Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)


TitleHidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures
Summary/Review:

This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race.  Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school.  And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay.  When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.

Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier.  As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.

All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals.  Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays.  Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.

A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.

Rating: ****

 

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett


Author: Terry Pratchett
TitleMonstrous Regiment
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
Previously Read by the Same Author: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (with Neil Gaiman)
Summary/Review:

I’ve been wanting to find a way into the Discworld series but not knowing where to start, I asked folks on library Twitter, and this book was recommended as an entry point.  This novel follows Polly Perks as she disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to find her missing brother.  Her ragtag regiment has a lot of individuals not ready for war as well as a vampire, troll, and an Igor.  It turns out that Polly is not the only one in the regiment with a secret.  Spoiler: It turns out that pretty much every member of the regiment is a woman. This leads to a comical plot where they go undercover disguised as washer women.  This is a funny and sharply satirical book, and it does make me want to read more Discworld (recommendations welcome).

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne


Title: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
Release Date: 14 May 2014
Director:  Michael Edwards
Production Company: Jasmine Avenue Holdings with The Five Stones Group
Summary/Review:

Born in the Belgian Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father, Augusta Chiwy was brought to Belgium at the age of 9 and was adopted and raised by her aunt.  In December 1944, she was training to be a nurse in  Leuven, and traveled home to celebrate the holidays with her father and aunt in Bastogne. At the time, the town seemed secure in the hands of American troops, but within days, the German offensive put Bastogne at the edge of the Battle of the Bulge.

US Army physician John Prior set up an aid station in Bastogne and recruited a Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire (later remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne” following her death by a German bomb) and Chiwy to help care for the wounded soldiers.  Chiwy helped bring comfort and healing to the wounded with some of the most traumatic injuries, and helped Prior retrieve casualties from the battle field.  Chiwy and Prior developed a mutual admiration during the month they worked together, and keep in touch by writing letters over the years.

Otherwise, Chiwy and her contribution during the war was overlooked.  The center focus of this documentary is British military historian Martin King, who spent years trying to piece together stories he’d heard of an African nurse in Bastogne and finding out if she was still alive.  The movie is obviously a labor of love, and evidently low budget, but the story of Chiwy and Prior is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches, supplemented by archival photographs and film.  The strange thing is that King does finally find Chiwy in Brussels, but she is hardly shown except in a small portion at the end of the movie and for the majority of the film she appears in she doesn’t speak.  It’s entirely possible that Chiwy did not wish to be the focus of attention, but it seems awfully odd that she never gets the chance to tell her own story.

Still this documentary offers a glimpse into her heroic life and makes sure she won’t be forgotten.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****

Book Review: Lonely Planet Chicago


TitleLonely Planet Chicago
Publication Info: Lonely Planet (2017), Edition: 8
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read because, of course, I’m planning to visit Chicago this year.  I seem to remember that Lonely Planet guides were once good for getting past the touristy things and actually learning about a place, but I didn’t see that as much in this guide.  The major focus seemed to be on “hip” places to shop, dine, and drink mixed with repeated factoids about Chicago’s history. And they mention the Chicago Cubs “curse” multiple times while only once or twice acknowledging their 2016 championship, which I guess goes to show how much time they spend updating these guides every year.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Iron Man (2008)


TitleIron Man
Release Date: May 2, 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

This origin story of Iron Man begins with weapons manufacturing heir, billionaire, genius, libertine, and all-around a-hole Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) traveling to Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest weapon for the US military.  His convoy is attacked and Stark is wounded and captured by an organization of international warlords called The Ten Rings. They force Stark to build them a weapon, but instead he builds a prototype of the Iron Man suit which he uses to escape.  Stark returns to the United States and announces that his company will no longer be producing weapons, and instead he dedicates his life to building…. a powerful weapon: a new Iron Man suit.

This movie is heavy on jingoism, militarism, and boosting the repellent, but popular, myth that the world will be saved by “wealthy geniuses” (see also: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Bloomberg, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, et al).  This movie was made in 2008, a time when many Americans were aware of the lies and corruption behind the Bush Administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But Tony Stark never objects that the US military is using his weapons against innocents, or the US government has directed the military into unjust wars.  Iraq isn’t even mentioned. There is one evil white American character – Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane (a comically bad one-note performance by Jeff Bridges) – who is shown personally selling weapons to The Ten Rings, but otherwise the good and pure characters and the evil villain characters are purely drawn along ethnic lines.

The movie is well-produced, with clean and entertaining action sequences, and good performances from Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Shaun Toub.  But it makes it all the more repellent that “liberal Hollywood” put their best effort and resources behind a right-wing propaganda film. Even worse, it’s the cornerstone on which the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe was built.

Rating: *

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 24


Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Emergency Alert System

I’ve always had an fascination for those tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. I taped one off the radio as a kid, I actually did them as a college radio DJ, and about 20 years ago I heard one that was NOT a test (warning for intense thunderstorms, which was both a relief and a bit underwhelming).  Here is the story behind how they work.

Planet Money :: The Blue Pallet

Pallets are ubiquitous, overlooked, and seemingly hard to improve.  This is the story of how CHEP pallets revolutionized the industry.  My wife writes about pallets and her enthusiasm is infectious, so I loved this story.

The Nation – Start Making Sense :: It’s Time to Break Up Amazon

Reporting on the dangers of Amazon’s monopoly powers, as well as how mandatory non-compete agreements have helped corporations keep low-wage workers from getting better jobs.

Slate’s Hit Parade :: The Year Rap Music Broke

1986 is a significant year in rap music history, mainly due to RUN-DMC’s crossover hit “Walk this Way” which inadvertently helped revive the fortunes of the rock band Aerosmith (I was one of the kids who knew RUN-DMC well, but never heard of Aerosmith before their collaboration).  Chris Molanphy tells the story of Def Jam Recordings, founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, and how in 1986 they unleashed not only RUN-DMC’s hit album Raising Hell, but also Radio by one of rap’s first solo acts with wide appeal, LL Cool J, and Licensed to Ill by the bratty white kids the Beastie Boys.  Molanphy doesn’t end the story in 1986 though, but follows the ongoing careers of all four acts.

 

Book Review: Siege by Roxane Orgill


AuthorRoxane Orgill
TitleSiege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution
Publication Info: Candlewick (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Siege is a book that tells the story of the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 from multiple perspectives and entirely in verse.  It’s a spectacular way of presenting how the Continental Army was able to fortify the hills surrounding Boston and force the British Army to evacuate the city. And while there’s poetic license, almost all of this book is based on historical fact.  The characters include familiar names like George and Martha Washington, Colonel Henry Knox, Sir William Howe, and Abigail Adams, but also Washington’s aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee, and rank-and-file Continental Army privates Caleb Haskell and Samuel Haws.  Orgill also versifies Washington’s daily orders and the news from Boston.  This is a wonderful approach to presenting a moment in history and highly recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Funerals – three, four, five a day
General Gage has ceased
The pealing of church bells
They cast too melancholy a mood
They do not bring back the dead” – p. 31

“I believe it
from the jetsam
washed ashore
spindles
headboards
tables without legs
splintered drawers
carved backs of Chippendale chairs

they’re leaving the town intact
but nothing to sit upon.” – p. 171

Recommended books:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, and 1776 by David McCullough

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Mulan (1998)


Title: Mulan
Release Date: June 19, 1998
Director: Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Mulan is Disney’s interpretation of the classic Chinese ballad “Hua Mulan,” where a girl takes her aging father’s place when he’s conscripted to war against the Huns. Mulan is a misfit in her society’s traditional expectations of a woman, but with the help of the dragon Mushu – voiced by Eddie Murphy – she’s able to find her place in the military.The great part is that Mulan is able to use her smarts to figure out clever ways to defeat the Huns in battle and eventually save the Emperor.

The animation style that draws on Chinese watercolor rather than real world appearance is a nice touch.  It does feel that Disney didn’t bring in their Grade A composers for this movie, though, as the musical numbers are a resounding dud. While it’s a simple tale simply told, especially compared to the other Disney movies of the Renaissance era, but it is a decent movie about family, honor, friendship, and the capabilities of women in a patriarchal society.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)


TitleWonder Woman
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: Patty Jenkins
Production Company:  Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

Talk about a movie living up to the hype! Gal Gadot puts in a great performance as Diana, the Amazon princess raised among the warrior woman of the island of Themyscira.  When the outside world arrives in the form of an American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashing his plane near the island and an ensuing attack of Germans, Diana is drawn to leave home to end the war and defeat the god Ares.

Diana and Steve go to London and then to Belgium in the last days before the Armistice, with a plan to prevent a German plot to introduce a more dangerous form of mustard gas that would kill thousands and extend the war.  One of the delightful parts of the movie is the team of misfits Steve puts together to accompany them on their mission: Sameer, the Indian secret agent, Charlie, the Scotish sharpshooter with PSTD, and Chief Napi, a Native American smuggler.  The disparate characters alongside Steve and Diana add the “world” to the World War while transcending stereotypes of their cultural background.

There are comical scenes of Diana trying to adjust to the strange, patriarchal world of London, and there are some spectacular visual in the action sequences, particularly the scene in No Man’s Land in Belgium.  Gadot may not be the type of actor to deliver a striking soliloquy, but provides a lot of striking subtle touches such as her little smiles as she discover her powers, as well as her convincing portrayal of a warrior.  Pine also does a good job as a character who would typically be the superhero, but accepts being second fiddle as well as being full of wonder at Diana defying all that is accepted in his culture.

I have a few nitpicks.  While the music in blockbuster films over the past 40+ years has been inspired by John Williams bombastic classical-style score, this movie attempts to break the mold with a score of bombastic prog rock that just doesn’t work, especially in the World War I period.  The final battle between Diana and Ares seems unnecessary because it would’ve just made more sense for Diana to discover that humanity is violent on its own (and still worth saving), which is ultimately the conclusion she comes through after a stereotypical CGI-filled battle that just pads the film’s length.

Other than that though, this is a masterpiece. A stunning action film that shows a heroes journey, brings together a lovable group of characters, and makes a convincing case against war.  See it now or see it again.

Rating: ****1/2