Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

NASA was in a race with the Soviets to put a man in space, and three black women, known as human computers, are tapped to help push the space program forward. Getting called to determine the mathematics of launch and landing, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were just three of the women involved in the efforts. Not only did they contribute to the development of the math and technology, but they also helped push the boundaries of how NASA approached diversity of identity and diversity of thought.

Looking Beyond Color: One of the significant challenges represented in this film was the way colleagues at NASA were blinded by the physical differences regardless of the intelligence being presented to them. Katherine was called upon to serve in a mathematics role, but had to compete with the bigoted nature of her colleagues and the restrictive policies that undermined her ability to be recognized for her work. Dorothy Vaughan felt held back by the potential of technology taking away her job, but she adapted and forced others to recognize her value.

Persistence: One of the most entertaining moments in the film was one with the most levity while also holding real significance. Katherine struggled with the fact that her building lacked a colored bathroom, forcing her to run across the campus in order to relieve herself. Between the music and visual, it was lighthearted and funny, but it also represented a lack of respect for employees working toward the same goals. Eventually, Al Harrison broke down that barrier when he realized that it was preventing Katherine from being able to keep up with her colleagues, even though she was pushing herself harder than the rest.

Real-Life Heroes: One of the best elements of the film was actually as the credits began. With many true stories, the narratives of the represented heroes were described for the viewers. The women continued their careers beyond this film and were even awarded commendations for their efforts. Specifically, President Obama recognized Katherine in 2015 and the research center where she worked was retitled with her name.

Final Verdict: While stories of adversity are typically much more dramatic and heavy, Hidden Figures shows its emotion while also engaging in a bit of levity. The actress trio were fantastic and helped to bring life to some previous unknown heroes.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5


Phiona, a young Ugandan girl, has a simple life working with her mother to sell crops at the market. She stumbles upon a missionary and his chess club, feeling invited to join and enjoy a little break from her simple life. Robert Katende believes she is a true champion and invests in her development as a player. She resists during her training because she feels guilty about having opportunity well beyond her family’s simpler life. When she finally gets the chance to compete, her competitiveness gets put to the test.

Confidence in Talent: It was beneficial that Robert believed in her, but Phiona quickly developed a sense of strength in her ability to see multiple steps ahead of her opponents. She quickly rose to the top of her group at the missionary, but it was not until she started to compete that she began to get inflated. Failure set her back a bit, but Robert’s belief in her pushed her back into competition.

Ugandan Slums: There are a number of films out there that depict the stark contrast of conditions between first and third world areas. Queen of Katwe felt like a realistic look at the lives of families living in the slums. There was a sense that the environment was a bit more colorful than reality, but it still exhibited the harshness of the monsoon and limited resources.

Opportunity to Achieve: While Phiona certainly was the focus of the film, the rest of the kids were entertaining to watch as well. Their personalities were bold and inspiring. The kids were at odds when Phiona first showed up, but they found support through their combined success. Her achievements were elevated by her peers and they found strength in being the outliers. Each of them went on to gain scholarships and further opportunities to advance their education.

Final Verdict: This was a truly feel-good film highlighting a young talent. Phiona was an easy girl to like, with her combination of confidence and heart.

Dan’s Rating: 3.0/5

As a young boy, Eddie dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. He had been cursed with a weak knee but eventually was able to get strong enough to ditch his brace. He tried every summer sport he could attempt to no avail. After a moment of inspiration from his father, he decides to shoot for the winter games, specifically skiing. Though he initially makes the team, the committee chooses to let him go. Determined to find his way into the Olympics, he discovers that Britain has not had a ski jumper in decades. He travels to Germany to a famed practice facility and encounters a tough start to his training. Discovering that the groundskeeper is actually a former jumper, Eddie believes that he has found the inspiration to achieve his dream.

The Optimist Versus the Ego: Eddie and his coach, Bronson, were almost polar opposites when it came to their approach to the sport. With his never-give-up spirit, Eddie represented the true Olympic motto: the most important thing is not the victory but the struggle. He experienced more failure on his path to Calgary than success, but it never truly stopped him in his quest. For Bronson, his Olympic failure was one where he put himself above the sport. He was a natural talent but failed to allow himself to succeed until he met Eddie. It was optimism versus pessimism, but eventually, Eddie’s determination rubbed off on Bronson as a coach and led him to trying to turn his life around.

Triumph Over Resistance: While Eddie had the type of personality to never give up, there were plenty of people telling him to quit. Besides Bronson resisting Eddie’s charm, the most significant naysayer was Eddie’s father. Not wanting to waste time or money on what seemed to be hopeless dreams, his father consistently pushed Eddie to put an end to it and start working for him. Besides the negativity from home, Eddie also encountered the British Olympic committee’s strong resistance. While he qualified with his first 70-meter jump, the committee wanted to avoid people seeing him as a sideshow and raised the required distance. Even at the Olympics, the committee tried to keep him hidden even as the press and fans were attracted to his story.

Historic Achievements: Eddie may not have broken an Olympic record or even won a medal, but his achievements were still significantly memorable. Since the previous competitor participated in 1929, Britain had gone through a drought in the sports for almost 60 years. Eddie’s jump of 73.5 meters became the new British record for ski jumping. It did not matter that he scored last place for both the 70 meter and 90 meter jumps. It did not matter that the British committee was against him and many of the spectators and commentators thought he was a joke. The reality was that he achieved his dream of competing at an Olympic level.

Final Verdict: It would be easy to write this film off as a story of sports cliches and predictable outcomes (obviously as it is based on a true story), but Taron Egerton was so likable as the never-say-quit Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. Hugh Jackman had a few moments of his own, but his struggle definitely took a backseat to Egerton’s performance.

Dan’s Rating: 3.0/5

The people of Camden live a peaceful existence, with the exception of a somewhat unwelcome, transient neighbor. Miss Shepherd is a elderly woman who lives in her van and encroaches on her neighbors for the occasional food and use of their bathrooms. As she begins to clash with different residents in the community, she parks her van in front of a new home, claiming that she was destined to pick that location. Feeling somewhat sorry for the old woman, Alan Bennett begins to take care of her and even offers to let her park her van in his driveway when the street parking rules change. Curious about her existence and care, Alan begins to develop a friendship with Margaret and begins to understand her situation from a completely new angle.

Stunning Performance from Maggie Smith: Typically known for more distinguished roles, the character of Margaret Shepherd was anything but distinguished. Living in filth and squalor, her performance combined all of the fear, anger, and disconnect one would expect by a woman haunted by her past and losing touch with a life she once lived. While the film avoided displaying any of the nastier bits on the screen, there was a palpable hesitation and sadness for her condition. She truly appeared to be a woman lost but not fully searching for a reconnect back to her old life.

Not Altruistic but Still Commendable: The role of Alan Bennett is an interesting one. He was literally beside himself in conflict over his decisions to support Margaret’s condition. While other residents of Camden wanted to find a way to get her to move away from their community, Alan was intrigued by her situation and story. As an actor and writer, there was something about her story that drew him to search for more. Even though he turned her life into his own play, he went above and beyond what most would do for a homeless, old woman…even if part of his assistance was being too polite to convince her to move on.

Haunted by the Past: Margaret’s situation became more clear at the end of the film, but it started with the scene that set her life in motion toward her homelessness. Getting into an accident along a quiet, countryside road, she was frightened about being held responsible for the death of the other motorist. While she was not at fault based on his reckless driving, she still feared eventual arrest. Part of that fear came from a turbulent life involving her transition from musical prominence to attempting to become a nun to being committed to an institution by her brother. Feeling unsupported, it appeared easier for her to exist mostly on her own and take what she needs rather than let others believe she was accepting their help.

Final Verdict: This is a quirky one, headlined by a strong performance by Maggie Smith. Margaret’s condition appeared to be a bit confusing at first but quickly becomes a sad but heartwarming tale of loss, fear, and unlikely friendship. Alan and the rest of Camden may have been too polite to get rid of her, but viewers will be able to appreciate the story of the lady living in a van.

Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5

As a journalist covering low-level, low-interest stories and feeling a lack of excitement in her personal life, Kim Baker volunteers to take an assignment covering the war in Afghanistan. Unprepared for the change in quality of life, she befriends a few other journalists and begins to seek out stories covering the Afghani people. She takes risks to get stories to garner more attention, much to the displeasure of her military partner. Her efforts do not go unnoticed, as she gets a high-powered suitor and the consistent annoyance of a fellow journalist.

Self Exploration Through Unusual Travel: Kim’s decision to go to Afghanistan was an attempt to get out of a stagnant lifestyle. While she seemingly had a steady job and a loving boyfriend, she was looking for something more. It may not be common to take such a big life change or to go into dangerous environments to find oneself, but it was certainly more interesting than Eat, Pray, Love. Covering war could have been enough excitement, but she purposely took risks to get the better story, whether meeting with a dangerous political figure or sneaking into a religious rally.

Complicated Love Story: Built into the self-discovery was also a sense of searching for love. Kim looked to find adventure in Afghanistan but also was caught in a confusing array of relationships. Her boyfriend, Chris, was strained by the distance and time apart from each other, leading to his distancing from Kim. Spending time with other foreign correspondents led to a confusing connection with Iain. While she found him somewhat revolting at times, he also showed his compassionate side and had moments of care. In contrast, Ali Massoud Sadiq appeared extremely charming but his advances were clearly not an interest for Kim.

Unclear Consequences: While there were a number of mistakes and challenges that arose throughout her Afghanistan experience, one of the saddest ones related to her interview of one of the soldiers. The Marine admitted to the questioning of his purpose toward the war effort. While out trying to make a name for herself, the Marine was injured by an IED and returned back to the states. Feeling that she was responsible, she visited him after her tour was over, only to learn that she believed that she was at fault for the incident. Instead, it was other actions she took that were connected to injury and loss of life, but by the pure realities of war and not her direct actions.

Final Verdict: Tina Fey played a strong-willed reporter whose journey was more about self-discovery and purpose than it was about the war itself. There were discussions of cultural differences, political ideology, military involvement, and romantic entanglement, making for an entertaining, though maybe not as complex and worldly as it should assume to be.

Dan’s Rating: 3.0/5

Gerda and Einar Wegener were truly a pair of artists in love. While Einar had already achieved a sense of fame, Gerda was still searching for true recognition of her talent. When she gets the idea one day to have her husband pose for a painting in women’s clothing, the finished work becomes a sensation overnight. While Gerda enjoys playing a game with her husband across gender lines, Einar begins to see himself transitioning into a woman, becoming more comfortable in his feminine persona. As she becomes Lili Elbe in mind and spirit, she chooses to be one of the first male-to-female sex reassignment patients.

Groundbreaking Pioneer: Lili Elbe was a woman by gender far before she underwent surgery, but her story brings to light the fluidity of gender. As Einar, he loved his wife dearly. They had a romance that could not be mistaken for anything else. While there may have been feelings of dissonance in his identity, it was not until the painting that he truly began to explore them. While Gerda was playing a game at first, she quickly realized that something was different about her husband. They never stopped loving each other, but their love was no longer the simple, traditional love of a man and a woman. Their love was transcendent of that definition and personified itself in how she stuck by him even as their romantic love faded with his transition.

Oscar-Worthy Performances: Most of the film was focused on two characters. For Eddie Redmayne’s Einar/Lili, there was a femininity he portrayed throughout the film that fit perfectly for the story. He exemplified feminine qualities of grace of movement and a sense of demure. Just as stunning was the supporting performance provided by Alicia Vikander. 2015 was a huge year for her, as she also starred in the quirky drama Ex Machina. Being in the position of losing your husband through gender transition is something that cannot be easy on either side. There is a loss or redefinition of identity of self and of being part of a pair that Alicia portrayed with stunning grace and kindness.

Uneven Story About Transformation: One of the things that this film is unable to boast is the development of its story. While the acting is phenomenal by its male and female leads, the storytelling keeps an almost quiet, shy tone, failing to explore the depth of the identity to the extent it could. There was little inner dialogue that could be determined from the relationship between Gerda and Einar/Lili, but rather focusing on some simple dialogue and non-verbal acting. Including the additional story about Gerda’s reconnection with childhood friend, Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), seemed to distract from one of the most important times of the transformation into Lili. Making the decision to get the surgery seemed like something that was rushed at the end of a story that had been elongated up to that point.

Final Verdict: While the screenplay may not have been the strongest of last year, the acting in the film was definitely toward the top. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander were truly stunning in their roles and transformations as a couple. The topic is also quite timely, as politically there are plenty of questions about society’s acceptance of the transgender community.

Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5

spotlight5Working for the Spotlight section of the Boston Globe, suspicion is raised regarding the Catholic church and its clergy’s engagement with children. With a new editor in-chief who initially struggles with the investigation and the time it is taking, he eventually supports the groups investigation and judicial action to uncover important documents. The more the group digs into the controversy, the more they discover about how far-reaching the problem goes just within the bounds of the Boston area. The cover-up clearly runs deeper than the church’s masking of just a priest or two, which puts the team in danger of both violence against them as well as criticism for going after the Catholic church.

All-Star Cast, All-Star Drama: This is the type of movie that certainly gets a lot of attention. Taking on such a controversial topic requires getting the right cast to tell the story. Mark Ruffalo has proven himself able to take on some of the most challenging of topics, including gay rights and mental illness. As Mike Rezendes, he taps into the dramatic engagement of a reporter going the extra mile for his story. Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber help to provide that sense of leadership, while Rachel McAdams steps back for a supportive but contributive role.

Real Response from the Church: While the controversial nature of the film could have the Catholic church up in arms about putting their dirty laundry back into the forefront. Surprisingly, the response has been relatively positive, with the church acknowledging that their past mistakes in management were brought to the surface so they could deal with them. They essentially saw the film as a chance to repent for their sins and serve as a documentation to ensure that they would never let such a thing happen again.

Accountability is Central: Focusing in on the importance of uncovering the truth behind controversies, the interesting element with the Spotlight team was how they did not stop at just uncovering and reporting on the story. They brought big controversies to the forefront of public conversation and caused ripples in public action to take action against injustice. As they uncovered more about the church’s issues, they opened a hotline and worked to expand their reach to represent as many people as possible. They brought the church to public court of opinion and out of the shadows of their coverup.

Final Verdict: This was truly a wonderful cast and a gripping story told with clean direction. While it may seem a little heady as a fact-based back and forth, the topic was so important to US and religious history of the early 2000s.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5