Friday, February 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (2016) film review

Year: 2016
Running Time: 127 minutes
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Margot Lee Shetterly (based on the book written by), Allison Shroeder and Theodore Melfi (screenplay)
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali

Hidden Figures is now showing in the United States and will be released in Australia on February 16. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Like the incredible women in the film, Hidden Figures is smart, entertaining and inspirational. It's a wonderfully sharp film that provides a nostalgic and informative snapshot of history while never neglecting it's responsibility to pay the greatest tribute to it's remarkable heroines.

Set in 1961, Hidden Figures is the widely unknown story of how three extraordinary women overcame the unavoidable obstacles of race and gender to assist NASA in their quest to put men in space and ultimately on the moon. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), all of who were close friends, made their mark on history in each of their fields at NASA at a time when racial segregation was still in place in the state of Virginia and women still struggled to be taken seriously in the workplace.

Hidden Figures is truly a marvellous piece of filmmaking by director and co-writer, Theodore Melfi. At 127 minutes, it is by no means a short film. However, it is still incredible how much it does and says in this amount of time without seeming heavy or overloaded.

Hidden Figures never once loses focus of it's primary goal, which is to tell the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Yet at the same time, the film also provides an intriguing and nostalgic historical imprint of early 1960's in the United States, a time when a great deal of interesting things were taking place. Tensions were high between the United States and Russia and were heightened when Russian, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Being beaten by the Russians in such a time did not sit well with the country and especially not with NASA.

Of course, one of the glaringly obvious themes of Hidden Figures is racism and prejudice. In 1961, the state of Virginia was three years away from having segregation abolished under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even in the film, there is a sense that a change is in the air, but racial tension was very much alive and well. The film works as a reminder that despite growing rights for the coloured in the early 1960's, racism was inbuilt in society so much that it was not often even recognised by whites for what it was. It was just an accepted way of thinking, as was demonstrated by various characters in the film including Kirsten Dunst's Vivian Mitchell. In a memorable exchange between her and Octavia Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan, the following dialogue sums up this notion completely:-

"Despite what you think, I have nothing against y'all"
"I know you probably believe that"

This may look and sound like an insult, but it is not that as it is nothing but the truth. Hidden Figures contains numerous memorable and important pieces of dialogue such as this, but they can also feel as though they were included for people to comment on their importance. This may not sit well with some cinemagoers, but Melfi and Allison Schroeder have achieved their purpose as here we are indeed referring to them.

Yet as much as Hidden Figures is a beautifully made historical picture, it does not forget it's primary responsibility is to highlight the ways Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson overcame seemingly impossible obstacles to achieve incredible things. The screenplay allows for the character development and in depth study of all three of the main characters so that one feels as though they are satisfied with how well they know each of the women. Not only that, but each character has their own unique personality and they have been brilliantly cast in order to make the most of their glorious character traits.

Right from the first scene which the three women appear in together on the deserted road when their car breaks down, you feel as if you are already getting a sense of who Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are and they are all a sheer joy to watch in this scene. Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as Katherine in that she is restrained, but powerful. More importantly, she is relatable and completely likable. Octavia Spencer also gives a strong performance as Dorothy, who is also rather maternal not just around her children, but also over her workers. Janelle Monae is a particular standout as Mary. From that first car scene, one can tell she is the sassy, street smart one of the trio, but not in a way that is unnatural by any means or arrogant. She is great fun to watch and brings a certain sense of "cool" to the film, but in a mature and serious manner so not to take anything away from her achievements.

Hidden Figures is enjoyable and entertaining, but not overwhelming. The brilliance of this is that it does not detract from the enlightening, intelligent and inspiring story of these three incredible women.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fences (2016) film review

Year: 2016
Running Time: 139 minutes
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson (based on his play "Fences" and screenplay written by)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Denzel Washington once again steps behind the camera to direct himself in Fences, a film based on the play both he and co-star Viola Davis are no stranger to. And unfortunately, this is the greatest problem with the film.

Despite knockout performances by both Washington and Davis, Fences commits the ultimate stage to screen is obvious. The most successful stage to screen adaptations make people oblivious to the fact that it is an adaptation. In hindsight, Washington would have seemed the obvious choice to direct and August Wilson the perfect choice to write the screenplay, as he also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning play. Yet, these are perhaps the two biggest downfalls of the film.

Those who did not see Fences on Broadway (which will be the majority of cinema goers) can only imagine how spectacular it would have been to have seen on stage. The best way to sum up the film is in a quote by the film's character, Bono (played by Stephen Henderson):

"Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in. "

Washington's Troy Maxson is an ex-baseball player who despite his sunny outlook on life, is tormented by his past misfortunes. His wife of 18 years, Rose (Viola Davis) has been his tower of strength, but his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) has felt his wrath more than his love. The family has always kept a strong and happy united front, until Troy brings home an issue from outside their walls and the cracks star to show inside.

Despite the fact that Fences has one major problem as a whole, it does have incredible redeeming features. It is a well-made film, but would have worked better from an entertainment perspective if it didn't look like a play trying to be a film. It is a challenge for a writer to adapt a play for screen and make it seem as though the story was originally made just for this medium. Many films are able to do this well ( eg. The Philadelphia Story, Chicago, Les Miserables, etc.), but Fences cannot hide this fact even though you can tell Wilson's screenplay has tried to. Both director, Washington and Wilson are far too attached to and know too well what works from their previous work on Broadway with Fences. The result is that the film is slow, overlong and lags under the weight of the heavy chunks of dialogue, even though these pieces are delivered brilliantly and are wonderfully written.

While the film doesn't have a wide variety of filming locations due to the nature of the story, it's production design by David Gropman is superb. Fences is wonderfully nostalgic with it's recreation of 1950's Pittsburgh. The time period is replicated beautifully in it's set design of the Maxsons street and house, and with Sharen Davis' costume design.

However, it is the performances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis that are the champions of the film. Washington directs himself wonderfully, but one can only imagine that it would not be such a hard task as he has played the role many a time before. His Troy is a particularly interesting character, as he continually battles with his inner demons who are tormenting him about his past and missed opportunities. He is particularly likable at the beginning of the film and becomes harder to like as the film progresses showing wonderful character depth and development.

Washington is certainly powerful and undoubtedly perfect in his role, but it is Viola Davis as Rose who is the greatest thing about the film. Even though Washington is a force to be reckoned with, Davis steals the spotlight away from him in every scene she is in. She is such a strong female character who struggles with, but does not give up on her job to keep her family together. With the Academy Awards only two weeks away, Davis is an absolute certainty to win the Best Supporting Female Actor Oscar for this role. There is one scene in Fences where if this had been the only scene that Davis had appeared in throughout the film, it would still win her the Oscar.

Fences is a fine looking film, but is ultimately saved from itself by it's powerful and memorable performances by it's cast.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (2016) film review

Year: 2016
Running Time: 137 minutes
Director/ Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick

Manchester By The Sea is now showing in cinemas everywhere and is distributed in Australia by Universal Pictures.

The stunning and incredibly crafted Manchester by the Sea is as heartbreaking as it is brilliant with it's tale of devastating tragedy intercepting with the absurdity of life.

Janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) ran from his Massachusetts hometown of Manchester to escape his haunting personal tragedy, but he is summoned back when another family tragedy occurs. Upon the death of his brother, Lee becomes his nephew, Patrick's (Lucas Hedges) guardian. Despite his obvious love for Patrick, he is reluctant to move his life back to Manchester and accept a life of pain at the hands of the past.

Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is not only devastating in story, but devastatingly beautiful as a whole. The atmospheric film set in the coastal New England town masters the art of modern tragedy and the Charles Chaplin quote "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot" represents the film perfectly.

Manchester by the Sea is brilliantly written and directed by Lonergan as it captures the intensity of never-ending grief, guilt and heartbreak that accompanies a traumatic event, such as the one experienced by Affleck's Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (as portrayed in a stellar performance by Michelle Williams). However, the screenplay emphasises the fact that the absurdity of life does not disappear in tragedy and although humour is lost in the eye of the beholder, it is still there, as is seen in various surprisingly amusing scenes in the film (eg. losing the car and the frozen chicken scene). This inclusion of humour in the tragedy is such an achievement as the film does not lose any of it's emotional impact as a result of these fleeting, but effective moments of amusement. Rather, it adds to the realism and enjoyment of the film.

The film is exceptionally character driven with it's large focus on human interaction and relationships. Casey Affleck as protagonist, Lee Chandler gives an extraordinary performance as the man who has lost all that he ever cared about and despite having tried to move on, cannot do so in Manchester where everyone knows everything about each other. The character development is exceptionally strong with Lee as the film allows us to feel the extent and depth of his change in response to his life-altering events. Affleck is truly remarkable as Lee. He gives an emotionally powerful, yet restrained performance which naturally channels a broken man trying to navigate his way through life and find meaning once again.

Although Michelle Williams is truly heartbreaking as Randi, it is the chemistry between Affleck and Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick, that is one of the great highlights of the film. Although Lee has been away from his nephew, the two are so alike at times that they clash and at other times they lift each other up. Their dialogue is perfectly timed and often witty and hilarious, but they also share some truly beautiful and heartfelt scenes.

Manchester by the Sea is by all means not the feel good film of the year, but it proves that sometimes even a harsh outcome can be gratifying if the film is crafted with the sheer perfection that this one is.