Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Fences"

                                 ☆☆☆                                  


For a movie as pedigreed and noble as Fences, it's an awfully talky and ultimately muddled film that discovers, uncomfortably, what a wide gulf there is between what affects us on stage and what moves us on screen.

It's based on August Wilson's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and whatever it was that worked so well when performed live does not have the same impact when filmed for an audience.  Filled with long, florid monologues and grand themes of morals and ethics, Fences is admirable in every possible way, just not particularly compelling.

It takes place almost entirely within the backyard and two of the rooms of the Philadelphia home of Troy Maxson, mostly in 1957.  Anchored by two remarkable performances by Denzel Washington (who also directs) and Viola Davis, Fences seethes with anger for forgotten people -- not just for African-Americans, but for everyone like Troy, who has worked so hard to accomplish so little that he's become bitter at how much he was not allowed to do.

For that reason, Fences should feel uncommonly timely despite its setting of 60 years ago, but Washington is working with a script that Wilson finished in 2005, before he died, and seems almost afraid to interpret the words and actions further.

Troy works hard as a garbage man to support his second wife, Rose, and their high-school-aged son, Cory, and they don't live flamboyantly.  Largely due to her careful management of the house, they life reasonably well, though, despite having much turmoil under a peaceful surface.  Troy has an older son from his first marriage, and was able to buy the house not because of his meager salary but because his mentally disabled brother Gabe was badly injured in World War II and received a small payout from the government.

But Troy has another shame, too, one that will test the limits of his wife's saintlike patience and break open the chasm that looms between him and his son.  As he ruminates on his life and what he has been denied, Troy reminisces about his almost-career as a baseball player.  Troy believes prejudice, not skill, prevented him from playing.

Over and over, he reflects on baseball, and some of his dialogue could be the work of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams -- baseball is metaphor, a life lesson, a dream and an unkept promise all in one, and if it sounded over the top when James Earl Jones said it, it's that much more labored here.  (It's no surprise that Jones himself played Troy in the original Broadway production in 1987, while Dreams was released two years later.)

Despite the enormous work of its cast and director, Fences remains as fixed to its limited world as the baseball that Troy hangs from a tree in the yard.  There are occasional efforts to open up the action, but they seem half-hearted and timid -- this is a play through and through.

It's also a movie that asks a lot of the audience; it is defiantly unwilling to present Troy in a sympathetic light, and spends almost all of its time in the realm of metaphor, unwilling to say quite exactly what it means.  It's meant to spark post-show conversation, perhaps, but comes across as wavering and unresolved.  Is Troy a good man who went bad?  Is his life to blame, are his problems truly caused by circumstance -- or does his pivotal act and revelation prove that he is unrelievedly selfish and cowardly? Fences doesn't want to tell us, and Washington doesn't want to offer any sort of interpretation, which is exactly what it would have needed to to transcend its roots.

What Fences does have is a strong central performance by Washington; intense, internalized, he projects a combination of fierce strength and utter disillusionment.  He's affecting.  Even better is Viola Davis in one of the year's most compelling performances.  She isn't long-suffering, she is proud to be who she is, she is confident and resilient, and she understands the significance of her own modest achievements.  When the rug is pulled out from under her in the key scene of Fences, it's clear that Davis has found the soul of the character.  She's the reason to see Fences, and she's almost enough.

It's a frustrating movie, one that contains much to like -- but not quite enough.  The ambiguity at its core has made the play into a classic, but it's the very thing that keeps the film swinging, but not quite making, the Fences of its title.


Viewed Jan. 8, 2016 -- DVD

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Worst of 2016


After the year it's been, it seems entirely appropriate to finish 2016's movie blogging not with the best of the year (you can find that here) but with the worst ... and just as it did in politics, celebrity deaths and global news, there were times when 2016 was really just stinking rotten.

So, I'll end the year with this warning:

Do not see these movies.  It was a bad enough year already, why make it worse?

       Don't Breathe    


This is the cheery little thriller in which a woman gets strung up by her arms and legs, watches in horror while the bad guy rips a hole in her pants right between her legs, then stares at him helplessly while he heats of some frozen semen, loads it into a turkey baster, and rapes her while the camera never blinks.  If this is your idea of a good time at the movies, I'm sorry for you.  It's a completely irredeemable movie, a sordid and sleazy creation with nothing at all to recommend it.  It is offensive in every way.  It is the worst film of the year, but the most depressing, violent, grim, saddening film I've ever seen, without even a sense of style to make it mildly interesting.  Don't Breathe is a movie I hope no one ever subjects themselves to, and if they do and they come out of it thinking, "That was intense," I hope they will seriously consider what they saw on the screen and how it finds nothing at all interesting or remarkable about life.  But please, even that makes it sound like it could be interesting as an exploration of nihilism, but it's not.  It's just a terrible movie, a movie I wish I had never seen, a movie that did something worse than make me angry -- it made me feel despair.  Just the fact that this movie got made and released by a major studio fills me with worry for our future.  What does it say when a film that enjoys torturing a woman this much, that enjoys showing her scream and beg while completely defenseless, that takes such sorrowful glee in putting her in that situation ... what does it say when that film can even be made?  I did more than hate this movie, I regretted and resented it and the space it took up in my head.


       Miracles From Heaven       


Even putting aside the central "come to Jesus" ideas of the best-selling novels that claim a child has gone to heaven and come back to earth, this is a bad movie.  Even putting aside that their descriptions of "the other side" included a blond, tan, fair-skinned Jesus, still wearing the same sandals and robes he had on 2,000 years ago, this is a bad movie.  Even putting aside the rare moments where Jennifer Garner sweats and grunts as she tries to lift the thing off the ground and almost manages it, for the briefest of moments, this is a bad movie.  And here's the most astonishing thing: Even though it features Queen Latifah, an actress who can make the most awful thing better, this is a bad movie.  That's saying something.  It's the cinematic equivalent of "fake news," complete with millions of people who want to believe it.  But if all "fake news" were presented in as boring and insipid a manner, maybe people wouldn't believe it anymore.


       Jason Bourne      


An oppressively stupid movie may, more than we realized, may have signaled oppressively stupid choices made in November -- choices that, like this movie, are not at all concerned with what is believable and true but what is easy and convenient.  This is a spy movie in which the hero steals a police motorcycle to elude the police, where the bad guy steals an armored SWAT van to try to make a quick getaway, and where one of the leading intelligence officials stands at the back of a room and shouts to all the unnamed technicians, "Bring up camera 247 on screen ... enlarge the image ... plot his course!"  My God, if the world worked this way we'd have not a single problem, would we? This is a lazy, sloppy movie, pretending to be a high-stakes chess played out on a global scale, but actually a cardboard set of checkers played by easily distracted and not very intelligent children.  Actually, they'd probably find Jason Bourne a little stupid, too.


       Independence Day: Resurgence      


The original Independence Day will never be mistaken for a more thoughtful revision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it made things blow up real good and, back when we felt the country and the world were heading in relatively good directions, it gave us a grand sense of American patriotism and a warm, fuzzy feeling that everyone was in this damn thing together.  It took a long time for a sequel to get made, and a lot changed with the world -- and with movies.  The ways movies could marvel us in 1996 seem quaint by comparison, and Independence Day has moved from big-screen blockbuster to the movie you have on while you fold clothes on Sunday mornings.  All of that is to say: A sequel was, at the very least, unnecessary.  But if they had to make one, couldn't they have done something that didn't try to feel so outdated and backward?  It's like watching a movie put on parachute pants and high tops and say, "Am I cool, or what?"  Independence Day: Resurgence is embarrassing to watch.  It has nothing new to add to the story, and even its visual effects look flat and unconvincing.  Take a note, Hollywood: We don't need to see famous cities blow up ever again.  Ever.  Been there, done that -- it even happened to us in real life.  The big, jaw-dropping set-pieces in Independence Day: Resurgence just look silly and unconvincing, which is what you can say for the move as a whole, too.


       Snowden      


Come on, really?  The crazy, sometimes paranoid mind of Oliver Stone, the guy who made J.F.K. and Natural Born Killers, can't find anything interesting to do with the Edward Snowden story?  Let's see -- one guy discovers distressing secrets the government is hiding that could affect the safety of all mankind, embarks on a risky mission to download and extract them, then goes on the run while the entirety of the U.S. government tries to hunt him down ... and it turns out to be a boring movie?  Snowden is a snooze, a movie that spends way too much time discussing the ramifications of the information contained on the thumb drive than showing us what it is, or better yet, turning Snowden into the quintessential espionage thriller.  This should have been one of the paranoia-infused greats, a film that mixed social commentary with great filmmaking the way directors loved to do in the 1970s. Instead, we've got a dull, dull, dull movie that makes Snowden out to be the least interesting and most self-absorbed person ever to be among the world's most wanted men.  Snowden does, though, have one impressive distinction: It makes you wonder who could possibly care about this story.









Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best of 2016


The consensus seems to be that the dozen months of 2016 are not ones most people would want to repeat.  So, is it merely a coincidence that so many of the most rewarding and compelling movies of this grim, glum year turn out to be explorations of loss, grief and resignation?

Even the frequently ebullient La La Land has sharp edges of desperation and disappointment.  The first time I saw it, I waltzed out of the theater giddy from its love affair with the great movie musicals, while a second viewing underscored that from its jaunty opening number to its final flourish, La La Land is a movie about the pain of sacrifice.

Likewise, the surprise science-fiction hit Arrival has, at its core, a deep sense of regret and a bit of foreboding for the future.

Of course, movies take months or years to make, so they don't directly reflect the moment ... or do they?  Was this melancholy end to the year one that filmmakers could have foreseen?  It will take time to unravel the deeper meanings of the movies of 2016, but even though they are frequently weighty and sometimes even hard to watch, every one of these movies is a genuinely remarkable achievement.  And don't get me wrong, some of them are downright joyous.  Then again, any great movie is joyous, and all of these, in one way or another, are great movies.


  #10  
  The Jungle Book  

It's tempting to say that Neel Sethi delivers the single best performance of the year purely because it's he who makes The Jungle Book utterly, completely believable -- despite almost always being the only real thing on screen.  The Jungle Book is a digital wonder, a movie that proves ever naysayer of digital effects (myself included) wrong by creating a world that's entirely believable and utterly absorbing.  It recalls Disney's original animated version without (sorry) aping it and creates a captivating movie that is charming and dazzling in equal measure.  As Mowgli, Sethi has the unenviable task of making audiences think he's really doing all the things he's doing, but the thing he does best is make us believe -- not just in his story, but in the magic of the movies.


  #9  
  Kubo and the Two Strings  

Fresher than Harry Potter, as emotionally fulfilling as E.T. and as lyrical as The Wizard of Oz, Kubo and the Two Strings is as carefully and intricately structured as one of its title characters origami creatures.  It may look simple, but it takes enormous skill and imagination to create something this exquisite.  It's a visually striking, narratively complex animated movie, and its greatest success is also its greatest commercial pitfall: It demands, and rewards, patience and thought.  All throughout, its title seems to make sense until the movie's final minutes, when it reveals the true meaning of those two strings in a scene of unexpected emotional weight.  It's a tale not of adventure and action (though it contains those) but of quiet introspection, leading to a potent reminder that we stand on the backs of those who came before us.  It's a beautiful, soaring film.


  #8  
  Jackie  

You'll come to Jackie to see its flawless central performance by Natalie Portman, but you'll leave Jackie feeling you've gained insight into how anyone -- well-known or not -- copes with grief.  On that sunny fall day in 1963, Jackie Kennedy didn't just watch the President die in her arms, she witnessed something unthinkable, she lost her husband and saw her entire world fall out of her control.  Jobless, homeless, futureless, she musters her strength, summons her courage and discovers genuine rage as she calls a reporter to her Massachusetts mansion and begins what she knows will be her most important work: shaping John F. Kennedy's legacy.  As Jackie Kennedy, Portman hits every note elegantly, powerfully and strikingly.  She transforms Jackie Kennedy from the thin, whisper-voiced and intensely private celebrity we knew from a distance into an achingly real, strong and vital woman, who deals with tragedy by confronting it head on.  Jackie offers more than Portman's performance, but she is the reason it transcends mere biography and becomes such a rich, rewarding movie.


  #7  
  Midnight Special  

There aren't many directors with as peculiarly compelling a style as Jeff Nichols.  He seems uniquely capable of finding the infinitesimally thin line between reality and fantasy, and he specializes in a mood that hangs right at the intersection of languid and dreamlike -- his movies are realizations of that moment that happens just as you're about to fall asleep, when anything seems possible but only from a distance.  Midnight Special is a blend of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman, filtered through Nichols' unusual lens.  Michael Shannon adds to the almost-surreal proceedings as an intense father of a child with truly unusual powers that either threaten the world or might save it.  Making Midnight even more special is Nichols' fearlessness in its final 20 minutes: The movie shows us everything, yet still manages to leave us with a sense of wonder, even that rarest of all movie emotions: awe.



  #6  
  Manchester by the Sea  

Regardless of what you've heard, Manchester by the Sea will not throw you in to despondency, you will not want to slit your wrists after seeing it, you will not feel hopeless.  In fact, it's more likely you'll experience an unexpected sense of calm and contentedness when Manchester by the Sea ends, because it's a movie imbued with optimism despite a story filled with tragedy.  It's a spiritual counterpart to Jackie in its quest to uncover how anyone can experience death and still go on living.  Casey Affleck is tortured and bleak in the lead role of a father who loses just about everything, but he's also charismatic and soulful.  Equally stellar is Lucas Hedges as the confused, impatient, loving teenager who needs a father figure -- even an entirely unsuitable one.  Yes, there is great tragedy throughout Manchester by the Sea, but whose life is untouched by tragedy?  Taken together, Manchester by the Sea and Jackie get as close as movies can come to understanding how and why we pick ourselves up and carry on despite it all.


  #5  
  Arrival  

How can we be so lucky?  This year brought us not just the mystical, weird splendors of Midnight Special but another cerebral, patient science-fiction spectacle with Arrival.  Though it's based on a short story, Arrival feels fully thought-out, combining a deeply personal story with one that takes place on a grand, even cosmic, scale.  There are touches of 2001The Day the Earth Stood Still and especially Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, but Arrival only draws inspiration from those movies and doesn't try to mimic them.  It's unlike any mainstream science-fiction film I can remember, winding in and out of time and back and forth on itself as it blends enormous vision with a story that has genuine intimacy and real sadness at its warm and tender heart.  Amy Adams delivers a fantastic, thoughtful performance whose believability is vital to this wondrous, mystifying movie.


  #4  
  Swiss Army Man  

Yes, I swear that the movie about the farting corpse is one of the best movies of the year.  It's also one of three movies I loved this year that invokes the spirit of the great E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial ... in fact, at one point in Swiss Army Man the suicidal castaway (Paul Dano) and rotting, farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) he befriends engage in a shadow-puppet performance that includes the indelible "over the moon" scene.  To really enjoy Swiss Army Man, you'll need to turn off your self-censorship mode that has taught you to be embarrassed and disgusted by bodily functions and scared by the sight of a dead man.  If you do that, though, you'll be rewarded with one of the truly joyous movies of 2016, a film that isn't ashamed to say that the only thing anyone really wants is to find someone who understands them, and it's no one's business but yours who that person ends up being.  Swiss Army Man is beautiful despite being grotesque, moving despite being absurd, and a true treasure of a movie.


  #3  
  Moonlight  

Moonlight does things movies aren't supposed to do -- it experiments, always successfully, with story, structure, character and even the very nature of film itself, it is as bold and revolutionary a movie as any you're likely to see, and just as affecting.  Three different actors play the same role in three different short films that add up to one entirely fulfilling whole.  Each of the stories follows Chiron -- first known as "Little," then by his given name, then as "Black" -- a boy who is growing up in the worst possible circumstances and who has to rely only on himself.  Others float in and out of his life, and whether through love or hate they all contribute to who he becomes.  Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron at different stages of his life, and they are all remarkable in the same role.  Mahershala Ali is revelatory as Juan, the drug dealer who tries to be a father to the boy, and André Holland is sensitive and memorable as Kevin, a man who has always loved Chiron but never really knew it.  Visually gorgeous, achingly emotional and never, ever predictable, Moonlight is an extraordinary accomplishment that in any other year might have been the single best film of the year ... but 2016 hasn't been an ordinary year.


  #2  
  A Monster Calls  

Jackie explores grief from the viewpoint of history, Manchester by the Sea takes a strikingly realistic approach, but as a dark and mystical fantasy, A Monster Calls is an even more exquisitely heartbreaking exploration of this difficult subject because it knows that despair and pain are so boundless that they exist on a plane that is different than reality.  Director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness (who wrote the children's novel on which it's based, which came from an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who conceived of it but died before she could write it) are fearless when it comes to showing the cavernous, bottomless void that opens up when someone we love dies.  A movie this tender can't succeed, though, without equally fearless performances, and that's exactly what A Monster Calls has in Lewis McDougall, who plays Conor, a boy on the cusp of maturity who is facing the death of his mother, and in Liam Neeson, who brings both a voice and a soul to the title "monster."  But there's another monster in the movie: death, which suffuses every frame, even the splendidly beautiful ones of long animated sequences that punctuate the film.  Some may term A Monster Calls a tearjerker, but that's pulling it mildly: It's a weep-yanker, a film that earns those deep emotions by being courageous, honest and visually magnificent.


  #1  
  La La Land  

The first thing you're likely to feel from La La Land is joy.  It's a movie in love with the movies and in love with being in love.  But consider it again.  Yes, it has a beautiful sheen to it, an exquisite look that you need to see in the biggest theater with the biggest screen you can to really appreciate it.  And it's anchored by two luminous, committed performances -- Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a musician hopelessly infatuated with the past, and Emma Stone as Mia, a woman who is just about to give up on her dream of being an actress.  They meet and they fall in love in a gloriously old-fashioned way: singing and dancing about it, sometimes even right there on a movie studio's backlot, the way it used to be done in the old big-screen musicals.  Then, just as it's keeping the smile plastered on your face, La La Land starts to go into directions musicals aren't supposed to go in, and it winds up with a finale that plays it both ways: It presents a big, brassy, swoony ballet sequence -- maybe the finest eight minutes ever to finish a movie -- and then belts you in the face with an ending you didn't foresee.  That's what makes it worth seeing again, and when you do (or when you listen to its soundtrack, which may seem dismissible to begin with but works its way into your head like an earworm) you'll start noticing that from its first frame to its last, La La Land isn't about being in love, it's about the impossibility of love in the most romantic of settings.  "That's L.A.," says Sebastian, dejectedly, "they worship everything and value nothing."  It's that sentiment, and lyrics right there in its misleadingly bouncy opening number ("I'm reaching for the heights / and chasing all the lights that shine / and when they let you down / you get up off the ground") that showcase its depth and make this a movie that matters for reasons that far exceed its surface-level pleasures.  La La Land is a movie about passion, not necessarily about love, and about the things people sacrifice to follow their ambitions.  In that way, even though its gorgeous, swirling and dizzying, writer-director Damien Chazelle brings some connections to his sadistic, maddeningly good Whiplash.  It's too easy to dismiss La La Land as merely terrific.  It's way better than that.



"A Monster Calls"


 5 / 5  

Not being a parent, I was entirely unaware of the prize-winning, critically lauded children's novel A Monster Calls, so I knew nothing of the story when the lights dimmed, just a vague understanding that it involved a little boy whose mother was dying, a tree and a monster.

Those are, in fact, the most basic of plot elements in J.A. Bayona's singularly superb adaptation, though they do not even hint at the emotional complexity of the movie, or the experience of seeing it, which I thought might be a deeply and pointedly personal experience until I heard the sniffing and tissue-reaching going on all around me.

It would take an awfully cold heart not to be moved by the movie's intensity, sincerity and visual beauty, though a quick scan of the Internet shows that rabid fans of the illustrated novel find it too faithful to its source material.  Perhaps that's so, but for the uninitiated like me, A Monster Calls is striking for both its surface-level design and for its deeply wrought story, not to mention its striking visual effects.

I'd go so far as to call Liam Neeson's eponymous monster one of the best CG characters yet seen, a giant of a tree-man who bears some immediate resemblance to Marvel's popular Groot since they are both, well, tree-men.  Then again, Felicity Jones plays a central role in A Monster Calls and no one's going to mistake her for a Star Wars character.  Appearances, as the Monster himself might say, can be mere distractions.

The Monster is a giant, walking and talking yew tree who pays a visit late one night to Conor O'Malley, who's "too old to be a kid but too young to be a man."  Conor's mother is dying of cancer, and his imperious grandmother is trying to call the shots at home.  His long-gone father is on the way back from his new life in L.A., but even the hope of seeing him can't change Conor's loneliness.  Bullied at school, unsure of his place in life and facing the impossible thought of life after his mother, Conor cannot understand what the Monster wants.

The lumbering beast threatens -- or promises -- to tell Conor three stories in exchange for a mysterious fourth, which Conor will need to tell himself.  And indeed he does tell the first of his stories, which proves to be as elegant as it is inscrutable.  As his mother's health deteriorates, Conor begins to anticipate the Monster's arrival and the promises the creature makes.

The Monster's stories are depicted in two long, astonishing animated sequences, which are further enriched by Neeson's deep, soothing voice.   Left to discern the meaning of the stories on his own, Conor becomes one of the screen's truly great child characters thanks to an almost impossibly nuanced and intuitive performance by Lewis McDougall, who can't help but recall Henry Thomas in E.T., though his character is infinitely richer.  That's meant as no slight to E.T., which A Monster Calls does vaguely resemble in the best ways; they're both modern fables that begin with familiar tropes, which they gloriously reassemble.

There are rich performances by Jones and by Sigourney Weaver as Conor's grandmother.  Her accent may be noticeably inconsistent, but her emotional heart is true and strong, especially the way she plays a key scene of unexpected chaos.  She's a steadying presence in a complicated film.

At the core of A Monster Calls is the relationship between Conor and the Monster, and it's real, mesmerizing and deeply affecting.  As the movie alternates between the tumult of Conor's life and the increasingly violent and troubling ways the Monster makes his presence known to Conor, A Monster Calls creates a vision that does not pretend the world is anything but difficult -- not just for children, but for the adults they become.  Don't let the fact that it's based on a children's novel fool you: It's a surprisingly dark movie that does not pretend to be about anything other than the terrors of loss and grief.

They are difficult, distressing subjects, but they're impossible to avoid.  A Monster Calls never tries to be a happy movie; it's both a fanciful examination of a serious subject and a serious examination of a fanciful one -- and in either case, it's both beautiful and affecting.

Yes, the Monster is a computer-generated tree-man, and yes, the movie's central relationship is between a big plant and an emotionally lost and frightened little boy -- but what are movies for if not to convince you that anything is possible?  A Monster Calls does exactly that.



Viewed Dec. 29, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood

2005

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Hidden Figures"


 4 / 5  

There are moments when Hidden Figures achieves the near-impossible task of being a quieter, more bookish counterpart to 1983's majestic The Right Stuff, and there are also times when it seems like a lesser and overly earnest HBO docudrama, so while I can barely do basic math without a calculator, I'd say that the cinematic average of those two extremes gives us a simple solution to a complex formula: Hidden Figures is a very good movie.

If it falls just short of achieving orbit, it's not the fault of the three truly remarkable actresses -- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe -- who are at the center of the film, which tells the true story of three genius-level black women who overcome the oppressive segregation of the 1960s to help NASA send white men into space, while working at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, no less.

Henson, Spencer and Monáe, with fine support by Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst (both playing slightly villainous roles), make Hidden Figures never less than compelling and frequently outstanding.

But the screenplay, by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, contains a frustrating, if laudatory, desire to take on too much.  Even at three and a half hours, The Right Stuff felt condensed, and it wasn't trying to offer up distinctive characters; Hidden Figures tells a parallel, quieter story of how these three particular women contributed, despite the rampant bigotry of the day, and at two hours sometimes feels overstuffed and unfocused.

Henson's character, Katherine Goble, is a "computer" long before we used that word to define the kind of compact metal tablet I'm typing on, a tablet that, it's famously been noted, has more computing power than anything used by the women in Hidden Figures.  She might be one of the smartest people on the planet, but she's a black woman, which in the early 1960s counted for very little at all.

Katherine drives in to work every morning with Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe), where they head to the dingy, underground office reserved for "colored computers."  Their brains are vital to NASA's success, but they're quite literally pushed into a corner, called upon when the "smarter" white men can't figure things out.

As NASA gets deeper into trouble during the Soviet-dominated days of the space race, the agency needs the best brains it can get, so its bureaucracy, represented by the spiteful-because-she-doesn't-know-any-better office manager played by Dunst, who takes the role and manages to give it some humanity.  Katherine Goble, in particular, shines as she is placed into the Space Task Group department headed up by Al Harrison, a fictitious amalgam of all of the buzz-cut-and-white-shirt engineers who got the credit for what NASA accomplished.

The story itself would be dazzling if it were simply about the number-crunchers who made it all work, but the reality that these big brains were dominated by the even bigger brains of Goble, Vaughan and Jackson, who were dismissed and degraded because of their double-strike of being black women makes Hidden Figures very much worth seeing.

And yet the movie is at times miscalculates its trajectory -- its primary problem being that these women are so fascinating and charismatic when at work that their home lives seem bland and drama-free by comparison.  Hidden Figures keeps cutting to their rather ordinary personal lives just when it should be amping up the drama at NASA.

Adding to that, Monáe's engineer character is thinly written, and Spencer's move from computing to programming the massive IBM mainframe is given short shrift.  (In one fine, clever moment, leads her all-black, all-women team out of the tiny office, and the exodus is filmed like the arrival of the Mercury 7 in The Right Stuff, substituting Hans Zimmer's pedestrian score for Bill Conti's soaring strings.) Hidden Figures tends to focus more on Henson, which is hardly a problem given that she is spectacular in the role; a scene in which she courageously, confidently tells off her boss (Costner) might be the most genuine and heartbreaking moment any actress has provided this year.

But it can't quite balance the three characters.  Hidden Figures is so captivated (and rightly so) by Goble's story that Vaughan and Jackson at times seem afterthoughts.  It's only a shame because Spencer and Jackson are both terrific in their roles -- I especially wanted to see more of Monáe, both the actress and her character, because she shines so brightly in her scenes.

In the midst of this too-big story, Hidden Figures also brings in the Mercury astronauts, and it becomes as enamored of John Glenn as The Right Stuff did.  No one will ever quite match what Ed Harris did with that role, but actor Glen Powell cuts a commanding, beguiling figure as the heroic astronaut.

With perfect mid-century production design and some well-considered cinematography that captures the mood exquisitely, there's so much that's right with Hidden Figures that in the end it's much easier for moviegoers to forgive its mistakes than, say, the astronauts to forgive any errors the women or any of their counterparts might have made.  Its personal stories aren't quite as epic as the space flights the women helped make happen -- but it turns out they're just as influential, and maybe even a tiny bit more inspiring.



Viewed Dec. 28, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1110

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Jackie"



 4.5 / 5  

Watch closely as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy stands in front of a vanity mirror aboard Air Force One places the pink Chanel pillbox hat atop her head.  She is, of course, preparing to descend the steps onto Love Field, accompanied by her husband, the 35th president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy.

As embodied (because it's much more than a portrayal) by Natalie Portman, Jackie does not fuss over the hat.  She sets it in exactly the right position.  So effortlessly does this sort of perfect attention to detail come to Jackie that the moment is over in an instant -- but the way that hat sat upon her head on Nov. 22, 1963, is something no one, even those of us not even alive, will ever forget.

In Jackie, Jackie Kennedy is depicted as a woman of immense contradictions, whose sultry whisper of a voice, seeming timidity, willingness to become a bit of window dressing (as she literally does in the movie's final moments) is at odds with the other sides we see of her.

She has invited a reporter to her husband's family's home in Hyannis Port, Mass. -- she knows it is not and never will belong to her -- just one week after Dallas.  The pretense is that she wants to tell her side of the story, but that is not at all what she wants to do.

Cinematically, director Pablo Larraín makes that clear with the vaguely sinister, disquieting music that opens his film, which has a shockingly literate, nuanced screenplay by Noah Oppenheim.  No, Jackie makes it quite plain to the reporter (Billy Crudup) that she has no intention of giving him an emotional tell-all -- she's not even going to let him write the story he wants.  He is going to write the story she wants.  She knows how a hat should sit on a head -- she's not about to let the public image of JFK be sullied by the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis or failure on civil rights issues; the facts are not going to get in the way.

In that sense, it's a prescient, relevant story, but there's an important distinction: Jackie knows, unlike the incoming occupant of the Oval Office, that images can be shattered, that wealth is not the same as class, that history does not wait for perspective -- it must be molded and shaped immediately.

A week after the assassination of her husband, who slumped lifeless into her lap in America's nightmare on Elm Street, she is ready to do that molding.  She's also angry.  She's bitterly angry at Lee Harvey Oswald, at the "gracious" Johnsons (who, after all, stepped right into the roles of JFK and Jackie without missing a beat), at Washington, at politics, at the Kennedys -- she is angry at everyone because she is grieving.

That, it turns out, is the difficult and tricky subject at the core of the visually arresting, consistently compelling Jackie, and in that regard it is a film very much of a pair with the equally sensitive and nuanced Manchester by the Sea. It shares many of similar observations, but is filtered through a remarkably different lens.  Still, they are both about the numbness of shocking loss, of the impossible weight of dealing with sudden tragedy.

Portman's Jackie goes through every possible permutation of grief in the movie, and she is not just unconcerned about the public perception -- she is simultaneously dismissive and hyper-aware of it.  Her loss was a country's loss, but it was deeply, singularly hers.  Her politician-celebrity husband, who had affairs and required medications and shared a private life with his family, has not just died, but been killed in her arms, in front of her eyes, and now the eyes of everyone are watching her.

Jackie follows her story as she tries to make sense of the senselessness, tries to plan for a funeral while getting evicted from her home, copes with her children as she loses her job.  She has taken that job very seriously, as we see in stunning re-enactments of her televised tour of the White House.  She has brought vision and tenacity to that job, and now it, her husband, her life has been torn away.

This is a deeply personal movie, one that may not have an effect on everyone who sees it.  Portman's dazzling and commanding performance is quiet and careful and studied -- even a little distant, a bit aloof, just as Jackie Kennedy seemed to be.  Both she and the filmmakers know just how fragile a movie like this is, so they are careful not to make any false steps.  Some may say they're too careful, but I was surprised how bold they can be.  In one beautiful, moving scene, Jackie tells a priest (John Hurt) that every night since Dallas she has wanted to die.  It's not a common scene, either in writing or acting: She is forthright about this, about the pain she has suffered.  Only we in the audience know how far her pain is from being over.

Jackie presents this physically small woman as she reaches the breaking point -- and keeps herself together.  In that, Jackie is presents a story that anyone who has experienced loss will recognize.  We go on, but only because we must.



Viewed Dec. 18, 2016 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

1520

Catching Up: "Florence Foster Jenkins"



 3.5 / 5  

To demonstrate how unhip I am, I learned only earlier this year that experiencing things "ironically" is something people do.  Irony has always, in my life, only been a factor in the spoken or written word, occasionally in life itself when something would happen to confound expectations.

"Irony," except in Alannis Morissette songs, has always seemed to me more a noun than an adverb, then I learned that people were listening to music ironically, they were eating ironically, they were watching TV ironically, they were even taking jobs ironically -- to defy the "system," to stick it to "the man," to let all the old fuddy-duddies know that, let's say, "Bewitched" and Swanson's frozen dinners could be enjoyed ... just not quite in the way intended.

Which gets me around to the least ironic person who ever lived, or at least who ever performed on stage at Carnegie Hall: Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite, a patron of the wartime New York arts scene, and a women born with a desire to sing.  The primary problem with her desire was that she couldn't.  Not a note.

And yet, her fierce determination and blinders-on approach to life left her with no choice: Once she stood the corner of 57th and 7th and looked up at that edifice, her fate was sealed.   But, then, it was really sealed a long time before that, as far back as the wedding night of her first marriage, when she contracted a nearly fatal case of syphilis from the man she married.   She has dosed herself, day after day, with mercury and arsenic to stave off the worst effects of the illness.  Such sadness and sickness might have dissuaded anyone else, but not this matronly millionaire, played by Meryl Strep with an indefatigable smile.

Everyone in WWII-era New York society knows about Florence Foster Jenkins.  Her "husband" (Hugh Grant) runs a strange ticket-sales system to her rare concerts, a system ruled less by supply and demand than by bribery, intimidation and in some cases simply throwing out the people who won't appreciate Mrs. Jenkins' unique music sense.

Without realizing it, Jenkins has surrounded herself with "yes" men -- "Yes, you sound beautiful, you are an inspiration," says conductor Arturo Toscanini.  Then he asks her for $1,000.  And this is the secret that even Florence herself doesn't know: If she stopped opening her checkbook, everyone would laugh at her instead of grovel at her feet.

The sycophancy extends to the young piano player who accompanies her during her daily lessons, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who who quickly moves from being repulsed by Florence Foster Jenkins' singing to stroking her ego, because she is paying him $150 a week.

But it stops at her husband.  Sort of.  First of all, he may or may not really be her husband, second of all, he keeps a mistress on the side and has for most of his decades-long relationship with Florence, and third -- this is the key -- he is genuinely inspired by her.  He knows her story and her secrets, she has shared everything with him, and he knows that the fact that she's even alive is a miracle.  It is the hope of one day being a great singer that keeps her alive, and he knows it.

Florence also supports a tony music-appreciation club, and one day for a Christmas present she decides to make a recording of her singing.  Despite the protests of her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant, who gives the role a genuinely conflicted humanity), the record gets out.  It gets played on the radio.  People laugh at it.  But they also hear in it something ... well, is inspiring the word?

They hear that Florence, while awful, is trying.  Likewise, they are trying to win a seemingly unwinnable war.  They are dying and getting horribly maimed, but they're really, truly trying.  Just like the fat old lady.

She is as delusional as it gets -- but, is she?   She does believe she can sing, and doesn't as much ignore those who call her terrible as simply pays them no attention. She does believe St. Clair loves her, and Cosmé is devoted to her, even though she sees what they do when she isn't around.  She may be dumb, but she's no dummy.

Still, she makes horrible decisions, like booking Carnegie Hall to hold a concert.  She has seen the soprano Lily Pons perform there, and figures, "If she can do it, so can I."  No one tells her she's terrible.  And then ... she gets on stage and sings.

It all leads to her final, famous line, which is delivered under emotional, affecting circumstances it's best not to reveal.  "They can say I can't sing," she observes.  "They can't say I didn't sing."

Streep, Grant, Helberg and director Stephen Frears, light years away from the despondency of Prick Up Your Ears and in much less a contemplative mood than in The Queen find the human underneath the ridiculous artifice of Florence Foster Jenkins, and they observe, quite rightly, that we all should be so lucky.



Viewed Dec. 17, 2016 -- VOD