Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

01/11/2017

Hidden Figures
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The struggles of the civil rights era provide the backdrop for the appealing fact-based drama “Hidden Figures” (Fox 2000). Along with a personalized insight into the injustices that still prevailed in American society in the early 1960s, director Theodore Melfi’s adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book — which centres on three extraordinarily gifted mathematicians working for NASA — successfully re-creates the tension of the Cold War space race.

For all their genius, this trio of colleagues and close friends faced an uphill professional fight. That’s because they were not only women in a field dominated by men, but African Americans living and working in pre-integration Virginia.

Their story is told primarily from the perspective of Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a “computer” (as the number crunchers were then known) whose career gets a boost when she’s assigned to the prestigious unit tasked with working out the logistics of manned space flight. There she gradually wins the respect of her well-meaning but initially unenlightened boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).

Both of Katherine’s pals, meanwhile, have challenges of their own to confront. Manager Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) does all the work of a department supervisor but enjoys neither the title nor the salary of that position. And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) has set her sights on an engineering degree, but will have to obtain a court order to be allowed to take the necessary courses.
Besides the social changes slowly unfolding, and the suspense of the effort to catch up with the Russians post-Sputnik, “Hidden Figures” also gives viewers a glimpse of the early age of mechanical computers.

As representatives from IBM set up a massive device at NASA headquarters, Dorothy masters the programming language Fortran, already foreseeing that she and her co-workers will need to shift from making calculations on their own to entering data instead. (The textbook Dorothy uses to learn Fortran is purloined from a local library, but only because she’s not allowed to take it out — as a white person would be.)

Melfi uses scenes detailing the main characters’ personal lives to showcase family values and Christian piety. He also works in some wholesome romance by chronicling widowed Katherine’s blossoming relationship with National Guard Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Given the positive morality on display as well as the historical understanding to be gained from “Hidden Figures,” many parents may consider it suitable for older teens, despite screenwriter Allison Schroeder’s occasional resort to light swearing for rhetorical emphasis.

The film contains at least one use of profanity, several milder oaths and a vague sexual reference. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
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A Monster Calls
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The first thing to know about “A Monster Calls” (Focus) is that, although it’s based on a children’s novel, it’s definitely not for kids.

Even many adults will find its mawkish treatment of death and its supply of blithe “answers” to life’s struggles difficult to handle. While the film is probably acceptable for mature and literate adolescents, “mature” is the vital term here.

Like all books, Patrick Ness’ award-winning 2011 work can be absorbed slowly, put aside and reflected on. The movie, by contrast, sustains unrelenting horror in the manner of a cult film.

The intent of J.A. Bayona, who directed from Ness’ own script, appears to have been to make a faithful adaptation, with mordant observations on the need to accept the inevitability of life’s passages. What the filmmakers ended up with, though, is an uncompromisingly dark melodrama, somewhere beyond gothic.

Its protagonist, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young adolescent who lives in a British country village, is one very sad and angry boy. There is no respite from his grief.

He’s bullied at school and tortured by the knowledge that his divorced mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is slowly dying of cancer. His father (Toby Kebbell) has moved to America and begun a new family. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is emotionally distant, and there are no compassionate adults to guide him through all this.

Like his mom, Conor is a skilled artist with an active imagination. He suffers from a vivid recurring nightmare involving a crumbling church and his mother’s plunge into the depths as the cemetery surrounding it becomes a sinkhole.

Coming to his “rescue” is a benevolent giant (voice of Liam Neeson) formed from the bark and roots of the graveyard’s ancient yew tree — and with a voice as deep as a coal mine. His centuries of observing human behaviour and ability to dispense slightly off-kilter fables are supposed to bring gruff instruction, if not exactly comfort.

Initially, this puts the story on a par with benign and occasionally funny tales such as “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Iron Giant” and “The BFG.” But only for a moment.

The giant promises Conor that, on successive nights, he’ll tell three stories, after which Conor has to tell him a fourth. The first two, elaborately animated as watercolours, involve a handsome prince who’s not the murderous villain he seems to be and a grouchy medieval apothecary who is far more moral than others might think — especially when compared to the pious clergyman who wants to drive him out of business,

Conor, whose fears don’t extend to his new friend, notices these discrepancies right away, leading the giant to reflect, “Many things that are true feel like a cheat.”

The giant never gets to finish his third tale — which begins “There was once an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen” — because by now, Conor is in the midst of a destructive emotional breakdown, well past the point at which any form of fantasy might still help him cope.

But he’s never punished for his resulting misbehaviour. His grandmother and school principal understand the sources of his rage, and when he asks about retribution, both respond, “What could possibly be the point?”

Conor finally obtains wisdom, if not exactly peace, by confronting his nightmare in the midst of a turn-on-all-the-faucets tableau. “In the end, it’s not important what you think,” the monster advises him. “It’s important what you do.”

The film contains some physical violence, several discussions of death and intense emotional scenes. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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