Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hidden Figures/Sully

Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, is the story of African-American women working at NASA in the early 1960's and the contributions that they made to America's space program. The three women at the center of the film are all historically important and are acted with great energy, but Melfi and cowriter Allison Schroeder (working from a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly) have chosen to tell their story in the most crowd-pleasing way possible. Hidden Figures reduces its characters to just that - figures - and the film's self-satisfaction about their triumphs saps the moral urgency that could have provided a dramatic shape. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, cast against type) is introduced in prologue as a math prodigy, and her abilities soon land her a position as a "computer" (someone who makes mathematical calculations and checks others work) on the team working to put an American in Earth orbit. White colleagues like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and project head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) tolerate Katherine at first but her talents soon reveal themselves, and I wish that Melfi and Schroeder could have found a way to demonstrate how much Johnson's mathematical ability added to NASA efforts. Instead we get numerous scenes of Katherine writing numbers on a chalkboard while her colleagues look on and, in the film's worst scene, Henson has to give a loud speech about segregated bathrooms to her boss in front of a room full of scientists. Perhaps some version of this happened but the scene plays like an on-the-nose movie moment as opposed to a human moment. Whenever a white character at NASA is called on their racism they go to a default setting of grudging respect, so Katherine's speech is immediately followed by Costner's character tearing down a "Colored Restroom" sign.

While Katherine is helping put John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space we also follow her friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Both Spencer and Monae lend their roles a simmering anger that Hidden Figures needed more of, but their stories are rounded off at the corners. Vaughan is portrayed as the only person who can get NASA's new IBM computer to work, and Jackson (who Monae plays with wonderful charisma) wins a court case to be allowed to study engineering. The white characters standing in opposition, including a supervisor played by Kirsten Dunst, aren't much more than placeholders and Hidden Figures rolls to a stop by scrolling through a litany of details about the considerable amount that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson achieved in their careers. Hidden Figures is a welcome addition to our understanding of race relations and the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960's, but it needed more than good intentions.

When Clint Eastwood's Sully begins it seems to be about the way that America loves to chew up and spit out its heroes. It's 2009 and Captain "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) is being celebrated for landing a passenger plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike with no loss of life. Yet Sully is haunted by what could have happened - Eastwood alludes to 9/11 in the imagery of Sully's nightmares - and the NTSB investigators think he could have made it safely back to a runway. Sully the film is really a celebration of doing one's job well; the film turns on the idea that Sully and his first officer (Aaron Eckhart) needed time to summon their experience before reacting to an unexpected situation. Tom Hanks as Sully is a triumph of self-effacement, and Eastwood wisely doesn't overexplain the seriousness of the situation on board the flight or the level of complexity and improvisation needed to bring the plane down safely. It isn't easy to dramatize thinking on screen, but Eastwood and Hanks here find a way to make it vital.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

20th Century Women

Mike Mills's 20th Century Women is based on memories of the director's mother, here called Dorothea and played by Annette Bening with a wonderful dry steeliness. Dorothea grew up during the Depression - 20th Century Women is set in 1979 California - and her childhood informs both her resolve as a single mother and her confusion over the way her 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is growing away from her. Mills got his start as a designer of album covers and director of music videos, disciplines which require a certain economy, yet as a director (here and in 2010's Beginners) he's not afraid to be discursive. Dorothea takes in boarders to pay the bills, and punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and handyman William (Billy Crudup, terrific and funny as a man too sensitive for his own good) are a part of Jamie's everyday life. Abbie, William, and Jamie's friend Julie (Elle Fanning) - who spends many nights sleeping platonically in Jamie's bedroom - are each given their own inner lives and all five main characters share in the narration. 20th Century Women is a notebook of incident and memory but it's a well-organized one, as tightly structured as an emotionally resonant bullet journal.

What "plot" 20th Century Women contains come from Dorothea's feeling that she doesn't know how to prepare Jamie for the next phase of his life. She enlists Julie (who is a critical couple of years older than Jamie) and Abbie's help with Jamie's education, hoping that as a trio the three women can prepare him to be a good man. Elle Fanning plays Julie with a sadness that she doesn't usually get to show in other roles; it's a kind of well-meaning self-absorption. Julie, the daughter of a therapist, is unhappy about her own life but not shy about talking to others in therapy-speak. Mills could have pushed these two towards a romance but instead makes Julie's selfishness - she won't face the fact Jamie loves her - an engine for Jamie's growing up. We learn all the characters' fates at the end of 20th Century Women, but Julie's is the most unresolved. Greta Gerwig's Abbie takes a different approach: She starts a running dialogue with Jamie about feminism and punk rock, two subjects that animate her life. The film does a beautiful job wringing poignancy but not sentiment from the late punk years, which Dorothea tells us will come to a close with the election of Ronald Reagan. Mills finds beauty in the image of bodies bouncing off each other at a show and great humor in Dorothea and William trying to sing along to a Black Flag song. It's all an outlet for Abbie, who uses punk to work out the emotions brought on by a cancer diagnosis. Again, Mills gives a very good actress a chance to change how we think of her. Greta Gerwig is a peerless comedienne but in 20th Century Women she gets to be angry, pointed, afraid, and (because the writing is so good) a very specific kind of adult. It's a performance that's good enough for a spot in awards conversation alongside Bening, not to mention a sign of a career reaching new heights of depth and maturity.

20th Century Women would be just a cute trick with its montages of vintage punk photos and period black-and-white shots if it weren't for Annette Bening. Calling acting "brave" is always a tricky thing, but this film succeeds because Bening plays Dorothea as a 55-year old lower middle class mother and nothing more. Dorothea doesn't know she's a hero, and the tension between Bening's natural indomitability and the family's fragile circumstances is very moving. As Jamie reads his mother passages from feminist works Dorothea begins to consider her own emotional needs for the first time in a long while. Bening only gets a few moments alone in the film, but of course she's good enough to convey what's going on in Dorothea's head with just a look. The lives of Dorothea, Jamie, and the other characters don't stop when 20th Century Women ends. This is personal material and Mills is too honest to try to impose a dramatic shape. Dorothea's fate is delivered in a single line of narration because to handle it another way, a flash forward or end titles, would violate the film's gorgeous specificity. We come of age one day at a time, and 20th Century Women is a coming-of-age story in the best sense. This is the story of that time a few women and a few words changed everything.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Martin Scorsese's Silence is a late-career triumph of depth and energy that doesn't feel like any American film I've seen in a very long time. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks from a 1960's novel by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, and the resulting film is ruminative but doesn't drag. Only a director with so much success behind him could get away with raising unanswerable questions the way Scorsese does here, and it's that daring that gives Silence much of its power. Two Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver, given much to do but still underused), arrive in the Japan of the 17th century seeking a priest named Ferreira (Liam Neeson) rumored to have abandoned the faith. Christianity is illegal in Japan but still practiced by believers in small villages. Those suspected of Christianity are forced to step on an image of Jesus Christ as a sign of their apostasy, and this very cinematic action creates an almost unbearable tension anytime one of the characters is asked to perform it.

Rodrigues and Garupe are welcomed by villagers but still forced to live like outlaws, hiding during the day and only saying mass after dark. Ferreira is elusive, only a rumor (when he finally arrives Neeson gives the kind of performance no one has asked him for in some time), and Rodrigues feels the lack of a larger divine presence as a test of his faith. It's useful to think about the set of principles for living that one might call "Christian" as something separate from the doctrine and dogma of "The Church" in Silence, and a question the film puts to the viewer is what The Church has to offer in real terms when people are being oppressed. When the local Governor (Issey Ogata) arrests a group of men who had sheltered Rodrigues and Garupe the two can only hide and watch in horror. The two are upset as men but ineffectual in their official role, and Silence frequently puts Rodrigues (who soon separates from Garupe) in the position of watching and being unable to act. It's an unusual state for the main character of a film to be in, but Andrew Garfield makes it work by giving Rodrigues a careful internal arc of doubt and regret. Garfield spends much of the film with a beard and long hair that's untied; it's worth noting how empty he looks when forced to appear clean shaven later on. The hair is just a clue to what's going on with the character: we're watching a man crumble from the inside when his lived experience comes into conflict with faith.

When Rodrigues is captured with another group of Japanese Christians he is kept in a separate cell and treated reasonably well. It's assumed he'll save his fellow prisoners by becoming an apostate, and Silence pauses to consider why he doesn't. There's an argument made that human vanity keeps one from living a Christian life, or in other words that Rodrigues needs to see himself as adhering to a doctrine to such a degree that it keeps him from a truly Christian action. This seems a very Eastern idea and Scorsese lets it ride, having great sympathy for the selfless Japanese Christians while trapping Rodrigues in the consequences of his own behavior. Martyrdom doesn't come easy in Silence. The complexity of the film is attested to by the fact that an audience of any degree of faith will find something in the work, from the constant faith of the villager Mokichi (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) to Rodrigues and his confusion at God's inaction. Scorsese can't answer all the questions raised by Silence and he doesn't have to. The film is a late work in the best sense, not a summing up but an asking of deeper questions. While Martin Scorsese will no doubt turn to more familiar stories in future projects he has done some of his best work here, creating a work of great richness that deserves deeper study.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

La La Land/Live by Night

Damien Chazelle's La La Land was written before the writer/director made the Oscar-winning Whiplash, and indeed La La Land has the markings of an early, youthful work in which emotion trumps ideas and what themes there are come at us in a loud, declamatory style. La La Land is the story of the love affair between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an actress and a musician who meet in Los Angeles and begin a relationship with each other after half the film is over. Both Mia and Sebastian are trying to ignore the fact that their dreams are headed for a reckoning. Mia, who by day serves coffee on a studio lot, is growing tired of auditions that lead nowhere while Sebastian can't sacrifice his ideals about jazz long enough to open the old-fashioned club he imagines. Yes, jazz. If you saw Whiplash you may remember that Chazelle's idea of becoming a true artist involves the mastery of old forms. We see Sebastian playing along to old records and dragging Mia to a club, but it isn't clear that he has much drive to make new music that deviates from a kind of 1950's-'60's idea of good jazz. In other words, Sebastian could have been played by Ken Burns.

La La Land is strangely conservative in its idea of how people become successful or influential in creative fields. Sebastian is challenged on his musical principles by a friend (John Legend) who hires him for a slick fusion project that becomes improbably successful. The argument that Legend's character makes is that being too devoted to the past makes it harder to change the future, and he's right. There is no chance that Sebastian will "save" jazz just by opening a club, and I'm not sure La La Land is really a "musical" just because its characters sometimes burst into song. The two large-scale opening numbers testify to the glory and possibility of Los Angeles; they have some energy but after that none of the songs feel necessary and neither Gosling nor Stone is confident enough in what they're doing to make them work on personality alone. Ryan Gosling is a particular disappointment if you enjoyed his work in The Big Short or The Nice Guys, because the framework of the film doesn't allow for the wicked comedy that Gosling is capable of. Emma Stone fares somewhat better and she's really what makes La La Land worth sitting through if anything does. There isn't anyone in movies I'd rather watch ironic-dance to a Flock of Seagulls song, and Mia is the more active of the two main characters. She writes a one-woman show for herself that no one comes to and she seems to at least have an idea of what she is and isn't capable of relative to the business she's in. Stone is just as tentative as Gosling in performing the songs though, and that tentative quality is matched by the songs themselves because they provide insight into the characters in only the most general terms.

The climax of La La Land is a dance sequence that imagines an alternate future for the characters. It's visually inventive and stylized in a way the rest of the film isn't, save for a number at the Griffith Observatory that would have been more delightful were it not an explicit Rebel Without a Cause homage. Even though I don't think La La Land works - it's paced much too slowly, for another thing - this final sequence demonstrates that Chazelle might have a musical in him if he can dream bigger and get other forms of music out of the way for a second. In other words, don't make a jazzical. La La Land looks set set to receive a number of awards in days to come, but like Sebastian's jazz it's only an imitation of something brighter.

Ben Affleck's dull Live by Night spends a great deal of time explaining how a thief named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes to be the enemy of an Irish gangster (Robert Glenister) and the ally of an Italian gangster (Remo Girone) in 1920's Boston. Most of the film - adapted by Affleck from a Dennis Lehane novel - actually takes place in Florida, where Joe becomes a rum kingpin as an agent of the Italian crime syndicate. The central idea at play is that Joe secretly wants to be punished for his crimes, but the script and Affleck's performance never really lets us into Joe's head to find out. (Affleck as Joe provides an on-the-nose narration.) When trouble comes it comes in the form of characters played by Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher, and Elle Fanning, who as a teenaged evangelist has one great scene of self-awareness. I don't know what to make of the fact these characters are all members of one family, but the plot winds on and actors like Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, and Chris Messina (who seems to have based his performance on characters in older gangster movies) are introduced and then put on the sidelines. Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's first Lehane adaptation, suffered from plot issues but had energy and pace. Live by Night feels like a step backward; it's a musty museum piece that is never more than what's right in front of us.