Tag Archives: Drama

Maudie (2017)

Sometimes our hobbies can unexpectedly turn into our professions. Maudie is the story of Maude Lewis (Sally Hawkins; Layer Cake), a woman with who, due to damage from childhood arthritis, is deemed unable to take care of herself and lives with her aunt, painting for own enjoyment. Tired of being bossed around by her aunt, she answers the ad of Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke; Before Midnight), a local fish salesman, looking for a live-in maid to clean his tiny 1-room house. The film covers her path to becoming a famous artist whose art is sold all over the country.

Our introduction to Maude is almost repulsive. Because the character is based on a real person, her portrayal receives extra scrutiny. Is she getting the respect she deserves? Hawkins is committed to the performance, but, given the character’s serious physical ailment, the film’s approach is manipulative, capitalizing on her appearance for the audience’s sympathy. This is only exacerbated when she leaves her aunt to become a live-in maid for Hawke’s character. We’re supposed to root for her independence and view her aunt as a villain, but the director (Aisling Walsh) hasn’t yet provided a reason to dislike the aunt. Sure, she may be overprotective, but Maude leaving to live with a complete stranger who doesn’t even have a separate room or bed for her doesn’t seem like the right alternative. This exploitation of her condition makes the early section of the film unintentionally uncomfortable.

Hawkins does her best in the role, but it ends up being very reductive.

The romance between Maude and Everett begins in an equally concerning manner. It is immediately clear that the leads are going to become a couple, but their relationship begins as borderline abusive. Everett, as her employer, berates her constantly and belittles her by saying she is less valued than the farm animals. Hawke depicts him as gruff, intellectually limited, insecure about himself, and quick to anger because of it. Everett doesn’t view respect as necessary for his employee and is deliberately condescending. He is even physically abusive when Maude voices her opinions. Everett is hinted at having had a difficult childhood from being raised in an orphanage and some of his behavior may be typical for the time period, but it adds traces of Stockholm Syndrome to their courtship. It makes their eventual marriage seem like less of a true fit for Maude than her only option given her poor situation.

Maude’s eventual rise to success is heartwarming. She starts taking more control of her relationship with Everett and helping him manage his business until her recreational paintings get noticed by her husband’s clients. Her art soon earns more money than Everett’s fish and their roles swap with him taking on the housework so she can devote her time to painting. This is where his affections for her become more explicit and their relationship starts to look like a true partnership. Finally, the often-cloying direction becomes less bothersome. Hawkins portrays Maude with such an innocent spirit that her accidental success in spite of her modest goals is a welcome event. The real-life character is endearing, but Walsh’s coercive manipulation and the suspect inception of Maude’s relationship add an inadvertently problematic tone that lingers over all aspects of the film.

2/5 stars.

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

What does an old man think of in his twilight years? Two things come to mind: his end and his youth. Based on the award-winning novel by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending follows Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent; Cloud Atlas), a retired man who owns a small camera store. His life is routine until he receives an inheritance letter from the mother of an old girlfriend – his first serious relationship from his college years. She leaves him a diary and the event jogs memories he had buried away for decades. Unsure of why or what she would leave him, he tries to recall his past and reconnect with his ex to understand what could have made her mother remember him through all those years.

Despite its acclaim and short length, Barnes’ novel had been dismissed as a poor choice for adaptation. The novel was defined by its use of an unreliable narrator, a mechanic typically better suited to literature than to film. Its major theme was memory and the way it changes over time with the main character devoting page after page to discuss his own philosophy on the subject. Director Ritesh Batra chooses to overcome this obstacle by moving away from the nature of memories to discovering missed parts of one’s own past. He views Tony’s memories as incomplete due to his own preoccupation rather than inherently subjective.

Batra adds a gentle tone to the story.

Batra continues the intimate style exhibited in his first feature, The Lunchbox. He directs the film with a gentle, affectionate approach. Camera movements are slow and unobtrusive with characters held in shallow focus to not distract the audience. He is interested in the heart of these characters, not a display of style, and Batra’s restrained hand makes Tony a much more sympathetic character than he could have been. His impact is most evident in conversations. Characters speak to each other with a candid familiarity that betrays their remaining feelings. Few actual words are shared because they can communicate the message nonverbally. They have known each other long enough to fill in the blanks. This warm tone makes the film inviting, pulling the viewer deeper into the story and allowing them to let their guard down with the characters which is meant to make the final revelations all the more shocking.

However, despite his strength with mood, Batra can’t overcome issues with the screenplay. The film has mixed success in adapting the book. The script, by necessity of the medium, makes the ending much more conclusive. This may ruin the suspense for some. Where the book sparked conversations afterwards, the film’s explicitly sealed narrative will leave many unimpressed. The lack of an unreliable narrator might have been needed for the translation to film, but it deprives the story of most of its mystery. Instead of questioning each detail for its validity and wondering what else could have taken place, we just wait for the next piece of info to be handed to us. The script’s structure succeeds in keeping the audience following, but not inquisitive. Batra’s gentle direction is greatly appreciated, but the concessions made when changing mediums sap the story of its most compelling feature: its intrigue.

3/5 stars.

Band Aid (2017)

There are few things as uncomfortable as being in the middle of a couple’s fight. The deep-seeded differences and inescapable feeling that the argument is just one of many can be agonizing. Zoe Lister-Jones (New Girl) has used this difficult scenario as the foundation of a comedy-drama. Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are a 30-something married couple stuck in a rut. Their friends are having children and rewarding careers while they have dead-end jobs and are constantly at each other’s throats. Instead of repeating the same fight over and over again, they decide to start a band and use their quarrels to write music.

As ridiculous as it may seem, the act of singing their frustrations is rooted in psychotherapy. Famous marriage counselors like Esther Perel use similar techniques like blind folding and roleplaying in couple’s therapy to deal with recurring issues. The use of song here abstracts their conflicts from their deeply personal roots and allows the leads to express themselves without descending into damaging attacks. It’s amazing to see how these makeshift therapy sessions allow the couple to address their marital problems.

The songs themselves won’t hold up to repeated listens. They have a very deliberate garage band crudeness without the benefit of a music producer. These aren’t the playlist-worthy tracks of a John Carney movie. While the singing talents of Lister-Jones and Pally are surprisingly adequate, the songs only work in the context of the film to provide humor and healing. The live performances and amateur lyrics are sometimes clumsy but always evocative of the irritating minutiae of a relationship and the positive effect the band has on their marriage is heartwarming.

Lister-Jones is able to balance the pain and humor of a failing marriage.

The sheer amount of humor is joyous. Lister-Jones turns everyday arguments into comedic commentary on relationships and the differences that divide men and women. She is acutely aware of the minor mannerisms that escalate into larger fights and her chemistry with Pally is perfect. They have the familiarity needed to make both their affections and insults feel authentic. Fred Armisen (Portlandia) as their strange neighbor and drummer kills every scene he is in. His unnervingly agreeable nature is a delight in the midst of Anna and Ben’s often explosive interactions and leads to plenty of awkward laughter.

Lister-Jones has stated that her goal was to make “a [John] Cassavetes comedy” and she has mostly been successful. She effectively examines both the male and female perspective in the central relationship without favoring either side. She impressively handles emotional scenes, but does make some larger generalizations about each gender. She posits that most men have a certain type of thinking process whereas most women have a completely different method, going as far as saying that they should be considered different species. The nuances of this comparison are well thought out, but it neglects the similarities that join the genders. Lister-Jones never considers the common ground between men and women which can sometimes make her assertions feel slightly reductive and incomplete. Still, Band-Aid remains an absorbing and consistently hilarious directorial debut.

4/5 stars.

Their Finest (2017)

WWII movies have been done to death, but Lone Scherfig (An Education) brings a new angle on the conflict. Mrs. Cole (Gemma Arterton; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) joins the British Ministry of Information’s film team working on propaganda films. Her job is to write the “slop”, meaning the women’s dialogue, and inspire them to send their sons and husbands to war. In her way are production conflicts, entitled actors, and a clearly sexist mentality in her predominantly male organization.

The film’s visuals are what we’ve come to expect for period pieces. Colors are muted with only subtle blues and reds to stand out from the dominant grays. The sets incorporate a lot of green screen in order provide era-appropriate backdrops, but these skylines are glaringly synthetic. The contrast in the gray is more reminiscent of Sin City’s hyper-stylized visuals than sepia-toned photographs the filmmakers were likely targeting. While not unpleasant by any means, the heavy digital coloring and choice of sets instead of physical locations make the film more like an artificial, computer-generated landscape than an authentic 1940s London.

The elaborate sets never feel like a real location.

Feminist themes provide the backbone of the film. Mrs. Cole has to deal with constant derision and her intelligent opinions are often overruled or simply disregarded because of her gender. The film makes it obvious how little her contribution is initially valued as she accepts no writing credit and a lower pay than her male peers. As cliché and predictable as it might be, her growing confidence and reputation with the cast and crew are incredibly rewarding. She pitches movies, rewrites endings, and becomes the go-to writer as she consistently proves her ability to create emotions in her screenplay. Her progression from meekly consenting to others to firmly standing by her opinions is a simple, but enjoyable change.

Along with its message, the film brings plenty of humor. Bill Nighy (Love Actually) plays an aging self-absorbed actor whose fame may have subsided in reality but is still very much alive in his own mind. His melodramatic flourishes during his acting scenes or exaggerated advice to a new actor are hilarious. He is the veteran with too much pride and too little patience to bother with pleasantries as he calls out others and demands rewrites so he can have more screen time. His sassy attitude prevents the film from becoming too rigid.

The producers from the Ministry say they are looking to make films that have “Authenticity informed by optimism” to motivate their people for the war efforts.  The makers of this film have plenty of the latter but lack the former. There are major, unneeded plot turns that add forced drama. They feel cheap and go against the grain of the otherwise natural character arcs. These may be holdovers from the novel the film is based on, but they feel constructed for the sole purpose of making the audience cry by any means necessary and are so blatant that they are almost insulting. Arterton’s performance as the ever-committed Mrs. Cole and the unexpected humor are enjoyable, but they can’t overcome a contrived third act.

3/5 stars.

Colossal (2017)

Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish director who debuted with the similarly strange Timecrimes, is back with his highest profile release yet. Colossal stars Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) as she plays against type as Gloria, an out-of-control alcoholic writer who returns to her small-town family home after being kicked out by her fed-up boyfriend. When back home she reunites with a childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis; We’re the Millers) and discovers that she is somehow controlling a giant Godzilla-like monster rampaging through South Korea.

The ridiculous setup brings lots of laughs. As Gloria discovers the rules of her powers, her drunken attempts to make sense of things are hilarious and Hathaway is clearly enjoying herself in the role. In her few moments of sobriety she fails miserably at explaining her situation to her friends. It isn’t until she starts making the monster dance or do other unusual movements that she is able to convince them. These scenes become comedic as the director crosscuts between her steps in a suburban playground and the masses of hysterical people fleeing city-wide destruction in Seoul. Then, when she is afraid of what might happen if others knew about her ability, she clumsily tries to hide the truth, as if anyone would believe her. When Gloria is still discovering the rules of her situation, the film is as funny as it is intriguing.

The discovery of Gloria’s powers is the best part of the film.

What’s surprising is how being the monster changes her. In her previous life, Gloria’s lack of responsibility allowed her to spiral out of control. She didn’t have any impact on others so she was left without a purpose until now. The ability to control a gigantic beast in another country becomes empowering. She can suddenly communicate with and affect the lives of millions and it changes the way she approaches her life. She starts to make better decisions (i.e. drinking less) and taking more responsibility. The use of the supernatural setup to grow her character is an unexpectedly compelling character arc.

It’s the film’s latter half that drags it down. Unsatisfied with the lighter tone, Vigalondo moves the film into much darker territory. Certain characters make abrupt turns into villainous roles and the sudden change is unearned. It ruins the fun of the wacky premise and doesn’t match the precedent set by the early parts of the movie. The director also adds unnecessary exposition. There are brief flashbacks throughout the film that hint at the cause of Gloria’s powers, but when their true nature is fully revealed it creates plot holes rather than filling them. The explanation doesn’t add gravity to the film and only distracts from the core: Gloria’s self-improvement. As strange as it seems, these changes stretch belief more than Anne Hathaway controlling a kaiju.

The most important factors in a film like this are consistency and commitment. Consistency in tone and commitment to the story. Far-fetched premises like Being John Malkovich, or any of Charlie Kaufman’s works for that matter, succeed because they have a clear emotional direction and stick to that angle. Other unusual takes on the kaiju genre like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host managed their lighter approach because they never deviated from their initial intent. Instead of continuing in the tone of Colossal’s successful early sections, Vigalondo loses focus and falls prey to damaging forced conflict and exposition.

3/5 stars.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

The WWII/Holocaust movie has been explored ad nauseam but New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) has brought her attempt to standout within the crowded genre. The film covers the true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain; Zero Dark Thirty) and her husband. They are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo and when Germany invades and their animals are taken away, they use the extra space to smuggle Jews from the ghetto. Daniel Brühl (Rush) plays the German head of zoology that takes command of their zoo and has his eyes on Antonina as well.

With so much centered on the lead, Caro couldn’t have cast a better actress. Chastain’s Polish accent is jarring at first, but it never falters and becomes more natural as the film continues. She is completely at ease with the animals, large and small, and her gentle nature make the role believable beyond the problematic script. This is helped by the decision to only use live animals. It allows a natural chemistry that wouldn’t have been possible with computer generated effects and makes the setting feel like a real zoo.

The film’s major failing is that Antonina is too one dimensional. Despite Chastain’s committed performance, the character is unintentionally simplistic. Instead of being a pure, innocent person in a world where humanity is lacking, much like Chastain’s character in The Tree of Life, she can come off as weak, short-sided, and childish, particularly early on. There are a few moments of strength but she spends most of the time at the mercy of others and when the situation worsens, her actions are unrealistic for any adult in the same circumstances.

Antonina is not the brave or nuanced character the story requires her to be.

Antonina is supposed to be a hero, and her real-life efforts were truly deserving of that descriptor, but the film underplays her involvement. When her husband first suggests bringing Jews from the ghetto to hide in their zoo, she protests on grounds that it would put them at risk. While this is a very reasonable fear given the consequences of the period, it does nothing to cast Antonina in a heroic light. When the German troops first invade Poland, she seems more concerned with keeping her animals than the people that are suffering. Her focus on animals before humans makes her a myopic character and her initial dissent against the rescue efforts portray her as more of a bystander than an active participant in the noble acts.

The director has claimed that this is a different type of Holocaust story. It’s true that few movies set in this period or about war examine female-led stories, and even fewer still show them as brave. The trouble is that the script has held too closely to established tropes of the genre. There is very little that separates this film from the glut of similar stories. The biggest surprise is that it is opening in March instead of the end of year release expected for biopics. Furthermore, the script doesn’t give Antonina the strength she needs. She is often shown as more submissive than courageous and that prevents her from becoming the icon she so clearly deserves to be. Caro’s intent is admirable and Chastain’s performance is excellent, but they are held back by the underwritten lead role and familiar biopic dressings.

3/5 stars.

Personal Shopper (2017)

Olivier Assayas’s newest film was surprisingly the most divisive entry at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. After the screening, several critics booed the movie while others applauded. Despite the mixed reaction, most likely in response to the ending, it went on to win the award for Best Director. Personal Shopper is the second team-up between Assayas and Kristen Stewart after 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper in Paris who happens to be a medium. Her twin brother, also a medium, recently died from a congenital heart disease they both share. They made a promise at a young age that whoever passed away first would give the other a sign from the afterlife so Maureen stays put in a job she hates, waiting for his signal.

Stewart delivers consistently strong acting. Her conflicted expressions display her fragile emotional state. Losing her twin brother was losing a part of herself and that mourning prevents her otherworldly explorations from becoming pretentious or irritating. During her day job buying clothes for her wealthy employer she shows her professional ennui without appearing whiny. Her character’s longing to reconnect with her twin brother and inability to move past with death are deeply sympathetic. Her previous experience working with the director has clearly benefitted her as she completely inhabits the role.

There is a certain amount of unintended silliness to the movie’s premise. It’s very easy for ghost stories to become laughable when attempts to connect with spirits are stilted and Personal Shopper occasionally veers into that territory. Large portions of the film feature Stewart texting the ghost that is supposedly stalking her which isn’t as foreboding as direct contact would have been. There are scenes when this type of communication is used effectively, like turning on your phone to see a series of progressively violent texts, but at times it makes the spectral world seem disappointingly mundane.

Stewart’s fearful attempts to make contact are the best parts of the film.

When Maureen is faced with meeting a ghost in person, the film is able to ratchet up the tension. As she explores an empty house or apartment looking for a signal from a spirit that may or may not be her brother, there is a palpable sense of dread because anything can be mistaken as a sign. Did someone leave that faucet on? Is it the wind that opened this door? Stewart’s performance hypersensitizes the audience to every irregular detail that could potentially be caused by supernatural interference. These scenes create the desired apprehension and show the potential of what the film could have been.

Personal Shopper is help back by its unfocused screenplay. Assayas splits the runtime across the intriguing ghost story and the fairly banal workplace drama. This prevents either aspect from being fully developed and actively harms the tone created in the ghost story. Maureen’s dissatisfaction with the menial tasks the make up her job and the demanding, inconsiderate diva she works for is relatable but consumes unnecessary screen time. Had Assayas been more decisive with his focus, he could have either made a compelling exploration of the afterlife or an interesting drama about a stifling dead-end job. Without a clear direction, Personal Shopper can’t succeed beyond Stewart’s committed performance.

3/5 stars.

Song to Song (2017)

Continuing his rapid pace of releasing movies, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) sets his newest film in the music scene. It features a star-studded cast with Michael Fassbender (Shame) as a music producer, Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Rooney Mara (Lion) as performers, and Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as other women who get wrapped up in their series of short-lived affairs.

The film’s “plot” is barely present and the few discernable aspects are disappointing. Supposedly, Song to Song is a romance, but there is nothing remotely romantic shown. Malick is known for not using traditional scripts. He relies on actors to improvise scenes based on only the setup and never have the pitfalls of this approach been more apparent than the scenes of what I can only assume was intended to be romantic chemistry. The actors have big smiles on their faces as they attempt to have authentic, playful interactions. Instead, they come off as annoying or severely cringe-inducing, best exemplified in a scene where Fassbender hops around a beach screeching and scratching like a monkey. As painful as these scenes are to watch, I can only feel sorry for the actors that had to perform them.

There is also a worrying trend regarding the treatment of women. Malick has been known for infantilizing his female characters. They are often young, innocent girls or adult women who display a pure naivete, but this previously appeared to come from a good place. It seemed like a celebration of innocence rather than a restriction on what women could do, but his new films have revealed some disturbing ideas. As in his last film, the women here are treated as sexual objects to be used, cast off, then reused when needed. They may have their own motivations but Malick’s portrayal shows them as little more than ways for his hedonistic male characters to satisfy their own desires.

The upscale parties and general opulence offer little reason to feel for the characters.

Visuals have always been Malick’s strong suit, but even that seems to be deteriorating. Using his regular cinematographer, the incredibly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), he is again able to create some stunning natural-light footage. Yet, there are a few confusing choices that mar his normally perfect images. Several scenes were shot on location at the music festival Austin City Limits and some use GoPro-like cameras. This was likely done to get closer to the action of the mosh pits, but the lower-resolution fish-eye shots do not mesh with the rest of the film. Their low-quality is a glaring fault. There is also a strange overuse of oblique angles. Many scenes are off-kilter close-ups of an actor’s face. Perhaps this was done to convey the subjectivity of the character’s thoughts, but instead it is only distracting. These unfortunate choices detract what would otherwise be the film’s greatest strength.

One of the few changes to Malick’s style is his use of music. His usual ethereal, orchestral score is still present, but, due to the setting, more modern music is also included. These songs offer some desperately needed energy to the film. Their use helps add variety to the soundtrack and breaks up the overused strings. It was perhaps the only modernizing of Malick’s approach throughout the film.

Song to Song is almost a repeat of Knight of Cups but set in the music world instead of the film industry. Like that movie, there are people living in exorbitant wealth while pursuing their dreams that are inexplicably mopey. Characters go after their desires in selfish ways and, when the obvious consequences occur, Malick expects the audience to sympathize with them. But, why would we? He, like his characters, appears to be living in a bubble. There are no sympathetic or relatable characters here, only sketches of vague emotions. The frequent voiceovers are filled with pretentious, pseudo-philosophical thoughts that are often unrelated to anything onscreen and read like midnight scrawlings from the director’s bedside notebook. His narrative films after the flawed, but magnificent The Tree of Life, if you can call them narrative films, have been a continual letdown. Malick’s work has sunk further into incessant navel-gazing and his visual style is no longer enough to make up for it. Song to Song is another exercise in Malick’s recent string of insufferable self-indulgence.

1/5 stars.

The Salesman (2017)

Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) was absent from this year’s Oscars due his protest of the recent immigration ban, but his latest release was very much in the room. He won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the second time with The Salesman. The film stars many of his regular collaborators with Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) as Emad and Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) as Rana, a married couple who are actors currently costarring in a production of Death of a Salesman. After their apartment building is damaged in a construction accident, they move to a recently vacated apartment recommended by another actor. Shortly after moving in, when Emad is out, Rana is assaulted by an intruder while taking a shower. The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of this attack as the couple decides what to do next.

The Salesman brings Farhadi into noticeably darker material. While his films are well known for being morally complicated, his previous works did not feature this kind of deliberate criminality. In addition to a series of well-intentioned but disastrous errors, this movie focuses on crime, punishment, and society. Instead of immediately calling the police, they take Rana to the hospital. The question then becomes: is it worth it to go to the police? Rana would have to relive the trauma she faced and potentially suffer public embarrassment. The desire to reduce the pain she has to go through directly conflicts with what is best for catching the criminal.

Rana’s emotional well-being becomes a focal point of the film.

The issue of justice is even more murky. Emad, using personal items left by the attacker, decides he will find him on his own. But to what end? How will he know who actually committed the crime and even if he is able to find the culprit, what will he do? Take him to the authorities or handle the situation on his own? What punishment will fit the crime and would any punishment actually help Rana? The movie confronts these issues as we see the couple’s opposing ideas. Emad wants retribution for Rana but Rana wants to move on and put this behind her more than anything else. As with all Farhadi films, neither character is favored and each position is shown to be flawed. There are no simple choices here, only alternative trade-offs.

Farhadi’s choice to build his film around the famous play has mixed results. Death of a Salesman is a clear classic, but the parallels the director tries to draw between Emad and Rana and Willy and Linda are too forced and too weak to justify the play’s emphasis. Willy’s self-destruction in the pursuit of money isn’t similar enough to Emad’s need for justice, nor is it different enough to create an insightful comparison. The play itself is also shown far more than it needed to be. Perhaps this was done to introduce some variety into the film’s settings. The stage is well shot and expertly lit, but the additional location doesn’t provide much value. Most of Farhadi’s films take place in one or two middle class apartments and it has never been an issue in the past. His morally ambiguous plotting remains enticing, but Farhadi’s decision to rope in an unnecessary element and give it a substantial amount of screen time causes his latest feature to fall short of its otherwise high potential.

4/5 stars.

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.