Tag Archives: Theodore Melfi

Space Racers

Spotlighting black female brain power that boosted America’s space program

DF-03283_R3 - Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in ‘Hidden Figures.’

Hidden Figures
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe & Kevin Costner
Directed by Theodore Melfi
PG
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017

Behind every successful man, the old saying goes—as archaic and sexist as it may be—there’s a woman.

In the case of this movie, it’s literally, historically true.

Hidden Figures is the story of a group of black women who broke through racial and gender barriers in the late 1950s and early ’60s to work as mathematicians and other number crunchers and help NASA get America’s first astronauts, and its space program, off the ground.

In the pre-digital age, there were known as human “computers,” doing complex calculations about flight trajectories, orbit, reentry, splashdown and recovery with pencils, paper and pure brain power.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer-actress Janelle Monáe star as their real-life counterparts Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner is the director of the Space Task Group, spurring his engineers to find a way ahead of the Soviets, who’ve already moved into an early lead in the space race. If you got a rousing rah-rah pep talk from the guy from Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Draft Day and McFarland, USA, wouldn’t it make you push that pencil just a little bit harder, a little bit later into the night, to beat the ruskies?

Jim Parsons—Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory—plays another egghead, time-shifted here to suit the situation: He’s a prickly lead engineer wary of a woman—and a Negro woman, at that—coming into his group. As the gentlemanly military man who courts Johnson, Mahershala Ali continues to add to his growing resume, on top of his breakout in the movie Moonlight and his recurring appearances in TV’s Luke Cage and House of Cards. Kristin Dunst is a supervisor who struggles to overcome the era’s hurdles separating employees into whites and coloreds.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the "computers," the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the “computers,” the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

Glen Powell plays young hotshot astronaut John Glenn, who won’t get into his space capsule for blastoff until NASA brings in Johnson to double-check the crucial—life or death—math on his orbit and re-entry.

But the clearly movie belongs to its three central stars, and director Theodore Melfi (who also directed Bill Murray in the wonderful St. Vincent) gives them all plenty of room to shine in a story that oozes inspiration and rings with righteous pride, thanks to the zippy, well-rounded script by Melfi and Alison Schroder, based on the nonfiction book by Margo Lee Shetterly. Henson, Spencer and Monáe all bring spunk, sass, heart and humor to their roles.

The title “hidden figures” refers to just how deep behind the scenes women like Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were at NASA—and elsewhere—in the early 1960s. Even though their contributions proved to be immense to the space program, they were practically “lost” in a sea of white men in white shirts. But it also refers to the math required to get America into space and headed to the moon—numbers “that aren’t there yet,” as Costner’s character tells Johnson, calculations so advanced, they hadn’t been invented, figures waiting somewhere yet to be found.

Katherine Johnson was the woman who found them.

The movie tells the “hidden” story of three super-smart, headstrong women who made tremendous strides in a time of shameful segregation and civil unrest, a time when a group of black women helped white men get into space—but couldn’t use the same bathrooms, coffeepots, water fountains or schools.

Three women, it reminds us, who had another kind of “the right stuff.”

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saints Alive

Bill Murray shines as a grumpy-golden coot-next-door

ST. VINCENT

St. Vincent

Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher

Directed by Theodore Melfi

PG-13

Bill Murray has carved out a comfortable three-decade movie niche playing sweet-natured troublemakers, loveable oafs and world-weary wiseasses. So the grumpy old coot-next-door he now portrays, at age 64, in St. Vincent seems like a perfect fit, a natural progression.

Murray’s character, Vincent, becomes the caretaker of a 10-year-old boy, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), after Oliver and his stressed-out single mom, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) become his new neighbors—Vincent is strapped for cash and Maggie’s in a bind. Not knowing anyone else, she enlists Vincent to watch Oliver after school and evenings while she works.

“He’s sort of cool, in a grouchy sort of way,” Oliver tells his mother after a few afternoons in Vincent’s care. “Too old to be dangerous, but not too old to be too dangerous.”

ST. VINCENT

Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher & Naomi Watts

Vincent is hardly any mom’s dream babysitter; he drinks, he smokes, he gambles, and he takes Oliver along to the bar and the racetrack. He teaches Oliver to fight and to stand up to the bully at school. It’s no real surprise when Vincent becomes a surrogate father figure to the scrawny, sensitive lad, whose own dad, we learn, is contesting his mother for Oliver’s custody.

It’s a familiar, often sitcom-ish setup, one that most viewers will recognize from a long parade of TV and movie characters who’ve marched before, from W.C. Fields to Uncle Buck. But Murray and his fellow cast members elevate the material far above the basics, giving the story a rich, lived-in texture with grit, laughter, warmth and an easygoing dramatic groove that cuts through the script’s clichés.

We learn why Vincent seems to have given up on almost everything, why he’s out of money, and why he’s willing to gamble away what little he has left. We watch Oliver emerge from his shell, moreST. VINCENT enabled and emboldened to take on the world. And we understand the connection between Oliver’s school assignment about saints, the title of the movie, and a school assembly where everything comes together.

Murray is a gem, the scruffy, gruff-y glue that holds it all together and keeps it from flecking off into granules of sugary-sweet cuteness. It’s a treat to see McCarthy in a role where she gets to play it straight, freed from comedic slapstick and shenanigans. Watts is a hoot—and seems to be having one, too—as Vincent’s pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend. And Lieberher, as Oliver, is a natural in front of the camera who can hold his own, even when sharing the frame with the formidable funnyman.

St. Vincent, in limited release but gaining in popularity, may not be playing “in a theater near you.” But it’s well worth going the extra mile if you have to seek it out; you’ve probably heard Bill Murray’s name cropping up for some awards at the end of this movie year. And by all means, stay until the end—the very end. The extended sequence that plays under the credits, with Murray (as Vincent) singing along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm”—the whole song—as he blithely waters a forlorn-looking potted plant with an uncooperative garden hose, is a sublime bit of blissed-out backyard karaoke that is itself almost worth the price of your ticket.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Tagged , , , , ,