Elle: France’s 2016 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language film. A tour de force performance by Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michele Leblanc, the “elle” in the film’s title. Michele is a divorced businesswoman who owns a video game company. The game currently being developed is violent. Brief scenes of violence appear throughout the film, some of which involve an intermix of human comedy as well as scenes of short sexual violence. The sexuality that runs through the storyline results in a film that is clearly not of American origin. The opening scene is a swift rape viewed from the perspective of Michele’s cat. This 130-minute subtitled film is based upon the novel Oh . . . by Philippe Djian. Paul Verhoeven directed the film and David Birke wrote the screenplay. Violence penetrates Michele’s life from the outset. Her father is in prison because, when Michele was 9 years old, he went on a one day killing spree in their neighborhood. Michele was home when her father returned from his rampage. We learn about her background as the main story unfolds. Most of the people with whom Michele interacts are presented as foolish beings. She remains friends with her ex-husband , Richard (Charles Berling); the marriage we learn ended over a single violent episode. Some of the lighter moments in the film occur between Richard and his much younger girlfriend. The relationship between Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), Michele’s adult son, and his pregnant girlfriend, Josie (Alice Isaaz), is filled with conflict and flows from Josie’s odd behavior. Even the events that occur involving Michele’s rapist (Laurent Lafitte) are bizarre. Michele’s one real friend is her business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny). Nonetheless, Michele has an affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel), who is also tagged as a fool. While the film partially explains Michele, it never provides a viable explanation for the rapist’s behavior. There is one more character who deserves comment: Michele’s mother played by Judith Magre. The mother’s scenes are short but when she is on camera, her performance matches that of Huppert’s. Verhoeven, at 78, has created a riveting film. The acting throughout is excellent. Michele’s character and behavior are very unique but Huppert’s talent renders her believable. Huppert’s performance is reason enough to see this film.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Lion: a film based upon the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. A five year old Indian boy is accidentally separated from his family and subsequently adopted by an Australian couple. Then, as a young adult, he begins the search for his birth family. The first part of the film focuses on 5 year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his relationship with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The interaction between the brothers is positive and captivating. The family is poor and live in a poor village. The mother (Priyanka Bose) is a laborer and the two boys work to help the family survive. We never meet the father, who apparently deserted the family. Guddu and Saroo travel to a neighboring town where Guddu thinks there may be work. He tells Saroo to wait for him at the train station. Saroo climbs onto an out-of-service train and falls asleep. When Saroo awakes he is in Calcutta, more than 1,000 miles from his home. The people speak an entirely different language. Saroo’s existence is reminiscent of a Dickensian waif. After a time, Saroo is adopted and moves to Tasmania. The story then jumps to Saroo as a young adult (Dev Patel). The Australian parents are played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman. An event occurs which starts Saroo thinking about his family in India. The rest of the film is a Google map tale and not as interesting as the first third of the movie. Based on the strength of the opening segment with Saroo and his family, you are hooked into the story. Saroo Brierley co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Buttrose and Luke Davies. Garth Davis is the director. The film is on a number of 2016 Ten Best lists. The story is truly amazing and this 2-hour film will keep you involved. But for me it was basically a well done Hallmark Presents movie. Absent today’s Google map technology, it is unlikely the events in this tale could have occurred. And the film’s title, Lion? It has to do with the name Saroo.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Hidden Figures: the largely untold story of three African-American women who were instrumental in NASA’s early success. The three women are Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), who is still alive at age 98, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). We meet the women when their car stalls on the way to work. This scene, presented with a sense of humor, sets the tone of the film and reveals the women’s individual characteristics. It also touches on the theme of sex discrimination, which is present throughout the film. One of the more memorable scenes is that of Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician, being denied attendance at a NASA meeting for purely misogynistic reasons. Johnson is the person who, at the specific request of John Glenn (Glen Powell), did the final calculation checks prior to Glenn’s launch into space. He wanted the “smart one” to verify the IBM calculations before boarding the ship. Glenn is presented in an extremely positive light. Dorothy Vaughan is the individual who headed the “colored computer” (mathematicians crunching numbers) section but was denied the supervisory title due to her race and gender. Vaughn is instrumental in getting the IBM machine operating and is also the one who knows what the people under her supervision have to do to retain their positions at NASA in the new age of IBM technology. Mary Jackson, a member of the engineering team, plays a key role in developing the ship’s heat shield. Part of the reason this NASA based film works is that it is placed in the context of 1960 American society where sexism and Jim Crow laws were alive and well. Further, the movie presents the well established home lives these three brilliant women lived. Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book upon which the film is based. The screenplay was written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi and it is Oscar quality. Melfi also directed this excellent 127 minute movie. It’s the small scenes that make this film work particularly well. For example, Melfi’s handling of the race-based bathroom issue shows his skills as a writer and as a director. Kevin Costner, as Al Harrison, is also excellent. Harrison is the director of the Space Task Group and is someone who focuses on completing the task at hand and not an employee’s skin color or sex. The only weak character is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford. He is the only person who comes across as stereotypic. Mahershala Ali from Moonlight has a small role as Johnson’s suitor and eventual husband. The contrast between his two movie roles is astonishing. This film speaks of the blatant racism and sexism in 1960’s American society, however, when you leave the cinema, you do so with an optimistic view that hurdles can be overcome. Hidden Figures is quite entertaining and one of the best movies of 2016.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Rogue One: the latest Star Wars installment. There are very few films that I distinctly remember viewing for the first time. Star Wars: A New Hope aka Episode IV is among the few. The theatre where the original Star Wars played in 1977 no longer exists; I think the building is now an auto parts store. I was hooked from its opening scene. The main question I’ve asked myself with respect to the subsequent episodes has been, “Would I have enjoyed this film if I wasn’t already a fan?” As for Rogue One, the answer is “yes”. Felicity Jones is excellent in the lead role of Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the scientist responsible for creating the Death Star. The storyline presented by writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy explains the events that led to one of the key scenes in the original Star Wars, the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet. Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards and has a panorama of the required characters: renegade imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed); tough minded resistance player (Diego Luna), bearded warrior (Wen Jiang); and blind Force-chanting monk (Donnie Yen). I would like to have seen more of the militant warrior played by Forest Whitaker. Perhaps a short fall of Rogue One is its lack of the inventive and original special effects that so captured me back in 1977. The battle scenes during this 133 minute film, though good, are somewhat old hat. One thing that is quite inventive is casting actor Guy Henry, who has a build and voice similar to Peter Cushing and, through technology, imposing on him Cushing’s face to re-create the Death Star Captain. The same technology is used in the Princess Leia scene using Norwegian actor Ingvild Deila. I was also pleased that James Earl Jones once again voiced Darth Vader in his limited appearances. Bottom line: for anyone who is a Star Wars fan, you should definitely see this film on the big screen. Conversely, if you are not already a fan, this film will not be your moment of conversion.
Monday, January 2, 2017
Fences: one of the ten August Wilson Pittsburgh Cycle stories. This one takes place in the 1950’s. Wilson penned a play for each decade of the 20th century. Each play portrays an African-American family’s experience while telling the larger story of what was occurring in America during that decade. If you haven’t seen an August Wilson play, you’ve missed experiencing the work of one of America’s greatest artists. When you see this movie, you will understand why Wilson is compared to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil. Wilson, who died in 2005, is given sole credit for the screenplay. Tony Kushner, who is only listed as a co-producer, wrote additional dialogue. The play itself runs more than 3 hours. The film, directed and starring Denzel Washington, runs 139 minutes. I usually don’t spend a great deal of time discussing a film’s script but seldom will you experience dialogue as realistic and as strong and powerful as is present in Fences. The cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures and provides an excellent sense of what life looked like for a Negro blue collar worker in Pittsburg during the mid-1950s. Washington’s direction at times is stagy, still camerawork that used to be common, but allowing the dialogue to dominate. Troy Maxson (Denzel) is a garbage collector with a past. Early on we learn that Troy was a successful baseball player in the Negro League but is bitter about not having had the opportunity to play in the White Major League before he turned 40. Later we learn that prior to his baseball career, Troy was in prison for killing a man during a robbery. Denzel’s performance is Oscar quality, which is matched by Viola Davis who plays his wife, Rose. I will be quite disappointed if Davis does not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. The actor who is truly brilliant is Mykelti Williamson. He portrays Troy’s WW II damaged brother Gabriel, who believes he is a messenger of God and needs to play his trumpet to open the pearly gates. Believably portraying a mentally injured individual is never an easy task but Williamson’s performance allows us to fully consume Gabriel’s reality. The three other principal characters are Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy and Rose’s son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s adult son from a previous marriage, and Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Troy’s best friend who he met in prison and with whom he now works on the garbage truck. All are all excellent. The principal actors all appeared as the same characters in the Tony award winning 2010 revival of Wilson’s play. As in Wilson’s other Pittsburgh Cycle stories, Fences focuses on family relationships while also commenting on what was happening in general society during the story’s decade. The baseball references are not simply sports talk. They speak to Troy’s unfulfilled dreams, which significantly impact on how he reacts to his Cory’s goal to obtain a football scholarship. Throughout this story Wilson never loses sight of Rose, who has some of the strongest dialogue. This is a remarkable film. It tells a real story with actors who truly deliver. I strongly recommend this film.