Wednesday, 15 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: HIDDEN FIGURES



20th Century Fox Films

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and in the Western world those authors almost always tend to be white males. So it would be completely understandable if, like me, you were unaware that women were involved in the Space Race.

Not just involved, these women were integral and essential to the American space program. These women also happened to be black.

Man's desire to orbit the Earth and then walk on the Moon has been taught in schools for decades, with names like Armstrong, Aldrin, Gagarin and Sputnik synonymous with that pursuit. Chances are you even know the name of the Soviet dog (Laika) or the American chimpanzee (Ham) that went into space, but do you know the name Katherine Johnson? No? Well, without her mathematical expertise, Ham the Astrochimp may very well have been the last American man into orbit.

Hidden Figures, directed Theodre Melfi (St. Vincent) and adapted from Margot-Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book by Allison Schroeder, tells the remarkable true story of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), as well as Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan: three of the women who worked at NASA's Virginia operations in 1961. Dubbed 'computers', these women, black and white, but of course segregated, worked on the calculations for not only getting the astronauts into orbit and safely back down again, but also for preventing their fiery deaths in between.

Of those computers, Katherine Goble (played perfectly by Taraji P. Henson) was considered the best. And when the Russians got Yuri Gagarin into orbit before the Americans, Virginia's head of operations Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wanted only the best, male or female, white or coloured, working on his team. "We get to the peak together, or we don't get there at all."

The rest of Harrison's team aren't as open-minded or open-armed, which sees Katherine, a single mother of three, battling racism, sexism and the fragile male ego just to keep up. But keep up she does.

Meanwhile, Mary (Janelle Monae), at the encouragement of her Polish-Jewish emigre engineer boss, opposes Virginia's segregated education system so she, too, can study to become a NASA engineer, while Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) struggles to get the recognition, and the pay, of a supervisor from her own boss (a mealy-mouthed Kirsten Dunst), whilst also recognising the threat -- and opportunity -- posed by NASA's latest purchase: an IBM mainframe.

Melfi and Schroeder's treatment of this story may not be as remarkable as the women themselves, but Hidden Figures succeeds as both feel good entertainment and entertaining history lesson.

It may not be subtle when it comes to its depiction of race relations, but just as there are people who were unaware that black women worked at NASA in the 1960s, there will be younger audiences who can't comprehend a world where a white man and a black woman can't drink from the same coffee pot. Or why a woman has to run more than a mile on a daily basis to use the bathroom because the nearest bathroom is off-limits to her simply for the colour of her skin.

The scene where Harrison confronts Katherine about her being MIA on a daily basis, and her retaliatory outburst for all the shit she's had to put up with is one of many moments, big and small, where this trio of women stand their ground - and gradually gain some -- and the audience gets to cheer. Yes, Hidden Figures is a crowd pleaser but there's no shame in that.

And no, overcoming racism wasn't this simple nor did institutional racism or sexism end at NASA, or in America, as a result of these women's achievements. But just as we've forgotten what an amazing achievement it was for humankind to first walk on the Moon, Hidden Figures is a wonderful celebration of women well overdue for recognition, providing them their long-awaited moment in the sun -- and a permanent place in the history books.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: SILENCE



Transmission Films

Like deities, some filmmakers inspire religious-like devotion. Martin Scorsese is one such director: in the eyes of many, fanboys and critics alike, he can do no wrong. He is God Almighty. Myself, I'm yet to be converted. It's not that I don't admire his talent or the oeuvre it's produced, but there's a machismo, a level of testosterone propelling most of his films which just does not appeal.

That said, I do love Scorsese's less masculine films: The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (1997), Hugo (2011). Even The Aviator (2004), despite its male protag, falls more into my wheelhouse: old Hollywood, a tortured soul, Cate Blanchett. What then to make of Silence?

Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence has been a passion project of Scorsese's for more than 30 years; the story of Portuguese Jesuit priests defying religious persecution in 16th century Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed and those who practice, or preach from the Bible are either forced to denounce their faith or face death.

And while it may be a more affecting film for the faithful, both Catholic and Scorsese devotees, there is much to admire in the director's labour of love: whether that be the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, capturing the cool beauty of the island terrain (Taiwan standing in for 16th century Japan); or Andrew Garfield's stoic performance (far less ingratiating than his other 'man of faith' role of 2016, in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge).

Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, who along with fellow Jesuit Father Garupe (Adam Driver), travels to Japan to find their former teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, woefully miscast), who is rumoured to have apostasized; denouncing his faith and now living a life of compliant (non-Christian) domesticity.

The first half of the film (it clocks in at 160-minutes) sees Rodrigues and Garupe hiding out in the Japanese mountainside, secreted away by villagers who practice their Christian faith in private lest they be discovered and punished by authorties under the command of The Inquisitor.

The second half of Silence is a battle of wills between Rodrigues and The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), the latter all forced smiles as he attempts to break the spirit of the young priest. The threat of torture, and witnessing other ingenious cruelties (the Japanese were adept at inflicting physical pain long before World War II), used as a means to induce the priest to apostasize.

But this section of Silence it also about Rodrigues's relationship with his God. Since his arrival in Japan, the priest feels that he has been unable to hear the Lord's voice; left to his own devices about how he should proceed. Is it right to allow others to die for him? Would the simple act of placing his foot on a religious icon -- The Inquisitor's preferred, public method of apostasy -- be viewed as a symbolic yet hollow act if Rodrigues still believes, in his heart of hearts, in the grace of his Christian god?

Meditative and contemplative, Silence is a 180 degree turnabout from Scorsese's previous film, the super-charged, substance-fuelled bacchanalia that was The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). But even those who are not religious, or necessarily disciples of Scorsese (or only his more violent fare), should find something here to praise. This heathen did.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: TONI ERDMANN



Madman Films

Parents are embarrassing. It's a fact, and a universal law that if they can embarrass you, they will. That fear of embarrassment lessens as we grow into adults and our elders become our equals. Or better yet, we grow into adults and make a life for ourselves far, far away from their meddling. I mean, good intentions.

For Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller), her successful corporate consultancy career has taken her from her native Germany to Romania with the possibility of a future posting in Shanghai. Not that she necessarily took that role to avoid her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), but you could understand if she had.

We first meet Winfried doing what he does best: pulling practical jokes on unsuspecting people; in this instance, masquerading as twins, one of whom may have ordered a pipe bomb via courier. The jokes are never cruel -- sometimes it's as harmless as popping in the false teeth he constantly carries in his shirt pocket and giving a goofy grin -- but depending on one's sense of humour, the reactions can range from amusement to befuddlement.

When Winfried's dog, the divorcee's longtime friend and companion passes away, he makes an impulsive decision to visit Ines unannounced. What could possibly go wrong?

Naturally, it's the most important week of Ines's career: she's trying to impress her global mining client with a downsizing proposal. But Winfried manages to upstage her at every turn; while the magnate is charmed by Winfried's ruffled manner, he suggests Ines take his wife on a shopping tour of the Romanian capital.

Not that writer-director Maren Ade's film is about corporate sexism. That may be one of the strands gently plucked at in this 160-minute black comedy, but Toni Erdmann remains first and foremost a story about the ties that bind, and the bonds that break, between fathers and daughters.

Erdmann is the moniker Winfried adopts when, having believed by Ines to have returned to Germany, he reappears as a 'life coach'; sporting a black wig, carrying a cheese grater (nope, no idea!), and wearing those aforementioned dentures. He believes his daughter's sterile, all work-no play existence needs some spicing up. And for whatever reason, Ines goes along for the ride, leading them, and the audience, to some funny and dark places.

Thankfully, the performances of Huller and Simonischek guide us through this odd, uncomfortable but never-not-entertaining journey. They make for a perfect double act, by turns sparring and folding, as hackles are raised and defences are dropped; father and daughter making emotional headway, circling back and starting again as they renegotiate their relationship.

We may not get to choose our family but you could do worse than choosing to spend time with these two.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA



Universal Pictures Australia

Although it is centred around grief -- past and present -- writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's latest film (and just his third after You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011)) is by no means a downer. Leavened by an unassuming sense of humour, Manchester By The Sea is far funnier and not nearly as depressing as early word would have you believe. But it does begin with death.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an efficient but standoffish janitor in Boston, is called home upon the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks). The death isn't a complete surprise to Lee: Joe had been diagnosed with a heart condition some years earlier. But the loss of his closest relative and strongest ally, not to mention a return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, where his reputation is seemingly irredeemably tarnished, has the taciturn Lee even more cagey.

Lonergan doesn't reveal the reason for Lee's surly nature until the film's halfway point, which immediately explains his reticence to return home, and his further reluctance to become the legal guardian to his nephew, Patrick (an excellent Lucas Hedges).

It is the interplay between these two men that provides much of the humour in Lonergan's screenplay; Lee's reluctance to engage versus 16-year-old Patrick's 'it's all about me' attitude. Yes he's a self obsessed shit, but how much of that is par for the course adolescence and how much of it is grief? Like Lee, Patrick has also lost his best friend; his mother having abandoned the family some years ago.

There's an everyday-ness and a recognisable awkwardness to proceedings in Manchester By The Sea. Lonergan, who is also an esteemed playwright, captures perfectly the way people speak -- or don't -- and the humour, intentional or not, in the day-to-day minutiae and in the most unexpected of places.

Yet the film does have a heavy heart, embodied in Affleck's Lee and held together by his quietly powerful performance. He is its bruised but still beating heart. If less is more, then Affleck is giving 110 per cent as a man, so broken by what has happened to him before the film begins, that anything bad that happens to him afterwards is deserved, and anything good is rebuffed. Lee is prepared to take life's body blows. Or invite them: deliberately provoking bar brawls just in case the Universe forgets to punish him.

And as for Lee's guardianship of Patrick, is it a test? Redemption and a second chance at fatherhood, or potential for further heartbreak down the road? You can see Lee's internal struggle as the possibility of happiness is weighed up against the fear of eventual loss.

But despite its themes and revelations, and the one big scene for Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife, now remarried and pregnant, which finally allows for some on-screen emoting late in the film (Williams, as fine as she is, doesn't land an emotional gut punch), Manchester By The Sea doesn't put you through the emotional wringer.

Lonergan's film, however, will grip your heart. Just how tightly will depend on your own experiences of love and loss.