Hidden Figures (2016)

For each individual’s success there are dozens of people who helped them get there. In many cases, these people never receive credit for their efforts. Hidden Figures, is the story of how three black women contributed to NASA’s early programs. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are “computers” in the early 60s, meaning the perform the complex calculations needed by the engineers and scientists. Katherine has been assigned to a special task group, but has to deal with being the first black person working there. Dorothy is trying to get promoted to supervisor, a job she is already performing, but can’t win the respect of her boss. Mary wants to apply to become an engineer, but doesn’t have the required education and isn’t allowed to attend the only school that offers it. Each of the stories follow the women as they deal with prejudices against their race and their gender.

The writing is surprisingly sharp. There are plenty of witty exchanges between the women as they comment on their managers and the difficulties they have to face. Monae is particularly funny as the unfiltered, sassy member of the group. Her barely contained anger and judgmental stares lead to several amusing scenes. The film also handles quieter moments well. Katherine is courted by a charismatic military officer played by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and their growing romance is both sweet and comical. The screenplay adds some much needed flavor to the otherwise well-trodden narrative.

The couple’s interactions provide a welcome tenderness to the film.

The actresses are clearly enjoying themselves in their roles. Playing technical characters is something many actors struggle with (think Mark Wahlberg in The Happening), but the cast here is believable as talented mathematicians. Spencer is sympathetic as the den mother of the group who tries to ensure jobs for her team in the face of impending obsolescence by technology. Monae’s rare moments of politeness are enjoyable as she navigates through the labyrinthine rules preventing her from reaching her desired profession. Even Henson is charming as her character’s intelligence and work ethic outshine her supposedly superior bosses. She definitely continues her signature “stink look” throughout the film, but that subsides in favor of the story.

Special note needs to be given to the soundtrack. Most period pieces rely on music of the era to help embed the audience in the past, but composers Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch decided to go in the opposite direction. They use selections or original songs that are deliberately anachronistic, but instead of feeling jarring they add a modern sensibility to the film’s retro setting. This injects energy into what could have been an otherwise stuffy environment.

The real Achilles heel is that the plot is too predictable. Every potential conflict and every subsequent outcome can be guessed 30 seconds into the trailer. This isn’t a film that is trying to do something new on a story level. It’s not what happens, but who it happens to that is important. The goal of the film is to provide some much needed praise to this often overlooked demographic and celebrate the strength of women in general. That intent deserves commendation but the straightforward story diminishes the drama. There are several moments where the film attempts to create tension, but they have no real effect. We already know where the conclusion is headed and can’t get invested in the potential crises. Without that investment, the movie can only impact on a surface level. Hidden Figures is an uplifting tribute to forgotten women held back by its commonplace narrative.

3/5 stars.

Lion (2016)

A Weinstein backed film based on a true story getting Oscar buzz is nothing new, but in this case the real facts are actually stranger than fiction. Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a young boy in India, travels with his older brother to a train station. Feeling tired he falls asleep on a bench while waiting for his brother to return. When he wakes up his brother is nowhere to be found and he steps onto a nearby train only to get stuck onboard as the train starts to move. Days later he wakes up in a different part of the country unable to communicate where he is from. He is eventually taken into an orphanage and adopted by Australian parents. As an adult, Saroo (Dev Patel; Slumdog Millionare) is haunted by memories of his childhood. Using the newly created Google Earth, he tries to map out the potential train stations and cities he might be from using the few vague details he is able to recall.

Director Garth Davis effectively creates the fear of being a lost child. Although he is a first time actor, Pawar is able to carry the film by himself. He is beyond cute and his winning smile, resourcefulness, and desire to do things despite his tiny size are incredibly endearing. Davis makes full use of his stature as he shows the world from young Saroo’s perspective. After arriving at the foreign train station, Saroo is lost in a sea of bodies. The camera is placed at his eye level as he is knocked around by the lower halves of the people around him. He can’t even reach the counter of the train station to ask for help. Unlike many other countries, India has several regional languages and Saroo isn’t able to speak the language of his new location which creates additional complications. As he wanders the unknown city by himself, Saroo’s plight is palpable.

Pawar is captivating as the young Saroo.

It’s the story of the older Saroo that doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Dev Patel has proven himself as a talented actor in other roles, but doesn’t act believably here. As memories of his past become more prevalent, he pushes out the people in his life. He has loving parents that only want the best for him, but keeps them out of the loop. Nicole Kidman as his adopted mother is deeply sympathetic as the woman trying to hold her family together, but Saroo doesn’t confide in her until much later. Even his caring girlfriend (Rooney Mara in a severely underwritten part) is forced out of his life. This should be a role that inspires compassion, but Patel’s portrayal feels more like childish moping than traumatic grief.

As the film comes to a close, it is sure to elicit an emotional response. The details of the events are too extraordinary for it not to. Credit has to be given to the filmmakers for their work on the first half, but the majority of the film’s strength comes from the setup. Lion has a strong start but is unable to maintain the momentum as it relies on its true story origins to deliver an impact.

3/5 stars.

A Cure for Wellness (2017)

After having spent the better part of the last fifteen years toiling away at mediocre to bad tentpole releases, Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) is back with something decidedly niche in its appeal. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) plays Lockhart, a young, ruthlessly ambitious Wall Street executive tasked by his bosses to retrieve a member of their board who left to a “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, this is a health facility where something is amiss. As Lockhart first enters the area the movie seems to be headed towards similar territory. Yet, unlike that film, A Cure for Wellness isn’t built around a cheap twist. Lockhart’s first questions are “What do they cure here?” and “Why do people stay?”, but as the film progresses those thoughts fade away when more sinister intentions become apparent. Each wing of the center appears ominous and it’s unclear what lies behind the locked doors.

Like in the early films of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, Verbinski brings A-level talent and production to the trappings of a B-level story. The sets are immaculate and emphasize the excessively sterile interiors of the sanitarium. The glistening floors contrasted with the historical architecture hint at the danger within. Hallways are cavernous and the empty space only exacerbates the eeriness of the setting. The contraptions used by the physicians are deliberately retrograde, resembling early 20th century industrial equipment more than anything else. These are tools wrought from heavy iron, not the light stainless steel we are accustomed to in medicine. The weight communicates one thing: permanence. The facility appears to have changed little since its construction and anyone placed in these devices would have no chance of escaping from them, perhaps like the very center itself.

The beautiful, mazelike interiors appear inescapable.

The cinematography brings the menacing atmosphere to life. Bojan Bezelli, who collaborated with Verbinski on previous films, uses his camera to communicate the mental fragility of the subjects. Scenes are refracted through drinking glasses or reflected in the eyes of trophy animals. Even the condensation around a cup of water feels unsettling. He favors unhealthy shades of green that dominate the design of the facility. His unique angles and sickly colors give the film a ghostly beauty.

All of this makes A Cure for Wellness a rarity in modern cinema. A larger budgeted movie and an experienced team behind the camera shooting a twisted film. It’s part shock value and part arthouse, but with no expense spared. The premise draws influence from horror classics like Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and body-horror king David Cronenberg. Credit has to be given to screenwriter Justin Haythe for developing an original story that moves beyond its inspirations into unnerving territory. As the more perverted elements are revealed, some audience members will be repulsed, but the rest will be captivated. The enigma of the sanitarium grows into an intriguing allure: how deep does the depravity go? To answer that question would be a great injustice to the filmmakers, but suffice it to say that despite some of the reactions it is sure to elicit, the plot, while perhaps overlong, rarely becomes gratuitous.  Any onscreen displays are only to support the central mystery. Verbinski and his team have elevated a schlock setup into something gorgeous, original, and satisfyingly deranged.

4/5 stars.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

When the first John Wick came out the consensus reaction was “Keanu Reeves is in a good movie?”. This time it should be “Keanu Reeves is in a good sequel???”. After killing his way through hordes of gangsters and their security guards to avenge the death of his puppy in the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with Wick violently taking back his beloved car. He returns home planning on resuming his retirement only to be greeted by a former colleague. An Italian gangster, Silvio D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), wants a debt repaid. Years ago, in order to complete his final task for retirement, Wick swore a blood oath in exchange for help. Now D’Antonio wants him to kill someone to return the favor. Bound by the laws of their society, Wick has to comply which causes a fallout and leads to a $7 million bounty being placed on his head.

The film is surprisingly slow to begin. The explanation of the plot is somewhat force-fed to the audience and is a blatantly retroactive addition to his story made to fuel the sequel the filmmakers never expected to have the chance to make. Even after the setup is made clear, Wick spends what feels like an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if he can get out of his oath. The actual running time of this section may not be long, but it certainly felt that way. Fortunately, after he decides to take the job, the film quickly kicks into high gear and never slows down.

A gorgeous movie filled with unique settings and vibrant colors.

John Wick: Chapter 2 may be the best adaptation of the Hitman video game series ever made (let’s ignore the two official adaptations, everyone else has). As John has to take out a target or escape from other criminals trying to do the same to him, the film, like the games, always emphasizes the scale of its settings. John wades through a crowded concert, sneaks through a busy subway station, and even nonchalantly strolls through a building while exchanging fire from suppressed pistols without alerting the regular people around him. Imagine the scale of the club scene from the original carried into almost every encounter. This allows the scenarios to continually feel fresh and keeps the tension high, despite the fact they are on paper very similar. The best comparison is The Raid 2, another sequel to a great action film that uses its increased budget to bolster the scope of its violence.

The frequent scuffles may stretch belief, but they are endlessly entertaining. Wick uses his trademark “gun-fu” as he melees and headshots his way through any opposition. Director Chad Stahelski’s background as a stuntman and stunt coordinator shows as combat is flawlessly executed. Reeves makes for an imposing presence and even the ridiculous body count seems acceptable. Wick’s nickname of the boogeyman is fully earned as his methodical precision trumps his opponents. The best part of Reeves’s performance is not that he is believable during the action, but that he also adds personality to Wick’s fighting. Wick isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a minigun and happily dishing out bullets. No, he is the master fighter who is weary of his profession. Wick’s desire to escape his trade is palpable as he sighs and wipes his brow after each brawl. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the chaotic, beautifully choreographed violence we’ve all been waiting for. For the sake of action movie fans everywhere, let’s hope he stays out of retirement long enough for a third movie.

4/5 stars.

Split (2017)

The words “M. Night Shyamalan” used to elicit groans or sighs. After releasing often laughably bad films through the late 2000s he returned in 2015 with The Visit, his first movie in a very long time to receive anything close to favorable reviews. While that film wasn’t a complete success and lacked some of his strongest talents because of the found footage shooting style, it did show hope for his future. With Split, Shyamalan has created his true return to form. Leaving a birthday party, three teenage girls, led by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as Casey, are kidnapped and awaken in a locked room. A stern man (James McAvoy; X-Men: First Class) enters their room and tells them not to worry because they will be taken care of. In other scenes, this same man is seen by his psychiatrist for dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 23 total personalities, each with their own behavior and, according to his shrink, their own physiology. During their meetings he reveals that there is a 24th personality about to emerge.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of James McAvoy. With so much asked of him and so much of the runtime centered around his performance, a failing on his part would have easily crippled the movie. Fortunately, he is up to the task. Many actors would have relished an opportunity like this to show off their acting abilities, but McAvoy successfully juggles the disparate roles with aplomb. As he switches personalities, his accent, his mannerisms, and his overall presence completely changes. While it could be considered comical to see him dressed as a woman in high heels, McAvoy’s physical stature and commitment make it an unsettling sight. He is able to engender sympathy as he plays the child personality, Hedwig, then moments later fear as Dennis, the personality that kidnapped the girls. His adaptability is praiseworthy.

The dank interiors are the perfect setting for a kidnapping.

Shyamalan’s early films greatly benefited from strong direction and blocking and Split is no different. Camera movements are smooth and the sets are built to instill claustrophobia. Shyamalan hired Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer of It Follows, to shoot this film and the effect is obvious. There is a noticeable improvement to the lighting and colors from The Visit and it helps establish the atmosphere. That being said, Split does not have the dread of Shyamalan’s best work. He is able to create tension in several scenes but isn’t able to maintain the suspense throughout. This is caused by the other two girls and a problematic backstory for Casey that distract and detract from the desired mood.

Sadly, any review of the director’s work will always need to answer one question: is there a twist? The answer in this case is not really. The film is fairly straightforward in its story and never hints at a hidden subtext. The ending will leave some viewers incredulous, but it is believable within the context of the film. The real surprise of the film comes as a stinger at the very end. It isn’t a twist, but it recontextualizes the narrative in the best way possible and hints at a very exciting path for Shyamalan’s next films. While Split isn’t his best work, it provides a welcome recovery of the director’s trademark style.

4/5 stars.

Fences (2016)

Broadway to big-screen, Denzel Washington directs and stars in his adaptation of August Wilson’s hit play. He is Troy, a former minor league baseball player now working as a garbageman. He lives with his wife (Viola Davis; The Help) who takes care of him and his teenage son. The film centers on Troy as the bombastic patriarch of the family. He prattles on about his failed career as a professional athlete and lectures, or in many cases berates, his son for no apparent reason. His existence is fairly routine until key events change his relationships and his life forever.

At its heart, Fences is an acting showpiece. Washington and Davis have both performed these roles on Broadway many times and their experience is obvious. They know these characters inside and out and could deliver their performances in their sleep. Fortunately, their familiarity doesn’t lead to any complacence. Washington is obviously having a good time playing Troy. He happily rambles on telling the same pompous stories he has told a thousand times over. His only disruption is Davis interjecting truth into his tales. “That didn’t happen” is her most common line. Yet, as he incessantly continues, Washington hints that there is something deeper that leads to his behavior. That there are failures that require him to overcompensate. Even as the character becomes increasingly unlikable through his actions, Washington prevents him from turning completely unsympathetic.

Troy delivers several unwanted and uncomfortable lectures to his son.

Viola Davis is the real standout of the film. Her task is probably the most difficult as she has to balance the roles of loving homemaker and fed-up wife. Either could easily descend into caricature, but she easily balances the two with nuanced acting. Her scenes as a caring mother still show signs of a tough, no-nonsense woman that make her character’s growth believable. In climactic moments, her performance easily topples Washington’s and proves that her skill can imbue even the showiest scenes with veracity.

Beyond its acting, Fences doesn’t have much to offer. Washington has stated in interviews that he did not want to change much to adapt the play to the screen, but the end product suffers for this decision. Instead of taking full advantage of the format, the film is little more than recorded version of a well-acted play with decent production design. As a director, Washington offers no new insights or unique takes on the material with no particular panache to be found. The entire film takes place in one house with meager variation to the staging. Each scene is filmed plainly to prevent anything distracting from the performances. With so little added, it’s curious why this adaptation was even necessary. The play was already popular and the new format isn’t bringing any further value. The emphasis is so heavily placed on the acting that it can at times be a detriment. Washington’s performance can veer into “look at me!” territory where his confidence becomes irksome self-satisfaction. The story and the majority of the acting are strong, but, as a film, Washington’s banal direction prevents Fences from eclipsing its theatrical origins.

3/5 stars.