Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not So Hidden Anymore: Hidden Figures Soars

Movie Reviewed: Hidden Figures

Director: Theodore Melfi

Date: 23 April 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

Hidden Figures is so well-executed, well-constructed, and well-acted, that its success in the box office and in the Academy Award nominations is both heartening and completely expected. A story hidden from most Americans until now, Theodore Melfi's film crosses into the public consciousness as a reclamation of American aeronautical history in the Civil Rights Era, and an excoriation of the good old days. In Hampton, Virginia 1961, three NASA engineers Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) fundamentally challenge the corridors of power within NASA as the burgeoning space program struggles to get off of the ground. Katherine, a brilliant mathematician, finds herself working closely with Al Johnson (Kevin Costner), the gruff, no-nonsense team leader of the group tasked with keeping John Glenn safe while in orbit, a response to the Russians recent exploits, while also having to run across the compound to use the Colored bathroom. Dorothy, a visionary computer expert, sees the future of her work more quickly than those around her, forcing herself to learn IBM programming to make herself (and her team) indispensable in the coming age. And Mary struggles to earn the education necessary to be an engineer at NASA because of racism and sexism but figures out a way to learn what she does not know. In all three stories, which are woven together quite well, we see three women determined to challenge the power structure and keep challenging it.

Henson is the star here, given more screen-time for Johnson's struggles against administrators and policies and even the quiet racism of her white co-workers not wanting to drink from the same coffeepot as her. Henson conveys the dignity and the exasperated genius of Katherine G. Johnson, a woman whose insights made the impossible possible. Spencer and Monae are also decidedly great in their roles, and the film has an attentiveness to the costumes, hairstyles, set design, and cars of the era that is both beautiful and disarming. This time was not that long ago. Yet, why do we not know this story until now?

Hidden Figures has grossed over $168 million dollars, and I know of multiple grants for school children of all races and ages to go see the film in the theater. These women's achievements have not been forgotten, and the film tells their compelling story in a way that tugs at the heartstrings. These were real people, real women, doing work at the highest level that was needed by our government, and their voices were silenced, marginalized, and hidden until now. There was palpable relief during a key moment with Al Johnson and a sledgehammer, a decision with great implications for treating others with equality. I am excited to watch this film with my own children someday.

In her court case to be able to learn what she wants to learn, Mary Jackson states, "I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can't do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can't change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can't do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?" Here's to this film being the first of many reclamations of American history to show the myriad of people previously unseen, unheard, and hidden from our public consciousness. The American experience must uncover these hidden stories and show them in classrooms and movie theaters, in books and shows. We have no choice but to move forward and honor the truth in our past. Hidden Figures lights the way.

We've Arrived: Villeneuve's Innerspace Adventure

Movie Reviewed: Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Date: 23 April 2017

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

An alien arrival movie that morphs into one character's existential journey, Arrival announces Denis Villeneuve's palpable talent as a filmmaker as well as the joys of the rug being pulled out from under the audience. In its more cerebral and emotional ways, the film recalls, in moments, both Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. After some slowing zooming in opening shots of an empty house with hauting score by Johann Johannsson, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a Linguistics professor must join an Army force led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who are tasked with responding to one of twelve alien spacecraft that are hovering over different parts of the globe. Gigantic egg-like structures, these spacecraft offer chances for communication with life beyond our own, and Banks joins physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in approaching and trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And then, the movie becomes almost a silent film for many minutes with the entrance into the floating egg being a tangible concern, the strange circulations of its gravity, and the logistics of movement within its spaces. Villaneuve lets us reorient ourselves gradually before showing the next reveal, a mixture of both the beautiful and the terrifying, as the communication goes from abstract to shockingly face-to-face. 

And the movie meanders in time with Louise considering her relationship with her daughter in the midst of the world-altering developments. And in a way, the arrival of these extraterrestrials might not be the biggest thing that Louise has on her mind, though her scholarly acumen and moves pay off in brilliant and marvelous ways. The film constantly surprised me in where it was going, and I found multiple reveals to be well-executed and upsetting in the best of ways. Villaneuve moves his camera beautifully with cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot Selma and was appropriately Academy Award nominated for his stunning work here), with lots of slow zooming in to increase tension and plenty of extreme wide shots that show the breadth of the landscapes in relief against the giant eggs. I cannot put into words the effectiveness of Johannsson's score; the Icelandic composer behind The Theory of Everything and Sicario has crafted a sublimely beautiful soundscape to accompany such a strange film. I found Amy Adams to be stellar in a performance that for much of the film is wordless or without the big moments that one would expect. And Renner and Whitaker are both wonderful in the supporting cast as well.

With Arrival coming on the heels of the more messy but compelling Sicario and even the flawed Prisoners, Villaneuve has announced himself as a major talent here, especially with the boldness of the last thirty minutes of the film. In a film that could have easily been two and a half to three hours (I'm looking at you, Interstellar, which I still enjoyed), Villaneuve takes less than two hours to concisely tell a moving story with gravity. The unconventional final sequences reveal a filmmaker filled to the brim with confidence, elan, and daring. I am haunted by Arrival and its hypnotic power; I feel that I will always want to return to its world and fall under its spell and its idea that we are ultimately not waiting for an external conquering or revelation. Instead, the epiphany will and must come from within. We announce and create our own arrivals.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tale as Old As Time: Beast Redux

Movie Reviewed: Beauty and the Beast

Director: Bill Condon

Date: 15 April 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

Many times as I watched the live-action version of Disney's animated 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast (itself a reimagining of previous versions, to me yet unseen), I cast my memory back fondly to the images, songs, and performances of that film. The 2017 version, while well-made and mostly well-cast, seems superfluous to me. I hate to call any movie a cash-grab, but the impulse to revisit this world seems guaranteed to be more about making a hit and less about making a film worth remembering. For my money, I will always prefer the 1991 film.

A back story is provided this time which is fine involving a lack of hospitality extended by a prince to a begging woman who visits a ball; the magical punishment ensues. Flash forward to the present. Belle (Emma Watson) hungers for more "than this provincial life" in a small village in France, and when her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing on a search for elusive flowers, she evades would-be-suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) and travels to the hidden castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens).   Belle sacrifices herself for her father, becoming a captive of the Beast and the castle's enchanted inhabitants.  Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) are all here and mostly fine.  The songs zoom by as petals from the enchanted rose fall; Belle grows to love the Beast's library, and he grows to convert his anger into kindness. There is a nice scene that flashes back to Belle's mother in Paris, a memory unseen by her until now. Thawing and dancing ensues. Meanwhile, Gaston plots against Belle's father and tries to figure out a way to win the one uninterested independent feminist in the village who despises him.

All the pieces are here. The new songs add little to the film's enjoyment; the old ones remain classics and spirited fun. The castle is a remarkable achievement, but there seems no one scene or moment as powerful as first seeing that dance between Belle and the Beast, given a rich cinematic spin in 1991 that seemed very different from previous Disney films. The film does no harm, I guess, and LeFou (Josh Gad) being in love with Gaston and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment at the end of the film is fun. Emma Watson really can do anything, here reunited with her Perks of Being a Wallflower screenwriter Stephen Chbosky. Luke Evans seems less capable as Gaston, maybe because Gaston's monstrosity seems small here. I imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Jason Momoa, so anything he does seems less than. I suppose it isn't fair to just compare it to its predecessor. Standing on its own, the film is fine and enjoyable but a bit clumsy and inelegant. If anything, I am more likely to watch the 1991 film now and show that to my son and daughter. You can decide if they are worth comparing.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Movie Reviewed: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Date Reviewed: 5 March 2017

Rating: ***1/2

What a trip! I am so glad that I knew very little about this film going in, so my review is going to be vague and preservative of the thrills and chills inherent in 10 Cloverfield Lane. A young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees New Orleans and wakes up from a violent car crash to find herself underground, recovering from her injuries under the care of a survivalist (John Goodman). There's another man there too, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), recovering with a broken arm. Something has happened, apparently, above ground, and the retreating to this bunker necessary. Is it the apocalypse? War? Space invaders? Paranoia? All of them at once?

Development leads to development, and one of the wonders of Trachtenberg's film is the off-kilter feeling of getting your bearings, thinking you know where the film is heading, and then getting knocked down. Completely. The performances are wonderful, especially Winstead who must cover so many emotions within the confined space as she tries to out-think the growing chaos around her. Trachtenberg is a major talent here, allowing the tension to build and build. I think that the ending is simply marvelous in its boldness.

I do not want to write more. I admire this film, its construction, its surprises, its payoffs. I think it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, and I want to see more films like it. What holds it back from being perfect? I can't put my finger on it. I think revisiting this film in a few months will probably force me to revise this rating to four stars. Highly recommended.