Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony (Hebrew Title: Ismach Hatani) (B+) is an often jubilant dramedy about taking a stand, especially when oppression manifests with a seductive face. After a flimsy women’s prayer balcony in an aging Jerusalem synagogue topples and the temple’s senile rabbi is too infirm to oversee the renovation, the men of the tight-knit congregation turn to a charismatic young ultra-Orthodox leader, convincingly played by Abraham Aviv Alush, to guide the rebuild. His new ideas are actually old ones and involve setting the women of the church back in terms of their ability to think, pray and express themselves with any sense of modernity. Radiant actress Evelin Hagoel is the primary protagonist, magnificent in her decency and defiance. The entire ensemble of feisty women is remarkable, and it it is in their light and often humorous approach that a powerful parable comes to compelling life. A bit more muted than the similarly themed Spike Lee movie Chi-Raq, this Israeli film handles gender and religion with a deft touch and a splendid depiction of community. Ultimately it’s a celebration of enduring traditions and the power of progress in standing up for equality.
Note: The Women’s Balcony is the closing night presentation of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and is making appearances at many film festivals around the world this season.
John Hamburg’s Why Him? (B-) is an amusing entry into a fairly tired “family versus fiancé” formula, thanks to strong casting in plum parts for the Christmas-set comedic ensemble. James Franco plays the Silicon Valley mogul at the film’s heart, relishing the role with his trademark wide-eyed wit and devil-may-care vulgarity. Enter the nuclear family as fish-out-of-water in his world: Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally as the parents, Griffin Gluck as the impressionable little brother and Zoey Deutch as the daughter smitten with Franco’s man-child but still loyal to her pop. Keegan-Michael Key also has a funny role as Franco’s assistant/sherpa, trying to keep the rejuvenile in line. There are a variety of inventive gags, several somewhat believable set-ups and laughs aplenty as the holiday gathering culminates into full-scale calamity. Cranston and Mullally are fun in the straight man roles; and although the story gets a bit belabored, it’s generally the definition of “a fun rental.”
Lonny Price’s documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (B+) chronicles a requiem and reunion of sorts of cast members and collaborators from the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, a show that notoriously failed on Broadway, lasting only 16 performances but that achieved cult notoriety over time, spawning some of the songwriter’s most popular tunes including “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going.” Price, who was one of the show’s three leads and before that a fanboy in his own right, helps keep the work – a complex show about cynicism turned to idealism, told in reverse order – alive in the imagination through the documentary, unearthed interview footage and a reunion concert. While Jason Alexander may be the most recognizable of the ensemble to casual viewers, the stories of many major participants including Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Mr. Sondheim himself serves as a bit of a reverse Chorus Line with touching personal stories. The structure of the documentary comes full circle as well as it plumbs themes about the joy of collaborating on art and the recovery from disappointment. It would have been amazing if more original behind the scenes footage were available, but it’s fairly staggering how much is discovered three and a half decades later. For musical theatre enthusiasts, Price’s fond film is a bundle of merriment.
In John Lee Hancock’s biopic of McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc, The Founder (B), the hunger of the protagonist is so palpable you can almost taste it. It’s a rather ruthless portrait of a business tycoon with Michael Keaton in fine serpentine form, part Midwest milkman charm, as wily as a Music Man, relentless as a cattle driver. While it’s ironic a man named Hancock fails to leave much of a signature in his ambivalent lens on the historical figure responsible for spreading the world’s most famous hamburger stand beyond its humble California origins, it is a fascinating business case and mostly compelling in its story (gulp) arch. As the humble and inventive McDonald’s brothers, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are fabulous foils to Keaton’s Kroc. The film’s best sequence, although awkwardly placed in flashback, depicts the McDonald’s brothers designing a kitchen schematic in chalk on a blacktop, with crew “blocking the scene” like theatre directors would do. Kroc’s troubles on the domestic front including an estranged marriage (Laura Dern simply has to look sad a lot) and a fixation on a bottle of his own form of special sauce get short shrift as business machinations take center stage. The cynical themes about persistence and ambition trumping actual genius or invention, juxtaposed against sunny nostalgic art direction, are timely and prescient; but after more richly textured tales such as The Wolf of Wall Streetand The Social Network, this film could have used a bit more super-sizing in ambition.
Oh, coming-of-age ensemble dramedies: let me count the ways I love them! Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women (A) is a blissful slice of life as characters on the cusp of change in freewheeling 1979 Santa Barbara craft an unconventional family. Central to the film is the relationship between never-been-better Annette Bening as an eccentric divorced chain-smoking single mother and her only son, played with perception by Lucas Jade Zumann. Buoyed by before-their-time left coast sensibilities, Bening’s character enlists three kindred iconoclasts as spiritual guardians of her son’s angsty adolescence. Elle Fanning is brittle brilliance, Greta Gerwig a luminous and tender spirit and a weathered Billy Crudup an unlikely boon companion. Mills intersperses flashbacks, flash-forwards, historical archives and literary snippets, coloring the story in lovely context. There are sequences of majestic intimacy between characters as they tumble, stumble, dance and glance through life’s foibles. The film is a tribute to the mother-son bond, anchored by resplendent female performances and a lens into the many portraits of womanhood. Bening centers the film with a marvelous mix of misanthropy and repartee; she is perfection in the role. Roger Neill’s spry music, plus songs showcasing the rise of an emerging West coast punk scene, accent this love letter to shifting mores and the enduring power of familial love.
You’ve got to hand it to director Martin Scorsese: When he’s obsessed with a subject, he pursues it with vice grip precision. He has evidently had the story of two 17th century Christian missionaries facing the ultimate test of faith in Japan (when their religion was outlawed and their presence forbidden) in his mind for nearly three decades, so it’s cathartic indeed to have his fever dream of a tale realized on screen. But while his epic Silence (C+) will undoubtedly become required viewing for graduate divinity students pondering its Big Themes for generations to come, it is a fairly uneven and punishing task for an everyday moviegoer. The acclaimed director strips down many of his showy virtuoso moves to flesh out a naturalistic period story tackling issues of gravitas. It’s often fascinating to watch the auteur plumb Herzogian man versus nature (and human nature) style plot lines against a stark and exotic landscape. He explores violence both physical and emotional in new milieus, and there’s lots to ponder as this film kinda happens to you. The Japanese actors fare better than the Hollywood ones: Issey Ogata is a revelation as a captivating antagonist, and Yōsuke Kubozuka provides wild-child wonder as a confused soul. Miscast as the film’s hero, however, is Andrew Garfield, a thoroughly modern actor who can’t consistently bear the cross of the film’s themes or of a Portuguese Jesuit character in the 1600s. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson are similarly uneasy in their parts and generate a bit of a hollow center that may actually be symbolic. A hodgepodge hybrid of Apocalypse Now, Passion of the Christand Salò with awkward narration and a needlessly lugubrious patchwork pace, it’s a film that will long be studied, both for its audaciousness and for its overreach. Now that Marty’s religion-themed trilogy of Silence, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ is at long last complete, folks may welcome tales of confession, redemption, vengeance and sacrifice back where Scorsese does it best: on the mean streets of modern America.
Welcome to Silver Screen Capture’s latest crossover with Ashley Williams of The Book Fetish Blog. She read the novel Hidden Figures, and we both saw the movie. I’m reviewing the film, she’s reviewing the book and we both answered a few questions. Check out her site for the book critique and read our joint Q&A right after my movie review.
Somewhere in the common area of a Venn diagram plotting the space race and race relations in the American Sixties is Theodore Melfi’s inspirational historical biopic Hidden Figures (B), a film grounded in three sterling performances achieving lift-off when it counts. Anchoring the narrative is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, the little-known African-American mathematician who helped calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Her trusty friends and colleagues at NASA – Octavia Spencer as computer whiz Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson – make history in their own right tackling heavy duty science while battling the last vestiges of segregation. The three women give dignified performances in a wholesome, family-friendly film that wanders for a while to find its tone and sometimes resorts to attitudes and platitudes over natural dialogue. Supporting performances are of little help, including Kevin Costner in one of his bland buzzcut roles and Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as emotionally withholding bureaucrats. Mahershala Ali gets to shine as a persistent love interest, and Glen Powell charms as astronaut John Glenn. The director struggles a bit to keep appropriate focus on all three women and to put their historic accomplishments in context; some parts are rushed and others prolonged. Spencer is the easiest character to relate to and is the soul of the ensemble. There were moments the filmmakers could have amped up the drama for effect or opened up its world a bit more in cinematic terms. But the film’s shortcomings are forgiven because of its undeniable heart and the grace of its characters against undeniable odds.
Stephen Brown and Ashley Williams answer questions about the nonfiction book-to-movie translation!
Question: What made this an important story to tell?
Ashley: It’s an unknown or unrecognized part of history that celebrates minority women for major achievements, despite so many odds being stacked against them. It makes science and math heroic activities performed by smart women.
Stephen: The film is even more groundbreaking than its makers may have even known, what with glass ceilings, bathroom controversies and stereotypes still plaguing Modern America. The real-life characters were presented in a reverent, almost saintly portrayal. I almost wish the chronicle of their struggles had been a bit more visceral. These women were true trailblazers.
Question: What key points made it an effective tale to read or enjoy in the movie theatre?
Ashley: For me, reading the book, it was the reminders of segregation and that the women had to do so much more than white men to be seen as credible, even approaching equal. And the reminder that a success and advancement for any of these women was a victory for African-Americans as a whole- they were fighting for themselves and their community.
Stephen: The film valued sentimentality over genuine suspense. I found it approached the characters at surface level from a bit of a safe distance. But there are so few movies presenting such positive portrayals of women or African-American women that one can look past wishes that it would be a little less color-by-numbers.
Question: What characters fared the best in the translation?
Ashley: Katherine Johnson the best, I think. But really all three main characters- Dorothy, Mary and Katherine. The movie gave them a more vibrant personality that may not have always translated on the page, but all three were drawn true to the core aspects of the women in the book.
Stephen: Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy, in her bootstraps quest to become a supervisor, had the most satisfying story arch.
Question: How did the author/director bring history to life?
Ashley: The importance of the NACA and NASA missions- what it took to advance our fleet of aircrafts for military purposes, of course. But then the most important part was the effort to keep our astronauts safe. I’ve always loved stories of our first astronauts and the courage they must have had to take on something so new. But until now, I hadn’t really thought about all the effort and work it took behind the scenes, and Hidden Figures really explores that aspect.
Stephen: The actresses were superb, but I feel the director could have provided meatier material. We know going in that it’s a rather untold story, yet I’m still not sure I got in the veins of the characters to truly understand their verve and passion. Movies like this can have a slightly wax museum quality about them. I loved the story and even applauded at the end along with my fellow late-night theater-goers.
A peculiar fugue for both a nation in mourning and for a woman having a near out-of-body crisis to preserve the legacy of her slain husband, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (B+) is a film that moves in mysterious ways. In the central role of Jacqueline Kennedy played out in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, in flashbacks to an awkward White House tour and in a guarded interview framing device, Natalie Portman is perfection. The actress conveys urgency and dignity in her rigorous pursuit to control the narrative, preserve the majesty of the POTUS office and bottle the enduring notion of “Camelot.” All the while she internalizes her grief and personal needs in a complex performance of considerable modulation. Portman’s Jackie is keenly aware of history and that all eyes are on her. It’s a wondrous lead performance wrapped in how’d-they-do-that historical reenactments. Overall the film is an artsy, absorbing character study that gets richer as it reaches final act crescendos. Lorrain surrounds his solid lead actress with superb period detail, lush costuming and natural supporting players including Greta Gerwig as loyal assistant Nancy, Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and John Hurt as an otherworldly priest. Ultimately it’s all about that classic American tenet of meeting the moment when challenges arrive that are bigger than ourselves.
Damien Chazelle’s kaleidoscopic modern musical La La Land (B+) explores the eternal question of whether you should put your art or your love life first. Or maybe you can have both. OK, it’s not exactly a universal question – and possibly a first-world problem at that – but in the hands of starry-eyed and fleet-footed leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, they surely confront these themes with a charm offensive. After an impressive musical number atop and around cars stopped on the Los Angeles freeway (west coast Fame meets West Side Story), the film riffs into Meet Cutes and Meet-Not-So-Cutes, ups and downs and very few surprises aside from it all being a musical. Much is done in an Umbrellas of Cherbourg type leitmotif, but it doesn’t necessarily rain with consistent results. The songs are ok – Stone shines in a big audition number – and the technicolor dance sequences are quite luminous. Gosling gets his best role yet, with the film exploiting many of his dapper deadpan assets. Stone is a radiant delight, with note-perfect expressions and game takes on a sometimes cliché ingenue part. The whole enterprise would have benefited from some supporting characters and a smidge more substance. But this love letter to a town where dreams are made, dashed and rehashed is pretty nifty to behold. Sometimes it’s a film that begs to be loved just a bit too much.
There are few phenomena more fascinating in Hollywood than a sophomore slump. And for Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who was Oscar nominated for his first English language feature (the brilliant biopic The Imitation Game), the fact that his follow-up flail is Passengers (D) must be some cosmic poetic justice of miscalculation. In terms of extremes, there’s rarely been as handsome a physical production – all art deco parlors, digital automats and infinity swimming pools overlooking a galaxy – so sullied by such a misbegotten story. (Note: I’m not sure if something is a spoiler if it’s laid out in a movie’s first twenty minutes, but this film is different than advertised; so read on at your peril). The tale of a lonely mechanic (Chris Pratt) accidentally awakened from hypersleep and adrift as the only man left in a spacecraft on a near century-long voyage who wakes up a sleeping beauty (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep him company knowing full well that reanimating her is sentencing her to death has to be the worst Meet Cute in the history of cinematic love stories. Pratt employs his goofball everyman humor in an attempt to wrestle likability from an impossibly written character. His unfortunate portrayal is akin to Bill Cosby making his Pudding Pop funny-face while readying a shiny platter of roofies. Lawrence fares only slightly better as an author who gets more than she bargained for; after Joylast year, we’ve come to expect this prized actress to cook up a holiday turkey. Unsure of whether it’s an Adam and Eve story with the betrayal placed before the couple could even discuss it or Titanic with rohypnol instead of the blue jewel, Tyldum’s “very special episode” riff on sci-fi is a colossal catastrophe of an idea. The two to three times when the movie’s tone careens into romantic montage or adventurous befuddlement are rare respites in a tale not unlike Dr. Lecter’s drug-hazed final act of seduction in Hannibal. Careers will survive this, and the two principal matinee idols are gorgeously filmed, but Passengers isn’t what space pioneers meant when they promised to boldly go where no one has gone before.
OK, I feel like I’m critiquing a Hallmark card with pop-up sentiment, decorative flourishes and a never-ending travelogue of treacle. Equally affecting and head-scratching, Garth Davis’ Lion (C) traces the journey of an orphaned boy in India adopted by parents in Tasmania and his quest as a twentysomething to find the brother and mother so long separated from him. The film’s tonally dissonant halves (cute kids for an hour, melodramatic adults for an hour) don’t add up with much clarity. Dev Patel isn’t particularly compelling as the adult protagonist, and his obsession (aka Waiting for Guddu) doesn’t completely translate into sustained empathy. Nicole Kidman gets a few poignant moments to shine as the adoptive mother; it’s a lived-in performance amidst all the artifice. Given the themes of abandonment, it is curious how Rooney Mara’s character kinda drops out of the picture. There are several tearjerking moments that don’t feel particularly earned and others that simply feel reductive. And there are times when the whole enterprise feels like an overlong Google Earth commercial or a protracted public service announcement. Overt symbolism about the gulf between the poor and the privileged abounds. This true-life story might roar into the Oscar race, but it’s extremely labored and incredibly on the nose.
Fences (B), the movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington based on the play by August Wilson, is a work of profound acting and themes. It’s a treasure to have the celebrated piece of theatre documented as a film, but Washington as director missed some opportunities to steer it into fully satisfying or cinematically creative territory. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a bittersweet 1950s family drama about a larger-than-life Pittsburgh sanitation worker (Washington), his wife (the luminous Viola Davis) and the siblings, friends and children who live in the shadow of the man of the house. In a time and place in need of heroes, Washington’s character – living on the downward slide side of a minor baseball career – hits the harsh ceiling of his promise and struggles with how to successfully channel his charisma into effective relationships. Washington is in full command of his acting craft with a non-self-conscious portrayal of a man who is often hard to love. Wow, he is a mighty actor! Davis also masters a showy role as a long suffering spouse and does a delightful slow burn coming into her own. The film is best viewed as a showcase of impeccable performances; and the drama is deeply affecting. The subject matter presents challenges to “open up” since it is largely staged in a home and a yard. While the choice not to expand beyond this vista is true to the work, it also feels a bit stifling. The film is certainly recommended and is sure to get tremendous recognition for its heartfelt subject matter and characters.