“We get to the peak Together, or we don’t get There at all” – Hidden Figures (Film Review)

Stories of the unsung hero are a popular movie trope. They bring the deeds of the obscure to the forefront and celebrate their legacy. Two films nominated for Best Picture at last month’s Oscars were based on real historical figures who performed extraordinary deeds. Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. The latter explores the phenomenal work of the African American women who worked on the NASA space program and their struggle against ignorance and bigotry as they played a major role in the Space Race.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) works as a computer at NASA, alongside her friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), who performs the role of supervisor but without the title and pay the job should come with. They are but three of many African American women working on the site. Johnson’s skills eventually lead to her being assigned to the Space Task Group under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to check the math of the engineers working on the shuttle. The first African American to be part of the team she is continually dismissed by her colleagues, as are Mary and Dorothy. The three combat the bigotry they face in their attempts to realise their goals and help achieve the ultimate feat of sending a man into space.

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Hidden Figures strength is in the incredible deeds of the characters and understated, but powerful, writing. A morally righteous tale of people working through adversity in order to play a major part in something bigger than themselves. Octavia Spencer was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film, but each of the three leading ladies are superb giving spectacular performances. Janelle Monae is wonderfully charming as the feisty Mary Jackson, whilst Taraji P. Henson leads the cast with a fantastically dogmatic display capturing both the vulnerability, and the submerged inner strength, of her character. Costner is effortless in this supporting role, sweeping through scenes with a comfort that derives from his decades of acting experience. Tremendously watchable without ever seeming to demand the screen, he delivers an exceptional supporting performance. Director Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay with Alison Schroeder and their work was deservedly recognised with an Academy Award nomination. The clever writing turns what could be an overly conventional or sentimental tale into an enriching narrative.

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Hidden Figures is well made. It relies not on the superlative but simply lets the incredible deeds of its subjects speak for themselves. Not exorbitant or risqué enough to garner the top prizes yet in it’s quiet formation it acquires an almost silent strength that underpins the film’s messages of tolerance and reminds us of the quiet heroes doing the silent deeds throughout the infinitive tapestry of history.

4/5

Dir: Theodore Melfi

Scr: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons

Prd: Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams

DOP: Mandy Walker

Music: Hans Zimmer

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 127 Minutes

Hidden Figures is out now in UK cinemas.

 

 

 

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“We got Multiple Explosions. We need help down here!” – Patriots Day (Film Review)

In April 2013 two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated a pair of bombs during the Boston Marathon, injuring an estimated two hundred and eighty people and killing three. A manhunt followed as the city grieved and overcame the crisis by rallying together, which is the focus of the film Patriots Day. Peter Berg directs and Mark Wahlberg stars, the two collaborated previously on Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor which were two films that also dealt with real life tragedies.

Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is overseeing the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when two explosions are triggered nearby. Many are injured and multiple law enforcement agencies are forced to react swiftly to organise a manhunt for the perpetrators and bring them to justice. The film examines multiple different viewpoints on the tragedy, from that of the victims, the agencies investigating and the bombers themselves.

Peter Berg, having previously directed features focusing on real life tragic events, is able to manage the subject matter deftly. Wahlberg plays a composite character, the fictional Tommy Saunders, who is present throughout a lot of the key scenes. The inclusion of such a character alongside real life officers could have been a contentious issue, but Wahlberg’s character is just another face in a crowd of many. Patriots Day pays tribute to the multiple heroes who rose to the occasion during the wake of the attacks. The city’s numerous emergency services, and the women and men who staff them, performed amazing deeds and the film interprets this through a compelling and realistic drama. Dramatising events such as this can run the risk of trivialising the disaster but the message Patriots Day transmits is one of hope against those who would commit unthinkable evils. The performances throughout are excellent, Berg really does pull the best out of Wahlberg, and the decision to cast veterans like J.K Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan ensures that the drama is capably performed. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have composed a highly versatile score that captures and enhances the feelings of tragedy, tension, relief and eventually jubilation within the city of Boston. The pair won an Oscar in the past for their work on The Social Network and Patriot’s Day ranks amongst their most emotive and resonant scores.

Patriots Day is a conundrum of a movie, much like Deepwater Horizon. It’s a hard sell to ask someone to watch a dramatisation displaying the worst aspects of humanity. Who wants to peer into the soul of someone who believes mass murder is an act ever worth committing, irrelevant of faith and belief? However, Patriots Day focuses on the reactive side of these atrocities as well. That when hate attacked, love responded in earnest. An act meant to divide and scatter the people of Boston backfired as the city united. Patriots Day ends with a series of interviews with the real-life subjects of the film, including some of the grievously wounded. Their resilience and strength brought me to tears and is worth seeing for yourself.

4/5

Dir: Peter Berg

Scr: Peter Berg, Matt Cook,  Joshua Zetumer

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, J.K Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, Jimmy O. Yung, Vincent Curatola

Prd: Mark Wahlberg, Scott Stuber, Dylan Clark, Stephen Levinson, Hutch Parker, Dorothy Aufiero, Stephen Stapinski, Michael Radutzky

DOP: Tobias Schliessler

Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 133 Minutes

Patriots Day is out now in UK cinemas.

“In Moonlight, Black boys look blue” – Moonlight (Film Review)

Moonlight offers a look at the upbringing of a young man looking at three specific time periods in his life. As a boy, a teenager and a man. Moonlight has just won the Academy Award for Best Picture, following a mix up when La La Land was announced as the winner by mistake. It’s a powerful film, but is it worthy of Best Picture?

Chiron is a young, black child growing up in Liberty City, Miami. Withdrawn and bullied by other kids he seeks solace in the form of the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), in an attempt to get away from his abusive crack smoking mother Paula (Naomie Harris). As Chiron grows older we see him struggling with his identity and the relationships with those around him.

The decision to divide the narrative is both a strength and a curse, allowing for a highly organised structural narrative underneath which is an ambitious and experimental method of storytelling. The specific focus of the acts means that we miss out on events in between that is at times highly effective, and sometimes disadvantageous. For example, a character dies in between one of the gaps and the unexpectedness of the realisation is shocking and effective. However because a different actor plays the role of Chiron in each act it causes an alienating effect that can distance you from the emotion of the film. In the first transition of Chiron from boy to teenager the metamorphosis was believable, in part to an outstanding performance by Ashton Sanders as the teen Chiron. Whilst the transition from teenager to adult results in us seeing a very different side of Chiron. This jarring change in the character is not a criticism in itself, it is understandable that after such an intensely difficult childhood the adult Chiron would be a very different character. But this alienated me from the connection to Chiron’s emotional state as it was difficult to buy into Trevante Rhodes as if he was portraying the same character. In part this is down to the writing, the final act being much more contemplative, and therefore slower, than the intense passion of the opening two acts. It was disappointing for me to feel like this as the movie is phenomenally beautiful and up until that point it had me hooked within the action. Ali is wonderful as Juan, the soulful drug dealer who serves as a kind of ward for Chiron, whilst Harris is demented as the crack addicted mother who overpowers Chiron with never ending emotional abuse. The scene stealer though is truly Ashton Sanders who anchors the second act with an extraordinarily vulnerable display, somehow not receiving the same recognition as the admittedly wonderful Ali and Harris. A highlight of the film includes a much heralded sequence at a beach in the night. It’s rightly noted as a wonderful cinematic moment, gorgeously shot by Director of Photography James Lawton who captures a pure form of teenage intimacy in a way that is truly unique. It is emblematic of the beauty of the movie as a whole, thanks in part to Lawton, and Barry Jenkins must deservedly take credit for tackling such an incredibly difficult project with the kind of virtuoso direction you would expect of a far more experienced hand.

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Moonlight is an exquisitely shot journey through the life Chiron. Capturing his frailty, rage and desires. It can’t quite the sustain the weight of its aspirations. Not my Best Picture of the year, but also not a bad Best Picture by any means. If a film is measured by its ambitions then Moonlight stands as tall as any.

3/5

Dir: Barry Jenkins
Scr: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland
Prd: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Music: Nicholas Britell
Country: USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 111 minutes

Moonlight is out now in UK cinemas.

“My Heart was Broken, and I Know Yours is broken too” – Manchester by the Sea (Film Review)

Kenneth Lonergan’s built up a reputation as a terrific wordsmith and a talented filmmaker. A playwright by trade Lonergan made the jump to feature films with 2000’s You Can Count on Me, which resulted in two Oscar nominations and a lot of critical praise. He got a lot of work as a writer in the resulting few years, including penning the screenplay for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (Though for some reason they’ve left that of Manchester By The Sea’s advertisement posters). His second film, Margaret, took seven years to release following a creative clash between Lonergan and the studio, resulting in a litigation battle over the movie. With that unpleasantness now behind him Lonergan’s newest film has garnered innumerable praise since its release and needless to say this anticipation had left me with high hopes of what was to come.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living an isolated existence in Boston who finds out that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has collapsed and died. He returns to his home town of Manchester-by-the-sea to settle the funeral arrangements. Lee discovers he has been named guardian to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), but is unwilling to stay in the town due to past events that drove him away.

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Casey Affleck is receiving riotous praise for his performance as Lee and they are well deserved. Lee’s isolation and deadpan demeanour masks an enormous rage which Affleck communicates via subtle gestures and his character’s desolate body language. Even when surrounded by others Lee seems alone, and more than happy to be that way. Pushed out of his isolative state into a role as a guardian to a wayward teen, played with arrogant glee by Lucas Hedges, the pairs disagreements, conflict and attempts to reconnect are fascinating and deeply expressive of their inner sorrow. Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) appears in both flashback and the present day and without moving into spoiler territory the two share a scene that is hauntingly visceral in its emotional purity. Both Affleck and Williams pull on all their skills as performers to deliver one of the best scenes of the year that will labour in viewers minds long after they have left the screening. Their success is aided by Lonergan’s script which manages to blend comedy and tragedy together in a manner few other screenwriters can. Most sequences are accompanied by the brutal music of Lesley Barber, which haunts the film with an uneasy pulse of strings loudly bellowing over the action of the movie in an almost operatic display.

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Manchester By The Sea isn’t for everyone, following the screening numerous other patrons around me discussed the movie and found it depressing, or/and unsatisfying. It’s ending isn’t designed to please, and the more I let it gestate in my mind the more I appreciated and admired its bravery. With a range of career best performances, Lonergan’s wonderful script and Barber’s beautiful score it appeases me to say that Manchester by the sea is more than worth your time.

5/5

Dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Scr: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan

Prd: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh, Lauren Beck

DOP: Jody Lee Lipes

Music: Lesley Barber

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 137 Minutes

Manchester by the Sea is out now in UK cinemas.

“Stories are wild Creatures. When you let them Loose, who Knows what Havoc they Might Wreak?” – A Monster Calls (Film Review)

 

So, the year keeps on ticking over, and the cinematic delights keep coming. We’re entering the crux of awards season and that means some of the year’s top releases vying for their moment in the spotlight. A Monster Calls is a film about fairytales and monster, family and truth, and is one of the best movies of the year.

Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a lonely schoolboy trying to deal with his mother’s, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), terminal illness. While Lizzie is ill Connor is forced to move in with his Grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he has a strained relationship, as his father (Toby Kebbell) has moved to America with his new family leaving Connor isolated. Friendless and targeted by school bullies Connor is struggling to deal with his new living situation when one night the old Yew tree near his house (Liam Neeson) comes alive and visits him promising to tell three stories, but in return he wants Connor to share his deepest secret.

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J.A Bayona has built an impressive filmography in a relatively short space of time including The Orphanage and The Impossible, with his next project being the sequel to last year’s highly successful Jurassic World. It makes sense he would be tapped for the high budget project following his masterful direction in A Monster Calls. He captures the scale and physical presence of the Monster, who is fantastically designed by the VFX crew, whilst also allowing the more intimate moments of the film to flow trusting in the strength of Patrick Ness’s script. Lewis MacDougall is a terrific find, already with numerous credits to his name, he carries the emotional weight of the film with authenticity and his inner turmoil, his rage, his barely concealed anger always seems to be bubbling at the surface. The supporting cast of Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell and Sigourney Weaver all deliver exceptional performances as an ensemble. Jones is almost angelic as the wailing Lizzie, whilst the authoritarian Grandmother played by Weaver attempts to maintain order in the face of disaster. Weaver always delivers as an actor, never one to give anything less than exceptional and this performance is no different. Kebbell’s dilemmic display as Connor’s father is a contemplative, humorous and bittersweet role. A chameleonic performer this is one of his more understated performances and is all the better for it. The one actor I haven’t focussed on yet is Liam Neeson, who voices the Monster. A character who needs to be supportive, yet domineering. Enigmatic, yet intimate. An amalgamation of the various qualities of humanity, otherwise his lectures to Connor would not carry the necessary dramatic weight. Neeson is wonderful in his recitation as a storyteller-cum-guardian. A real delight. Whilst the Monster’s stories are brought to life by beautiful animated sequences evocative of the “Story of three brothers” animation from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One.

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I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of A Monster Calls, with the film not out till the new year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A poignant, touching, charming and endearing tale of grief, sorrow and the unbreakable bond of family. A family drama disguised as a monster movie with a wonderful series of performances, a highly talented director at the helm and a terrific screenplay from the novel’s author Patrick Ness, this is one you should check out.

5/5

Dir: J.A Bayona

Scr: Patrick Ness

Cast: Liam Neeson, Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell

Prd: Belen Atienza, Mitch Horwits, Jonathan King

DOP: Oscar Faura

Music: Fernando Velazquez

Country: USA, Spain, UK

Year: 2016

Run Time: 108 minutes

A Monster Calls will be in UK cinemas from January 1st.

“No one has ever Trained for an Incident like that. No one.”- Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (Film Review)

Did you hear about Rules don’t apply? Don’t worry if you haven’t because it bombed hard in the states so I can’t imagine it getting a wide release here. If you’re not familiar with the title then maybe it’s producer/actor/writer/director Warren Beatty will ring a bell. If you’re over a certain age then Beatty is probably recalled as a once great titan of cinema. A multi-talented throwback to classic Hollywood who has written himself into the history books. Beatty retired in 2001 but was finally lured back to the ring to craft a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood (Which would have been fine if the Coen Bro’s hadn’t done the same exact thing in February with Hail Caesar!). It didn’t go well. As Beatty’s possibly final entry to the pantheon of cinema was being quickly forgotten Clint Eastwood, at the age of 86, released Sully. It’s difficult to stay at the top of your game forever, time catches up to the greatest. Even lovers of a legend such as Stanley Kubrick would tell you that Eyes Wide Shut (his final film, released when he was 70) was mediocrity as directed by a genius. Sully is a really good film, not a classic that will be studied by imitators in years to come, but a well-crafted, brilliant acted, moving piece of cinema.

Biopics are a tricky genre to manage. It’s difficult to adapt a life story to cinema which is why the best biopics will have a specific time of focus (Such as that of Ava DuVernay’s Selma). Sully focuses on a few days in the life of Captain Sullenberger, or more specifically on 208 seconds of his life and the effect that has on him and the world. The structure of the film is well thought out, beginning with the aftermath and making the landing itself the second act. This also serves as the film’s highlight. In a subversion of what you would expect there is an eerie calmness to what his happening. You feel the intensity and the dread but Hanks and Eckhart specifically (in the role of Sully and co-pilot Jeffrey Sazlow) are remarkably relaxed and controlled juxtaposing with our expectation of what such a disaster must feel like. The authenticity of the water-landing and the rescue efforts that followed are without hyperbole and imbued with a sincerity that allows us to connect emotionally with the people involved. Hanks is unsurprisingly great, his natural charm and likeability are often mentioned but it’s important to remember that Hanks is a terrific actor of the greatest calibre, and a hardworking one at that. He is perfectly cast here, alongside Eckhart who isn’t dwindled by the presence of Hanks. He too excels. Eastwood’s economical direction is perfectly suited to the vehicle. We don’t need flashy, exorbitant camera sweeps here. Just a man with the experience to know what we need to see, what we don’t and how long for.

The only blight on Sully is that it’s a film. Someone along the line decided we need an antagonist to oppose Sully and that role is played by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) who investigated the incident. You understand their need to investigate but they are portrayed with an almost laughable amount of aggression culminating in a public hearing at the movie’s climax that goes a little bit too Mr Smith Goes to Washington for my liking, cracking the illusion of authenticity.

If Clint Eastwood should decide he has had enough of filmmaking (Something I doubt) and hangs up his hat, then Sully would be a fine epitaph to a phenomenal career. There are legendary directors with more skill, vision and sheer panache than Eastwood, he’s never prided himself on such attributes. Preferring a workmanlike approach that has worked for him throughout his career. Never more than a few takes for a scene, his camera is still and unnerving to match his stare and he always comes back for more. In the 15 years since Warren Beatty’s retirement Clint Eastwood has directed 13 films and won a couple more Oscars, keeping himself in touch with the ever-evolving language of cinema. Whilst Beatty’s accomplishments are undoubtedly written into the history of film Eastwood just keeps on writing. Time catches up to all of us they say, but if it has caught up to Clint Eastwood then he just told it to piss off, he’s got a movie to make.

4/5

Dir: Clint Eastwood

Scr: Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn,

Prd: Clint Eastwood, Frank Marshall, Allyn Stewart, Tim Moore

DOP: Tom Stern

Music: Christian Jacob, The Tierney Sutton band

Country: USA

Year: 2016

Run Time: 96 minutes

Who do you think you are? – Suture (Blu ray review)

Originally released in 1993 Suture is a film exploring the conceit of identity, specifically between a pair of nearly identical brothers (portrayed by the Caucasian Michael Harris and African American Dennis Haysbert) who, despite clearly being about as identical as a pineapple and a watermelon, are in Suture, for practicalities sake, identical twins.

Having met at the funeral of their father Vincent invites his long lost brother Clay to his house under the guise of getting to know each other better. Unbeknownst to Clay his brother plans to murder him and is hoping the police will believe Clay’s body is his own so he can flee the country as he is under suspicion for the murder of their father. Clay survives the attempt on his life but loses his memories, whilst those around him believe he is Vincent and try to help him recollect who he is.

Suture is built around an interesting premise of what constitutes a person’s identity, how memories and dreams define our personality and how others around us perceive us to be. Clay’s conversations with a psychiatrist (Sab Shimono) in which he recounts his dreams are a curious attempt to explore the realm of the subconscious within are psychology, expressing that if we lose are conscious memories our subconscious always remains intact and will initiate the motivations of our true self. On the surface the casting of two such different looking men as brothers is a rather animated expression of exploring their differing identities but the performance of Haysbert delves into the psychological struggle of Clay in attempting to separate his own subconscious memories from Vincent Towers, the man all those around him contend him to be. Sadly Suture’s plot is slow and does little with the characters than to meander from repetitive conversation to repetitive conversation. Beyond the dreams and Haysbert’s portrayal we’re left with a dramatic void at times as the action continually stalls. The movie is also bookended by narration from Shimono’s character discussing what identity means, it’s forcefully redundant and lessens the impact of the otherwise fulfilling finale. Rather than being left to surmise the events of the film ourselves we are informed through narration what we should think about the narrative, thereby undercutting the movies thematic plot. Greg Gardiner’s cinematography keeps the movie from getting too stale or plodding and it’s not surprising to see that in the twenty odd years since Suture he has worked on dozens of high profile films following his fine work here. The decision to film in black and white gives Suture a sapped, ambiguous quality, as if we are spectating upon faint memories, and it enhances the action splendidly.

Suture presents Dennis Haysbert in one of his finest roles and he is supported ably by some fine work by the rest of the ensemble. Scott Mcgehee and David Siegel have clearly put a lot of love and hard work into making the film and their effort is not in vain as Suture explores some thought-provoking concepts. However the movie’s plot does strain following a well-paced first act and what is a rather short feature film does start to drag from the midway point until the finale. Despite these issues Suture satisfies and provokes a strong internal discussion that makes the film more than worthy enough to be remembered.

3/5

Review meticulously churned out by Alexander Halsall