In theaters: I'm a huge sucker for space race stories, and Hidden Figures is a well-written and performed biopic, centering on three exemplary black women who worked at NASA during the Mercury program (and beyond, but the film is strictly set in the early 60s) in jobs normally reserved for white men - mathematics and engineering. While we blazed a trail to the stars, they were trailblazers here on Earth. 1961 NASA is obviously a den on inequity, but the effort to get a man in orbit and then to the moon, by whatever means, gave these three opportunities that might not have otherwise been possible. It seems like Kevin Costner is typecast as a White Messiah figure these days, but the leads have enough agency not to make that an issue, despite his playing the one guy who sees beyond gender and race(TM) in the movie (he's actually not the only one). A minority story worth celebrating, and not just because it's about black women - there's something to be said about this achievement told through the eyes of the ground crew rather than the astronauts. Where I cannot give the film a pass is in its technical polish. Lens focus and editing mistakes are apparent, and though some of these may be due to bad digital transfers and the like (I've struggled with theaters' blurry projections lately), that wouldn't account for all the technical flaws. A minor grievance, but I must air it nonetheless.
The Handmaiden is a perfectly-designed thriller by Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, I'm a Cyborg But That's OK) set in early 20th-Century Japan-controlled Korea. It presents a grand con game in which a swindler posing as a nobleman places his partner in a household as handmaiden to help him get the hand of a rich heiress in marriage. What no one expects is for the heiress and handmaiden to be erotically drawn together. And then the whole film pivots on a pin's head, and it's a testament to the director's ability and attention to detail that the full story slots into place. And then does so again, turning its game on the audience, and presenting, in the end, a mix of lies, truths, sensuality (and indeed, frank sexuality), and perversion. Perhaps suffering from an over-long epilogue, that slow finish is nevertheless necessary to fulfill its theme of escape, freedom and being true to oneself. It's official, three movies into his filmography, I'll now watch anything Chan-wook Park puts out.
DVDs: Die Hard with a Vengeance has director John MacTiernan return to the franchise, but it's painfully obvious this was (famously) a generic action script adapted to fit Die Hard's purposes, even if they do make it about Hans Grueber's ghost (so to speak). But by making New York the setting, the claustrophobic "Die Hard" ingredient is gone, and gives way to chase scenes, Riddler-ish puzzles, and things blowing up. It really IS like any other action flick, no matter the plot's Grueberish turns, and no matter how well those are filmed, edited, etc. Plus, the setting might make one queasy today given 9/11 (the World Trade Center's first bomb incident is even mentioned), but regardless, the film is too long by at least a half hour, and hinges on a LOT of coincidences. And you know what? I don't think I like the racially-motivated banter between MacLane and up-and-comer Samuel L. Jackson's Zeus either. Feels trite. I don't mean to make it sound like a total disaster, it's just that it tires you out by the time you get to the boat and then tediously keeps going. The DVD package follows Die Hard 2's, with a commentary track (by director, writer and head of studio, just to show how sequels are really financial exercises), several period making ofs and interviews that are heavy on promotion, an alternate ending that would have been the stupidest thing in the film had it been used, and special effects breakdowns.
Netflix: Calvary, a movie title sure to play havoc with your auto-correct (it refers to the hill where Jesus was crucified, also known as Golgotha), confronts the traditional Catholic church with the modern world, and really is about martyrdom as that title would imply. The film follows an Irish priest over the span of a week, between a threat made to his life during Confession and his ultimate meeting with his killer. The week plays like several episodes of a television show with a large cast (one I would watch, though ditch Aidan Gillen's callous scenery-chewing doctor), the small village's parishioners in turn meeting with Father James (sensitively played by Brendan Gleeson), not always with respect in their hearts or tongues. Modernity has sapped a lot of the Church's power, and Father James is constantly being tested, though he himself rejects the Church's hypocrisies and corruption. In the end, this is about a man who follows the tenets of his faith to their logical destination, even if that isn't the safest course of action.
In Blue Jay, Mark Duplass creates an awkward situation (his forte) and essentially presents it like you would a play. It's just two people, talking. Drop the various locations, and you could do it on a single stage. Those two people? Former high school sweethearts who haven't seen each other in years, cross paths, and end up spending the day together. Duplass and Sarah Paulson have good chemistry, and are both able to exist in that happy/sad world, here presented in black and white for undoubtedly artistic purposes. In modern cinema, it's come to represent an absence of something essential in life, and there is definitely a melancholy to the "what might have been" recollections of these characters. They create a shared reverie that borders on plotlessness, and though we will eventually find out what split the two young lovers up, letting the film's flow take you there may require some patience on the part of certain audiences. Blue Jay isn't aimless, it only sometimes feels that way.
15 years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Netflix produced a sequel, subtitled Sword of Destiny, in which Michelle Yeoh returns as Shu Lien to once again protect the sword from the worst elements of the Martial World. The film succeeds in that it feels of a piece with the world created by the first film, and I was more than happy to see Donnie Yen as someone from her past. But as you might expect, replacing Ang Lee with the original film's action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping may insure great wire action (actually, a couple of sequences ARE memorable, but it's far from his best work), but in no way does it achieve the emotional tragedy of the first film. The characters aren't as well drawn, the narration is awkward, the music is filler (but was one of the original's triumphs), and the pacing is clunky. Worse, perhaps, is that the stakes are neither obvious nor felt. So CTHD 2 is like most Chinese sequels, an inferior cash-in that brings back an element or two and puts the rest in a blender to give you a similar, but toned-down experience.