Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hidden Figures

There are always those events that probably never would've happened had it not been for certain people and their involvement. The Beatles probably never would've become the music legends they are today had Brian Epstein not discover them in an underground bar in Liverpool, nor if Paul McCartney and John Lennon had never met. But what of those names that history has the tendency of overshadowing?

That is precisely what Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures -- as the title so implies -- shines a light on. Its subject is on three African-American women -- Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) -- as they try to prove their worth at NASA in 1961. As they continually face adversity, they become involved in a mission that changes the course of history.

While it is refreshing to see black women in the spotlight, one of the faults of Hidden Figures is the fact its director is neither black nor a woman. The fact that some of said spotlight focuses a good chunk of the time on some of the supporting white characters -- including making one of them responsible for certain changes. Honestly, that's just a cheap ploy to make the film more accessible.

Still, Hidden Figures makes up for that blight by having solid work from its three leads. Henson and Spencer have both proven their worth as actors (both being recognized by AMPAS, for instance), and Monáe (also a standout in Moonlight) shows promise with her acting career. Hopefully the three of them will continue to get consistently strong roles.

Hidden Figures was just one tweak or two away from being great but it's an important film nonetheless. History books constantly overlook the accomplishments of those not white, straight and/or male. It's high time for those stories to be told.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Cobweb

Ah, the star-studded productions of the 1950s. Basically the easiest way for studios to re-coup the budget and earn a tidy profit. And sometimes said production doesn't always need the best of scripts for its actors.

And boy, is that last detail on full display in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb. More than once the actors' dialogue sounds either stiff or overwrought, admittedly not an unheard of fault in some films from the same time. Still, at least some of the many big names of the film rein it in towards the overall flimsy script.

But whom is amongst the cast of The Cobweb? An enviable roster of performers, that's for sure: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. But of the names that stand out amid a rather forgetful project is John Kerr. (Also of note is Oscar Levant -- himself a victim of his own neuroses -- in an inspired bit of casting.)

With a Best Picture winner (and a failed marriage to Judy Garland) under his belt, one would think Minnelli would be able to salvage The Cobweb, especially considering the film's primary location. But even with the various ups and downs in the director's personal life, perhaps his lack of conveying them into the film only adds to the production's faults. (Maybe Douglas Sirk would've been a better fit at the helm?)

The Cobweb could've been a continuation of Minnelli's transition into more serious fare but the shaky script prevented that from even remotely becoming a reality. (At least he had more luck the following year with Lust for Life.) The cast does try their damnedest to make it work to little avail. (Similarly, at least some of them were more successful with later projects.)

My Rating: ***

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Battleground

How does one depict an event that they themselves were a witness to? Sure, there's the occasional embellishment here and there but overall it's more or less a recollection of what they saw. And an often common setting for those stories involve war.

William Wellman's Battleground is such an example. Written by Robert Pirosh (who witnessed the Battle of the Bulge firsthand), it's a story about the weariness of war. (Having several of its actors having served in World War II and the actual 101st Airborne Division as extras certainly adds to it.) But how does it compare to other World War II-based works of the time?

In comparison to other war pictures both past and future, Battleground doesn't boast an all-star cast. (While some of the actors would go on to make names for themselves, the more famous of the cast was Van Johnson.) That's not to say such a detail is a fault of on the film's part. In fact, it could make the viewer feel sympathy for the whole infantry rather than just a small handful of recognizable faces.

There's a speech delivered towards the end of Battleground that still rings relevant nearly seventy years later. In an attempt to rally the weary troops, a chaplain gives a sermon condemning the actions of the enemy. ("We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race...or a super-idea, or super-anything...become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world.") In light of recent events in the United States, they continue to repeat history because they've failed it. ("We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning...to put out the fire before it starts spreading.")

Battleground may have been released amid other similar works but it's Wellman's direction that makes it remembered all these years later. Many films depict how war is absolute hell; only a select few show how it affect those fighting it.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, March 2, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

There are several worrying notes throughout Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, especially in light of the last few years. Using clips from the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the words from James Baldwin become painfully relevant in the years following his 1987 death. But how so?

Peck provides a juxtaposition between Baldwin's words from the past and events from within the last decade. (There's also a dissonance with its music choices; it cuts from clips from Doris Day movies to photos of lynching, its cheery music still playing.) Yeah, it's that kind of documentary.

Narrating as Baldwin is Samuel L. Jackson. The way Jackson reads Baldwin's letter adds to the author's weariness towards the senseless violence aimed at the black community, how exhausted Baldwin has become towards police brutality. He'd be spinning in his grave if he had any clue what the country was like now.

Baldwin also notes how movies have the tendency to mangle one's personal beliefs, how audiences are fine with westerns where Native Americans are slaughtered but not so much with Sidney Poitier as a sex symbol or viable leading man. (Clips from five of Poitier's films -- A Raisin in the Sun, No Way Out, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night -- are shown. See a theme?) To say things have changed since Baldwin's time would be a lie.

I Am Not Your Negro shows that those who fail history are very much doomed to repeat it. (How many times must we as a society be forced to endure the mistakes of our past?) There's no denying that much still needs to be done since Baldwin's time but we as a society can make that a potential reality, and the time to do so is now.

My Rating: *****