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Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Hidden Figures is a story about breaking barriers that is, at least in part, based on fact. It’s 1961 and the “space race” between the United States and Russia is underway. Russia has put a spy satellite into orbit around the earth, giving Americans a feeling of unease, and Russia is the first to put a man (Yuri Gagarin) into space. As Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), the big boss at NASA says, “we (meaning the United States) have come in second in a two-man race.” This state of affairs puts a lot of pressure on the American space program and forces NASA to work its employees mercilessly.

Three black woman named Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are new employees at NASA. Each of them is accomplished in her own way. Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) has been a math prodigy since she was a small child. It takes a lot of calculating to launch a rocket into space and bring it safely down again. Katherine is more adept at the calculations than most of her male counterparts. She is, of course, underestimated because of her gender and her race. This is 1961, remember, so black people can’t use the same coffee pot as the white people, not to mention toilets and drinking fountains. Al Harrison seems a cold and forbidding boss, but as he sees how capable Katherine is, he develops a grudging admiration for her and becomes, in a way, her mentor. When Katherine wants to attend all-male briefings to better understand what is going on with swiftly implemented changes, she is told there is no protocol for a woman to attend briefings. “There is no protocol to put a man into orbit around the earth, either,” she says.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar playing a maid in The Help) is mechanically inclined. As a new employee at NASA, she heads up a group of black female employees, but she is stonewalled when she tries to get the pay and title of supervisor. (This slight is probably more about her race than her anything else.) When NASA installs a mainframe computer that takes up an entire room, Dorothy is the only person who seems to know how to get it going.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) is only an adjunct to her male counterparts, but she longs to be NASA’s first black female engineer. She lacks a few classes, though, to even qualify. She can pick up the classes she needs at a school near her home, but she’s not allowed to attend because it’s an all-white school and she’s black. Having no intention of being thwarted, she petitions the court to bend the rules a little bit to allow her to get the classes she needs. She finesses a white judge and he rules in her favor.

After being out-classed by the Russians at the beginning of the space race, the American space program finally finds its legs and does some amazing things, including putting a man, Alan Shepard, into space and putting another man, John Glenn, into orbit around the earth. At the end of Hidden Figures, when Katherine Goble is asked if the seemingly impossible goal of putting a man on the moon can be achieved by the end of the 1960s, she says with confidence, “We’re already there.” To her it’s the next barrier to be broken in a long line of them to come.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

La La Land ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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La La Land ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I was prepared to hate La La Land but, once we got past the cutesy singing-and-dancing traffic jam that opens the movie, I didn’t hate it. I can’t say it’s really my favorite kind of movie, but it’s passable entertainment for a late-December afternoon at the local art film theatre. It’s a bittersweet romance and a musical fantasy rolled up together. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) both have a dream: she wants to be an actress and he wants to be a jazz pianist and own his own jazz club. Their lack of success, however, is dazzling. She came to Los Angeles from a small town in Nebraska and has been struggling for six years to gain a foothold in the acting profession, working at a lousy job in a Hollywood coffee shop to keep herself going. He gets fired from his job playing background music in a dimly lighted restaurant because he plays real jazz on the piano instead of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”

Mia and Sebastian have several chance encounters, the first one being an ugly traffic confrontation. She happens to hear him play in the restaurant where he works on the night he gets fired, and when she tries to congratulate him on his playing, he won’t even listen to what she has to say. Eventually they get together, though, and, in typical movie fashion, they “fall in love.”

Sebastian has another chance encounter (this movie is full of them) with an old musician acquaintance who offers him a steady job in a musical combo. The only problem is that Sebastian is away from Mia most of the time and they begin to have problems arising from their separation. Mia, for her part, continues to struggle with soulless acting auditions. She writes a one-character play and hires a theatre to perform it in, but, at the play’s one performance, only a few people show up, and she doesn’t even make enough money to pay for the theatre. Disheartened and disillusioned, she retreats to her small-town home in Nebraska. Wait a minute, though! She gets the “call” after she’s gone that might be her big breakthrough. Although Sebastian and Mia are officially finished, he drives from Los Angeles to Nebraska to get her to deliver the good news to her and see that she makes it to the audition in time.

There are singing and dancing in La La Land, but not of the Fred Astaire variety (which I detest). Whenever Mia and Sebastian are alone together, in several scenes, they go into “fantasy singing-and-dancing mode.” One of these happens at dusk on a parking lot overlooking the bowl-like valley that is Los Angeles. The most notable scene of this kind, though, is at the famous planetarium (the Griffith Observatory) where James Dean and Natalie Wood took a memorable high school field trip, along with their class, in the classic 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. Mia and Sebastian are the only two people at the planetarium and, in their singing-and-dancing number together, defy gravity. For me, the most effective and innovative scene of the entire movie is at the end when Mia and Sebastian have their final chance encounter in a roomful of people and Sebastian plays “their song” while we are treated to a montage of soundless (except for the music) “what if” scenes. What if he hadn’t brushed her off the night he was fired? What if he hadn’t been offered a job that kept him mostly on the road? Will there be a sequel? No, a sequel would only spoil the bittersweet.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Fences was first a Pulitzer Prize play by August Wilson and is now a movie directed by Denzel Washington. Set in Pittsburgh of the 1950s, it touches on themes of family, duty, loyalty, and overcoming one’s difficult past. Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an uneducated black man who rides on the back of a trash truck and empties trash cans into the truck. He has a best friend and co-worker named Jim Bono; a brain-damaged (from the war) brother named Gabriel; a dutiful wife named Rose (played by Viola Davis); a 34-year-old musician son (by another wife) named Lyons; and a teenage son named Cory who wants to play football. We learn about Troy’s life as he reveals it in dialogue. One of eleven children, he left home at age fourteen to make his own way. He fell into a life of crime and stealing and ended up in prison, where he spent fifteen years. If prison taught him nothing else, it taught him to go straight.

He’s had a stable marriage with Rose for eighteen years. He goes to work every day and owns the house he lives in, but life isn’t easy for him. He struggles to pays the bills and, when he wants to advance in his job from trash collector to driver, he is dismayed to learn that his company only hires white men as drivers. His friend, Jim Bono, chides him for not having a driver’s license and not being able to read, but if there’s one thing Troy has, it’s determination. Life has made him hard and intractable. He seems at times to have lost the touch of humanity he needs to get along with his family. If we come to understand Troy, we also come to not like him very much.

When Troy comes to Rose in the kitchen one day and tells her he is about to become “somebody’s daddy,” she reacts about as expected. He has taken up with a much younger woman named Alberta and has impregnated her. When he tries to explain to Rose why he has sought the company of another woman, Rose isn’t buying it; all she can see is the betrayal. She says she might have expected it when he was ten or fifteen years younger, but not at his age. “Age has nothing to do with it,” he says. Alberta makes him laugh “down to the bottoms of his shoes” and makes him forget for a little while how hard his life is.

I was lucky enough to see Fences performed live onstage a number of years ago. The movie version is essentially unchanged from the play. (The playwright, August Wilson, wrote the screenplay.) It’s fairly static and stagey for a movie; they (the filmmakers) have opened up the action a little bit, but not much. Most of it takes place in the back yard of Troy’s home and it’s a fairly talky affair. If you like authentic-sounding dialogue and are a fan of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, you’ll love Fences. If you’re a big action fan, though, and are looking for some action, you’ll probably be disappointed. This is what you might call a deep character study, a slice of life, for the more serious-minded among us.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Manchester by the Sea ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Manchester by the Sea ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Manchester by the Sea is a somber study in loss and tragedy, set in bleak New England winter with gray skies and a gray heart. Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck) is a working-class man with a foul-mouthed wife and three small children. He drinks more than is good for him and it’s while he’s under the influence of alcohol that he makes the terrible error in judgment from which he will never recover.

As the story moves back and forth in time, it takes us a while to know who is who and what is what. Lee Chandler’s brother, Joe (played, coincidentally, by an actor named Kyle Chandler, who was the unhappy husband of a lesbian in the movie Carol last year), develops a heart condition in early middle age and dies. He has one child, a sixteen-year-old son named Patrick. Joe’s wife, Patrick’s mother, is an unreliable, drunken shrew, so Joe leaves guardianship of Patrick to his brother Lee. Lee, now divorced, works as a janitor/handyman, living in one room, and he has plenty of problems of his own (including alcoholism), so he probably isn’t the best choice in the world to take care of a confused, sexually precocious sixteen-year-old boy. Patrick probably isn’t going to be happy in any circumstances, with his father dead and his mother “away.”

The Manchester of Manchester by the Sea is Manchester, Massachusetts, and not Manchester, England, as the title would seem to suggest. It’s a contemporary story, so that means there’s lots of foul language and naturalistic acting, with parts of the dialogue mumbled and unintelligible. The outdoor scenes are wintry scenes, with piles of dirty snow everywhere and cloud-covered vistas, so there’s nothing pretty to look at, even the sea. There’s nothing happy about this movie, including the way it looks, but it’s an engrossing, immersive movie; its two hours and sixteen minutes race by with barely a thought of how much longer it’s going to take, and when the end comes we were probably wishing for a little more.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp   

Arrival ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Arrival ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

A huge pod-like object, obviously an alien spacecraft, has landed in the farm fields of Montana. We soon learn that there are eleven other pods in different locations around the world. Have aliens come to destroy human life on earth? If not, what are they (the aliens) here for? They seem to be trying to communicate in a non-human language but, of course, humans don’t know what they’re saying. The military engages the services of a renowned teacher and language expert named Louise Banks (Amy Adams, superb in any movie she’s in). She is taken to the alien pod in Montana where, it is hoped, she will be able to figure out what they are saying.

Louise Banks is a recent divorcee with plenty of heartbreak in her life, having lost her young daughter to disease. This, of course, means that she is provided with fellow language researcher and love interest in the person of Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Louise and Ian ascend into the alien spacecraft to confront the aliens and try to discover what they hope to accomplish by coming to earth.

Right away we see the aliens as Louise and Ian see them. They aren’t acid-slobbering killing machines as in the classic sci-fi movie Alien, but they are not pleasing to the eye. They resemble octopuses at the bottom of the sea, except that they have no eyes or mouths that we can see. The researchers right away dub them “heptapods” because they are about seven feet tall and seem to have seven legs or tentacle-like appendages. Louise discovers that they have names and they communicate in a strange language that, unlike human languages, is not based on sound or symbols but on thought. Inside the alien spaceship, she removes her bulky hood and breathing apparatus so the aliens can get a clearer picture of what humans are like. Ian does the same. This helps to establish a connection with the aliens.

The aliens communicate by extending their tentacles and writing before them, in an ink-like substance, in large, semi-circles with feathery extensions. After studying these “writings,” Louise begins to get a clearer picture of what the aliens are trying to communicate. She learns, for one thing, that time for the aliens is not “linear,” as it is for us. (This is a difficult concept for humans to grasp.)  The aliens want to help humans because they will need help in the far-distant future (this is very vague.) Louise also learns that her own life has taken, or will take, a non-linear course and that this will allow her to know what will happen in the future. Her past, her life, and her future are somehow bound up with these strange creatures from an alien place.

Arrival is dark, in the way it looks and in its tone. There’s a sense of foreboding throughout much of the movie, a feeling that we don’t know what the aliens are going to do—or what might be done to them while they’re on earth (some countries are calling for aggressive military action). If the ending is unsatisfying because we don’t learn as much as we’d like to know about the aliens, we forgive it because the rest of the movie is so much more interesting than the rest of the stuff that’s playing at the multiplex.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Hacksaw Ridge ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hacksaw Ridge ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I’d rather have Mel Gibson behind the camera where I don’t have to see him. His latest directorial effort is Hacksaw Ridge, a gripping World War II story with a conscientious objector from Virginia as its central character. When Desmond Doss sees that his country is in trouble, he can’t sit out the war and do nothing. He wants to enlist, but there’s just one thing: he’s a Seventh Day Adventist with very strong principles against carrying a weapon. He enlists, anyway, though, and soon finds himself in unexpected trouble in the military. His officers and fellow soldiers can’t and won’t understand his religious principles. How can he be such a fool as to believe he can go to war without killing the enemy or at least defending himself with a gun? He is harassed, beaten, called a coward, and yelled at (I would crumple under the yelling and name-calling) and finally given an easy way out, but he is not to be deterred. He wants to serve and he believes the best way for him to do it is as a combat medic. He will be the one to put people back together, he says, while everybody else is taking people apart.

He is about to be court-martialed for his refusal to pick up a weapon, but his drunken father, a World War I veteran, produces proof from somebody he knew back in the day that shows his son’s religious convictions are protected by the good old Constitution of the United States. (We can’t let politicians shred it!) He goes to war with his division and soon finds himself fighting the battle of Okinawa. Okinawa is of strategic importance to the U.S. war effort. If it can be breached, the next step is Japan.

The fighting on Okinawa is as close to hell as anybody has ever seen. (Bloody and graphic battle sequences, showing mutilations and head wounds.) Casualties are heavy on both sides. As a medic, Desmond Doss displays bravery beyond what anybody might have ever imagined. He selflessly rescues about seventy-five of his fellow soldiers from the battlefield under heavy fire from the Japanese. He manages to get each injured man down a cliff, using a butterfly knot that he learned in basic training. The man who was labeled a coward for his refusal to pick up a gun becomes an unexpected hero.

Actor Andrew Garfield (memorable in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go) plays real-life Desmond Doss with sweetness and sincerity. He goes to war armed only with a small Bible his girlfriend (later his wife) gives him with her picture in it. As modest and quiet-spoken as he is, he is never willing to compromise his principles under pressure that would make most of us buckle. We need more people like him.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Don’t Breathe ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Don’t Breathe – A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Three young people, Alex, Roxanne and Money (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto), burglarize people’s houses for a living. When they hear about an eccentric war veteran who has three hundred thousand dollars from a settlement involving his daughter’s traffic death, they think it will be an easy score; he is bound to have the money somewhere in his house, since he is reputed to not trust banks. The fact that he is blind makes it even more of a cinch. How can they go wrong? If they can get that much money from one break-in, they can quit robbing houses and do something less risky. Roxanne can get her young daughter away from her trashy home life.

The blind veteran (Stephen Lang) with the three hundred thousand dollars lives in a nearly abandoned section of Detroit. He is, in fact, the only person there. He lives in an old house with only a vicious, snarling dog for company. When Alex, Roxanne and Money arrive in the middle of the night to break into the blind man’s house, they know about the dog beforehand so they have a doggie treat ready that will put the dog to sleep (not long enough, as they soon discover).

The blind man isn’t the pushover the burglars think he is going to be. The house is fortified like a prison with bars on the windows. They trip the alarm system to get inside and, once inside, they realize they can’t get back out. Though he can’t see them, the blind man is more than capable of defending himself. He knows there is at least one intruder, but he doesn’t know how many. He kills Money right off and is stalking Alex and Roxanne with deadly intent. When they are trying to find a way out, Alex and Roxanne discover a secret in the blind man’s basement they would be better off not knowing. The message here is clear: If you break into people’s houses to rob them, you are probably asking for a deadly dose of something terrible and, if you get it, you probably deserve it.

Don’t Breathe is an effective suspense/horror film with, you can tell, a modest budget and a running time of an hour and twenty-eight minutes. The horror is not supernatural horror involving ghosts and malevolent spirits but earthly horror that comes from what people do to other people. It’s plenty violent and there are some unexpected twists and turns along the way, involving prey that turns out to be more predator. There’s a twist at the end that might lend itself to a sequel, depending on how profitable the original is.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp