A straight-A weekend at the movies with 'Hidden Figures', 'A Monster Calls', and 'Fences'


Score: A

Rated PG -- 127 minutes


I loved HIDDEN FIGURES and so will you. This is one of the most enjoyable films of 2016. There is such a wonderful energy that you will feel in watching the performances of the sisterhood of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae. Each brings a strength of character, competence, and ambition. They are true heroes fighting against racial segregation and workplace sexism. They never lose their optimism. Despite given data entry jobs, they truly know their self-worth and are deserving of promotion.

I cannot remember any film in recent memory whose screenplay is rewarded with such strong and consistent audience reactions. Don't be surprised if you hear applause throughout the two-plus hours, as each segregated policy as well as each racist procedure finally -- finally, comes to an end.

Barriers were broken. What took place at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. must never be forgotten. Discrimination by gender must never be tolerated -- yet still exists today! This true story of institutional racism carries added relevance as a result of the toxic racism found in today's America. Every life matters. When will the day come when the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a reality. The lessons of "people who are judged by the color of their skin rather than by their character" must be taught in our families and in our schools.

Let me digress. If HIDDEN FIGURES sounds like a serious drama, please note that it is not. This is a clever, warm, absolutely charming, and laugh out loud comedy -- with an idealistic edge.

This true story takes place in the early 1960's during the height of the Cold War. For those of us old enough to remember those days, America had a race with the Soviet Union to put a man up in space. What I didn't realize until watching HIDDEN FIGURES, was that NASA needed a lot of real-life mathematicians to calculate the flight trajectories of the Atlas rocket. What we also learn from this film is one member of this unit played a crucial role in the flight that made the late John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. This American hero always felt that Katherine Goble (Henson) was indispensable to his Friendship 7 mission. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) became NASA's first Black supervisor. And Mary Jackson (Monae) who became a graduate engineer, had been forced to petition the city of Hampton in order to take the required extension classes that were only held in an all-white high school.

Never again: separate drinking fountains; separate toilets; separate coffee pots.

See this movie with your children and take the time afterward to have a serious discussion.

It is nice to see Kevin Costner on the screen, playing the pivotal NASA manager Al Harrison. He is such a marvelous actor. And I would be remiss in this review if I didn't call attention to Lidya Jewett, who plays Katherine as a gifted child growing up in West Virginia during the 1920’s. The love of Katherine's life (and later husband), Col. Jim Johnson, is played by Mahershala Ali. Do not miss his Oscar level performance in MOONLIGHT -- one of the best pictures of 2016. Other cast members include Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, and Olek Krupa.

The film is directed by Theodore Melfi. He directed one of my all-time favorite Bill Murray films, ST. VINCENT (2014). The screenplay is adapted by Mr. Melfi and Allison Schroeder. The script is adapted from the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The period cinematography is under the direction of Mandy Walker.

HIDDEN FIGURES thus receives the first "A" review given in the new ratings system. In 2015, at the age of 97, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in a ceremony held at the White House.


Score: A

Rated PG-13 -- 112 minutes


This is a lovely, lovely film filled with artistry, enchantment, and a moral lesson. This is one of the few films of 2016 that I can actually recommend families to all attend together, and then sit down and have a serious discussion. Children need to be listened to. Like all of us, they have their sensitivities, feelings, and fears.

A MONSTER CALLS is based on the award-winning 2011 Patrick Ness novel. The theme of how we cope with -- let alone, survive -- the death of a parent, is deeply serious. It is the story of a lonely, emotionally wounded 12-year-old boy, played by Lewis MacDougall, and the massive woody monster who befriends him, voiced and performed by Liam Neeson. Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver round out the cast.

From my screening notes: "I HAVE COME TO GET YOU, CONOR O'MALLEY!" The tree monster makes contact at Connor's bedroom window. "I HAVE COME TO TELL YOU THREE STORIES." Then the monster says the following: “YOU WILL THEN TELL ME A FOURTH."

Bayona creates a breathtaking use of animation, rarely seen in today's movies. He creates a palette of watercolors and animated cutouts. What is fantasy? And what is reality?

Full credit for this little masterpiece goes to the 41-year-old Spanish film director, J.A. Bayona. The film succeeds due to the astonishing blending of live-action, CGI, and traditional animation.


Score: A

Rated PG-13 -- 137 minutes

"YOU'RE FREED TO LIVE THE TEXT RATHER THAN PERFORM IT." - Denzel Washington, New York Times Online

FENCES is not an easy movie to sit through, just as it was not an easy Broadway play to sit through. You have to love the stage play and you especially have to love the work of the poet turned playwright August Wilson. Mr. Wilson died ten years ago. It was and remains a tremendous loss. His towering work, 10 separate plays -- each depicting a different decade of the African-American experience -- is known as "The Pittsburgh Cycle." Mr. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for "Fences" in 1987. It is considered his most popular and most personal work.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis each won the Tony Award for their work in the 2010 Broadway revival. Each will certainly be nominated for an Academy Award for this film. Years from now, film students will be studying Denzel and Viola for the raw emotion and depth of their performances in FENCES.

The truth is the entire supporting cast delivers award-winning performances. Not surprising. In addition to Washington and Davis -- Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelt Williamson -- all appeared together in the Broadway revival. Washington added two new young actors, Jovan Adepo and Saniya Sidney. Jovan, as Troy's high school-age son is nothing short of brilliant in this role.

The film is a two-hour non-stop dialogue-heavy story.

Far too many of my colleagues have dismissed the film directed by Mr. Washington for looking too much like a stage play. Several have said to me, "It was claustrophobic. Washington should have opened up the setting, that is what film can do." I disagree. The action takes place in a real modest two-story brick house, with a small yard and a tree where a ball hangs from a rope in the Pittsburgh Hill District. In doing research for this review I discovered that the few scenes which are opened up and were filmed away from the house -- are actually referenced in the original text.

Adapting this play and bringing it to the screen has taken more than 30 years to do. The film is set in 1957 and tells the story of Troy Maxson, a larger-than-life ex-convict garbage man whose dashed dream of baseball glory in a white world of pro ball has given him an angry and bitter view of life. A life of contradictions and conflicts. Maybe the reason why it may be so hard to sit through this film is there is a lot of Troy in each of us. We have made our mistakes. And we have lived with our regrets.


The last two great films of 2016 finally arrive in Las Vegas: