Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Way back in 1999, a close friend of mine took me to see a little movie called The Sixth Sense. I was aware of the film, of course, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. She said I had to see it. What I saw that summer evening floored me and I quickly became a fan of the film's writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan. I continued to be impressed by his subsequent films, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. Things began to fall apart with his film The Happening and he continued to stumble with subsequent films but in the past couple years started to make a bit of a comeback. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Split is a return to form for Shyamalan.
Three girls, Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (played by Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (played by Jessica Sula) are leaving a local restaurant when they are kidnapped and drugged by a strange man. They awake in a locked room in a basement and are soon introduced to their captor, Dennis (played by James McAvoy). He makes it clear that they were taken for a reason and then leaves again, locking the door behind him. Later, they hear Dennis arguing outside the room with a woman and start banging on the door asking her to help them. She comes in and introduces herself as Patricia (played by James McAvoy) and to their horror they realize that their captor has dissociative personality disorder. This is made even more clear when they meet the nine year old Hedwig (played by James McAvoy), yet another personality. Then there is also the extroverted fashion designer Barry (played by James McAvoy), the scholarly Orwell (played by James McAvoy) and on and on for a total of 23 distinct personalities inhabiting one body. There is the looming threat of an emerging 24th personality known only as The Beast. The girls, led by Casey, have to try and figure out which of the personalities they can trust to try and escape their prison while avoiding and deceiving the others before the ominous 24th personality emerges.
The main draw of this film is without a doubt going to be James McAvoy's performance. He manages to create a series of very distinct characters with very subtle changes and is a very impressive performance that left me blown away. The way he carries himself, walks, his posture all of it changes from character to character, each one with a distinct voice as well. It is truly something to marvel and admire. It is clear that McAvoy is having a blast with the role as he sinks his teeth into each of the distinct personalities. Anya Taylor-Joy is great as well in Casey, one of the captured girls who has a dark past and seems to know a little too well how to deal with predatory adults. The film does occasionally flashback to show Casey's past and while not perfectly integrated into the rest of the film, they do add some necessary back story to the character so I didn't mind it as much as some other critics have.
The film is also a strong return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, who had lost his way over the course of several terrible movies, but started to show a return with the 2015 film The Visit and solidifies it here. He crafts a tale that is unpredictable and surprising in turns with the directions the story goes leading up to an ending reveal that will no doubt leave his fans exhilarated and others perplexed. But more than just the now usual Shyamalan twist, he crafts a memorable and unique thriller that kept me enraptured through it's run time.
Split will probably be best remembered for James McAvoy's fantastic performance in this film, giving such life to a person with numerous alternate personalities. For that reason alone, the film is worth seeing but it is also backed by a fantastic and suspenseful story as well. And then there is that final reveal which just put me through the roof and left me thinking of that one friend who showed me The Sixth Sense all those years ago and how much I feel she needs to see this movie now. I may just have to repay that favor all these years later.
I'm a sucker for stories about the Space Program. Always have been, probably ever since I was a kid. So, naturally I was intrigued to see Hidden Figures, the true story of three incredible women who in their own ways made the U.S getting into space that much more possible. The film focuses on mathematical genius Katherine Johnson and her friends Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson and their contributions to NASA during the Space Race with Russia in the 1960's.
Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), along with her two close friends and colleagues, Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) work in the segregated Computing department at the Langley NASA research center in Virginia. Dorothy is working as the group's de facto supervisor without the actual job title, something she tries to appeal to the ambivalent HR manager Vivian Mitchell (played by Kirsten Dunst). Mary Jackson likewise runs into similar issues when she tries to get an Engineer position, but is told she needs extra schooling before she can apply. It's a setback that seems all the more difficult because the classes she needs are taught at a whites only school. Katherine is sent up to the Space Task Group to assist with calculations for a series of space launches to work directly under Director Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) and Head Engineer Paul Stafford (played by Jim Parsons). Harrison only cares about the math and seems indifferent to who is doing it whereas Stafford is a bit more belligerent towards Katherine because he doesn't feel his figures need to be double checked by her. Things are even more difficult for Katherine as there are no restrooms for "Colored" folks in her new building and her co-workers set up a separate coffee pot for her after witnessing her drinking from theirs. Still, all three women persevere and make invaluable contributions to the early days of the U.S Space Program.
The film was directed by Theodore Melfi from a script written by him with Allison Schroeder. They maintain a good balance between all three women showing care and nuance in depicting their struggles as well as their triumphs. Now, this is a movie focusing on Black characters in early 60's Virginia, so racism is going to be a large component of the film and I have to give kudos to the filmmakers for how it was handled. It shows perhaps a more realistic view of how racism actually was for many of these people. There was almost a passive aggressiveness to it (although, it could also be that we're dealing with nerdy individuals and we tend to shy away from direct confrontation when possible anyway), such as the separate coffee pot. But it also shows how many perhaps were not even aware of their own racial prejudices, such as with Dunst's character interacting with Spencer's. Then there is another layer, with Costner's character Director Al Harrison who is simply oblivious to the struggles of Mary Johnson until she throws it right in his face and it's not until then, and until it inconveniences him with her having to run clear across campus to use a restroom, that he does anything about it. The most clear cut tension is between Parsons and Henson's characters, although that may have more to do with ego than racism. But there is still that overwhelming feeling of "that's how it's always been done why should we change?" attitude that made the film ring more true than some others.
The film also equally celebrates each character's triumphs and moving forward as well, whether it's Dorothy's realization that the arrival of the new IBM computers will render he computing team obsolete and sets out to not only teach herself but her team as well how to run it, Mary going to court to get a special exception to attend classes at a whites only school to work towards her Engineer position or Katherine gaining respect and position in her department to the point that John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) refused to fly his mission until he knew Katherine had personally gone over the launch figures (that's actually true and I was really glad to see it was included).
Beyond that, the film is also a great look into the early days of the Space Program and how much of it had to be invented, both physically and mathematically. There just was no precedent for what they were trying to do. There is a scene where Katherine comes into Al's office with the latest figures and Al promptly places them in the trash, explaining that what she was working on was now obsolete as they keep reworking the math to chart out the flight plans for the space launches. The film also shows just how far we've come in the last fifty or so years. Dorothy's team were actually called Computers, which the machines were named after, which I thought was an interesting detail. Also, the IBM computer NASA gets fills an entire room and is in fact bigger than the door to the room it has to go in, leading to an amusing scene where they actually have to knock down a wall to get it in.
Overall, Hidden Figures was a fantastic and absorbing look into a chapter of the Space Program that has been overlooked for far too long. It's nice to see the contributions of these three amazing women finally getting their due. The whole time I was watching the movie, I kept thinking, "Why the hell didn't I learn about this in school?!" Still, better late than never, I suppose.