Archive for the ‘History’ 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


As the threats of the Cold War continue to increase, American government agencies converge on and capture a suspected spy, Rudolph Abel. While in custody, James B. Donovan is contacted to step in as his council. while hesitant, he decides to do the right thing by the law, knowing that he has an uphill climb ahead of him. After going to trial, James was able to avoid the death penalty but Rudolph was sentenced to a number of years in federal prison. While the trial may have been over in the US, Francis Gary Powers gets captured after his plane is shot down by the Soviets and American student Frederic Pryor is taken into custody while studying European economics in Berlin. James is called upon again to step forward, being asked to negotiate the return of Powers regardless of the outcome for Pryor.

Service to One’s Country: While Rudolph may have been identified as a spy and was known to have been engaging in spy-like activities, he put up no real resistance to his capture. While he refused to share any secrets or details of his activities, he also did not seem to impede the investigation in any other fashion. Staying true to supporting his home nation, he kept his secrets from the US government. This was something that James was able to identify in his client, as he tried to reclassify the image the American legal system had of the detainee and convey that through the negotiations with the representatives of Germany and the Soviet Union. In a similar fashion, Powers withholds any secrets about his activities and the plane that was shot down.

Nations in Conflict with their People: One of the most impactful scenes of the film occurred at the moment of the exchange. As James and Rudolph are waiting for the actual switch to occur, it dawns on James that Rudolph may not be welcomed back so openly when he is received by his country’s representatives. Rudolph, in his low-toned way, dismisses any real concern over his potential treatment for getting caught but acknowledges that the way he is received will determine his fate. While he eventually was able to reunite with his family, there was a clear sense of worry James had for Rudolph when he was not embraced upon his reunion and was rather just escorted to the back of a vehicle.

Dishonor in the Court: Two of the biggest obstacles during this time were the image of communism and the fear of the Cold War. The American public lived in a state of judgment and fear rather than search for the truth. While Rudolph was not truly innocent, he still had certain rights which should have been respected, such as due process and a fair trial. During the proceedings, it was clear that the judge had no interest in listening to any of the claims James made about the provision and gathering of evidence. While he was more open to hearing details about the actual sentencing, it was clear that the American public was less concerned with the law as opposed to punishment for what they chose not to understand. James’s family was victimized as their home was attacked and their family ridiculed for James defending someone in response to his pursuit of justice. This was mirrored in his attempts to save both detainees in Berlin while the US government showed no interested in Pryor’s release.

Final Verdict: This true story was dramatic and well-acted. Mark Rylance was particularly entertaining to watch as he provided depth to an extremely stoic character. Even knowing the outcome of the exchange did not diminish the excitement of watching the story unfold. This was definitely one of the stronger films of 2015.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5

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

selma_ver2Among the challenges that still existed for racial politics in the mid 1960s was the lack of equality surrounding voting. Martin Luther King Jr was looking to take up the cause along with some of his closest friends and supporters, prompted following the violent deaths of several young black children. Trying to take a nonviolent path, King first attempted to meet with President Johnson to lobby for federal support for their cause, but was met with excuses against getting involved. The group set up in Selma, AL and started to gather community and national support for a march from Selma to Birmingham, to the state house. King and his supporters were met with active resistance and hate-filled violence, threatening their ability to even make it out of Selma to complete their march.

Reaction: Casting the role of MLK was certainly not an easy task, but the staff truly discovered a gem in David Oyelowo. He felt like the reincarnation of the great civil rights leader, projecting the perfect tone and temperament. There were a few moments throughout the film where he presented speeches to rally the support that were almost bone chilling in their resemblance to the real MLK. Tom Wilkinson (Lyndon B. Johnson) may not have had the right accent, but he maintained the bold resistance the real president was known for. Helping to round out the great cast were Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover), and Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash).

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The story started with the death of the four girls at the church and the clerk denying Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to ability to register to vote. With the talks between Johnson and King ending up being for naught, the mission to organize and conduct the march begins. From a political stance, Hoover and Johnson question King’s efforts and whether the race issue is worth addressing. Hoover appeared to be against movement toward equality, while Johnson just continued to question whether he needed to get involved. In reality, Johnson was a supporter of King’s efforts, but the film takes a bit of artistic licensing with the amount of drama between the pair.

The storytelling helped to make this a truly engaging film. King may have been the leader of the movement, but even he had his moments of doubt. With events like the death of the supporters, the tie-up in the courts, and the first attempt being thwarted by the police and a mob on the other side of the bridge, it seemed like an impossible task to pull of a peaceful protest against the voting rights violations. Other than the Johnson portrayal, the rest of the film projected high authenticity. It also included excellent cinematography, direction, and original music.

Selma is the type of film that screams Oscar for its excellent direction, acting, and overall presentation. This is yet another great example of storytelling important moments in history.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5

last_king_of_scotlandAfter completing his medical program, Nicholas Garrigan’s father is surprised to learn that his son has decided to practice medicine in Uganda. Upon his arrival, Nicholas meets up with Sarah Merrit and begins to see life in the impoverished areas of the poor country. While out on the road one day, a group of men stop their truck and force them to follow to where the new president has been injured. Nicholas is requested to look at Idi Amin’s wrist, but is distracted by the severely injured bull on the side of the road. Forced to take the president’s gun and shoot the bull, Nicholas is surprised that Idi accepts him for his help and Idi’s love of Scotland. Nicholas is later invited to join Idi’s side as his personal doctor and set up with a position at the local hospital. The more time he spends with Idi, the more attention he catches and the more he realizes that he is in real danger.

Starring: Forrest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit), Simon McBurney (Stone), David Oyelowo (Dr. Junju), Stephen Rwangyezi (Jonah Wasswa), Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga (Masanga), Adam Kotz (Dr. Merrit), Sam Okelo (Bonny), Sarah Nagayi (Tolu), Chris Wilson (Perkins)

Earning his Oscar for his performance, Whitaker portrayed the conflicted and brutal dictator, Idi Amin. Able to switch from moments of kindness and prosperity to vengeance and violence made his performance one to remember. James McAvoy also got his big break in this film. While his character was a little tamer early in the film, he was able to project the stress incurred from his relationship with Whitaker’s character. Washington also impressed with her combination of fear and concern.

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Kevin Macdonald’s bio-pic explored the dangerous rule of president/dictator Idi Amin. Through the experiences of Nicholas Garrigan, Idi was on display for all that made him a tyrant. Able to conceal much of his sinister and psychotic ways early in their relationship, he hid his more aggressive actions behind his bribery and moments of weakness in his relationship with Nicholas. The parties and the women served as strong distractions. Stone was on to Idi’s intentions and had intel that he chose to share with Nicholas. Unable to determine who to trust, Nicholas continued to support the president until the situation started to get more and more concerning. Seeing the violence and the temper of the dictator, he attempted to devise an escape from his grasp. Unfortunately, his complicated relationship with Kay caught the attention of Idi and nearly cost Nicholas his life, but not without severe suffering first.

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Taking the film from the view of Nicholas, all the young doctor wanted was to help people. Initially attracted to Uganda due to the need for the poor country, he set himself up with a great opportunity to apply his medical knowledge and talents. He may have also been a bit promiscuous, but his heart was in the right place in regards to his work. Tempted by the pleasures of Idi, he let himself get caught up in the cushy job and the comfortable living. By the time he realized he was trapped in a life he did not want, he was too deep to climb out without harm. Seeking the comfort of Kay, they commiserated over their entrapment, but her pregnancy put both of them at risk. Idi found out and made both of them pay for their indiscretion, particularly Kay with her life. Nicholas was lucky to make it out alive and tell his story. In the end, this experience helped to reveal the truth to the world about how horrible Idi truly was and he finally was punished for his brutality.

This was one of Whitaker’s and McAvoy’s finest, as it described a dictator’s reign and the start of his downfall through the eyes of a Scot looking to make a difference.

Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5

dallas_buyers_clup_posterLiving the life of a bull rider and electrician, Ron Woodroof is in for the shock of his life after a work-related accident sends him to the hospital where the doctors discover that he has had HIV/AIDS. Unable to accept his situation, he storms out of the hospital and tries to connect back up with his friends, only to be shunned for his medical news. Desperately seeking a way to get AZT, he cuts a deal with a janitor at the hospital to steal it for him. When the opportunity runs dry, he travels to Mexico to meet with an unlicensed doctor and sets up an opportunity to bring back vitamins, supplements, and other non-toxic medications to sell to AIDS patients. While he struggles initially, he runs into a patient he met in the hospital and begins to do business together. As the demand begins to expand, Ron reorganizes the business into a membership club with unlimited access to the medicine to treat the symptoms better than AZT.

Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Ron Woodroof), Jennifer Garner (Eve), Jared Leto (Rayon), Denis O’Hare (Dr. Sevard), Steve Zahn (Tucker), Michael O’Neill (Richard Barkley), Dallas Roberts (David Wayne), Griffin Dunne (Dr. Vaas), Kevin Rankin (TJ), Donna Duplantier (Nurse Frazin), Deneen Tyler (Denise)

This film required a lot from its lead actors, particularly of McConaughey and Leto. Both men had to fast and lose weight to fit their roles. For McConaughey, his character was complex and truly engaging to watch. He started the film as a vile, lustful womanizer and showed excellent struggle with being shunned and challenged at every turn. For Leto, his character exhibited fallacies that were completely offset by his charm. Garner faded a bit into the background until later in the film, where she stepped up the drama between the law and McConaughey’s character’s mission.

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Jean-Marc Vallee directed a raw, emotional film following the life of Ron Woodroof and his battle against AIDS and the restrictiveness of the FDA. While Ron was not a complicated man prior to his diagnosis, he broke free of his initial disbelief of his fate and began to research his situation. Seeking involvement in the AZT drug trial, he was willing to use any means necessary to preserve his life. Unfortunately, he was unaware that the concentration of the toxins in the AZT was a deadly cocktail with his alcohol and drug abuse. His trip to Mexico was a fruitful one, as he quickly learned about the restrictiveness of the FDA and the troubles he would face to get his medicine back into the states. Ron chose to push forth with his plan anyway and continued to fight against the FDA.

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The other significant element of the film was the combination of the portrayal of AIDS on the main characters and how their relationships evolved through the process. Ron was a bigot throughout the majority of his life, but was significantly resistant of Rayon from the moment they met. While he continued to keep Rayon at arm’s length, he slowly warmed up to him and went into business together. Ron was against the entire concept of diverse sexual orientations at the start but saw the human side of the effects of the disease. He realized that gay men and women were suffering the same way he was. It slowly changed his business practices, which were focused on profit at the start and transformed into truly wanting to help people.

The transformations in this film are quite stellar. McConaughey and Leto became their characters and brought these challenging lives to the big screen in a big way.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5

mandela_long_walk_to_freedom_ver6Struggle does not begin to describe the story of Nelson Mandela. As a young man, Mandela struggled to find justice in an unjust world. Defending people in the courtroom against ignorance and hatred was commonplace for him until he was called upon to join a much more violent cause. While battling against the South African government for freedom and equal rights, Mandela met Winnie Madikizela and was swept up by her beauty and intensity. She joined him in his struggles but was not prepared for him and his partners to be caught, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. As she continued her violent battle outside of prison, Mandela slowly challenged for the rights of the inmates until given the chance to work with political leaders to move toward fair laws and equal rights.

Starring: Idris Elba (Nelson Mandela), Naomie Harris (Winnie Madikizela), Tony Kgoroge (Walter Sisulu), Riaad Moosa (Ahmed Kathrada), Zolani Mkiva (Raymond Mhlaba), Simo Mogwaza (Andrew Mlangeni), Fana Mokoena (Govan Mbeki), Terry Pheto (Evelyn Mase)

Headed by Elba, this cast projected all of the pain, agony, and determination needed to tell the story of Nelson Mandela. Elba was able to emote a wide variety of characteristics of this freedom fighter, whether is was anger at a younger age or temperance toward peaceful negotiations as a weather but spry older man. Harris brought forth an intensity to her role that stood above the rest of the cast.

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Justin Chadwick’s version of Mandela’s story came at a interesting time, given the real Mandela’s health and recent passing. His was a story that unfortunately was too big for even this film to tell effectively. Periods of his life, including his battles in the courtroom, destructive actions against the government, imprisonment, and talks with political leaders, all felt like just snapshots in this 2-hour telling of his life. There felt to be so much missing from the experience, but it still provided a soulful taste of what he went through to struggle toward freedom and the end of segregation.

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While much of the story felt short, the acting made the experience incredibly worthwhile. Elba’s performance brought life into this real epic quest. Mandela’s battles with anger, remorse, and hopes for peace felt all to palpable as he aged through the film. This also leads to an acknowledgement of the makeup department’s ability to transform Elba throughout the film to match the real Mandela’s aging through the imprisonment. There were some graphic scenes to sprinkle in the reality of the apartheid in South Africa and keep focus on why he fought in the first place.

This film certainly raises up the heroism and bravery of Nelson Mandela though all of the challenges and struggles he endured to eventually become the first democratically-elected president of South Africa, though it leaves a lot of be desired through its rushed presentation of his life’s experiences.

Dan’s Rating: 3.0/5