Hidden Figures-2016

Hidden Figures-2016

Director-Theodore Melfi

Starring-Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer

Scott’s Review #619

Reviewed February 26, 2017

Grade: A-

Hidden Figures is a mainstream, “Hollywood” style film that is produced, written, and acted very well. It is a film that tells of three female African American mathematicians who faced many struggles and were rather overlooked at the time, the early 1960’s. The women achieved historical success and were instrumental in allowing John Glenn to orbit planet Earth. From a film perspective, the story is feel-good, but does not feel contrived- in fact it feels quite fresh, and features a wonderful ensemble cast with nice chemistry. I enjoyed this film immensely.

Blessed with good smarts, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Henson), are fortunate enough to work for the Langley Research Center – the time is 1961. In those days, segregation still existed and the women worked as temporary workers and used separate “colored” bathrooms and were largely excluded from the white workers. The three women are best friends and drive to work together- each of them has an individual specialty and the film focuses on each woman’s story.

The larger role and main story is about Katherine. Since the Russians had achieved success in outer space already, the race was on for the United States to follow suit. Katherine is assigned as a “computer” in the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Initially, Katherine is dismissed by her colleagues, but eventually is accepted due to her smarts. In sub-plots, Dorothy struggles to be given a Supervisor position, and Mary aspires to be the first female engineer, despite needing entry into an all-white school to take necessary classes.

My favorite of the three performances is of Taraji P. Henson. The actress impresses with her spunky, well-mannered, portrayal, and specifically her fantastic scene when she has simply had enough of the segregation and the difficulty in performing her job. She loses it in front of the entire team and rails against them- expecting to lose her job, instead her boss Al, (a fantastic nice-guy role for Costner), sees her point and declares NASA will see no distinction of color. Henson is the lead actress in the film and carries it well.

The chemistry between the three actresses is what allows Hidden Figures to work so well and come off as believable. The women always have each others backs and are friends outside of work- attending church and picnics together. In fact, the film is smart to feature the women’s lives outside of their professions. A nice side story of single mother Katherine (her husband having died) meeting and being courted in lovely fashion by handsome National Guard Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) is a sweet story, genuinely told. The two also have nice chemistry together.

The films finale as the attempted launch of John Glenn is met with problems, is compelling. Due to the genius of Katherine, she must save the day as Glenn trusts only her judgment and calculations of the ever so important numbers. The scene is a “just desserts” moment for Katherine as the country rallies behind the events in patriotic fashion.

Hidden Figures plays it safe and the true struggles of the real women undoubtedly had darker and meaner situations as the discrimination they faced had to have been more intense, but the film strives to downplay some of the grit in favor of light hearted, crowd-pleasing fare, but I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and enjoyed the film ride that I was given.

The Stoning of Soraya M.-2008

The Stoning of Soraya M.-2008

Director-Cyrus Nowrasteh

Starring-Shohreh Aghdashloo

Top 10 Disturbing Films-#2

Scott’s Review #618

Reviewed February 18, 2017

Grade: A

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a brutal film, and one of the most disturbing films that I have ever seen. I have viewed the film a total of two times and that is enough for me. The terrifying aspect of the film is that the story is true and the events depicted not only have happened to the woman featured, but happen to women day in and day out in certain cultures. The film is a frightening reminder of the atrocities of human suffering.

The film is an American Persian language film made in 2008. Academy Award nominee, Shohreh Aghdashloo, stars as a woman living in a remote village in Iran- the time period is 1986. Interestingly, the film begins following the events that conclude the story and works in reverse. A reporter who has car trouble and is lost in the village is taken by the aunt of Soraya (Aghdashloo) who must tell the journalist the painful story of a tragedy that befell poor Soraya the day before. Soraya was brutally stoned to death, wrongfully accused of adultery, and the journalist wisely records the aunt’s tale with his tape recorder. The journalist must then escape the village alive in order for Soraya’s story to be told to the masses.

From this point the film transfers to several days earlier. Soraya’s abusive husband, Ali, wishes to divorce Soraya so that he can marry a fourteen year old girl from the village. When she refuses, Ali uses manipulation and blackmail to turn many in the village against Soraya, including her two teenage sons. Ali convinces everyone that Soraya has been unfaithful to him with a widower who Soraya innocently works for. Ali is then granted his divorce and Soraya is sentenced to be stoned, as an example, in front of the entire village. The message is clear- women are not equal to men and are not permitted to do the things that men can.

Throughout the film we get to know Soraya and she does have her loyal female friends and supporters. Aghdashloo portrays Soraya with gusto and bravery and the fact that we care for the character so much makes the inevitable stoning sequence heartbreaking and painful to watch.

When Soraya is chained to a short pole and buried up to her neck so that she cannot move, the scene of her victimization is almost unbearable to watch. Ali and her sons are the first to cast the stones that strike her square in the head. Director, Nowrasteh provides the stoning sequence with a dull, muted sound so that we almost experience the thuds of the rocks from Soraya’s perspective, making the scene all the more chilling. The scene also goes on for seemingly an eternity as it takes a long time for Soraya to succumb to her many wounds. Needless to say, she is a bloody mess and unrecognizable. This scene is not for the squeamish.

How disheartening to know that experiences like Soraya’s still occur to this day in Iran and many other countries and there is not much that is done to help. The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on a 1990 book, Le Femme Lapidee, written by Freidoune Sahebjam, who appears in the film as the journalist. The book has been banned in Iran.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is one of the most disturbing films that I have ever seen and as much as the message is tragic and painful, I never want to see this film again. The pain rings too real and the thought fills me with sadness.

Tommy-1975

Tommy-1975

Director-Ken Russell

Starring-Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret

Scott’s Review #617

Reviewed February 15, 2017

Grade: B+

The film version of Tommy (1975) is a musical fantasy, rock opera based on the famous album recording by The Who in 1969. Composed and adapted by The Who member Pete Townsend, the film tells the story of a deaf, dumb, blonde kid named Tommy. Featuring a star studded cast of actors and singers performing musical numbers, the film is an over the top treat and quite campy- certainly late night fare. The stage version is usually a bit more serious and sedate than the film.  I enjoy the film but it pales in comparison to the stage versions- in which I was fortunate enough to see at my local community theater recently. The film is directed by Ken Russell.

Set during the 1940’s and told mainly through song, we see a montage of Captain Walker (Robert Powell) and his wife Nora (Ann-Margret) on their honeymoon and Walker subsequently being sent off to war leaving a pregnant Nora behind. When his fighter plane is shot down and he is presumed dead, the montage skips ahead five years and Nora is now involved in a relationship with Frank (Oliver Reed). Tommy is five years old and is visited by his father, who is very much alive. After a struggle with Frank and Nora, Powell is killed and a traumatized Tommy is unable to speak, see, or hear (except within his own mind) as Frank and Nora are desperate to make sure he keeps quiet.

As Tommy grows into a young man, he becomes a “Pinball Wizard” , a prodigy at pinball, creating great wealth for Nora and Frank. Still unable to see, speak, or see, he is first abused by his Uncle and Cousin, but then championed as they are all able to get rich off of his abilities. Through the years Nora and Frank attempt to “cure” Tommy of his ailments via a preacher (Clapton) leading a Marilyn Monroe cult and a prostitute (Turner).

The joy in Tommy (the film) is seeing the star studded cast- Elton John, Tina Turner, and Eric Clapton, as well as Roger Daltrey, bring a sense of wonderment to the film. Who doesn’t like to see rock stars perform? Famous actors Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, and Reed are featured. The musical numbers are the splendid part of the film and one must be prepared to escape into a world of fantasy. Musical highlights for me include, “Acid Queen”, “It’s A Boy”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

My most recent viewing of the film that is Tommy, disappointed slightly, and this may be due to recently seeing the stage version- far superior in my mind. Ann-Margret, while superb and believable as Tommy’s mum, is not the character that Townsend had in mind. Sultry and sexy, she is clearly cast to bring some sex appeal- nothing wrong with this, but the stage character is more of a working class woman, and more in line with the rest of the cast.

The film also seems a bit too over the top- almost silly at times. But Tommy is an escapist film- based on the album, which is more serious. I wonder if Russell was going for a more late-night, Rocky Horror Show or Little Shop of Horrors type feel. Tommy has its place, certainly, but I would first recommend the stage or the album version as a starting point and move to the film as escapist fare.

Captain Fantastic-2016

Captain Fantastic-2016

Director-Matt Ross

Starring-Viggo Mortensen

Scott’s Review #616

Reviewed February 10, 2017

Grade: B+

A thought provoking story that raises a question of home-schooled, non- traditional book intelligence versus the lack of social norms and interactions, and debates which upbringings are more relevant, Captain Fantastic is a terrific film with a moral center. Starring Viggo Mortensen, who is not afraid to tackle complex and thoughtful roles, the film is a family drama with a unique spin and an edgy subject matter. Perhaps not as gritty as it could have been and feeling a bit safe, it still entertains and elicits thought, which is an important aspect to film and is oftentimes lacking in modern films.

Director Matt Ross immediately treats us to aerial views of green and mountainous Pacific Northwest where a family of seven- 1 father and 6 children ranging in age from five to seventeen- silently prey on and kill a deer grazing in the forest- this is their dinner. The family is unorthodox to say the least. Led by Ben Cash, he teaches the children how to fight, how to survive, and how to be ready for any situation. They are highly intelligent kids- able to recite the Bill of Rights and the most complex of literature.

Soon, it is revealed that their mother, Leslie, has committed suicide and a battle ensues between her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) who are determined to bury her “properly” with a Christian funeral, and Ben and his children, who are determined to honor her last wishes for cremation. Ben and the gang travel via their run down school bus to New Mexico, meeting local townspeople along the way as a battle of cultures takes place.

I commend Ross for creating a story that challenges the viewer to think- depending on the viewers religious or political views, there is a risk of people either loving or hating the film. The film is skewed toward the left, certainly, as a dinner and sleepover with Ben’s sister and her very “Americanized” family is awkward- the families having completely different styles. Ross makes it clear that Ben and family are the intelligent ones and his sisters kids quite dumb- not even knowing what the Bill of Rights is and mindlessly playing violent video games. The fact that they are a “typical American family” is sad and quite telling of what Ross’s view might be.

Captain Fantastic wisely shows that either side is not perfect. His oldest son, Bodevan, blooming sexually, has an awkward encounter with a pretty girl, proposing marriage to her with her mother present, because he knows no social norms. A younger son is attracted to a “normal” life with his grandparents, who are a wealthy couple. The grandparents are not presented as bad people, but rather, wanting the best for their grandchildren, and fearing how their lives will turn out without better structure or what they perceive as a better upbringing. Some of the kids blame Ben for their lack of social skills and being what they perceive as “freaks”.

The film does end in a safe fashion as a happy medium is ultimately reached, but I never felt cheapened by this result. I found Captain Fantastic to be rich in intelligent writing and a challenging tale. Many moments of “what would you do?” were brought to the forefront. Mortensen portrays Ben Cash flawlessly mixing just the right vulnerability with stubbornness to the character, and it is a great film for anyone fearing being intelligent is not cool, because it is.

From Russia with Love-1963

From Russia with Love-1963

Director-Terence Young

Starring-Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi

Scott’s Review #615

Reviewed February 5, 2017

Grade: A

From Russia with Love (1963), only the second in the storied James Bond film franchise, is a sequel to the debut installment, Dr. No, and received twice the budget that its predecessor did. This is evident as the cinematography and the look of the film are exquisite with chase and battle scenes galore. The film is lavish and grand and what a Bond film ought to be- consisting of adventures through countries, gorgeous location sequences, and a nice romance between Bond (Sean Connery) and Bond girl, Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi), though she is not in my top Bond girls of all time. Terence Young returned to direct the film with successful results.

Vowing revenge on James Bond for killing villainous Dr. No, SPECTRE’s Number 1 (seen only speaking and holding a cat) recruits evil Number 3, Rosa Klebb, a Russian director and defector, and Kronsteen, SPECTRE’s expert planner, to devise a plot to steal a Lektor cryptographic device from the Soviets and kill Bond in the process.  Klebb recruits expert killer Donald “Red” Grant, and manipulates Tatiana into assisting. The story takes Bond mostly through Istanbul, Turkey, into a gypsy camp, and via the Orient Express through Yugoslavia to the ultimate climax.

The villains in From Russia with Love are outstanding and a major draw to the film. Both Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Grant (Robert Shaw) are perfectly cast. Klebb, militant and severe with her short cropped red hair, has a penchant for deadly footwear (she has a spike that shoots out from her boot containing venom that kills in seconds) and casually flaunts her lesbianism in front of Tatiana. I admire this level of diversity in early Bond films from a sexuality perspective- it was 1963 and this was extremely rare to see in film.

Grant, on the other hand, is handsome and charismatic and has a chest of steel. With his good looks and beached blonde hair he is a perfect opponent for Bond as the final battle between he and Bond aboard the Orient Express is a spectacular fight scene and a satisfactory conclusion to the film.

The action sequences are aplenty and compelling especially the aforementioned, and lengthy Orient Express train sequence finale, which is grand. As Bond and Tatiana, along with their ally Ali Kerim Bey, a British Intelligence chief from Istanbul, embark on a journey, they are stalked by Grant, who waits for an opportunity to pounce on his foes. This sequence is the best part of the film for me- Grant, posing as a sophisticated British agent, has a cat and mouse style conversation with Bond and Tatiana over a delicious dinner of sole. Grant drugs Tatiana by placing capsules in her white wine- the fact that he orders Chianti with sole- a culinary faux pas- gives him away.

Other notable aspects of From Russia with Love are the soon to be familiar cohorts of Bond who will be featured in Bond films for years to come: M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny become treasured supporting characters that audiences know and love. Mere novices in this film, it is fun to see their scenes- especially lovelorn Moneypenny.

An odd scene of sparring female gypsies is both erotic and comical as the two women wrestle and fight over a gypsy chief, only to soon forget their rivalry and both bed Bond- falling madly in love with him as the two women suddenly become the best of friends.

The chemistry between Connery and Bianchi is good, but nothing spectacular and not the real highlight of this Bond entry. Don’t get me wrong- they make a gorgeous couple- his dark, suave looks, and her statuesque blonde figure look great, but I found the pairing just decent rather than spectacular.

The action sequences, especially the Orient Express scenes are a spectacle and the many locations shots in and around Istanbul are ravishing. From Russia with Love is a top entry in the Bond series and a film that really got the ball rolling with fantastic Bond features- it is an expensively produced film and this shows.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig

Scott’s Review #614

Reviewed February 2, 2017

Grade: A-

I was not entirely sure of what I expected from the Independent Spirit award winning film, Diary of a Teenage Girl. I surmised that I would be treated to a light hearted, yet well-written coming of age story, but the film is much darker than I would have thought- and this is a plus- the film is edgy. There is so much depth to the central characters and an incredibly complex performance by newcomer, Bel Powley as the title role. Stars Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also give tremendous performances. The film is based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner.

Set in 1976 San Francisco, a time filled with hippies, drugs, music, and life, fifteen year old Minnie, an aspiring comic book writer, is insecure as any typical fifteen year old is. With wide-eyes and stringy hair, she is cute, but rather quirky looking, not the prettiest girl in her class, and records all of her deepest thoughts into a cassette recorder. Minnie is intelligent and worldly, accepting of alternative lifestyles and drugs, despite her young age. She is wise well beyond her years.

Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Wiig), lives a bohemian lifestyle, constantly partying and losing jobs, and is divorced from Minnie’s and sister Gretel’s affluent, but mostly absent father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni). In a comic way, the girls refer to him as “Pascal” instead of “Dad”, which he abhors. Determined to lose her virginity, Minnie is man crazy and develops a sweet relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgard). Things begin slowly, but develop into a full-blown sexual relationship. A controversial piece to the story is that Monroe is thirty five years old- Minnie only fifteen. Both Monroe’s and Minnie’s feelings are challenged due to circumstances and Minnie’s emotions spiral out of control.

The subject matter of The Diary of a Teenage Girl will undoubtedly be off-putting for many folks as the actions are technically statutory rape, but the film never goes in that direction. Rather, director Marielle Heller crafts a tender story of young love and when there is too much drama, there is comic relief thrown in. Monroe is never the aggressor and, in fact, Minnie is. She is a young girl who knows what she wants. Since the director is female there is absolutely no hint of Minnie being taken advantage of or regretting her affair- the film is not about this. Rather, it is about a young girl with blooming sexuality and blooming emotions finding herself in the world. I admire this left of center approach to story immensely.

Other aspects of the film may be too much for some- Minnie and her best friend pretend to be prostitutes and orally service two young men in the men’s room on a lark. Later, Charlotte uses filthy language to describe Monroe’s and Minnie’s relationship. The film is not safe, but brazen and honest- I admire its courage.

Enough cannot be said for the three principle actors in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley is a find! Nominated for an Independent Spirit award, this amazing young actress should have been recognized by the Academy awards, but she no doubt has many years and films ahead of her. She is a “regular girl” type and reminds me a bit of actress Lena Dunham in her looks and her rich delivery.

Kristen Wiig is fantastic and is evolving into a great dramatic actress. As Charlotte, Wiig is wonderfully insecure and an offbeat mother. She does not discipline, but rather befriends her daughters, showering them with hugs and kisses and gives a vulnerable neediness to the character. Wiig, dynamite in the comedy/drama The Skeleton Twins, has embraced small, but important indie films and kudos to her for this.

Lastly, Skarsgard, mainly known as HBO’s villainous Eric on True Blood, is inspiring as Monroe. Providing his character with sympathy and humanity (tough when having an affair with a teenage girl who also happens to be your girlfriends daughter), Skarsgard evokes so much emotion into the role that you almost root for Monroe and Minnie before remembering that she is too emotionally fragile. Skarsgard is brilliant in Monroe’s breakdown scene. I hope audiences see him in more of these complex roles as he is far more than a hunky actor.

Diary of a Teenage Girl intersperses graphic novel/animated elements into the story told from the perspective of Minnie and the character narratives parts of the film. An authentic, interesting story not only for teenagers, but for smart thinkers and anyone who has ever been over their heads in the emotions of love.