Film Reviews – Hidden Figures; A Monster Calls

Hidden Figures; A Monster Calls 

Hidden Figures has been riding high at the box office and that’s a good thing, especially since it deals with such hot topics as race relations, gender issues, the space race, and education—and presents them within a fact-based story that has heretofore been unfamiliar to the general public.  And by the way, it does this in an entertaining, informative, and ultimately uplifting manner.

And by the way, it does this in an entertaining, informative, and ultimately uplifting manner.

Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, amd Janelle Mokae star as three African-American friends whose parallel stories unfold in 1962 as America attempts to be the first to send a man into space. Taraji P. Henson is Katherine Johnson, a mathematical wiz in who has to battle race and gender barriers in order to secure her newly attained position as the first African-American woman on the Space Task Group; Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician whose attempts to become a supervisor for her computers (as in people who compute) are thwarted by a brick wall of so-called rules and regulations, as personified by Kirsten Dunst–her character also presents similar obstacles to Mokae, who has to appeal to the courts to get permission to attend an all-white school to achieve her engineering degree.

Hidden Figures works well because, despite the occasional indulgent moment, it is generally a solid, intelligent piece of filmmaking utilizing both humor and restraint. Theodore Melfi’s film (co-written by him and Allison Schroeder, from Margot Lee Shutterly’s book) is suffused with heartfelt moments and graceful performances. Henson is a revelation if you only know her as Empire’s Cookie; here she effortlessly combines determination, ambition, intelligence and a touching degree of vulnerability.  Katherine is the best mathematician in the room, despite the aspersions cast on her by her rigid, biased colleagues. Jim Parsons’ co-worker is her chief opposition, while Kevin Costner (excellent) is the man in charge who has no time for prejudice of any kind in his mission to have America win the “race.”  To its credit, there is restraint in Costner’s realization of both her genius and professionalism, while Parsons, at best, grants her a grudging acceptance.  Spencer and Mokae also do fine work—Spencer is understated and effective in her war of words with Dunst (doing her best with the film’s most thankless role), while Mokae excels throughout, particularly in courtroom scene where she makes her case for her place in engineering school.   This is a “message” film in the best sense of the word, especially when the overall effect is as inspirational as this one.

A Monster Calls is a fairly dark drama with elements of both horror and fantasy as it depicts a bullied boy (Toby Kebbell), his dying mother (Felicity Jones), the seemingly brusque and unsympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver)–and a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who appears to give some life lessons to the boy—in exchange for a tale from the lad.  As the monster recites his tales (complete with impressive visual effects), a pattern begins to emerge; the lessons learned are more ambiguous than one would expect, as he attempts to impart to the lad that not everything is fair, that the good ones aren’t necessarily as good as you think—and the bad may have their redeeming aspects. Director J.A. Bayona, working from a well-crafted script from Patrick Ness, has created an atmospheric, well-acted portrayal of alienation, despair, and guilt, and the possibility of reconciliation.  It’s worth a look in this crowded movie season.

And now for an unabashed, unapologetic commercial announcement: my new book DAN DURYEA – HEEL WITH A HEART, from University Press of Mississippi, is available wherever fine books are sold—namely Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and TCM (which has the best price).  It’s the first full-length biography of the off-screen nice-guy actor best known for his on-screen villainy—and it’s the book FILM COMMENT called “an awfully handy piece of work.”  Please pick up a copy and discover this underrated actor for yourself—you won’t be sorry.