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.
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 spectacular 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 enjoyable, and Stone is luminescent in a big audition number. The Technicolor dance sequences are quite whimsical and wonderful. 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 zestier supporting characters and a smidgen of extra substance. Sometimes it’s a film that begs to be loved just a bit too much, but this love letter to a town where dreams are made, dashed and rehashed is overall pretty nifty to behold.
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.
The big draw for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (A) is a triumphant and buzzed-about performance by Casey Affleck, but the film is such a brilliantly realized and sustained study of grief that it should be hailed as a superb film overall buoyed by this superior lead. Let’s get to that performance first: The less-known Affleck is note-perfect fully inhabiting an indelible character, a man of few words but remarkable expression. As a loner with anger management issues, he captivates for the duration of the film. This is easily a Marlon Brando On the Waterfront or Streetcar Named Desire level role in the strong and silent type with swirls of rage mold. The film is a modern return-to-hometown tale with mysterious flashbacks that deepen character and traces the stories of fathers who overcome their demons to be strong figures for their families. Lonergan lovingly photographs an austere New England environment in which his drama unfolds. He finely observes his characters, including Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol as frustrated mothers, Kyle Chandler in a noble portrait of brotherhood and Lucas Hedges in a natural performance as a teenager. It’s a great companion piece with another 2016 film about unlikely dads, Captain Fantastic. For wonderful acting and a moving story, Manchester is a master class.
Haunted characters inevitably return to the scene of the crime, and in Tom Ford’s stunningly realized neo-noir Nocturnal Animals (B+), its principals traverse a tragic, twisty journey to discover the inescapable character traits vexing them through adult life. Ford photographs both a posh Los Angeles modern day story and a Texas-set film-within-the-film with an almost dreamlike clarity. The actors radiate an arch intensity in flashbacks and flash-forwards over a blissfully dense old-Hollywood Abel Korzeniowski score. This amped-up storytelling style benefits shape-shifting Amy Adams as a wealthy but lonely art curator a bit more than intense-in-any-role Jake Gyllenhaal as a novelist and star of his own shattered American pastoral. Shining in more straightforward supporting performances are Michael Shannon as a plainspoken Texas detective, Aaron Tayor-Johnson as a wild-tempered roadside ruffian and a nearly unrecognizable Laura Linney as a headstrong matriarch. Packing a punch within a puzzle, Ford’s tone poem is part romance, part revenge thriller, part requiem for one’s soul; and it’s consistently absorbing and affecting. In the tradition of Mulholland Drive, In the Bedroom and Fargo, it’s a film for those who love the form. The curious finale is sure to spark conversations among cinephiles.
There are three reasons to see Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen (C+): the continually wondrous Hailee Steinfeld doing her darnedest with the film’s frustrating and frumpy front-woman role, Woody Harrelson in an understated supporting part as her high school teacher and part-time consigliere to her darkest impulses and newcomer Hayden Szeto as her awkward admirer. Much of the film’s content feels like a ho-hum homage to Sixteen Candles minus most of the comedy; in the pantheon of cinema, however, Edge does correct a blemish of Sixteen by casting Asian-American actor Szeto as an attractive and full-developed love interest. Steinfeld’s character’s central conflict involves her brother (Blake Jenner, playing his usual milquetoast Golden boy) starting to date her one best friend (an amenable Haley Lu Richardson). Most of the movie feels like a series of unfortunate first-world problems for a central character who purports to be an old soul. Her disdain for fellow millennials just seems like an excuse for the screenwriter to write wittier zingers for her character than her classmates. Compared to John Hughes classics or even turn-of-the-millennium high school comedies such as Clueless, Ghost World or Mean Girls, this entry just doesn’t deliver many revelations or comedy gems. Steinfeld gives it all’s she’s got, but she’s filling awkward shoes.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.
Every couple of years, directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, John Sayles, John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Nolan add to the pantheon of films addressing making contact with alien life. The notion of actually communicating with interstellar visitors, so memorably celebrated in five iconic music notes in the finale act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sets the stage for serious modern films tackling this task of translation, but Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral science fiction drama Arrival (A-) radically riffs on a familiar tune with a stunning viewpoint and sustained atmosphere that remixes a well-worn genre. The Canadian director follows successful crime thrillers Prisoners and Sicario with an all-out orchestra to the outsider, exploring what it means to be imbued with preternatural power to alter the course of human events or perhaps even bend time if only the universal ability to understand one another is possible. After twelve mysterious UFOs begin hovering over world cities, the U.S. military recruits a linguist masterfully played by Amy Adams to assist in making sense of alien communication. What follows is a deliberately paced, at times puzzling and consistently revealing opus on the phenomenon of language and science as bridge builders to deeper understanding and community. Adams thoroughly dominates the film and is engrossing and believable in showcasing her convictions and discoveries. Jeremy Renner is successful at playing her supporting scientist, the kind of role typically reserved for a love interest, but there’s scant time for romance when the world is at stake. The film’s effects – striking and unusual – buoy a thinking person’s meditation on big issues of international and cosmic collaboration. The kindest accolade of all is that the film inspires a desire for repeat viewing and discussion.
An epic true tale of faith has met its match in a filmmaker for whom fire and brimstone are merely a prelude, and the power and singularity of his vision on screen cannot be denied. Director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (B) is a tough mudder of an action movie, hearkening to the actor-turned-director’s own roots in Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli and imprinted with a world-weary POV applied to WWII’s Battle of Okinawa. Funneled through Gibson’s prism of gore and glory, the film is far from subtle but nonetheless audaciously moving. At the center of the proceedings – and key to its believability – is Andrew Garfield’s knockout portrayal of real-life American hero Desmond Doss, whose Christian beliefs prompted him to become a conscientious objector to violence simultaneous to enlisting in the military as a medic without a gun. Opening sequences feel like a Whitman’s Sampler of giddy nostalgia that would give Forrest Gump a run for his money in treacly sweetness. But soon after dispensing with some basic training melodrama, the film quickly detours into a fog and slog of war and a series of difficult decisions and riffs on themes of sacrifice and redemption. The director is adroit at putting the viewer in the heart of the action, relating to the protagonist’s fear and faith of being disarmed in the face of encroaching force. Aside from casting Vince Vaughn against type as a droll drill sergeant, the filmmaker rounds out his ensemble with sterling British and Australian actors ranging from Sam Worthington to Hugo Weaving to a relative newcomer, the delightful Teresa Palmer. The images of war are among the most suspenseful and sensational committed to screen, with the titular ridge, flanked with a mountain-high netting leading infantry to setbacks and triumphs, among the splendid set pieces. The sheer duration of some of the sequences dull their impact, but the fight choreography is second to none. Many will love the film’s messages but be turned off by the graphic violence; others repelled by Gibson will miss out on a poignant story. The auteur has once again found the pulse of an incredible and inspiring brave heart.