Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Robinson; 2017)

My full name is Shaun Ferguson.  I’ve been fascinated with film my entire life, and have intensively studied both screenwriting and acting while also dabbling in nearly every element of film making I can including a rather detailed online study of film editing from a person in the industry, lots of time discussing film criticism with fellow critics, worked with close friends and family who have degrees in cinematography or at least a lot of time in classes behind a camera, and so on.  While my majors in college were in English and Theater, my minor was in psychology and I have had a fascination with it ever since and have continued studying it on my own my entire life.  I have always been enamored with comic books and superhero culture, and while I haven’t collected comic books in a very long time, I still continue to follow what is going on in the worlds of superherodom to some extent and I love studying the genre in regard to sociology, culture, politics, and religion.  Also, I was raised in an extremely sexually repressed environment of very conservative Christians both at home and at the school I attended, and as an adult have turned a near complete 180 degrees away from that upbringing.  I say all this so that when I gush incessantly about how groundbreaking, fantastic, and enlightening Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, we will both understand that I realize this is a film that may as well have been written with myself specifically as the target audience, it all hits that close to my home.

mv5bzgu3odm1mtktzmm4yi00n2e5lwjlmgutntblnty3zju4m2rkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjuwnzk3ndc-_v1_

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is yet another biopic in this part of the movie season which gives us biopic after biopic about Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the polyamorous trio who created Wonder Woman and made her a household name.  In 1928 he two Marstons were pioneers in the new field of psychology.  He had a doctorate from Harvard and taught at Tufts University, she also had degrees in both psychology and law, though not doctorates because she wasn’t allowed to at the time as she was a woman, and in addition to their work in the psychology department at Tufts they were also developing a brand new machine which they called a lie detector.  Olive Byrne was a student of William’s whom he became quite enamored of largely due to the fact that she seemed to be an exact mirror image of his wife.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shows us the story of how all these factors ultimately weaved together to create the comic book character Wonder Woman.

While the writing of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women definitely follows the beats of the stereotypical biopic formula so closely you can practically predict ahead of time exactly when character introductions will move onto the inciting incident then to the next complication and so on, most everything about the way the film’s story is told is quite unique.  It’s neither a life story nor a focus on one specific event.  It doesn’t chronicle primarily one character, but the relationship between three, and it’s not about one specific event but rather how so many events, interests, and interactions culminated in something which not only still resonates today, but has only become an even greater and more beloved symbol than when Wonder Woman was first introduced.  Yet, despite the complexity of the story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman never confuses nor slows its pace to a crawl always keeping up the perfect balance between making sure the story is told in great enough detail and gripping the attention of its audience.

gallery-1500402090-ww1

The way Professor Matston and the Wonder Women treats its subject matter is also noteworthy.  While the character development is fantastic, the fact that it focuses so vastly on psychology sets it apart from standard character development and makes the writing both insightful and educational simultaneously.   It also treats the polyamorous relationship between its three main characters with an incredibly deft touch, never judging it in either a positive nor a negative way and also avoiding ever making it exploitative nor entirely clinical but rather portraying an unusual sexual relationship and the psychology behind it in the most mature manner I’ve ever seen in a film.

The camerawork in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is nothing spectacular overall, but it is a step above your standard biopic cinematography and the occasional scene, such as when Marston first sees Olive in the outfit which inspires Wonder Woman’s appearance, is a downright work of art.  The costumes and art direction are top notch, though creating a look to the film which is both authentic and gorgeous and the costumes in particular could get notice come award season.

636432461866791789-resize-professor-marston-the-wonder-women-pmww-02838-r-rgb

Any biopic’s success hinges on the quality of the acting particularly by its leads and not only does it not disappoint in this area, but everyone here entirely impresses.  The two women, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, in particular display talent so on point and nuanced that nearly any actor working today would consider what they’ve done in this film a triumph.  Luke Evans despite playing the title character doesn’t have the emotional depth to his Professor Marston that the ladies do, but he still gives an excellent portrayal anchoring the plot and the other characters in what is the best performance of his career.

Final verdict:  It’s rare enough that a film can be complex, emotional, intellectual, educational, and entertaining at the same time, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also has true insight into human psychology and sexual dynamics.  I wasn’t that excited about seeing yet another biopic in a year which seems to be layering them on one after another more than seemingly any other year in at least recent memory, but not only did Professor Marston and the Wonder Women absolutely blow my socks off, it’s one of the best biopics I have ever seen and far and away the best so far of this year.  I fell in love with its characters and its story, and I’m pretty sure I had a personal psychological breakthrough by the time it was over, but the best compliment I can give it is that when Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was finished and the credits began to roll I didn’t want it to end.

Battle of the Sexes (Dayton & Faris; 2017)

The story of Battle of the Sexes is a very well known one, well enough that I am going to be a little more free with spoilers in this review than I usually am so consider yourself forewarned on that front.  Battle of the Sexes is a biopic telling the story behind one of the most famous tennis matches in history – the one between fifty-five year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) which was broadcast to nine million viewers and became a symbol of the entire feminist movement in the United States.   The film starts on the day Billie Jean and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) find out that the Pacific Southwest Tournament was offering the women participants 15% the prize money men were getting despite the fact that women drew just as large of a crowd as men did for their matches.  They and many other female pros boycott the tournament and start the Women’s Tennis Association with its own tour, and with the first shots fired our story begins.

It goes without saying that Battle of the Sexes has strong feminist themes.  The entire story focuses on a group of women led by one particularly talented and popular woman who decide they’ve had enough with the rules men set down for them, then go on to prove in no uncertain terms that they can get along just fine on their own without the men getting involved, thank you very much, and not only that but that they can literally beat the men at their own game.   It’s also an excellent hindsight view of where feminism stood at the start of 1970’s, a movement which already had a lot of attention and momentum, but which was largely being seen as a faze and something of a joke by the men in power who honestly could not understand what women were upset about.  This story is about a lot more than just feminism in the ’70’s, though, and Battle of the Sexes does its job of showing us the other myriad forces involved admirably.

mv5byzcyztg2zjqtodczos00y2uwltgwnzetywuwnmi1mjuynjdmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndg2mjuxnjm-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_

While women’s rights were at the forefront of the American consciousness at the time, gay rights were still very much overlooked.  Battle of the Sexes doesn’t address the issue of gay rights as much as it does show Billie Jean King’s very personal journey of her discovery of her sexual orientation and the very personal reasons she had for remaining in the closet as long as she did.  While the mores of the time must have certainly had some influence on Billie Jean, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat remarkable in the way it shows a life where shame is not the primary motivator in hiding your sexuality, but rather respect, love, and professionalism, all positive reasons making for a story causes you to admire Billie Jean King even more rather than pity her or feel shame for our culture.

mv5bnta1owe0mtctnjjkyi00mzlhltkzyzatm2rintjlzwe5mjk4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndg2mjuxnjm-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_

The forces surrounding Bobby Riggs also shed light on a hot topic – depression and gambling addiction.  It would be easy given the feminist themes in the forefront of the film to make Bobby Riggs into a villain, but writer Simon Beaufoy dodges that temptation by showing Bobby Riggs to be a person haunted by his past and who will do anything to recapture his former glory and the way it made him feel.  It shows Riggs as a man who has nothing against women nor feminism, but who saw in what was going on in women’s tennis an opportunity to take center stage again and to fuel his love for high stakes competition.  While this makes him a comic character most of the time, the glimpses into his family life show us the greater truth behind a warm, friendly, loving man being chased by demons of his own making.

mv5bndk2mzrmngmtogqyyy00njzlltlmmdytnzc1ntzinjvhmzljxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndg2mjuxnjm-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_

With the deluge of biopics being released right now, Battle of the Sexes sets itself apart largely by being the one that tries to most evenly split the difference where spectacle and realism are concerned, and for the most part it manages that.  The big name stars and the comedy and showmanship inherent in the story make for entertaining spectacle, while the screenplay gives us a depth to the characters and themes which could easily have been lacking.  This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have the sheer entertainment value which American Made gave us nor the remarkably insightful character studies of Strongerrather than looking the worse for not leaning one direction or the other, we end up with a film that will never be seen as great, but will have wide appeal.

Final verdict:  Battle of the Sexes gives us larger than life personalities, character studies and themes with true depth, the spectacle of sports, romance, empowerment – in short, it’s a film that very nearly has it all.  While having it all means that it doesn’t truly achieve greatness in any one way, it still gives us a film that should satisfy nearly everyone excepting perhaps the most obsessive action adventure devotee.  Battle of the Sexes is one of the easiest movies in a while for me to recommend, but don’t take that to mean that I think it’s exceptional, just that it’s a very well done film which should please nearly everyone.

Stronger (Green; 2017)

The Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013 is one of those events that will long linger in the collective unconscious of the American public in a “where were you that day?” sort of remembrance.  One of the survivors of the blast named Jeff Bauman gained instant fame when he was not featured in a photograph alongside his rescuer which made its way into national television broadcasts and graced a great many printed publications as well as new websites and also was able to give authorities information which ultimately led to the discovery of the bombers’ identites.  Stronger is Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) story adapted from the book of the same name written by Bauman himself focusing less on the day of the bombing and more on his physical and mental recovery from the permanent injuries he was left with that day.

Your typical biopic is an exaggerated version of the events surrounding a person’s life.  While most writers and directors do honestly seek to honor the subject of their film as well as educate the public about someone they admire or at least find fascinating, they also realize that real life is often dull and able to be better covered in a documentary if accuracy is the goal over entertainment.  Look to my latest review of American Made as a perfect example.  While I’m sure most of the events covered in the film happened, I am just as sure that Barry Seal cannot have been the source of constant “What? Me Worry?” witticisms and unfazeable charm which Tom Cruise portrayed him as nor could the events unfolded in such a laugh riotous manner.  While I learned a lot about the contras and the drug trade during the ’80s, I also understand that American Made needs to grab my attention through entertainment because I am not going to theater to take a history course, and so the portrayal of characters and events need to be tweaked to fit the stylings of a film rather than be shown to us in stark realism.  What sets Stronger apart from the typical biopic is that it seems far more authentic than most films of its ilk for better and for worse.

59c491fc5bba3-image

You can tell that the characters in Stronger come from a specific person’s, in this case Jeff Bauman’s, point of view.  We see the people in his life as a group of well meaning, but ultimately seriously flawed individuals.  They want to help Jeff, and a great many put their own lives on hold to do just that, but all give in to the temptations of procrastination and distraction because helping Jeff adjust to his new life and situation is really difficult on both a mental and physical level.  Some characters turn to drinking all the time, some make excuses for him and for themselves, some plant themselves in a place of denial, but nearly all show a truly authentic dichotomy in their wanting to help Jeff but then coming up with excuses not to, especially Jeff himself.  But, one character, Jeff’s on and off girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) is the long suffering character put high on a pedestal that we all recognize in our lives, that one person we know can rescue us from our travails even if in actuality they can’t and who we come to rely on and take advantage of until we are harshly reminded just how much worse our lives would be without them.

tmg-gift_guide_variable

Stronger also shows wisdom and authenticity in showing that the road to recovery isn’t really about grit and determination or that the most difficult steps take place in rehab.  It shows us people who need to learn about themselves in this new world they have entered, people who are used to things one way and who need to give up that one way no matter how difficult it is.  It’s a film that understands tragedy happens not just to one person, but to everyone around that person whether family, friend, or coworker.  Stronger also shows us that the things hardest for us to overcome are those that are not obvious even to ourselves.  Bauman learning to walk again using prosthetics is barely even an afterthought in the film, Stronger is more about his learning to be in crowds again and recognizing that he even has a problem with it, about not letting other people live his life for him now, and even about the little things we all take for granted that now became entirely different now that he’s lost his legs.  These are the things Stronger decides to show us, and this is why I call Stronger wise.

Since Bauman himself wrote the original book, we can easily understand where the wisdom and authenticity in the screenplay comes from (it comes from an incredible amount of self understanding and introspection – the easily applies to us, not Bauman).  None of that would have played on screen, though, were it not for the absolutely phenomenal performances given by Stronger’s cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal always gives us riveting characters, but here he outdoes even himself in both his physicality and in his character work.  The Jeff Bauman he gives us is a remarkably nuanced character who never falls into any sort of stereotype nor generality and always appears to be the multifacted, often even contradictory personalities we truly are.  Add to that the fact that he has to convince us he is a man who has no legs who once did, and he more than convinces, and you have a portrayal which I can nearly guarantee will be nominated for an Oscar come next year.  Walking down that red carpet with him I could also see Tatiana Maslany in her equally hyperrealistic performance of Jeff’s long suffering on-and-off girlfriend.  She gives us a rock who doesn’t even understand herself why she is making herself into one, who truly loves Jeff, but is also truly constantly disappointed in him, and this is the burden she has to come to grips with.   While Stronger obviously couldn’t have even existed were it not for Jeff Bauman, it wouldn’t have the depth and poignancy it does without Erin, and the title of the film applies just as much to her as it does to him – maybe moreso.

stronger-tatiana-size-custom-crop-1086x0

As fantastic as the characters are and as amazingly insightful the screenplay is, Stronger still has one Achilles’ heel which will turn off many audience members, and that is that with its remarkable realism comes a lack of spectacle and excitement.  Stronger is a character piece and a think piece through and through.  The most exciting events in the movie ever get are the anticipation of the bombing itself toward the start of the film, and the loud arguments shouted between people here and there throughout.  This isn’t a story which features physical struggles nor acts of bravery.  It’s a movie about internal torment and relationships, and thus it’s most often a very slow burn of a film.

Final verdict:  If you are a fan of biopics, then get yourself out to see Stronger sooner rather than later.  This is a shining example of the genre which approaches its subject matter which seems both familiar and entirely new at the same time due to the fact that it tackles its story so realistically.  It’s neither a feel good story, nor is it a total downer, but rather a realistic view of a regular life turned topsy-turvy through unavoidable tragedy.  If you are not a fan of biopics in general, this one is a little tougher of a sell.  You may not want to pay full price in the theater to check it out, but there is so much to take from Stronger, I’d ask that you at least give it a look one day down the line when you can stream or rent it.  You will never be thrilled, but you’ll almost certainly find yourself with new understanding.

Detroit (Bigelow; 2017)

Before I begin the review proper, I’m going to allow myself a bit of a tangential rant on the way the actual city of Detroit is used, or rather not used, in fictional portrayals of the city.  It seems that if a film is set in the city of Detroit it is nearly always filmed somewhere else.  Robocop was filmed in Dallas.  Assault on Precinct 13 and Detroit Rock City were filmed in Toronto, as was Four Brothers.  Don’t Breathe was filmed largely in Hungary.  There are a few films that take place in Detroit which were actually shot in Detroit such as the Detroit scenes in Beverly Hills Cop and the Red Dawn remake, but for the most part Detroit is used as a generic city which won’t be recognized such as in Regarding Henry, Batman v. Superman, and the Transformers movies.  As a resident of Detroit, to find out Detroit was shot primarily in Boston was a bit of an insult.  Rant over.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood right now giving as dramatic critical darlings that border on action films in that they deal with subjects that are normally considered hypermasculine but she often eschews the pure action you would expect from her subject matter to give us gripping, often downright brutal, drama instead.  Her latest film Detroit does just this using an unusual five act structure in which we don’t even meet our characters until the second act nor delve into the main focus of the film’s plot until the third.  Detroit takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots in which 150 blocks of the city had to be shut off from the world outside, and the entire city had to be put on a curfew and patrolled by Detroit and State Police as well as the National Guard for 5 days.  Since it is coming out on the 50th Anniversary of these events, and not by coincidence, of course, Detroit is being marketed as the story of the Detroit riots, but it really isn’t.  Detroit uses the riots as its backdrop and setting, but the story focuses on an incident which occurred at the Algiers Motel in which three black men were found murdered and many others beaten.

mv5bmtk4mja2nduymf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdq4mjawmji-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

The screenplay for Detroit, as mentioned earlier, uses a five act structure which makes for some unusual story telling.  The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the mood and the situation by showing us how the riots began and how they spread.  This means we don’t even meet the focal characters of the story until the second act, and a lot of time is spent on them before we get to the real meat of the story in the third act.  This methodology makes for a film in which you aren’t really sure what the film you are watching wants you to focus on for a large chunk of its running time, but I believe all this set up pays off in how immersive and gripping the story ultimately becomes after you really get to know both the main characters and the level of lawlessness and fear going on around them.  I won’t spoil the story by going on at length about the focus of the last two acts, but I will say that I also don’t believe there is any way they could have gripped our attention the way they do if we didn’t have an intimate connection with the characters involved by the time we get to this part of their story.

Detroit is a brutal, unrelenting, and unfortunately very contemporary movie.  I would say that the film has more in common with a horror film than an action movie or thriller, in fact, though this horror is one that actually happened and could still very easily actually happen today.  Bigelow’s film shows us either that history repeats itself, or that very little has changed in the past 50 years, as the events on screen are ones we could imagine seeing on the evening news any given night.  The story is brutal and modern enough that I imagine Detroit is going to trigger anger in a great many people of many different races and beliefs bringing up cries of racism, reverse racism, injustice, distortion, and many, many other sensitive buzzwords which lead to loud arguments and worse.

mv5bnty4nmzindetoty5my00mtezltk4ztytogfmymizzmi5mjyzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjk2mji2nty-_v1_sy1000_cr0017611000_al_

The acting and camera work are both top notch featuring a very large ensemble cast.  You’ll recognize John Boyega (Finn from the new “Star Wars” series) as a security guard trying to diffuse racial tensions, Hannah Murray (Gilly in “Game of Thrones”) as a party girl from Ohio who gets caught up in the events at the hotel, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Marvel Studio movies) as an ex-veteran staying at the motel right away, and most of the rest of the large cast will at least seem familiar (and probably are).  All do a fantastic job making us believe that we are really reliving the intense events which took place 50 years ago, and all give us three dimensional real characters we can recognize and relate to.  As for the visuals, I do have a minor issue with the amount of shaky cam used throughout the film, but for the most part it was competent to excellent cinematography which captured both the action and the moods of the film unobtrusively which is saying something since so much of the action takes place in constrained bordering on claustrophobic environments.

Whenever a film is based on actual historic events there is nearly always some doubt as to its accuracy, and Detroit is no exception, but two of the survivors of the Algiers Motel that night 50 years ago were actually on set for the filming of Detroit working with the cast and crew to give their take on the events.  Both have given their stamp of approval to the film, so if it isn’t completely authentic, it’s at least close enough that two of those who the film really portrays are happy.

mv5bzdc3nwi0zwitnjmxmi00mtblltllmmmtnwrhnjvlytyyytzhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjk2mji2nty-_v1_sy1000_cr0017611000_al_

Final verdict:  Bigelow does yet again what she does so well, takes what in different hands would be an action/thriller and turns it into compelling character driven drama.  Detroit is going to be a controversial film as it is brutal, unrelenting, and focuses on themes which are incredibly divisive in the here and now, but that is what makes it so important.  Detroit is not light entertainment, I also would not call it educational as its story is more narrowly focused than you would expect from a historical drama, but it is powerful and it makes an equally powerful statement about race, entitlement, power, and desperation.  Detroit won’t be easy for many to watch, both due to subject matter and its unusual story structure, and even more difficult for many to confront, but its powerful and insightful message is one that demands your attention.

 

 

Dunkirk (Nolan; 2017)

In May of 1940 German forces had driven the French, Belgian, and British Armies onto a small beach beside the town of Dunkirk.  The German forces stopped their advance on Dunkirk and instead fortified themselves around and in the town to prevent Allied soldiers from escaping by land as German planes picked the soldiers off on the beach and German U-boats with help from German bombers kept the British Navy at bay.   This film is about the action which evacuated 330,000 Allied troops from that beach, essentially saving the bulk of the British Army and preventing Germany from forcing a conditional surrender of the United Kingdom the consequences of which would almost certainly mean an entirely different Europe and world today.

Christopher Nolan is a very intellectual film maker.  It’s that very intellect that often creates the largest plot holes in his films, but his focus on thought over emotion, realism over spectacle, and precision over artistry is his trademark and the thing which makes his films stand out as singularly his.  Dunkirk is a bit different from standard Nolan fare in that there are no gimmicks on display here, no watching a story backwards, no dream levels, no men in costumes, there is just a beach, men, and weapons of war.  This is most definitely a Nolan film, though, as this is a film which very much intellectualizes the evacuation of Dunkirk practically documentarian in its style.  Quite a few of the major characters aren’t given names, Cillian Murphy plays “Shivering Soldier” for example, and Will Attenborough is simply “Second Lieutenant”, and not a single German character is shown for Dunkirk’s entirety.  This isn’t a John Wayne film which glorifies battle and makes heroes of soldiers, it’s not Apocalypse Now showing us war’s horror and madness, nor is it an Oliver Stone war film making a political statement, Dunkirk is simply a very thoughtful, almost clinical, look at one of the most important events of World War II.

mv5byzgxmzrjnzytzdblnc00yza4lwfmyzgtndzhndgxmguwzgnkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntyzmzu2mzk-_v1_

That is not to say there is no emotion in Dunkirk, just that emotion is not its focus.  Dunkirk very ably gets across to the viewers the feelings of dread, hopelessness, and inevitability those men on the beach must have been feeling, along with the feelings of determination in those attempting to rescue them, but the goal is to show what the men were going through, not to make us feel one way or another about it.   That is what is going to make or break Dunkirk for most people.  It’s style is one we rarely see in anything outside of a documentary, let alone a war film, and that makes for a truly original experience – something much needed in a genre as worn out as World War II films – however, that very same style is going to leave a great many people feeling like something was missing if they are seeking something inspirational or horrifying.

One thing that will not be debated about Dunkirk, however, is the quality of its cinematography.  The look of this movie is one that is normally saved for year’s end so that it will be fresh in the mind of the Oscar voters.  Despite the barren landscapes of beach and sea (English Channel, anyway) we are treated from beginning to end with visual spectacle in the form of wide sweeping shots, points of view that put us in the mindset of the soldiers as they sit in silent panic and confusion, and aerial views and battles that will have you gasping on several occasions – I got a look when I let out an audible “Wow” at one point.

mv5bntlmn2zjndktyjk1oc00yjlhltgymgitzdkzndkwmgm2mtaxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjuwnzk3ndc-_v1_

The score by Hans Zimmer is also worthy of mention.  The music starts before the visuals do, and it never stops at all during the film’s running time.  It rarely crescendos and is more of an omnipresent undertone of strings and horns undercutting everything happening on screen, but while it never stands out to the point it is distracting, it adds so much to the film’s tone and I can’t see Dunkirk working as well as it does without it.

The ensemble cast is excellent, though Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance are two of the only actors given very much to say.  The film has many branching story lines and many puzzle pieces to cover and much of this is done in silence, with one major character in particular having only one word to say in the entire film, but for the most part they manage to show us very different yet realistic people going through a hopeless situation.  I do admit, that due to the lack of dialogue and names, I had a hard time keeping some of the young dark haired actors and characters apart, keeping this element of the film from becoming fantastic, but that is a fault more due to casting than on the part of any particular performance.  Tom Hardy, by the way, wears a face mask the entire film not removing it until the very end.  What is it with him and face coverings?

Photographer: Anders Rosqvist, www.rosqvist.photo

Final verdict:  If you didn’t tell me that Dunkirk was a Christopher Nolan film before I’d seen it, I’m not sure I would have immediately recognized it as one of his, however, after seeing it if you were to tell me Christopher Nolan had directed it you would get the knowing nod and smile which says “Of course.”  Dunkirk is a fantastic movie, one that will almost surely get Oscar buzz, but it is not a movie for everyone.   It is not a war movie so much as a very astute look at people staring death right in the face and knowing that either their fate is out of their hands, or that the fate of thousands are placed directly in their hands.  If you need glory or horror in your war films, you may find yourself disappointed in Dunkirk.  If realism (though, realism without a ton of blood and gore which is oddly lacking in this movie) and introspection are terms that appeal to you, however, Dunkirk will most likely be right up your alley.  No matter which camp you fall into, you are almost sure to love the music and visuals, though.

Lion (Davis; 2016)

Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierly (played as a 5 year-old by Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel), an Indian boy who after being lost and ending up thousands of miles away from home was eventually adopted by an Australian family.   This very well acted and written movie really is two different films, the first half a sort of thriller about a young boy desperately trying to survive and get home in a culture so overpopulated that people are practically disposable, and the second half about a young man trying to figure out his place in a world in which he feels he is betraying the people who love him when he becomes obsessed with his past and who also feels guilt over his luck in becoming a privileged person through no work on his own part when he knows he would have lived a life of complete and abject poverty were it not for a quirk of fate.

Both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierly, Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother) have been nominated for Academy Awards as supporting actors in their respective roles, and while I don’t see either performance as necessarily worthy of winning, they are both definitely worthy of their nominations.  These two roles are the largest in the film, and have to carry more of the themes and the story than any others, but are considered supporting purely due to the fact that the film takes place over such a large period of time with such a large cast that even these largest roles are around for only roughly half the running time.  Still in that half we get to see both of these actors at or near their best.  Patel particularly gives us a truly realistic and memorable character as he starts out a confident, cheerful man very pleased with his life but ultimately becoming more and more anxious gradually, losing that confidence and eroding his relationships as he becomes consumed with both his guilt over his luck and his desire to discover what happened to his birth family.  Nicole Kidman doesn’t give perhaps her best performance here, her career is so long and celebrated that that would be quite a stretch to claim, but it does rank among her greatest at least.  Her Sue is a character that brings out the empathy in us all with her long suffering cheerfulness and her desire to make the world a better place.  There is one scene between Kidman and Patel in particular when Saroo reveals to Sue that he feels guilty for her having to raise him that I guarantee will get under the skin of even the most unsympathetic of us and will make you ponder the way you think of family and its purpose.

534286-lion-poster

The cinematography in Lion was also nominated for an Academy Award, and this nomination is a little more sketchy.  It is well done, there is no doubt about that, and a handful of scenes here and there show true inspiration, but for the most part the camera work in Lion is nothing more than consistently proficient.  There is nothing at all wrong with that, and it makes for a strong viewing experience when the camera work never interferes with and often enhances the story, but to say it is one of the five best instances of cinematography this year is an overstatement when there are far more stylish and more difficult to film works that did not get nominations.

The writing in Lion is, however, worthy of its nomination.  It not only gives a gripping, multi-layered, well-paced true story, but it also manages to say a lot about family, privilege, overpopulation, and a great many other topics in its 2 hour running time and all of it current, relevant, and very thoughtful.  Young Saroo’s trials as an orphaned child in India show a culture which is so overstuffed with people that it’s all one can do to just survive day to day, and being noticed is not only not a concern, but can often be a detriment as the only reason someone would want to deal with a stranger is to use them to further their own survival by whatever means are necessary.  The sharp contrast with the wealthy Australian family is night and day, and says a lot about not just first world privilege and how we take it for granted, but also about what altruism and love truly are, or at least what they can and should be.

lion-movie

Final recommendation:  Lion is an excellently put together story.  It has a wealth to say about the world we live in and how very different our cultures can be.  It says just as much about love, family, our personal ties, and what it is that ultimately makes us human.  However, as well done as it all is, it isn’t overly creative nor artistic.  It’s a film you appreciate and respect more than be awed by.  You will often get caught up in it, but will also just as often lose that connection when Lion moves on to a scene not so pivotal.  If you are an Oscar junkie, or if great performances are your favorite part of a movie, then this gets a whole hearted recommendation.  I give the same recommendation to those who are moved by stories about love and family.  For the rest, I will say there is nothing here which will be particularly off putting nor intriguing.  It is a wonderful story, and a good movie, but it is not a masterpiece and it is not one of a kind.

Hidden Figures (Melfi; 2016)

Hidden Figures focuses on three major themes:  the brainpower needed to get the American Space Program literally off the ground, racism, and sexism.  All three of these themes are attacked from the very first second of the film in which we see the three main characters of the film, Katharine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae, stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car.  The three African American women deal with the situation in their own way, Katharine studies for her job later, Dorothy is underneath the car fixing it, and Mary stands behind the car smoking and considering hitching a ride when a white male police officer pulls up behind them lights flashing.  He tells them they can’t be there and they have to move along, and the girls tell him they work for NASA.

“I didn’t realize NASA hired…” (pregnant pause)

“Oh yes, lots of women work for the space program, officer.” (with a polite, but knowing smile)

The police officer then lets them finish working on their car and gives them an escort into work, lights flashing and siren blaring, so that they can get those American boys up in space.

This is a perfect example of a film opening setting the tones and themes of the film to come.  The girls are confronted with a problem, the problem becomes exaggerated because of racism and sexism, the girls use their skills to get them through the problem, and they’ve earned the respect of the white men whom they work with.  The writing is efficient and entertaining, if often a bit saccharine and overly safe.

Looking at the three major themes of Hidden Figures separately, we see first off that the topic of sexism is barely touched on.  When Katherine first meets Colonel Jim Johnson, the man she eventually marries, he seems incredulous of her talents due to her gender, and this gets them off on the wrong foot, and looking at the various departments around NASA, women and men most definitely have their own sectors and only rarely do they mix, but these subjects are only hinted at and touched upon due to the era, but are never explored in any depth.  Johnson quickly gets over his sexism and sees Katherine for the intelligent person she is without any real fight or struggle, and there are no Mad Man type moments in the rest of the film looking at women as objects or inferiors aside from just portraying the mores of the time accurately.  This is enough for an active watcher, and spending more time on the sexism angle of the story would detract from the other two major themes, but don’t expect Hidden Figures to make much of a statement nor shed much light on a feminist front.

hiddenfigures2

The rhemes of racism are handled with more care and attention.   Modern Hollywood is evolving when it comes to these themes, not focusing as much on the hatred and violence that marks racism at its most extreme, but giving us stories that shed light on the far more common every day racism that nearly every single one of us furthers and accepts whether we know or like it or not.  Hidden Figures can sugar coat the message, but that is not altogether a bad thing as the whole purpose of sugar coating is to make something easier to swallow, and this a message that needs as many people to swallow it as is possible.

A great example of how Hidden Figures approaches the topic is the subplot of Katherine having to use the rest room while working for the department of calculations.  This was still the era of segregation, so white and colored bathrooms were still very much a real thing, and the nearest colored women’s bathroom is on the opposite end of NASA’s campus, making for nearly a mile walk when both directions are taken into account every time Katherine has to pee.  Several times throughout the course of the film we see a scene in which she has to gather up her piles of books containing the figures she has to check and make the half mile each way trek all the while trying to keep her bladder under control.   When things start getting particularly tense because the calculation team is falling behind getting John Glenn’s orbital launch ready, Al Hamilton, Katherine’s boss played by Kevin Costner, blows up at her demanding to know why she disappears for 40 minutes every day when she knows what tight deadlines they are working with.  Katherine responds in kind, screaming at him about what she has to go through just to use the bathroom (among other racist, but socially accepted, double standards she has to endure).  Shortly thereafter we see Hamilton destroying the sign over the restroom which says Colored Ladies’ Bathroom in front of all the African American women who work at NASA and announcing that no longer will the bathrooms be separate, that everyone at NASA is part of the same team, and the women can use whatever bathroom they want, all to thunderous applause (both by the characters in the movie and by the real audience watching the film if my audience is any indication of what to go by).

If this seems a bit too easy and pat, it is.  Two temper tantrums and suddenly years of policy are overwritten?  Even if it is someone very high up in the organization making the decision, there will still by naysayers and complaints, but here it’s just two people yelling at each other, one realizing that he didn’t understand the other’s position, and suddenly everything is fine.  On the other hand, handling the theme in this manner does make it more easily relatable to a larger audience.  The problem with focusing purely on the hatred and violence of racism is that people never see themselves as such, and showing the extremes of racism makes it easier to deny in yourself.  Showing racism as something far more insidious and accepted gets one thinking about their own prejudices, and exaggerating the ease with which it is overcome makes it easier for people to forgive themselves for their own biases and therefore confront rather than deny something we’d rather not see in ourselves.  Should racism always be dealt with like this in film?  Absolutely not.  Harsh reality must be confronted, as well.  But, Hidden Figures uses a method excellent at getting the average person to question their own prejudices.

Hidden Figures Day 42

The story behind HIdden Figures, that of the part three African American women played in the Space Race of the Cold War, is for the most part well handled,  but does fail in a handful of areas.  The pacing of the story is excellent, the amount of time handled on each of the three women is well done with Katherine’s story taking the focus while Dorothy and Mary’s stories are large subplots.  The writers do a great job of letting us know about the story’s multiple and very real stakes to ratchet up the tension, and the racism themes parallel the Space Race plot excellently.

One problem is with Mary’s story.  While Katherine and Dorothy show that they were instrumental in getting the American Space Program up and running between Katherine’s calculations and Dorothy’s creativity, determination, and talent in learning FORTRAN, Mary’s story of becoming the first African American woman engineer is sort of sidelined and seems unimportant to the overall plot.  It is interesting and inspiring, to be sure, and Mary is an excellent character, but her story just seems to be wedged in to add a third subplot.

Finally, I’m not completely sure of the real story behind Hidden Figures but I can tell that much of the plot had to have been manufactured to work for Hollywood.  This is not a problem so much as an observation, if they weren’t manufacturing a plot it would have been a documentary and unfortunately had a much smaller audience for that reason, but it still needs to be pointed out.  I have no doubt that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy knew each other as they all worked for NASA, but did they all carpool together every day, were they best friends outside of work, and did they really all push each other and inspire each other in their separate pursuits?  It’s possible, but seems highly unlikely, certainly unlikely that things happened in exactly the way the film portrayed their relationships.

hidden-figures-1

As to the remaining factors aside from the themes and story which make up Hidden Figures, all of the acting on display in the film is quite good to excellent.  The true stand out in the acting department is Janelle Monae who steals every single scene she appears in as Mary, making the most of her role which I mentioned earlier may be the least important to the story, but the most intriguing and entertaining as pure performance.  Spencer and Henson are both excellent, and Costner shows that he is still wonderful when he takes on a supporting role.  The only poor performance on display here is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, a person who works with the computations with Katherine and resents her.  His character is predictable and uninteresting, around merely to sneer and raise his nose in the air as if something smelled bad near him, and while part of this is the script’s fault, most of the script does tend to the predictable and easily digestible and all of the other actors managed to overcome that handicap.

The visuals are competent, with no scenes or shots particularly standing out in either a good nor in a bad way.  The camerawork has a nice, easy flow to it, the art design does the trick, the costumes look authentic, and the special effects don’t stand out.  All in all what we see on the screen is very competently put together even if there are few out there who would marvel at it as artistic.

hidden-figures-1-620x426

Final Recommendation:  Hidden Figures is a very good film which I recommend to nearly everyone.  If you are a history, and particularly a civil rights, Cold War, or space race, buff then I recommend it absolutely wholeheartedly.  I also strongly recommend Hidden Figures to women of African American descent as this film will make you feel some long overdue power and appreciation.  Perhaps the only group which may not enjoy this film are those whom are sticklers for historical accuracy.  For this group, I’m not sure what to recommend, as I still think you will find the history of the piece intriguing and in my research I was unable to find a documentary which deals with this subject.  Hopefully one day, but for now this is the closest we can get.