Two quick movie reviews

The Thinker by Rodin

In this better late than never post, here are reviews of two movies I’ve seen lately, although lately means “some weeks ago”.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

Fantastic beasts and where to find them should delight both those steeped in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world as well as the rest of us. Count me in the latter camp. Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, you will enjoy this finely crafted and inventive movie.

“Newt Scamander” (Rowling) published a book of the same name in 2001. It was short and not particularly noteworthy, more of an oddity for the obsessed Harry Potter fan. It discussed some obscure magical beasts unmentioned in other books. Fifteen years later Rowling turned it into a screenplay set in the bustling 1920s. Unsurprisingly, she proves adept writing screenplays. In the movie, Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the Big Apple and is hardly off the boat before some of his magical creatures stuffed in his suitcase begin wreaking mischief in the New World.

This causes considerable consternation because the wizards across the pond are much more buttoned down than their British peers. Thus begins a series of unfortunate events for Newt that quickly involves people he meets along the way. One woman he quickly encounters, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) has already encountered misfortune from MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) and has been demoted, only to encounter more when she tries to muzzle Sean’s escaping magical creatures. The applecart tips even further when Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with an aspiring baker forced to work in a cannery and the muggle gets exposed to their wizardly world. Both Tina and Newt get the ultimate punishment (death) but of course events intervene that keep the execution from executing. These include the release of an Obscurus, a parasite that kills girls that don’t develop their magical talents.

There are many delights in this movie: a fine rendering of New York in the 1920s, understated but authentic-feeling characters, a rich magical ecosystem, a sweet but forbidden romance between wizard and muggle, and a whole new variant of wizardry practiced in the United States for Potter fans to delve into. There are also fine actors like Redmayne, Colin Farrell (playing Percival Graves) and Jon Voight (as a U.S. senator). What’s especially nice is how well the ensemble plays together, thanks to director David Yates. But it is mostly Rowling’s sharp vision of this earlier magical world that works so well. Without Voldemort, it has a lighter feel but it moves along at a happy but brisk pace, resulting in a highly engaging movie even for us muggles.

It’s thoroughly delightful and should push everyone’s buttons. So naturally it has no chance at the upcoming Academy Awards. Alas.

3.4 out of 4 points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Hidden figures

Speaking of the Academy Awards, Hidden Figures is one of the movies nominated for Best Picture, and deservedly so, unlike the overrated La La Land. But it probably won’t win because it takes place in Virginia and it features black women. So many stories like this never get turned into movies, so perhaps we should be grateful this one did. The bonus is that it is done so well.

In 1962, Virginia was still an officially segregated state, which makes the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson even more surprising. They were pivotal in the success of America’s space program but they had the double whammy of being both black and women. Working for NASA at Langley Air Force Base, each were well-educated black women hired by NASA to help the USA win the space race. The movie mostly focuses on Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), a brilliant mathematician thrown into the white male scientist world of NASA. To say the least, she is a fish out of water. While America is not quite ready for a manned suborbital flight, the Soviets have already put Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The pressure is on the nerds at Langley to figure out an engineering solution to put an American astronaut into space and, the harder question, figure out how to return the astronaut home safely. Here Katherine will prove pivotal.

To say the least it’s awkward for Katherine in this white male domain, and it’s awkward for us viewers to confront the segregation of the time too. It means Kate has to walk half a mile to use a restroom, because she must use one for coloreds only. The Space Task Group’s director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) seems blind to her obstacles that also includes discomfort from the men in the group. For example, they won’t let her drink coffee from their coffee pot. Meanwhile across campus in the colored building, Dorothy (Octavia Spenser) has all the duties of supervisor but neither the title nor its pay as she and her group of black women work at solving various mathematical problems for NASA at a huge discount compared to white women. Her white supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) seems inured to her issues. Mary (Janelle Monáe) meanwhile wants to get an engineering degree, but finds she can’t. A course she needs is taught only at a whites-only school. They can at least share a car ride together to Langley and commiserate. Katherine, a widow with two daughters at home, finds an attractive officer at Sunday services, who becomes important in her life and heart (Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali).

As someone who grew up during the space race, I do recall the heady feeling of those days. Competition between the Soviet Union and the USA brought out the best. It’s that need to succeed which allows Harrison to eventually put his own prejudices aside, as Kate becomes integral to the success of their mission. To say the least Kate is gifted, but all these women are. Dorothy has the good sense to learn their IBM mainframe, needed for rocket trajectory computations, and figures out how to program it using this language called FORTRAN. The white shirt guys can’t seem to figure it out and she wants to keep her team employed. Ironically, computer programming was considered women’s work back then, beneath men.

This movie has a combination of superb acting and a compelling story plus the thrill of watching some amazing women succeed despite the odds. If you missed the space race, this takes you into its heart. In 1962 the world was rapidly changing. All three women give terrific performances, as do Costner and Dunst. It took 55 years, but Hollywood finally gave these largely unknown black women their due. Of the Oscar nominees I have seen, this is my choice for Best Picture.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

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