia,  “The mise-en-scène, along with the cinematography and editing of a film, influences the verisimilitude or believability of a film in the eyes of its viewers.”

Here are some conventions pertaining to musical comedy that any director should address concerning mise-en-scene.

  •  Music.  First and foremost, music and dance sustains everything.  If the music is lousy and/or insufficient, all else fails.
  • Suspension of disbelief.  The director of a musical must make the audience believe that at any point in time, actors and actresses will spontaneously break out in song and dance.
  • Stylization.  In order to sustain suspension of disbelief, the director needs to stylize cinematography, lighting, dialog, sets, etc. so that the audience from the outset is conditioned to a surreal landscape where anything can happen.
  • The principal characters in a musical should be empathetic.
  • The actors portraying the principal characters should at least be competent at singing and dancing.

So here’s where I had a problem with this show:

  • Music.  Not nearly enough of it.  There are long stretches without music where we are forced to tolerate interminable conversations between the two principal characters, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  The best musical performance in this film comes from John Legend, a wonderful singer who plays a character meant to exemplify what went wrong with jazz.  He gets five minutes onscreen, and during the short period of time that he sings, the film comes alive.  If this is life without jazz, give me more!
  • Stylization.  Much of this film was shot using a naturalistic approach in terms of lighting, cinematography, acting and dialog.  In other words, we see a lot of dreary bachelor pads and crummy L.A. exteriors.  We hear Gosling and Stone engaged in what appears to be improvised, Method-acting dialog that would be more appropriate for a romantic dramedy.  Certainly not appropriate for a musical.  The result is a dramedy impersonating a musical, with a few stylized dance/fantasy segments here and there.
  • The principal characters in a musical should be empathetic.  The plot of La La Land concerns a frustrated L.A.-based jazz musician who wants to remain true to his craft, and an aspiring actress who can’t get anywhere in the Hollywood industry.  The jazz musician (Gosling) is taciturn and sullen.  The actress (Stone) is whiny, badly coifed, and without charm.  No wonder she can’t land a gig!
  • The actors portraying the principal characters should at least be competent at singing and dancing.  Gosling and Stone are barely competent and no more than that.  Meanwhile, Legend blows everyone else away.

So why am I frustrated and not merely offended by this film?  Because there are some inspired moments.  For example, when Stone’s character meets Gosling’s jazz musician in a nightclub, he is spotlighted and showcased in a way that makes us root for him.  And there’s an impressionistic montage at the end of the picture that addresses the bittersweet relationship between Gosling and Stone.   It is touching, and it includes a lovely reference to the ballet sequence from 1951’s An American In Paris.

I sure wish there had been more of the good stuff, and less of what I described at length in this blog.


Pluses:  John Legend, final musical sequence.

Minus:  Too much talking, not enough good music.  Principal players not empathetic.  Awkward melding of musical and dramedy genres.

Cast:  Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend.

Director:  Damien Chazelle.

Rating:  PG-13 (for some language)

In color.

Length:  128 minutes



“Mise-en-scene.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   12 October 2016.  Web.  18 February 2017.

Elegy for the Midlands: “Hell or High Water” (2016)

hell or high water.png

Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), and the farm they are desperately trying to save from foreclosure.

One does not typically describe heist movies as “thoughtful” or “poignant.”  However, both adjectives apply to Hell or High Water, a story about two brothers who will use any means necessary to keep their family farm out of foreclosure.

This film features the usual components of the heist:  Quick-witted, resourceful crooks (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) pitted against a wise, experienced lawman (Jeff Bridges); speeding cars; and guns a-blazing.  All of this occurs against the expansive plains of West Texas.

But look carefully:  Instead of cattle and horses dotting the landscape, you will see graffiti that reads, “3 tours in Iraq/but no bailout/for people like us.”  You will view dirt roads lined with rusted-out buildings and road signs with advertisements like, “Home refinancing:  Debt Relief” and “In Debt?  Easy Credit at Statewide.”

In fact, the real backdrop of this film is the economic downturn that has plagued middle America for so many years.  And brothers Toby and Tanner are just two more victims of these difficult times:  They have been reduced to robbing banks in order to pay off the mortgage on their family farm.  Lately, the mortgage company has given an ultimatum regarding payment of the last installment….”Come hell or high water, get the money to the bank on Thursday.”  Just one more holdup, and the brothers will be home free.  Or will they?

Hell or High Water features good performances from Ben Foster and Chris Pine, and an excellent one from Jeff Bridges, who by now has perfected his characterization of the grizzled old coot (Think 2009’s Crazy Heart and 2010’s True Grit).  The plot is compact, with riveting action scenes.  And the plains of West Texas are majestic–if somewhat destitute.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find Hell or High Water in theatres near my home.  I ended up downloading it through  You can do so, too, by clicking onto the following link:

The DVD is now available for purchase at  You can access that link as follows:


Pluses:  Jeff Bridges, gorgeous shots of Texas plains, compact plot, bit players throughout the film add to the mood and atmosphere.

Minus:  My gold standard for this type of heist film has always been 1973’s Charlie Varrick, about a small-time bank robber (Walter Matthau) who unknowingly picks up some mob money during a bank job.  Compared with that picture, Hell or High Water gets a B+.  It’s very good.

Cast:  Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon.

Director:  David MacKenzie

Rating:  R (some strong violence, language and brief sexuality)

In Color

Length:  102 minutes

“Best in Show” (2000)


The battling Swans (Michael Hitchcock, Parker Posey) and their neurotic show dog, “Beatrice.”

Folks, this country is going to the dogs.

Hold on….before you accuse me of getting political, let me clarify that the annual Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden kicks off tonight.  For the next two days, America will celebrate the finest in dogdom as canine show champs strut their stuff in the ring.

In preparing yourselves for the event, please watch a clever mockumentary from 2000 by director Christopher Guest, the man who wrote the screenplay for This is Spinal Tap (1984), a mockumentary about rock bands; and A Mighty Wind (2003), another mockumentary which makes fun of the American folk movement.

Best in Show follows five entrants in a prestigious dog show.  Well….marginally follows them, because the movie is really about the more than slightly insane owners of the five pooches in question:

  • Winky, the Norwich Terrier:  Owned by Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Second City comedians Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara).  The running joke with this couple is that wife Cookie keeps running into men with whom she’s had affairs.  It soon appears that she may have slept with just about every male in town!
  • Beatrice, the Weimaraner:  Beatrice’s owners, Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock), are two “helicopter parents” who are smothering their dog into a nervous breakdown.
  • Hubert, the Bloodhound:  Owner Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest), owns a fishing store and has a Plan B in case Hubert doesn’t win….he’ll become a cowboy ventriloquist.
  • Butch, the Poodle:  Butch’s owner, an Anna Nicole Smith lookalike (Jennifer Coolidge) refuses to let her dog into the ring until its lesbian handler (Jane Lynch) has a makeover.  By the way, Butch is a bitch (female dog).  Get the joke?
  • Miss Agnes, the Shih Tzu:  Owned by Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean), a campy gay couple who are crazy about old movies.  You will laugh out loud when you see how that works out with their dogs.

Given that director Guest works with comic actors well versed in improv, the movie essentially proceeds as a series of improv sketches.  Some of the gags are a little dated (the Anna Nicole Smith references may be lost on some millennials), and the antics we’ve seen on YouTube and other media outlets for the last 15 years may make some of the characterizations seem milder and less zany than they were in 2000.  Nevertheless, the film is a lot of fun.

A high point is actor Fred Willard, who is cast as one of the commentators at the dog show.  Willard has specialized in playing clueless commentators since his days on the 1970’s satirical sitcom Fernwood 2 Night.  He is hilarious here, making inane, straight-faced statements about how the show would be improved if they put a deerstalker hat on the bloodhound, or that a picture book with women in wet T-shirts bathing their dogs would be a best-seller.

You can download Best in Show by clicking onto the following link:

You can purchase a DVD of this film by clicking onto the following link:


Plus:  Fred Willard is the single funniest person in this movie.  He does a great job of parodying some of the less-than-knowledgeable cohosts one sees in real dog shows.

Minus:  Some of the gags (for example, the Anna Nicole Smith reference) are a little dated.

Cast:  Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr.

Director:  Christopher Guest

Rating:  PG-13 (language, sex-related)

In Color

Length:  91 minutes



For Valentine’s Day: “I Know Where I’m Going” (1945)


Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a most stubborn woman; and her bemused admirer Torquil (Roger Livesey)

I know where I’m goin’/and I know who’s goin’ with me/
I know who I love/But the dear knows who I’ll marry.   – Scottish folksong


Ever since childhood, Joan Webster has known exactly what she wants from life and how to get it.  Her latest objective involves marriage to a wealthy British industrialist.  The wedding is to take place on the Isle of Kiloran, off the west coast of Scotland.  Unfortunately, Joan only gets as far as the Isle of Mull before being detained by bad weather.

While waiting for the wind and rain to die down, Joan gets to know some of the more unusual inhabitants of Mull:  Catriona, a shaggy-haired huntress who wanders around the island with a pack of deer hounds, and Colonel Barnstaple, a rather inept falconer.  And oh yes, there’s Torquil (Roger Livesey), a kilted fellow with gentle eyes and an easy smile, who cannot stop looking at Joan from the moment she steps off the boat.

It’s pretty obvious from the beginning of this lovely romantic comedy what will happen to Joan in the end.  The fun is in watching her helplessly trying to resist the charm and attraction of Mull, its people….and of course, Torquil.

Note:  Look for ’60’s/’70’s singing star Petula Clark, who plays the bespectacled child of a rich family in this film.

You can download a rental copy of I Know Where I’m Going by clicking onto the following link:


Directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell were known for their collaboration on a series of 1940’s and ’50’s British films which ranged from gentle comedy (I Know Where I’m Going) to fantasy (1946’s A Matter of Life and Death, 1948’s The Red Shoes) to exotic drama (1947’s Black Narcissus).  A Powell/Pressburger production always featured great art design and cinematography.  The ballet film The Red Shoes is perhaps the best example of this duo’s artistry in visual presentation.  The exquisite ballet sequence in the middle of the film was the primary reason that Red Shoes won the Academy Award for Best Production Design and Best Original Music Score.


Pluses:  Gorgeous shots of the Island of Mull (yes, there is such a place), delightful performances from those playing the inhabitants of Mull, good romantic chemistry between lead actors Hiller and Livesey.  Opening credits humorously set up the storyline.

Minus:  I really cannot think of any.  If you’re looking for big drama or huge laughs, don’t see this picture.  If you’re looking for a gentle love story with some enjoyable supporting performances, definitely see this picture.

Cast:  Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey, Pamela Brown, Finlay Currie, George Carney, Nancy Price, Catherine Lacey, Captain C.W.R. Knight, Petula Clark.

Director(s):  Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Unrated.  (I should warn PETA sympathizers that there’s a brief scene where a trained falcon picks away at a dead rabbit.  They do hunt in Scotland.)

Black and white

Length:  93 minutes



In Theatres Now: “Arrival” (2016)


Linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), attempting to communicate with….?

Ever since 1902, when French filmmaker Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon introduced us to “selenites” (insectoid moon aliens), movie fans have experienced every variety of “first encounters” with aliens through scifi movies.  UFO films in particular have thrilled us with forbidding alien robots (1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still), winged saucers with death-ray periscopes (1953’s War of the Worlds), giant mind-bending holograms (1967’s Five Million Years to Earth), and huge oversized space ships (1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1996’s Independence Day).  So after all of this, how can a scifi director deliver something fresh enough to fill us with the awe and wonder we first felt as kids watching these films?

Well, director Denis Villeneuve has brilliantly accomplished the feat in his film Arrival, by forcing us to experience a first encounter from the viewpoint of one character, a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) tasked with interpreting the language of aliens who land on Earth.  The result is that we are as taken by the experience as she is.

Dr. Louise Banks leads a solitary, insular life as a teacher of linguistics at a local university.  She is baffled one day when only a half dozen pupils show up for class.  Finally, one of the students shakily asks Dr. Banks to turn on the overhead TV.  What we see on the screen is panic in the streets, confused newscasters, military planes, and glimpses of…something else.  After confirming with several sources that an extraterrestrial event may be happening, Dr. Banks is asked by the military to assist in making contact with the aliens.

The film runs at least 20 minutes before an entire alien spacecraft is shown, again from Dr. Bank’s point of view as she looks out from a military helicopter.  We initially see an arial panorama of rolling green hills, low lying clouds….and suddenly, a huge lozenge-shaped object floating just yards above the countryside.  It is a spectacular reveal.

Much of the film’s impact is dependent on actress Amy Adams, because we experience the story through her eyes.  She does not disappoint.  Adam’s open, ingenuous affect, which worked so well for her in Disney Studios’ Enchanted, also works here.  She registers confusion, claustrophobia, terror, and awe so clearly that we can’t help but be pulled into her emotional state at all points in the film.

I can’t write much more about the storyline without ruining the movie for you.  Let’s just say that an age-old science fiction concept is delivered effectively through expert plot development.  In addition, the surreal nature of the main character’s experience is well supported by Johann Johannsson’s eerie, electronic film score.

Like other fans of science fiction, I really enjoy scifi tales that revel in detailed descriptions of technology (Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama comes to mind).  However, Arrival’s storyline is well served by Villeneuve’s adherence to the rule, “Less is more.”  How does the spaceship suspend itself in air?  Why do the aliens look the way they do?  We don’t get the answers to these questions….and that’s okay.  What is germane to this tale is how humans might really react to something they could never have imagined in the first place.   With Arrival, we get a virtual experience concerning what that might be like.


Pluses:  Amy Adam’s performance, fascinating central concept, beautiful cinematography, effective musical score, sound editing which really brings the immediacy of the main character’s experience.

Minus:  A major idea in the film was a bit of a stretch for me regarding believability.  Nevertheless, I decided to go with it.

Cast:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan, Jadyn Malone.

Director:  Denis Villeneuve

Rating:  PG-13 (brief strong language)

In color

Length:  116 minutes



“History of science fiction films”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   8 January 2017.  Web.  6 February 2017.







In Memoriam: Sir John Hurt (1940-2017)



I asked several friends and colleagues who enjoy movies, but are not necessarily aficionados, what they thought of the late John Hurt.  Many replied that they didn’t know who that was.

Hurt was one of those character actors that people don’t know by name, but immediately recognize on sight.  His most memorable role was that of “Kane,” the hapless astronaut in Alien (1979) who had one of the worst cases of dyspepsia recorded on film.  (I’m referring to the alien being who popped out of his abdomen.  I’ll spare all of you a photo of that.)

Hurt’s second most famous role was that of the Elephant Man in the 1980 film of the same name.  John Merrick, the historical Elephant Man, was horribly deformed due to a hereditary disease.  In portraying Merrick, Hurt was made up to the point that he was unrecognizable.  In addition, he had to play the role with significant slurring in his speech.  Nevertheless, his brilliant acting provided us  with a portrait of an intelligent, sensitive, and artistic man to whom life had dealt an awful hand of cards.


I was listening to an old radio interview of John Hurt today, and one word came out which accurately described many of his roles:  Flamboyant.  Although Hurt played everything from politicians and intellectuals to priests and jockeys, his most famous characters are pretty out there; or at least placed in extreme situations.  I’ve already given you two examples.  Two others would include his roles as transvestite Quentin Crisp in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, and the insane Emperor Caligula in the British TV miniseries I, Claudius (1976).  He was brilliant in both parts.

Here are scenes from both productions:

I, Claudius (1976)

The Naked Civil Servant (1975)

Hurt’s distinctive voice was utilized in several animated features, and he narrated many other live action films.  In addition, Hurt was one of many distinguished British film actors cast in the Harry Potter movies.  He played Garrick Ollivander, the magic wand maker.

My personal favorite?  Hurt’s “Caligula” in I, Claudius. 

I, Claudius is a 12-episode production concerning the early history of imperial Rome, narrated by its fourth emperor, Claudius.  The entire series is entertaining, witty, and chilling, with lots of intrigue and back stabbing (both figurative and literal).  It is soap opera of the very highest quality, perhaps the best ever made.  Look out for Derek Jacobi in the title role, and Sian Phillips as the malevolent Empress Livia.

Warning:  Lots of explicit sex and violence.  A definite R rating bordering on NC-17; kids should not see it.

You can purchase the DVD of I, Claudius on by clicking onto the following link:

For additional information about John Hurt, I recommend film critic Justin Chang’s excellent article in the January 30, 2017 Los Angeles Times, “Voice of wit, wily humanity,” Calendar Section E.  I also recommend that you review a filmography of this excellent actor and watch his movies.  You will be well-rewarded.



“John Hurt.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   25 January 2017.  Web.  1 February 2017.

Chang, J. (2017, January 30).  Voice of wit, wily humanity.  Los Angeles Times, pp. E7

In Theatres Now: “Hidden Figures” (2016)



Actress Taraji P. Henson as real-life trajectory analyst Katherine Goble Johnson, who helped guide the first astronauts into space…and safely back again.

Those of you who regularly read my blog may remember an entry from December 9, 2016 concerning The Right Stuff (1983), a film about the astronauts involved in the Mercury project of the 1960’s.  In that article, I included a video clip where astronaut John Glenn successfully accomplishes re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, despite the possibility that a heat shield on his space capsule was failing.  (See “God Speed, John Glenn” December 9, 2016 blog.)

But how did Glenn get up there in the first place?  In the 2016 docudrama Hidden Figures, based on Margo Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, we learn that he and other astronauts rode atop the shoulders of countless NASA engineers, mathematicians, analysts, and “computers” (people who computed figures prior to the mechanized computers with which we’re familiar today).  These individuals ensured that the astronauts would successfully fly into space and come back in one piece.

Hidden Figures focuses on three of the “computers”:  African-American mathematicians Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), and Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson).  Although these women began their aeronautic careers in a racially segregated computing pool at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, each became a trail-blazer in her respective field:  Jackson became NASA’s first female engineer; Vaughan was the first African-American female supervisor at NASA’s Langley Research Center (she later became one of the first FORTRAN programmers for machine computers in the early 1960’s); and Johnson became a specialist in calculating flight trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for several flights associated with Project Mercury.  One of these was John Glenn’s celebrated 1962 mission, which marked the first time that an American astronaut orbited Earth.

None of these women achieved her goals without difficulties.  First of all, they were females in a male-dominated industry.  And then there’s the issue of race.  We’re talking Virginia in the early 1960’s, and even the elite Langley Laboratory made sure that separate “colored” bathrooms were furnished for all African-American staff, including the mathematicians in this story.

Nevertheless, the women as portrayed in Hidden Figures overcome these challenges.   Jackson successfully sues in court for a place in an all-white engineering class.  Vaughan uses her mechanical know-how and resourcefulness to train herself and her fellow “computers” on FORTRAN so that they will be ready to program the new Langley computer.  And Johnson uses her determination and raw talent to help make the Glenn mission a resounding success.

All three principle actresses in Hidden are great, and the interplay among them is entertaining and full of camaraderie.  I found Taraji Henson’s performance the most interesting and compelling.  Her character comes across as a modest but gritty woman who refuses to let the establishment at Langley exploit her talents without giving credit for work accomplished.

Keep in mind that this is a docudrama, not a documentary.  Therefore, scenes have been included in Hidden which are not historically accurate.  This is the nature of the docudrama; the genre requires that filmmakers balance authenticity with enough drama and interest to draw an audience.  I can tell you that the backstory of the three principle characters is consistent with Shetterly’s bio and other sources I’ve reviewed.

One additional note:  I am delighted to report that the film is rated PG, for very mild swearing and romantic situations (within a loving, pro-marriage context).   So please take your 10+ year old children to see it.  So many of our kids at one time or another want to be astronauts.  Hidden Figures makes the mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers as exciting as John Glenn and his colleagues.


Margo Lee Shetterly is the daughter of an African- American research scientist who worked at NASA-Langley Research Center.  Through her father, Shetterly learned about the women featured in this film.

Shetterly’s Hidden Figures:  The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, can be purchased on through the following link:


There is also a version of this book written especially for young people.  You can purchase it on through the following link:


Pluses:  Good plot development, excellent performances by Spencer, Monae, and especially Henson, scientific explanations easy for laypersons to understand, exciting buildup to the Glenn flight.

Minus:  Some liberties taken in terms of certain events in the movie (in comparison to Shetterly’s book).  However, the backstories to the main characters are consistent with available biographical sources.

Cast:  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons.

Director:  Theodore Melfi

Rating:  PG (mild swearing along the lines of “Damn!” and “Jesus Christ!”  Romantic scenes within a loving, pro-marriage context).

In color.

Length:  2 hours 7 minutes



Shetterly, Margot Lee.   Hidden Figures:  The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.  William Morrow (2016)

“Katherine Johnson.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   28 January 2017.  Web.  28 January 2017.

“Dorothy Vaughan.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   26 January 2017.  Web.  28 January 2017.

“Mary Jackson.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   27 January 2017.  Web.  28 January 2017.

Common Sense Media,  Common Sense Media is a San Francisco based non-profit organization providing information about safe technology and media for children.  The organization rates books, movies, TV shows, video games, apps, music, and websites.  Ratings for each entry are provided by both parents and children.  Ratings from both children and adults highly rate Hidden Figures.





















Academy Awards 2017: Your Thoughts?



Before I move on to my second review of the week, here’s a short blog:  What did you think of the nominations earlier this week?

  • Do you think that any films/actors/directors/etc. were slighted?
  • Were there any films/actors/directors/etc. that you were happy to see nominated?
  • What did you think of the visual method used on TV to communicate the nominations?
  • Who will you be rooting for on Oscar night?

Please leave you comments on this blog page.  I would love to hear from you!

For those who did not have the opportunity to see the list of nominees, here they are:


  • “Arrival”
  • “Fences”
  • “Hacksaw Ridge”
  • “Hell or High Water”
  • “Hidden Figures”
  • “La La Land”
  • “Lion”
  • “Manchester by the Sea”
  • “Moonlight”


  • Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival”
  • Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge”
  • Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
  • Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
  • Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”

Actor in a leading role

  • Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
  • Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”
  • Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”
  • Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”
  • Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Actor in a supporting role

  • Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”
  • Jeff Bridges,“Hell or High Water”
  • Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”
  • Dev Patel, “Lion”
  • Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”

Actress in a leading role:

  • Emma Stone, “La La Land”
  • Natalie Portman, “Jackie”
  • Ruth Negga, “Loving”
  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Isabelle Huppert, “Elle

Actress in a supporting role

  • Viola Davis, “Fences”
  • Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”
  • Nicole Kidman, “Lion”
  • Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”
  • Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”

Adapted Screenplay

  •  “Lion,” by Luke Davis
  •  “Arrival,” by Eric Heisserer
  •  “Moonlight,” by Barry Jenkins
  •  “Hidden Figures,” by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder
  •  “Fences,” by August Wilson

Original Screenplay

  •  “Manchester by the Sea,” by Kenneth Lonergan
  •  “Hell or High Water,” by Taylor Sheridan
  •  “La La Land,” by Damien Chazelle
  •  “20th Century Women,” Mike Mills
  •  “The Lobster,” by Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos


  • Bradford Young, “Arrival”
  • Linus Sandgren,“La La Land”
  • Greig Fraser, “Lion”
  • James Laxton, “Moonlight”
  • Rodrigo Prieto, “Silence”

Documentary feature

  • “Fire at Sea”
  • “I am Not Your Negro”
  • “Life, Animated”
  • “OJ: Made in America”
  • “13th”

Documentary short:

  • “Extermis”
  • “4.1 miles”
  • “Joe’s Violins”
  • “Watani: My Homeland”
  • “The White Helmets”

Foreign language film:

  • “Toni Erdmann,” Germany
  • “The Salesman,” Iran
  • “A Man Called Ove,” Sweden
  • “Tanna,” Australia
  • “Land of Mine,” Denmark

Sound editing

  • “Arrival”
  • “Deepwater Horizon”
  • “Hacksaw Ridge”
  • “La La Land”
  • “Sully”

Sound mixing

  • “Arrival”
  • “Hacksaw Ridge”
  • “La La Land”
  • “Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story”
  • “13 Hours”

Original score

  • Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land”
  • Mica Levi, “Jackie”
  • Nicholas Britell, “Moonlight”
  • Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, “Lion”
  • Thomas Newman, “Passengers”

Original song

  •  “City of Stars” (“La La Land”)
  • “How Far I’ll Go” (“Moana”)
  • “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (“La La Land”)
  • “The Empty Chair” (“Jim: The James Foley Story”)
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (“Trolls”)

Production design

  • “Arrival” (Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte)
  • “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock)
  • “Hail, Caesar!” (Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh)
  • “La La Land” (David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco)
  • “Passengers” (Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena)

Visual effects:

  • “Deepwater Horizon”
  • “Doctor Strange”
  • “The Jungle Book”
  • “Kubo and the Two Strings”
  • “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Makeup and hairstyling

  • “A Man Called Ove”
  • “Star Trek Beyond”
  • “Suicide Squad”

Costume design

  • Mary Zophres, “La La Land”
  • Madeline Fontaine, “Jackie”
  • Consolata Boyle, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
  • Colleen Atwood, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
  • Joanna Johnston, “Allied”

Film Editing

  • “Arrival”
  • “Hell or High Water”
  • “Hacksaw Ridge”
  • “La La Land”
  • “Moonlight”

Live-action short

  • “Ennemis intérieurs,” Selim Azzazi
  • “La femme et le TGV,” Timo von Gunten
  • “Silent Nights,” Aske Bang, Kim Magnusson
  • “Sing,” Kristof Deák, Anna Udvardy
  • “Timecode,” Juanjo Gimenez

Animated Short Film

  • “Blind Vaysha”
  • “Borrowed Time”
  • “Pear Cider and Cigarettes”
  • “Pearl”
  • “Piper”

Animated Feature Film

  • “Kubo and the Two Strings”
  • “Moana”
  • “My Life as a Zucchini”
  • “The Red Turtle”
  • “Zootopia”




“Denial” (2016)


Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her attorneys, preparing for court room battle.

Those of us who have not lived under a rock all our lives are pretty familiar with certain truths; i.e., the world is round, astronauts actually landed on the moon, and atrocities like the Holocaust really happened.  But here’s a question:  What if you had to go into a court of law and prove that these things are true?  What facts would you use to make your case?

That is the challenge facing Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) in the docudrama Denial, based on a British libel case from 2000.  In the film, plaintiff David Irving (Timothy Spall), alleges that Ms. Lipstadt has characterized his writings and public statements as Holocaust denial in her book, Denying the Holocaust.  He sues both Lipstadt and her UK publisher, Penguin.

Lipstadt soon discovers the difficulty of her situation.  In British civil court, the defendant is the one who must prove their position, not the plaintiff.  Therefore, Lipstadt’s legal team must provide evidence that the Holocaust really happened, in order to defend her written statements in Denying the Holocaust that Irving systematically denied it.

Most legal dramas center on action in the courtroom.  Denial focuses on the fireworks behind the scenes; specifically Lipstadt’s disagreement with the way her lawyers wish to litigate the trial.  For example, she is horrified when her team tells her that neither she nor living Holocaust survivors will be allowed to testify.  Instead, the team will thoroughly review Irving’s diaries regarding involvement with rightwing groups, and they will search out forensic evidence related to the central point of the trial:  The massacre of Jews at Auschwitz.  The question is whether the lawyers’ measured plan of attack in the courtroom will work.  Is it a mistake to leave Lipstadt and the survivors out of the proceedings?

Weitz is pretty good as Lipstadt, but the real standouts are Timothy Spall as Irving and Tom Wilkinson as defense advocate Richard Rampton.  These two actors provide the most compelling in-court dramatics of the entire film.

It is most unfortunate that Denial was not in wide release, at least in my area.  It should be seen by everyone, especially young people.  The film teaches us a couple of lessons:   1) We must never forget the Holocaust.  2) In an age where fake news and “alternative facts” seem to run rampant all over the media, it is extremely important to carefully verify facts and information before drawing conclusions about anything, especially history.


You can download Denial from using the following link:


You can also find Deborah Lipstadt’s book about the libel suit,  History on Trial:  My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,”  at

Pluses:  Excellent performances from Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson; moving scene concerning Auschwitz location.

Minus:  Sometimes lags in dramatic propulsion.

Cast:  Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Lack Lowden, Caren Pistorious, Alex Jennings.

Director:  Mick Jackson

Rating:  PG-13

In color.

Length:  110