Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

The new Disney live-action rendition of Beauty and the Beast is a movie that just about justifies its own reason for retelling on the big screen.  Initially, the recreations of the familiar pieces from the animated 1991 film are so slavish that they simply create déjà vu and unfavorable comparisons to the original.  However, with a few improvements along the way, this latest version ultimately finds and lets the charm and durability of the story shine through.

I will say straight up that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast has been my personal favorite Disney animated film.  Compared to many of the other Disney animated films like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin that seem to have two people falling for each other practically overnight, Beauty and the Beast takes its time to actually have two people, Belle and the Beast getting to know one another to find and embrace the inner beauty in each other.  It also has the courage to twist the Disney trope of the dashing, pompous prince character, Gaston into the motivation of an outright villain.  Above all, it has the highest sheer quantity of memorable songs in any single Disney film, I think, rendered beautifully by composer Alan Menken.

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When this 2017 version re-renders the first of these songs, “Belle”, the words, workmanlike and dutiful kept running through my mind to describe the direction and choreography.  The scene checks off the familiar visual and musical notes of the scene where Belle (Emma Watson) is into reading at a time when not many women are well-educated and others see her as peculiar.  It does it so slavishly that it plays honestly more like a live-action street parade of Disney characters rather than an organic scene.

To be fair, there are a few story points here and there that are more fleshed out.  The back story of the curse that turns the narcissistic prince into the Beast (Dan Stevens) is one (including a proper personification of the enchantress played by Hattie Morahan) and another is how Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) in this one not only breaks into the Beast’s palace but trying to steal a rose for his daughter.  I also liked one addition where Belle tries to show a young girl in the village to read while doing her laundry.  Crucially, Belle’s choice to be held captive in the palace instead of her father is her own unilateral decision this time.

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Despite these small improvements, dutiful is the word that I kept thinking through much of the film’s first half that sets up the familiar characters including Gaston (Luke Evans) and the prince’s servants that have been turned into antiques.  Part of the problem is in how director Bill Condon and his editor, Virginia Katz cut many of the scenes too quickly to let them breathe.  The Beast’s first shadowy appearance to Maurice atop a roof is drained of all menace by an unnecessary edit.  Many scenes do not seem to have any passion behind them such as not having Belle show any real sense of fear or wonder as she is held captive.  When the film played its chaotic rendition of “Be Our Guest”, I was almost ready to check out.

Thankfully, when it gets to the scene when Belle gets away into the forest and is attacked by wolves in the forest, but eventually saved by the Beast, Condon and the filmmakers seem to find their footing.  It is a turning point in the interaction between the two leads, and when the film arrives at this point when they start respecting each other to eventually fall for each other, it turns around as well.  The scenes between Belle and the Beast are allowed to play out longer and the musical scene in which Belle finds out about the Beast’s past is beautifully rendered.  There is also a good, understated musical number added for the Beast when he lets Belle go to tend to her father in need.

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One good thing about Disney’s recent iteration of turning their animated films into live-action versions is seeing accomplished and veteran actors take on the classic animated roles, aided by impressive motion capture work.  This is true here with the prince’s servant characters that are antiques.  Emma Thompson is a great trade for Angela Lansbury in playing the teapot, Mrs. Potts and singing the titular song, “Beauty and the Beast” during the ballroom dancing scene.  Ian McKellen, a regular for Condon’s films, and Ewan McGregor, donning a French accent, create a nice banter as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  It is also welcome to see Kevin Kline lend his gravity to Maurice and Josh Gad finds relish in playing the expanded part of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick.

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As the leads, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens acquit themselves well.  That Watson is not as expressive as she could be in the first half and Stevens is not as menacing as he could be is not necessarily their fault (and anyone who has seen Stevens in the 2014 thriller, The Guest will know he can play truly menacing).  Once the direction and editing get out of their way after the first half, their genial and romantic chemistry comes through as they talk about books and their backgrounds and dance during the ballroom scene.

So does this movie fully convince me that Disney should keep going through their animated vault to turn their films into live-action versions?  Quite frankly, no, as I personally felt that even 2016’s The Jungle Book did not work and was way overrated and 2015’s Cinderella was just passable.  However, I am glad that the filmmakers were able to re-capture some of the magic of the original story anyway and, for the majority of it, show enough care to the story to respect it.

Rating: 70/100

USA.  2017.  Directed by Bill Condon.  Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos.  Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Hayden Gwynne, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson.  Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.

Movie Review: Get Out

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is such a brilliant, effective hybrid of horror and dark comedy that, for those who have heard or seen nothing about this film including its trailer, I want to suggest that they remain that way and experience the film for themselves.  The film does not employ cheap horror tactics but rather relies on the intelligence and personalities of the characters, psychological motivations, and biting social satire for its scares and thrills.  If that is enough to already draw you in, just go see the film and shelve this review until later, even if I will try to preserve the film’s surprises for those who keep reading.

The suspenseful single-take opening scene plays with horror movie tropes while preying on the fear of an African-American man being misunderstood on a simple evening walk down the street.  The film then introduces an interracial couple, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an African-American man, and Rose Armitage (Alison Williams), a Caucasian woman.  She invites him over to dinner at her family’s estate for the weekend.  He asks whether her family knows he is black, which she apparently hasn’t.  She reassures him that her family is liberal-minded and that they will not care.  Since this is 50 years after the groundbreaking 1967 movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a similar scenario, surely he must have nothing to worry about, right?

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When the couple arrive at her family’s home, the parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage embrace Chris with opening arms.  However, that scene, which may have been a tender moment, is underscored with ominous music and filmed in a wide shot at a medium distance to give an almost voyeuristic feel.  The camera pulls back to reveal the viewpoint of another key character, a black gardener named Walter (Martin Henderson).  There is also a black maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel), whose face shows tears to laughs in the span of seconds to yield a creepily confusing emotion.  Another key player is Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).

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We learn that Dean is a neurosurgeon and Missy is a psychiatrist that specializes in hypnosis (I would love to hear them arguing over the diagnosis of a mental condition, albeit at a safe distance).  Dean emphasizes how “liberal-minded” he is by stating, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term, if I could.”  Bits like this and other white people at a big guest party, such as one talking about golf and stating he loves “Tiger (Woods),” sharply reveal a particular kind of condescending racism that is not overt, but veiled, not vitriolic, but discourteous anyway.

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All of this gradually reveals an undercurrent that is far more sinister with some elements of The Stepford Wives.  How far it goes and how daring it gets (and it is very audacious) , you will discover for yourself.  What I do want to praise is the level of craft that writer/director Jordan Peele displays in his directorial debut (and he reportedly shot the film in 28 days).  I have not seen an episode of the comedy series, Key and Peele (though I am tempted to now) but I would guess that the level of biting satire and some hilarious lines, especially from LilRel Howery, who plays Chris’ TSA agent best friend, Rod Williams, are reminiscent of that show.  What Peele proves beyond his comedy is his command to handle the unnerving horror elements with careful pacing and use of string music.  Alfred Hitchcock famously said he loved to play his audience like a piano in his thrillers and he would have been proud with some interludes that Peele plays, especially in the last 30 minutes.

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The performances are all perfectly pitched and a refreshing quality about all the characters is that no one seems to make an illogical choice.  Again, I will not reveal who is who to preserve the surprises, but while the villainous characters set up their diabolical plan step by step so that we can follow it, the sympathetic characters smartly try to think their way out of their predicament.  It is gratifying to see characters who can challenge the audience’s survival intelligence and ingenuity rather than making dumb decisions that make us want to shout at the screen in lesser horror movies.

Word of mouth has carried this film since it was chosen for the secret midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January.  The movie has already become a sleeper hit, even when it opened during Oscar weekend, usually a dry time for newly opening movies.  It is rare when the buzz alone on the quality of a film can drive it to popularity but this film’s success is proof that low-budget well-made movies can break through to the masses.  A few people that I asked about this film before I saw it said it is “really good” and didn’t say much more.  I would like to leave it on a similar note.

Rating: 91/100

USA.  2017.  Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Jordan Peele.  Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, and LilRel Howery.  Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

It was Douglas MacArthur who famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  In Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, however, assassins cannot even fade away.  Here is John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who cannot catch a break in his attempts to leave behind his former life as a hitman and retire to a peaceful life.  At almost every turn though, his rivals find out they should have just let him be.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is, of course, the sequel to 2014’s John Wick, one of the more exciting action movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years.  That movie, if you may recall, found Wick in retirement and mourning over his late wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), only to be violently interrupted by three thugs who stole his car and killed his beloved dog.  That set him off on a torrent of rage that actually get puts to rest in this sequel’s opening action number, which reminds us what sets these movies apart from the cookie-cutter action fodder.

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That opening, which impressively combines car-chase action and hand-to-hand combat, begins with a Buster Keaton film being projected on to a street building, a bold standard the film sets for itself.  Like those Keaton films, one of the film’s pleasures is that the action relies on physical stunts and choreography captured by longer, fluid takes.  This sequel amps up the stunts and the choreography (and the brutality) to a new creatively insane level.  It is a relief that there are directors like Chad Stahelski (famously a stunt double for Reeves in the Matrix movies) who offer a strong rebuke to the quickly cut, frenetic action plaguing modern day cinema.

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After that opening sequence, Wick believes he can finally enjoy retirement with his new dog (who is never named, which may make him The Dog with No Name).  That is, until an old associate named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has a a very loyal deaf-mute henchwoman, Ares (Ruby Rose), comes knocking holding a marker that binds him to a past oath of debt that Wick must pay back.  Wick initially refuses but one blown-up house later, he finds that he must fulfill this oath to really come out of retirement.

Like past accomplished action sequels such as AliensTerminator 2, and more recently The Raid 2, the screenplay written by Derek Kolstad aims to deliver a more complicated story along with the improved action.  The film expands on the rules established by the Continental run by Winston (Ian McShane), with his front desk assistant, Charon (Lance Reddick).  Not only do they manage a hotel for assassins as a no-killing zone, as in the first film, but they have also set the rules on the binding of a marker and the setup of contracts.  I hesitate to get too much into the story so that you may enjoy the twists and turns that unfold.

Under the story, the backbone that lends the film some gravity is the sense of woefulness to John Wick who just cannot retire into peace.  When he kills, he does so with impeccable aim (mostly with head shots) and without looking back.  As Reeves plays him, however, there is no catharsis and every kill is one rung down the ladder back into the quagmire of the underworld.

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While that happens at the story and character levels, the fight sequences are so innovatively crazy this time that at one sequence, I almost turned to a friend sitting next to me to say, “This movie is insane!”  You will understand its context when you see the film, but that sequence is a montage that has Wick facing a gallery of assassins disguised as a sumo wrestler, a violinist, and others in New York City.  One scene, which shows Wick and another assassin, Cassian (played by rapper Common) firing their silenced guns as quietly as possible in a crowded NYC art museum, had me giggling in stunned disbelief.  That later builds to a faceoff on a NYC subway train when they board it from opposite sides, which, as any city subway rider would know, is implausible because train doors usually do not open on both sides simultaneously.  No matter, the ensuing impressive knife fight is worth it.

In both choreography and cinematography, the film also adopts a more confident cinematic language.  The action is supported by a greater variety of colors and camera distance and angles, thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen.  The colors range from the darkness in the catacombs of Rome and the prettiest fuchsia lights I’ve seen in a NYC subway to a kaleidoscope of blue, red, yellow, and pink in a gallery of mirrors in the climax (an homage to The Lady from Shanghai and Enter the Dragon).

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Reeves deserves serious credit for physically pushing himself more than he has before to be game for these action sequences.  While there must be many stuntmen who also warrant props for doing the more dangerous stunts, Reeves reportedly does most of them himself in his 50s, like Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies.  As he performs it in the choreography, we understand how Wick, while capable of getting injured, is proficient in all distances of combat and how one person can actually face a multitude of thugs in a fight.  The first film showed Wick tackling one guy, mowing a few others, and then finally dispatching the first one.  This one shows more clearly how he is able to use one guy as a shield to fend off others.

So will this movie win over new people who did not enjoy the first John Wick?  Probably not.  However, action fans will be in bliss with this sequel.  There is already a third part planned for this series, which may suggest that assassins don’t retire, they just reload.  That will likely be bad news for Wick’s enemies but good news for fans who will have their action movie appetite satisfied and whetted even more.

Rating: 86/100

USA.  2017.  Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Chad Stahelski.  Written by Derek Kolstad.  Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, and Bridget Moynahan.  Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.

Movie Review: Silence

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a movie that I admire for the tough questions about faith and spirituality that it raises but I am ultimately unsatisfied by it for the breadth it limits itself to.  There is also much to appreciate in terms of the filmmaking qualities as we would expect from a director like Scorsese.  Given that this is a personal passion project by Scorsese to deal with issues of Christian faith and spirituality, I find it appropriate to bring my own personal and spiritual response to the film as a churchgoing Protestant Christian (and it should stir a response for others in their own spiritual background).

The movie is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1971 novel, Silence, a piece of historical fiction that Scorsese had reportedly labored for over 20 years to bring to the big screen.  For all of the novel’s exquisite, literate prose, much of the issues that I have with the novel carry over into the film.  Both the book and the movie portray a complex portrait of different levels and strengths of religious faith and the story made me think deeply about what it means to follow the Christian God under extreme persecution and agony.  However, the kind of faith that the story embraces is not a clear, steadfast kind of faith but a kind that yields to a confusion of one’s own identity.

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The story begins in the 17th Century with two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) in the Portugese Catholic Church.  They receive word that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who journeyed to Japan to do missionary work, has apostatized and renounced the Christian faith in public.  The young priests can hardly fathom that their mentor has done such an act and they decide to travel to Japan to find out.

With the help of a slovenly and sycophantic beggar, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), they find a village of lay Christian people.  Among them are Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oda).  Always vigilant of the officials that are sent to scout the villages under the orders of the Lord of Chikugo, Inoue (Issei Ogata), the villagers protect the priests and hold their masses in the evening as secretively as possible.

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What the movie portrays extremely well is the widespread persecution of Christianity in Japan, though by some, it could also be read as a vicious war between two opposing world views of Japanese and Western cultures.  The 16th Century period in Japan there was historically one of the strongest and most successful suppressions of Christianity and the film conveys that punishingly in numerous scenes.  One of the most powerful and disturbing scenes shows a few Christians being hung on a cross against raging tides on the seas, dying a slow, exhausting death for their beliefs while singing hymns.  Also, despite the raw brutality interspersed throughout (including one unsettling decapitation scene), Scorsese, in stark contrast to his usual style of dynamic camera movement, keeps his compositions here mostly static in the tradition of Carl Theodor Dreyer or Robert Bresson.

Moreover, the movie poses a tougher question than self-martyrdom.  It is bad and painful enough to die for your own beliefs but what if a priest is forced to watch one of the Christians they have converted suffer?  That is the strategy that Inoue and his officials employ to suppress the Christian faith.  Amidst this, what if God seems to remain silent through this immeasurable, unendurable suffering?

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Ultimately, however, Scorsese, who at one point had studied to become a Catholic priest but now professes himself as a “lapsed Catholic”, is aiming to make a profound spiritual film.  This is where I think the film falls rather short, especially compared to the works of Dreyer or Bresson.  Scorsese focuses narrowly on the agony of the suffering throughout without contrasting it with even a minute sense of spiritual elation or joy.  It does not have to be some big epiphany but it would have been insightful to actually explore what made the Japanese Christians convert to the faith they are so willing to die for.  The best spiritual films have done this in small gestures.  Even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was criticized for being relentlessly focused on the gory suffering of Jesus Christ, interspersed moments of His teachings to balance the mood and provide context for the suffering.

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One other problem that diminishes the impact of the overall film is that, while most of the actors are very convincing in their roles (especially Issei Ogata as the frightening persecutor), Andrew Garfield is miscast in the central role.  While he has been effective in emotional roles in movies such as Boy A, Hacksaw Ridge, and the Spider-Man movies, he is too much to an open-faced actor to play a priest in spiritual crisis.   Even though the suffering around him would brew turmoil inside anyone, he does not really convey the supposed inner confusion.  If Garfield did not come off as more of an easily wavering priest rather than a truly conflicted one, I would have been able to accept some ambivalence I have towards the film’s ideas (and I think Adam Driver, who plays the more stalwart priest would probably have fit better in the role).

Then there are my objections that I believe troublingly limits the scope of Christianity that the movie presents.  To express them, I will try to be vague to avoid potential spoilers, but if you would like to go into this movie cold, please skip the next two paragraphs.

After all the turmoil that surrounds the priest, one of the concluding points the movie posits is that love for Christians must prevail even at the cost of apostatizing and blaspheming Christ (represented in the movie by stepping on a crude drawing statue of Christ’s face).  However, this is only true if one ignores crucial verses from the Bible that state in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  The verse is indeed a troubling one, even for the most faithful of Christians, although it does not misleadingly mean that one should willingly abandon their family for God.  What it does mean, however, is that when one is left with a difficult choice between betraying God and the sacrificing of others close to us, a Christian must choose not to betray God.  Not only does this verse never seem to cross the mind of a Catholic priest, but in the most perturbing moment, one character even says, “Christ would have apostatized for His followers,” which simply flies in the face of all Biblical teachings.

In addition, both the book and the movie propose that betraying Christ over and over again is acceptable in the eyes of God (a point more heavily emphasized in the lesser read Gospel of Judas than the Bible, the former of which Scorsese seems to embrace more).  It is true that the Bible says that no sin is unforgiven, but there is also a crucial verse in Hebrews 6:6 citing that “[Those who have been saved] and fallen away – to be restored again to repentance, because they themselves are crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace.”  The fact that the story portrays that repeated betrayal is okay is meant to express that God is all-loving and all-forgiving.  While the Bible does express those two qualities in abundance, it is also said that He expects true faith, which is far from what the movie presents in the form of someone who lives an outward life of betraying other Christians while supposedly holding a certain faith inside (the dichotomy between inner and outer selves is a common theme of Scorsese films).  However, to be fair, the movie (not the book) does counter this view a little by showing a character who seems to break away from his pattern of betrayal.

So is the movie worth seeing?  For the reason that there are few movies that ponder the questions and situations that the movie raises, I cannot dismiss it.  Certainly, it works as a discussion starter and it will leave many people to start their own conversations.  However, for me personally, on balance, I think it is far from the rich spiritual experience the movie aspires to be.

Rating: 62/100

USA.  2016.  Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese.  Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese.  Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo.  Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, and Yosuke Kubozuka.  Rated R for some disturbing violent content.

My Favorite Movies

Perhaps one of the hardest questions to be asked as a movie buff is “What are your favorite movies?”  There are so many great movies out there that I admire and adore, and would re-watch in a heartbeat.  However, it is always hard to boil down the ones that speak to me most personally.  The movies that strike a chord may even change over time depending on the stage of life one is at.  However, as I said in my introduction, if movies are where we can test our own emotions, values, and virtues, it is useful to actually keep a record of the ones that tested me the most.  So here is a list of my 10 favorite movies in alphabetical order:

 

12 Angry Men (1957) – dir. Sidney Lumet

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This movie directed by Sidney Lumet is a paragon among cinematic adaptations of theatrical plays, closing in on its characters to enhance the chamber drama.  Its story of 12 jurors who, in one small room, debate on whether to sentence a young criminal to death has timeless lessons on the legal concept of reasonable doubt and always being on guard against the fallacies of logic including extreme emotion and prejudice.  The lessons are enhanced by the cinematography that is a textbook example of how to employ high and low camera angles and capture when we tower over the characters and when the characters tower over us.

 

Alien (1979) – dir. Ridley Scott

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I will always remember when I watched this horror movie as a teenager in a library viewing room by myself with headphones on.  The way I watched this intense, claustrophobic movie directed by Ridley Scott certainly left with me the most visceral impact but this is not the only reason I admire it so much.  At the film’s core is a story about how humans encounter an alien that turns procreation into agonizing death and destruction.  This brings about a subtle commentary against misogyny by tapping into the male fear of pregnancy.  The portrayal may not be pleasant, but its symbolic theme makes me appreciate women who go through the arduous experience to bring about life.  It is unsurprising that this movie headlined a female hero, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  It would never have worked with a male one.

 

Aliens (1986) – dir. James Cameron

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I tried to see if I could include the first Alien movie without the second and I cannot.  If Alien introduced its concept in a horrific, visceral way, James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens confidently expanded its story.  Not only did it present a whole race of terrifying aliens, it fully developed its hero, Ripley to represent the human species to go up against them.  The near dialogue-free action climax where Ripley goes back into the aliens’ lair to rescue her surrogate daughter, Newt (Carrie Henn) is not only exciting every time I see it, but is also a powerful illustration of a woman taking on the qualities often associated with masculinity (heavy military weaponry) for feminine, maternal reasons.  I enjoy many 80s and 90s action movies with Schwarzenegger, Chow Yun-Fat, and the like, but no other movie that I can think of portrays a more potent reason to cheer on the action hero who embodies the strengths of both genders.

 

Army of Shadows (1969) – dir. Jean-Pierre Melville

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There are many movies that try to evoke a psychological state of mind and the most potent evocation was the pure sense of fatalism that this movie portrays.  Telling a story of underground resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, the movie is as hushed and introspective as the characters must be to to fulfill their missions.  Most of the resistance fighters are determined in their missions but the primary state the movie conjures is the sense of oppressive determinism in wartime.  If movies are about showing, not telling, showing interior emotions is perhaps one of the hardest things to do on screen.  The director, Jean-Pierre Melville was a master of such moody introspection from movies like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai and, among his movies that I have seen, this movie stirred in me the most.

 

A Brighter Summer Day (1991) – dir. Edward Yang

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Edward Yang’s sprawling 4-hour film, based on the first real-life juvenile murder case in Taiwan, is the best crime film that I have ever seen.  There are many other great crime films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, or City of God but none of them match the devastating effect of this one that combines such a rich and complex rumination of political and cultural confusion with familial strife, adolescent romance, and a coming-of-age story.  The movie is set in Taiwan in the late 1950s to early 1960s, just over a decade after the Chinese Nationalists escaped to the island, and it carefully examines how the lack of a firm identity indirectly breeds gangland strife and crime among aimless teenagers.  The film’s storytelling is subdued and restrained (with no musical score and only diegetic music) and settles you into a feeling of reading a great novel until its bleak impact hits you like a ton of bricks.  Most American audiences know Edward Yang for another terrific and more optimistic film, Yi Yi from 2000 but this film is widely regarded as his masterpiece and would be a great discovery for anyone who appreciates fine storytelling.

 

City Lights (1931) – dir. Charlie Chaplin

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If someone asks me about a comedy that can leave you in tears in both laughter and emotions, I would point to this movie by Charlie Chaplin.  The fact that this is all done in silent form makes the laughs and the tears universal.  Its story about the lonely Tramp (Chaplin) who romances a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) is the kind that the cynics inside us would scoff but the brilliant slapstick comedy gets past whatever defenses we may have up.  The genius of this movie is that all the slapstick comedy is setup for one of the most moving endings ever put on film.  There may be other silent comedies from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or even Chaplin that gave me a few bigger laughs, but this one encapsulates all of what silent comedy is really about, with the funny jokes aligned to bring the strongest sense of pathos.

 

A Man for All Seasons (1966) – dir. Fred Zinnemann

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One of the strongest depictions of faith, identity, and tenacity ever put on screen, this movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann and adapted by Robert Bolt from his famous play, is another brilliant achievement of theatrical to cinematic adaptation.  If 12 Angry Men closed in to perfect the chamber drama, this movie opens up color and vistas to recreate 16th Century England.  At the center is Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, who maintained silence to adhere to his beliefs (against the creation of a new religion to allow the King’s divorce) while remaining loyal to King Henry VIII.  His silence is so unbending that his opponents have to scheme to find fault in him and the movie distills the essence of More who knew exactly who he was.

 

Schindler’s List (1993) – dir. Steven Spielberg

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There was a point in my movie watching when I realized that what moves me most is not necessarily tragedy or sadness, but a triumph of goodness over adversity.  Steven Spielberg’s film is one of the best portraits of this in how one man found a way to snatch 1,100 lives out of the maws of the Holocaust.  In some respect, I understand that many would not consider this the most honest depiction of the tragedy of the Holocaust (that title would probably go to Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah, which is a 9 ½ hour documentary of interviews with past Holocaust survivors).  However, in its devotion of filmmaking artistry from the haunting score to the cinematography and parallel editing, it is the most ambitious dramatization of the Holocaust put on film.  That it finds a small sense of goodness does not undermine the tragedy but reminds us that it can exist in spite of it.

 

Shadowlands (1993) – dir. Richard Attenborough

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The number of movies that I have actually cried watching are so few that I can only count them in one hand.  But this movie directed by Richard Attenborough is the one that leaves me in tears every time I see it.  It is the story of C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), who finds love in his 60s with Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), and it is about the awakening of his soul in realizing the concept of love that he has only mused about in books and scholarly teachings.  The love comes with suffering when he finds that she has a terminal illness.  I cannot think of another movie that better embraces how true love and suffering are inseparable and cannot exist without the other in this world.  I may enjoy some movies that portray the sunny side of love but this is the movie that I will see to be reminded of its true meaning.

 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – dir. Frank Darabont

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This movie may seem like an obvious choice (it is #1 on the IMDb top 250 films list).  However, this movie made in the classical tradition of fine craftsmanship simply tells one of the best stories ever put on film.  It is about finding hope when you least expect to find it and purpose when there seems to be no direction.  As a churchgoer, this movie also gave me the strongest and most well-rounded symbolism of Christian salvation I have ever seen in a mainstream film.  I know that the writer/director Frank Darabont did not intend to make a Christian-themed film, though the spiritual themes are not entirely surprising considering the original source author is horror writer, Stephen King.  The movie, however, has a strong moral and spiritual compass from the development of the friendship in prison between the Christ-symbolic Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) to the strong critique of Christian hypocrisy in the warden, Norton (Bob Gunton).  That it provides this kind of hope in a harsh and grounded environment is probably why people keep coming back to this.

 

Please feel free to share in the comments what your favorite movies are.

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

We first meet the three African-American ladies at the center of Hidden Figures as their car has broken down on their way to work.  A Caucasian policeman stops by asking what the problem is.  Because the time is 1961, we think the policeman will display the then common racist attitudes and not treat them kindly.  However, once they show proof of their identification as employees at NASA, the policeman decides to escort them to work after one of the ladies gets the car fixed.

The scene provides the key to the film’s underlying theme, which is about how racial and gender equality simply makes things uniformly efficient.  Many others working at NASA throughout the film are slower to pick up on that message even when they all share the common national goal to get a man into space orbit.  However, once the ladies and the policeman know they share the common goal, they do the most logical step which is to get to the destination.

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The movie is based on the true story of three women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).  Vaughan leads the team (in duties, if not in title) and the three work as part of a team of black female mathematicians performing computations by hand in the West Area Computers division (where their department sign reads “Colored Computers”).  When their overseeing supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) informs that the Space Task Group need a new computer, Johnson gets scouted in the group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  Russia has already launched its artificial satellite, spiking worries that they will have the ability to spy on the US in the space race.

Johnson, whom we see has a naturally gifted mathematical mind from childhood, is the first black person to join the group and is not treated respectfully at first.  One of the engineers assumes she is a custodian and piles a trash can on her work items on her first day.  When she tries to drink coffee from a common coffee pot, the others place a separate smaller coffee pot labeled for “Coloreds” with no coffee in it.  However, as the team will soon realize, such racist attitudes, especially embodied by the head engineer, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), impede on her work and thus everyone else’s.  When Harrison, who pushes everyone to get the first astronaut into orbit, sees the impediment after an impassioned breakdown from Johnson, the film gets one of its more satisfying moments smashing down the racist attitudes.

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The story finds time for all three women in their personal and professional lives.  Each of them faces uphill battles against the segregation attitudes in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights Movement.  Vaughan is not officially given the title of supervisor by Mitchell despite all the responsibilities she performs in such a role.  She is also not given access to the resources in the library that she needs to learn programming in FORTRAN.  Jackson strives to be a female engineer at NASA but must attend classes at a school that has never accepted black people.

In all three characters’ stories, Henson and Spencer portray their characters strongly as usual and singer Monáe, along with the recent Moonlight, shows herself as a solid actress playing spunky characters.  Costner is a good choice for Harrison, giving echoes of a similar role from Thirteen Days as an adviser to John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The reliable Mahershala Ali provides nice support as a military colonel who romances Henson’s Johnson, who has been widowed with three children.

The director, Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, knows the moments of change that he must hit and is able to do so with some humor.  Some of it is a bit too on-the-nose as when Johnson looks at Stafford’s calculations scratched with permanent markings (refusing to have them checked) under the light, encouraging others to also “see the light.”  However, it is mostly effective, as in one of the best scenes that I will avoid describing too much about.  The scene is set up with shots framed to show Spencer’s Vaughan and Dunst’s Mitchell looking at the same mirror as if each is finally looking at the other as her own reflection.  The way it pays off plays to Spencer’s unique specialization in characters who can size other people up.

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Of course, the movie, as all those “based on a true story” are, plays fast and loose with some facts.  Most of the Caucasian characters are composites and the discriminatory attitudes Johnson faced in her working team were not as strong as the movie delineates.  However, many of the facts in the movie did happen, as when the astronaut, John Glenn (portrayed positively by Glen Powell), called on Johnson to verify the trajectory calculations before the launch.  As a general rule, I see good movies “based on a true story” as the emotional key for me to do the research on the facts (for a helpful analysis comparing the facts and the movie, look at this link).

Emotions are what allow for the larger theme to be conveyed more effectively.  In its broad strokes, the movie gives a solid dimension as to why equality is considered progress.  Just as the computing machines we use depend on various moving parts working together, it is progress in us doing our jobs better.

Rating: 76/100

USA.  2016.  Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Theodore Melfi.  Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi.  Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Biscoe, and Donna Biscoe.  Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.

Film Genres in a Nutshell

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In a rather silly vein, I decided to come up with one-line blurbs to define the essence of each genre in film.  So here goes:

Action: They kill people, I kill time.

Romance: They kiss, I blush.

Horror: They jump out, I get my safety blanket.

Drama: They emote, I try not to.

Sci-Fi: They fly, I can’t.

Fantasy: They believe in fairies, I don’t.

Animation: They stretch reality, I’m stuck in mine.

Mystery: They knot, I untangle.

Crime: They did it, I know it wasn’t me.

Comedy: They goof up, I laugh.

Documentary: They inform, I am appalled.

History: They portray, I skip a class (because I saw the movie).

Thriller: They pursue, I leave fingernail marks on my dashboard.

Musical: They sing, I crack my voice.

Film-Noir: They have a femme fatale, I see that she is muy mal.

Special mention goes to my friend, Sonia Schnee for being a bouncing board to think these up.