Skip to content

Recent Movies: A Quiet Passion; The Wedding Plan; Bon Cop, Bad Cop 2; Old Movies: Diabolique

Recent Movies

A Quiet Passion

The life and poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) is the subject of this biopic, portraying an early feminist who lived life on her own terms within limited situations while facing sadness and despair in her later years. Dickinson was from a prominent family (her father was a lawyer) and lived in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Writer/director Terence Davies deserves so much credit for this fine film. The first half is blessed with sharp and witty dialogue using language and repartee in a style that is rarely used in today’s America. Similarly, Davies’ directing style is as poetic as Dickinson’s writings which are frequently recited in the background. Even when poetry is not recited, there is a poetic mood that stays throughout the film especially in the second half when the lightness of the early years have passed.

For the most part, the acting is good especially Cynthia Nixon as the adult version of Dickinson. Nixon is especially strong in the later years of despair and illness. But there are moments the actors seem ill at ease with a language that no longer exists in contemporary America. Catherine Bailey portrays a very sharp-witted, independent-minded friend of Emily and her sister. While Bailey is good in the role, some extra pizzazz could have made her a scene-stealer.

The second half is quite serious at it deals with illness, dying, and the despair of living a life that is perceived as only partly lived. One particularly moving scene involved Emily brushing off the kind attention of a sincere, handsome suitor. By the end of this scene, it was easy to feel empathy and sadness for everyone involved.

“A Quiet Passion” was like the experience of visiting a historical home that is open to the public where ropes separate visitors from the rooms. But in this case, the ropes are temporarily removed and we are allowed in as long as we keep a respectful distance. With a fine cast as well as superb lighting, costumes, and set designs, Davies does a great job in recreating a time and place long gone. Viewing this film is a very soulful experience.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


The Wedding Plan

Michal (Noa Koler) is single, Orthodox Jewish woman in her thirties and living in Jerusalem. Desperate in her desire to be married, she arranges a wedding with the intent that God will help her find a groom in time for the ceremony.

Indeed, the premise is odd but it might have worked if director/writer Rama Burshtein had taken the approach of a comical farce. As the comical moments are too few and a more serious approach is used, the film falls flat by the second half even though it’s fairly enjoyable in the earlier segments.

Koler is certainly likeable in the role but her character is repeatedly and annoyingly self-defeating. After a while, I had a “Cher/Moonstruck” fantasy where I wanted to bring Cher’s character into this movie and slap Michal hard in the face twice and shout “Snap out of it” and then disappear and go back to “Moonstruck”. (I also had this fantasy while watching the excruciatingly long “Zodiac”. In that scenario, Cher’s slap victim would have been the Jake Gyllenhaal character.)

By the time the conclusion rolls around, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not it is plausible. The rest of the movie before it had already lost momentum.

RATING:   * *


Bon Cop, Bad Cop 2

The two cops from the prequel, “Bon Cop, Bad Cop” (2006) are reunited in Montreal to solve a car theft operation that is linked to a terrorist plot: Martin Ward (Colm Feore), a Toronto anglophone who is now in the RCMP; and David Bouchard (Patrick Huard), a Montreal francophone who is working undercover within the car theft operation.

This film is a good-humoured cop caper with fine acting but the premise is far-fetched with a subplot that is resolved too quickly by the film’s end. There are many good laughs in the film but it sometimes goes too far with scenes of violent torture being portrayed as “funny”.

But praise must go to the two lead actors for their individual performances as well as their solid chemistry.  Huard is hilarious as a character who is animalistic in his ways of working, living, and being. His soft side is also genuine in scenes involving his family. He also has a hilarious line directed at the U.S. President. Feore is superb in scenes of emotion involving his character’s estranged son as well as his own health difficulties. Another acting bonus comes from Mariana Mazza who is hilarious as a hyper, foul-mouthed computer hack.

RATING:   * * 1/2


Great Old Movies Seen Again

Diabolique   (1955 – France)

Christina (Véra Clouzot) is the owner of a private boys boarding school and is one its teachers. Despite her ownership of the school, her abusive husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster. He is also abusive to the boys and the staff including his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher. Christina and Nicole devise a plot to kill Michel. From then on, everything goes awry.

I believe that every film buff remembers how they felt during the last fifteen minutes of this brilliant thriller during the first viewing. This segment has to be one of the most frightening, nail-biting sequence in film history. As if this wasn’t enough, it is followed by a shocking plot twist.

The thrill of seeing this film the first time cannot be matched. But even knowing its conclusion, there is still much tension and suspense seeing it again. (This was my third viewing.) Director Henri-Georges Clouzot pays perfect attention to detail and from one second to the next, each moment seems to have the potential to veer into chaos. Whether it does so or not is the mystery.

And of course, H-G Clouzot brings out the best in his cast. Signoret is at her signature best but it is Véra Clouzot who stands out especially in the climactic scene.

“Diabolique” (aka “Les Diaboliques”) was written by director Clouzot and Jérôme Géronomi and based on the novel “Celle qui n’était plus” by Boileau-Narcejac.

Unforgettable.

RATING:   * * * *

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Directing by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Recent Movies: Certain Women; Graduation; The Zookeeper’s Wife

Recent Movies

Certain Women

In rural / small-town Montana, three stories interact: a lawyer (Laura Dern) seems unable to set boundaries with an ex-client (Jared Harris) who is unhinged and deranged; a rather uptight woman (Michelle Williams) tries to find motivation in building a new home even though her husband and teenage daughter are growing more and more distant from her; a young rancher (Lily Gladstone) is infatuated with a recent law graduate (Kristen Stewart) who arrives in her town twice a week to teach an educational law night class.

“Certain Women” is written and directed by Kelly Reichardt and based on short stories by Maile Meloy. Like other Reichardt films (her best is “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)), this one tells so much in the unspoken word – where a silent reply says so much more than a bluntly worded statement. She is blessed with a superb cast who can make the viewer feel so much with a camera lingering on their faces.

It’s tempting to think “nothing is happening” at the beginning of each segment. But once viewers catch on to Reinhardt’s unique style, they can see that a lot is actually happening. The Gladstone/Stewart story stands out for various reasons and not just the great acting (Gladstone rightly won many awards for her performance). It provides a great re-telling of the tragic story of someone having a crush on another who aspires to be (or already is) in a higher class in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Their story, like the others, have a theme of loneliness and isolation even for those who are surrounded by people. This film has a special and unique charm that is quite rewarding.

RATING:   * * *


Graduation

In a small Romanian town, Romeo (Adrien Titeini) is a local doctor who is hell-bent on ensuring his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) excels in her final high-school exams in order to be accepted at a university in the U.K. He is even willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries to make this happen after Eliza faces a crisis shortly before her exams.

Director/writer Christian Mungiu seems to have a knack for courageously exposing his home country’s culture of corruption and the moral dilemmas this causes for average citizens – especially when these folks are in a quandary and “taking the high road” would not likely get them what they want and need. In “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, the story revolved around arranging an illegal abortion during the Communist era; in “Graduation” (which takes place in the current time), it involves Romeo’s insistence that his only child must leave corrupt Romania in order to have a decent life and future.

“Graduation” begins quite well in introducing the audience to interesting characters and how they respond to the corruption in their midst. The middle part is even more intriguing as Romeo’s moral compass goes so downhill that he is becoming what he once condemned. It is evident he’s acted this way before but not at this level.

There are two key scenes in this section in which Romeo defends his actions. One involves an argument with his wife; the other with Eliza. During the dispute with his wife (played by Lia Bugnar), he argues how much she benefited from his smaller moral slips in the past even if she wouldn’t have acted the same way herself. His argument is so convincing that even the viewer could agree with him in a very uncomfortable way.

The final segment does injustice to the beginning and the middle. It seems to go in various unnecessary directions and fails to continue the momentum built earlier. But “Graduation” is still a film worth seeing. It includes universal themes such as well-meaning parents over-planning their children’s future plus a challenge to the belief that “the grass is always greener” somewhere else. And of course, the saying “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” is well played out in the narrative.

RATING: * * *


The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on a true story: the title character, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) assists her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) in caring for the Warsaw Zoo, showing great affection and connection with the animals. After Germany invades Poland in 1939, the couple work together to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to live in hidden spaces of the zoo and their home.

This particular Holocaust story is certainly worthy of being told. It is in the same vein as “Schindler’s List” in which citizens risk their own safety and lives to help others in great need.

The trouble for “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is perhaps in its timing. The best films in the Holocaust genre (including “Schindler’s List”) have raised the bar so high that it becomes more and more difficult to meet, let alone surpass, existing levels of greatness. The most recent great examples include “Phoenix” and “Son of Saul”- each released within the last three years.

The English language is used in the film and spoken with Polish accents. While this helps to add authenticity, it is sometimes difficult to understand when the actors are speaking softly.

The directing style in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (by Niki Caro who did a great job with “Whale Rider”) is perhaps too standard though the same could be said of the screenplay by Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman. The early scenes of the invasion and the ghetto are powerful. And who couldn’t envy Chastain as she provides affection for a couple of adorable lion cubs. While we can feel tension in the movie’s second half, the overall effect just doesn’t match those of other films on this subject. There seems to be an emotional distance between the characters and the audience.

Had this film been released over a decade ago, it might have fared better. But compared to similar films of this era and earlier, it comes up wanting.

RATING: * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Your Name; The Lost City of Z; Maudie; Books: The Girl on the Train

Recent Movies

Your Name

In this animated film, Mitsuha is a teenage girl living in a rural mountainous area of Japan. Taki is a teenage boy living in Tokyo. At various times, the two switch bodies.

The animation in this film is beautiful and there are clever moments in the film as well. When the story is comprehensible, it can be engaging. The trouble, as just implied, is that it is often difficult to understand. It’s not always easy to know when each character is their real self or whether they are possessed by the other. To make matters even more difficult, the exchange is happening in different time lines three years apart.

I might have used the excuse that I’m not that familiar with Japanese Anime films but that won’t work as I’ve probably seen at least a half-dozen of them. My favourite is “Only Yesterday” (1991) which happened to have no supernatural elements. Among those with magical content, I have great admiration for “Spirited Away” (2001) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988).

The two latter films had special universes that were bizarre but fascinating. Most importantly, they were always understandable and consistent – characteristics that are missing in “Your Name”.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


The Girl on the Train

Rachel Watson is a divorced, unemployed alcoholic living in a London suburb with a flat-mate. During her daily trips to London and back, she observes what she believes to be an ideal couple (Scott and Megan Hipwell) living a few doors from her former home – a home that is still occupied by her ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna. After someone in the neighbourhood goes missing, Rachel believes she has clues that might solve the mystery.

The story is told by three narrators: Rachel (the main narrator) and Anna narrate in current time while the beginning of Megan’s story is narrated about ten months earlier. All three narrators (and most of the other characters) are the kind of people we would rather avoid in life. Rachel is an active alcoholic and a compulsive liar who has frequent blackouts and many resolutions to stop drinking – resolutions that fail as often as they are made. Megan is an insecure serial adulteress. Anna is vain about her beauty, marital status, and motherhood; she also relishes the fact that she stole Rachel’s husband from her. In summary, Anna is a bitch.

It is, indeed, a drawback to have so many unlikeable characters especially when they include the main one. But “The Girl on the Train” makes the reader as compulsive for reading as Rachel is for drinking. The use of differing timelines is also intriguing especially when the Megan story repeats what was told in the Rachel story but with a different perspective. By the end, some of Rachel’s perceived flaws may not be as solid as others had thought.

The climactic scene is heart-pounding but not totally free of criticism. It begins due to a stupid and unnecessary action of one character and ends with a somewhat unbelievable action by another one. (This is code talk to those who have read the book while avoiding spoilers to those who have not.) But it’s still a fine ending to a great mystery and all of the clues and red herrings that brought us there. And even if the characters are repugnant, Hawkins is accurate in describing people who resemble the many lost souls in our world.

The last book I read so quickly was “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown. Like that book, “The Girl on the Train” was very intriguing as well as entertaining.

RATING: * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Beauty and the Beast; Citizen Jane; I, Daniel Blake; Opera: Medea

Recent Movies

Beauty and the Beast

A live-action/CGI remake of the 1991 animated musical: Belle (Emma Watson) is an intelligent outcast in her provincial town, pursued by the egomaniacal Gaston (Luke Evans). Across the dangerous woods is a beast (Dan Stevens) who lives in a castle in which he used to be a prince.

Speaking of outcasts, I feel like one myself in my assessments of this modern film and its predecessor. I believe the current film is superior to the earlier one. I found the animated version admirable but over-rated. This goes against the consensus on two counts.

One of the improvements in the current version is in the characterization of LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s sidekick. Much is made of the fact that the modern LeFou is gay and infatuated with Gaston. While this bold move is admirable enough, the better move is erasing the plight of the older version of LeFou who was sadistically used as a punching bag for the bullying (and much bigger) Gaston. The previous use of schadenfreude doesn’t quite appeal to an audience’s better instincts.

Director Bill Condon clearly knows how to make musicals great. (The superb “Dreamgirls” (2006) is evidence of this.) Even while being fully aware of the storyline, there is still an excitement and energy for the viewer in this film. Condon has been blessed with a great team particularly those involved with the set design, make-up, visual effects, cinematography, and costumes. In addition, a few new songs have been added to the great ones of the original.

Condon is also blessed with a great cast. Stevens does a fine job conveying the beast’s rage as well as the inner-torment hiding behind it. Watson is good too though she could have shown more expression during the film’s climax. Even in a small role, Emma Thompson still manages to raise the bar – this time as a talking teapot.

The exciting finale is so joyous, it can lift anyone to the clouds. No wonder this movie is such a box-office blockbuster.

RATING (out of four stars): * * * 1/2


Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Writer/Journalist/Urban Activist: Jane Jacobs is the main subject of this documentary as it focuses on her battles against rapid redevelopment headed by urban planner Robert Moses in her home city of New York during the 1950s and 1960s.

This film ably conveys Jacobs’ intelligence in various ways: her unusual yet fascinating observations on how cities truly work (there is order within the ‘chaos’); and her abilities to organize activist responses to proposals that negate city living. Her views and philosophies are expressed in various ways. They include audio and televised footage as well as the narration (by Marisa Tomei) from Jacobs’ book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961).

The viewer could end up feeling a mixture of optimism as well as pessimism from the history exposed in this film. On the one hand, Jacobs’ victories (with much help) give hope. But there is despair after viewing the chronicling of “slum” neighbourhoods with vibrant communities being destroyed and replaced with housing projects that caused more problems than they solved. One feels grief not only for the loss of vibrant communities but also for the historical buildings that were destroyed – and replaced with bland ones.

Jacobs moved to Toronto (where I’ve lived for over twenty years) in 1968 and was involved in a successful campaign to stop an expressway being built in the downtown area in the early 1970s. One can only wonder (and shudder) what she would think of the current state of this city since her passing in 2006 at the age of eighty-nine.

She believed in progress as long as it mixed the old with the new and kept street life active. Downtown Toronto is losing many small shops, restaurants, and bars as they are being torn down for more and more massive glass condos. (It’s strange to think that such blandness will be considered ‘historical architecture’ in the future.) During this process, sidewalks adjacent to the future condo sites have been reduced. So much for encouraging the street life so well lauded in this documentary. Also, in regard to condo buildings that have shops at ground level, they seem to have very little activity within them. (A similar point is made in “Citizen Jane” about parks near housing projects that were frequently empty.)

Director Matt Tyrnauer has used the right mix of interviews, old footage, and music to make a fine film even for those of us who have minimal knowledge of urban issues. The footage of street life goes back to earlier decades – even as far back as the 1930s. The music by Jane Antonia Cornish has an edge that is usually used in thrillers. Perhaps, this is to imply that the monstrous mindset of the 50s and 60s has an equally evil grandchild (condo-ization aka vulgarization) in our current times that is taking over our lives today…..and we’re all in that scary movie!

In any case, this movie is encouraging me to read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. From the quotes in this movie, the book still sounds relevant today – more than half a century since it was published.

RATING: * * *


I, Daniel Blake

In Newcastle, England, the title character (played by Dave Johns) is a widowed carpenter in his late fifties who is on the mend from a heart attack. In trying to get benefits for time off work (as recommended by his doctor), he gets stuck in a quagmire of bureaucracy. During one bad visit at a government office, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), an unemployed, single mother of two young children who has also been mistreated by government workers.

“I, Daniel Blake” is another courageous film by the team of director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty that focuses, in a realistic way, on the downtrodden who are too often ignored. While this is praiseworthy, the downturn is that the overall effect can be depressing and frustrating. While the last half hour was moving in a different direction, a final plot twist thwarted this – therefore preventing the story from adding more richness to its depth.

Johns and Squires are terrific in their performances as two society-rejects trying to get by and helping each other out when they can. Despite their hardships, they continue to maintain as much of their humanity as they can. Johns’ appeal goes further in scenes when Daniel pokes fun at humourless nincompoops on power trips.

The film has some telling (and harsh) statements of modern society and bureaucracy. There is a very noticeable contrast in how kindly the poor are treated at a food bank (run by volunteers) vs. the despicable way they are treated by government departments (run by taxpayer-funded employees). The movie has been criticized for its depiction of government employees. Among this group, there is one such character who seems to stand out as she has more soul and humanity than her peers. The film might have achieved greater depth if it had delved more into her personal story.

In any case, this movie is likely to be understood by anyone has ever experienced hard times; anyone who has ever felt empathy for anyone who has experienced hard times; or anyone has ever experienced an overwhelming desire to throttle someone who is an insensitive, incompetent, arrogant, ignorant, overpaid, bureaucratic miscreant.

RATING: * * *


Opera

“Medea” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier at the Opera Atelier, Toronto

The title character (played by Peggy Kriha Dye) is in danger of losing her lover Jason (Colin Ainsworth) in a marriage of convenience to Princess Créuse (Mireille Asselin). Unlike most spurned lovers, Medea has supernatural powers to match her desire for revenge.

For many opera productions, the stories can be minimal while the main draws are the music and the singing. “Medea”s story is actually above par (hell hath no fury like a sorceress scorned) while the music and the singing are well above par. All performers are great but Dye stands out ably expressing the rage and fury of someone with dangerous powers. The final scene between Ainsworth and Asselin is also deeply moving.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has collaborated with many great artists to create a superb production with a feast for all senses. One of the unique assets of Opera Atelier productions is their choice of producing older operas which give the audience not only beautiful singing and orchestrations but also ballet sequences that are part of the story as well. The dance sequences in “Medea”, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, are superb.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sets, costumes and lighting take this grand production even further especially during the scenes that take place in Hell.

If only one word could summarize this production, it would be one that was likely used more often during the time of this opera’s creation than today: splendid.

RATING: * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Kedi; Personal Shopper; I Called Him Morgan

Recent Movies

Kedi

This documentary pays tribute to the many stray cats of Istanbul as well as the humans who love them, take care of them, and are inspired by them.

There is superb camera work that follows the felines in their daily adventures in the city. The cameras are always low and the camera people use clever devices that can keep up with the cats thus allowing the viewer to better see their activities some of which are fascinating.

Even more inspiring are the interviews with the people who voluntarily help and observe the cats. Some find it therapeutic. Some are even spiritually inspired. One woman compares them to aliens from another planet with a different kind of intelligence. The interviewees, like the cats, come off as very likeable.

There are about seven cats who each have a special segment in “Kedi”. This is like the musical “Cats” in which each musical number told the story of one of its cat characters before moving on to the next one. While all creatures in this film (biped as well as quadriped) exude charm and warmth, interest wanes a little by the end. But it’s still fun to watch the cats and humans connect so nicely. It helps one recall one’s own favourite feline memories.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


 Personal Shopper

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris whose job is to buy clothes for a wealthy supermodel. Maureen’s twin brother has recently died and she attempts to connect with his spirit in the large house on the outskirts of Paris where he lived before his death.

Stewart’s natural talent and presence are a great aid to this film. She’s at her best during a scene involving a police interrogation. But too much of the film focuses only on Maureen when she is alone. This includes an unbearably long sequence that involved her exchanging text messages with a mysterious stranger. Stewart’s talents can alleviate this movie’s flaws but only up to a point.

The movie also suffers from having too many sub-stories none of which seem to meet their potential. The “ghost story” has some mysterious moments but ends with too much unresolved mystery. The narrative involving Maureen’s relationship with her mostly absent boss (Nora von Waldstatten) could have benefited the movie overall with more time and exploration. The boss shows up in one scene which is almost comical. She is an obsessive egomaniac who multi-tasks while bullying someone on a conference call as she is trying to save gorillas. The final narrative involves a murder mystery whose impact seems to disappear once the mystery is solved.

Considering the film’s unearned acclaim – plus the fact that it was made by the talented creator (Olivier Assayas) of such great films as “Irma Vep”, “Summer Hours” and “Carlos”, this movie is sadly disappointing.

RATING:   * *


 I Called Him Morgan

The focus of this documentary is renowned American jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan (1938 – 1972) as well as his common-law wife Helen More who restored and saved Lee’s life during a time of serious drug addiction only to end it later on.

The movie’s directing style, by Kasper Collin, reflects the beauty and mood of the jazz music it portrays. A very clever bonus is the use of coloured footage of people walking about the streets of New York in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. This helps greatly in recalling moods and styles of eras that are long gone.

The main narration of this film is an audio recording of More in 1996. While it is mostly insightful, it is occasionally difficult to understand as More had an unusual accent that is not always easy to comprehend. Collin ought to have used subtitles during these segments.

With many magnificent still photos, TV footage, and interviews with Morgan’s past bend members, it was unfortunate that only a brief audio recording of Morgan could be found as evidence of the man himself offstage. But the music – highlighted by Morgan’s brilliant artistry as a trumpet player – more than makes up for this gap.

RATING: * * *

Recent Movies: I Am Not Your Negro; Hidden Figures; A Man Called Ove

Recent Movies

I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin and his views of racism in the U.S. are the main focus of this documentary with special attention on the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. The film includes live footage of Baldwin in the 1960s (on the Dick Cavett Show and at a lecture at Cambridge University) and readings (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) from his unfinished manuscript “Remember this House”.

From the start, it is clear that Baldwin had an intellect and outlook that were far superior to the average person – not just during his life (he died in 1987) but even more so today. He is very eloquent in expressing the repugnance of an evil whose effects continue to resonate today. He is even more so when he describes theories that racism is a result of a deeper problem in the soul and collective mindset of the U.S. One such malaise is the quest for an unattainable ideal of “purity” and the inevitable self-loathing that follows this self-delusional pursuit. Other such problems include materialism.

Baldwin’s mind is so much above that of the average viewer that there is a slightly mixed result. At times, one feels distant – and possibly inferior – to the mindset being expressed but overall, the viewer is rewarded with insight that is rare in other sources.

Considering the rich history of this film, it is disappointing that some information was excluded. Baldwin had two prejudices against him. In addition to being black, he was also gay. This fact is alluded to only briefly during the film. There are also surprising negative comments he made against Bobby Kennedy. Research after the film revealed that Baldwin and Kennedy did not get along despite supporting a similar cause. The film might have been more rewarding had it explored more on both of these topics.

The footage is brilliant and shocking at the same time. After this movie, one is left with many uncomfortable feelings that lead to a lot of thinking – a sign it has fulfilled its purpose.

RATING:   * * *


 Hidden Figures

 Based on a true story: In 1961, three black women are friends who work at a research center for NASA in the state of Virginia. All are brilliant mathematicians and  have greater qualifications that would exceed those of their current jobs. They include Katherine (Goble) Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), a genius mathematician, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a computer expert and aspiring supervisor. “Hidden Figures” is based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterley.

This movie is an entertaining piece of NASA history (including John Glenn’s first launch into space) with a special focus. It is occasionally jingoistic (‘we gotta beat those Russians in the space race’) and with occasional cheesy music to underline a budding romance which is easily foreseen. But it is ultimately a fine story that very ably highlights the stresses and frustrations of regular working life with the added humiliation of segregation in the workplace.

Indeed, some of the people in the film were composite characters from the book and there were some incidents in the film that didn’t actually happen. One of the most over-the-top “Hollywood” scenes is one where Kevin Costner (as Katherine’s boss) is wielding a pick axe (those who’ve seen the movie will know what I mean). Despite these liberties with the truth, the scenes of segregation still had the right effect of outraging the viewer. The highlight is a scene in which Katherine, who had been timid up to a point, has a perfect meltdown scene (Hanson’s best moment in a fine performance). Part of this build-up included the stress of having a very annoying senior peer (played by Jim Parsons) who knows he is less smart than she is and tries to dominate her as much as he can. (Incidentally, “Loving”, another movie released in late 2016 also highlighted racist laws in Virginia during the same time period.)

The directing by Theodore Melfi is rather conventional in a Hollywood way yet the effect worked by the end as I wanted to stand up and cheer during the closing credits. After the film, I pondered the question: how many other hidden histories are waiting to be told?

RATING:   * * *


 A Man Called Ove

In a Swedish townhouse community, Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a long-time resident who is recently widowed. His grief only adds to his grouchy attitudes toward people who don’t follow his standards of community living. His new neighbours are a young mixed-race family co-lead by Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a very pregnant immigrant from Iran.

Some of the best scenes in the film are those told in flashback as they explain how Ove developed such a negative attitude. The story (screenplay by Hannes Holm based on the book by Fredrik Backman) has a clever way of making us curious about finding the pieces of the past with various hints in the current story; and then satisfying our curiosity once such events are revealed in the parallel flashback story.

Parvaneh’s character is a bit of an anomaly. She can sometimes be annoying and take Ove for granted. Yet, the story seems to imply that she is there to “humanize” him. This might have worked better if her character had been more developed. Instead, too much time is spent on other subplots, sideshows and other characters that end up overcrowding the narrative. Some of the subplots also seem to be resolved unusually quickly.

There seem to be messages like “you can’t go through life alone” and themes of ‘community values’ which may be noble but their repetitions become didactic and annoyingly obvious and sentimental. Other themes work better such as the recurrence of administrators-from-hell (“whiteshirts” as Ove calls them), the insensitive bureaucrats that we can all recognize: Satan in multiple human forms.

The conclusion is touching as it makes us have a better understanding about people who appear grouchy. Also, Lassgard gives a fine performance. But overall, the movie was rather mixed. The dramatic scenes are much better than the comedy scenes. Call me old-fashioned but I just don’t find humour in repeatedly thwarted suicide attempts.

RATING:   * * 1/2

Best Movies of 2016

Here is my rather belated list as it took so long to see all the movies released at the end of 2016. As always, this is the time when the awards-worthy films are all bunched together.

My merit system is different. Instead of guaranteeing a winner in each category, I only give praise to those who truly deserve it. Some categories have ties.

As opposed to a limited list (like five or ten), the best films of 2016 are rated using the Olympic medal systems, depending on how much I liked them.

For the list below, the movies in each category are listed in the chronological order in which I saw them:

 

Best Movies

 

Gold Medals:  none

Silver Medals:

  1. Eye in the Sky  (U.K.)
  2. The Red Turtle  (Japan/France/Belgium – animated)
  3. La La Land  (U.S.A. – Hollywood)
  4. The Salesman  (Iran)

 

Bronze Medals:

  1. Where to Invade Next  (U.S.A. – Documentary)
  2. The Innocents  (Poland/France/Belgium)
  3. Tower  (U.S.A. – Documentary)
  4. Lion  (Australia/India)

 

Best Directing:  Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Best Screenplay:

  1. Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky)
  2. Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman)

 

Best Acting:  Emma Stone (La La Land)

Best Film Music:

  1. Laurent Perez del Mar (The Red Turtle)
  2. Justin Hurwitz (La La Land)

 

Best Animation:  the team behind “The Red Turtle”

 

Best Old Movies Seen for the First Time in 2016:

  1. The Last Detail (1973 – U.S.A.)
  2. Only Yesterday (1991 – Japan – animated)
  3. Panique (1947 – France)
  4. Jeanne Dielman, 23 rue du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975 – Belgium)
  5. Le Beau Mariage (1982 – France)
  6. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980 – West Germany – mini-series)
  7. Veronika Voss (1981 – West Germany)

 

Best Old Movies Seen Again in 2016:

  1. Stagecoach (1939 – U.S.A.)
  2. Chinatown (1974 – U.S.A.)
  3. The Manchurian Candidate (1962 – U.S.A.)
  4. Romeo and Juliet (1968 – U.K.)
  5. Ran (1985- Japan)
  6. North by Northwest (1959 – U.S.A.)
  7. The Piano (1993 – New Zealand)
  8. A Woman Under the Influence (1974 – U.S.A)
  9. Taxi Driver (1976 – U.S.A.)
  10. The Blue Angel (1930 – Germany)

 

Thanks for checking in and I hope you continue enjoy the movies in 2017.

Dennis Bowman