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What Do You Want to See on This Movie Screen?

blank movie screen

Last week, I saw a segment on 60 Minutes that simply MUST be made into a movie.  It had to do with a teacher who went to Mississippi and is teaching working-class and poor kids how to be championship chess players.

Which brings me to my question for all of you:  Are there any stories out there that you would love to see on the big screen?  Let me know….maybe we can get together and start petitioning Denzel, or Angelina, or someone else to get it up there.

The floor is open…….comments?



Vixens, Vamps, and Tramps: Catherine Deneuve in “Belle De Jour” (1967)


Severine (Catherine Deneuve) learning her new trade.

For our last VV&T (Vixens, Vamps, and Tramps) movie of the month, we journey to France.

Belle De Jour is a disturbing and fascinating film by that great master of surrealism, director Luis Bunuel (1900-1983).  On its face, the plot is fairly simple:  An upper-class Parisian housewife is bored with her oh-so-perfect marriage and decides to work at a high-class brothel during the afternoon.  Her working sobriquet is “Belle De Jour,” lady/beauty of the day, as opposed to “lady of the night.”  Eventually, her working and domestic lives clash, with tragic consequences.

This is a Bunuel film, and so of course there’s much more than what lies on the surface of this story.  Bunuel is well-known for creating sequences that mix dream scapes with reality.  For example, Belle De Jour begins with the main character, Severine, taking a buggy ride with her husband in the country.  They get into an argument, and the husband suddenly orders the coachmen to remove Severine from the coach and brutalize her.  We realize part way through this scene that something is off.  Sure enough, the entire sequence is actually a rape fantasy in which Severine indulges as she and her husband retire for the night.

Bored housewives having erotic daydreams are nothing new to the cinema.  What makes this story interesting is the way that Bunuel effortlessly goes back and forth between Severine’s actual life and her fantasy life, to the point that we begin to wonder what is truly real for this woman.

Early in the story, Severine finds out from an acquaintance that there is a secret brothel where ordinary upper-class women can earn extra money as prostitutes.  Intrigued, Severine locates such a place and is soon employed.  But her reactions to the clients, the madam, the other prostitutes and her new situation are strangely muted; she seems to be sleepwalking through the whole experience.  The workers and clients at the brothel don’t emote or react much either; they are very matter of fact in greeting the new girl, and then undressing her so that she can get down to business.  The whole experience is like one of those dreams where you are partially or completely undressed, yet no one in the dream is really paying much attention.  Is it possible that some or all of this prostitute stuff is, in fact, one of Severine’s fantasies?

By the end of the film, Severine has left the brothel and is back with her husband, who has been severely injured by a gunman involved  with the madam’s shady business.  As the husband sits half-comatose in a wheelchair, Severine looks out the window and we witness what she sees:  The buggy scene from the beginning of the film.  We’re back in Severine’s head again.   We’re also left with this question:  Who’s the real Severine?  Is she the immaculate housewife, or the prostitute?

Catherine Deneuve essentially carries this film, and she’s perfect for the role.  Her beautiful, mask-like face barely registers anything as she walks like a somnambulist through the most extreme incidents at the brothel and in her private fantasies.  Rather than using muted lighting or black and white to play up the smuttiness of the situation, Bunuel uses brighter lighting and clear colors in all scenes, which enables the director to smoothly switch the main character back and forth between her pristine domestic life and sordid working life.

You can download Belle De Jour from by clicking onto the following link:

Your can purchase a Blu-Ray DVD version of this film from by clicking onto the following link:


Pluses:   Good performance from Catherine Deneuve.  Expert melding of real-life and dream sequences.

Minus:  Although there are no explicit sex scenes, the implied sex and violence in this film may not be for the squeamish.  If you are a fan of Luis Bunuel, you will like the film.  If not, you may not find the subject matter to your taste.

Cast:  Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page.

Director:  Luis Bunuel

R (Implied sexual scenes, implied sexual violence)

In Color.

Subtitled in English (originally in French)

Length:  1 hour 40 minutes


Movies for March: Vixens, Vamps, and Tramps


March is National Women’s History Month.  With this in mind, I will be discussing films that feature prominent female characters.  But wait….there’s a twist.  The ladies we see here will never win Woman of the Month.  In other words, nothing that even smacks of Greer Garson.

Instead, we will be looking at some delectable performances by actresses who played vixens, vamps, tramps, and other less-than-saintly female archetypes.   Some of the films I discuss this month may be familiar to you; others, not.  Hopefully, you will be encouraged to see all of them.

Oh, and for St. Patrick’s Day…I’ve got a movie with one mean dame in it.  You’ll see in a week or two…..

Films that go bump in the night: What scared us as kids



I recently shared a meme on Facebook titled, “What Movie Traumatized You as a Child?”

I received a tidal wave of responses from filmgoers who had been frightened (hopefully with some sense of fun) by the things they’d seen onscreen as tykes.  I’ve included examples from 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, and onward.  Apparently, we’ve been scared for a very long time.

Take a look at the movie memories that I’ve listed below.  By the way, I learned about some films I’ve never heard of before–neat!


This is what scared the bejesus out of us kids, in chronological order:

King Kong (1933).

“When King Kong battles the giant dinosaur.  That was scary.”

Elephant Boy (1937).  A British adventure/fantasy film featuring Indian actor Sabu as an elephant handler.

“I saw a movie about a boy in the jungle that entered a cave and was attacked by a giant hairy spider that had an even bigger web.  I had nightmares for a long time.  My mother told me that as a baby a spider bit me on my lip and it was poisonous and caused a red streak to appear on my face.  I have a scar on my lip where I was bitten.  No wonder spiders and their webs haunted me for many years.”

The Wizard of Oz (1939).

“I hate to admit it but the wicked witch and her flying monkeys really scared me when the Wizard of Oz was televised.  Miss Gulch’s character scared me as well – she reminded me of a not so favorite great aunt.”

Bambi (1942).  The respondent did not elaborate here, but I think most of us remember the scene where Bambi’s mother is shot.

Hitler’s Children (1943).  A young U.S. citizen studies at the American Colony School in Germany prior to WWII.  Years later, one of her friends, now a Nazi officer, sends her to a labor camp.

My horror movie featured [child actor] Bonita Granville….HITLER’S CHILDREN.  Had nightmares for weeks!” 

House of Wax (1953).  A disfigured sculptor finds a novel way to repopulate his destroyed wax museum.

“The moment you find out that the statues in the Museum are people that had been dipped in wax.”

The Night of the Hunter (1955).  An evil, serial-killer preacher chases two children down the Ohio River.

“Robert Michum’s character [the preacher] was scary.”

The Trollenburg Terror (1958).  This film concerns extraterrestrials which live in a radiation cloud in the Alps above a Swiss resort town.  They kill anyone who comes near them and threaten to descend upon the town:

        “I must have seen it 15 times.  Scared the s***! out of me.  We loved scary movies as kids.”

The Fly (1958).  A scientist develops a machine that can break down matter and instantly teleport it to another location.  He tries the machine on himself.  Unfortunately, a fly has accidently flown into the machine at the moment of teleportation.  Their atoms get mixed up.  Just imagine what that looks like……

“Helllllp meeeee!!!!” [screamed by fly-man at the moment he is eaten by a spider at end of film.]

Psycho (1960).  An Alfred Hitchcock film infamous for a brutal murder that occurs in a hotel shower.

“….That’s why I take baths to this day.”

Mr. Sardonicus (1961).  A man who robbed his father’s grave is left disfigured with a horrifying, frozen grin on his face.

“I just remember the guy with the huge, sardonic smile.”

The Birds (1963).  Another Hitchcock film where a small town on the California coast is inexplicably attacked by thousands of birds.

“….I couldn’t go out in the backyard without getting terrified of the birds sitting on the telephone line…..

 Hotel (1967).  A drama which takes place at the fictional St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans:

        “All I remember is that there was an elevator crash.  To this day, I don’t like elevators.”

The Omega Man (1971).  Subsequent to a horrible plague, there’s only one man on earth….but he’s not alone, as mutant zombies (created by the plague) are on the rampage.

“I was so scared of Mathias and his zombies that I had to sleep in my parents’ [bed] for two nights in a row.”

The Shining (1980).  An alcoholic and his wife become the caretakers of a haunted resort hotel:

“When he [Actor Jack Nicholson] was breaking into the bathroom with an axe and he had this  very crazed look on his face.”

And a few memories strictly from TV shows:

“That stupid TV documentary about the Bermuda Triangle.”

“Pig people….as a little kid, I had nightmares for weeks!”  [referring to the denouement of a “Twilight Zone” episode called “The Eye of the Beholder.]


Oh, I almost forgot:  My scary movie memory dates from the time I was five or six.  I witnessed a film segment on TV with writhing shadows projected onto the wall of a cave….moans and screams of agony….hellish scenes….and that vision was with me for decades before I found out that it was a fantasy scene from a 1935 Spencer Tracy movie called Dante’s Inferno.  Tracy plays the owner of a carnival that features a ride called “Dante’s Inferno.”


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.

“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.