Hidden Figures & Fences
The year brought a jackpot of outstanding films about people of color. In addition to Midnight, Loving and Queen of Katwe, there are Hidden Figures and Fences.
Don’t miss Hidden Figures! It is an old-fashioned (in the best sense) movie that will have you on your feet and cheering at the end. Writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) uses a tried and true formula, one that the film’s distributor 20th Century Fox has used countless times since the 1930s: take three ambitious and talented women and intercut their stories as they pursue success in a particularly macho man’s world—NASA in the 1960’s. All three women are working mothers, two of them are married; one is a widow. In their fight for opportunities commensurate with their abilities, the three heroines don’t just have to battle sexism, but racism as well. The performances of the three leading women, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer/musician Janelle Monae (also in Moonlight) are righteous, infectious and altogether jubilant. They are reluctantly supported by gum-chewing NASA program director, Kevin Costner. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are terrific as the heroines’ condescending antagonists and Mahershala Ali (also in Moonlight) is fine (as in “He’s So Fine”) as the persistent suitor of reluctant widow, Henson.
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August Wilson (1945-2005) belongs in the pantheon of great American playwrights. His ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle—each one set in a different decade of the 20th Century—is a monumental artistic accomplishment. Fences, set in the 1950’s, was awarded a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. The dialogue Wilson gives his characters is incomparably musical. In his plays, soliloquies become arias. I saw James Earl Jones play the central character, Troy Maxson in the original 1987 production and it was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. In Jones’ performance, Troy was a great tragic hero—someone who in other circumstances would have been a king.
Transferring Wilson’s work, which is overtly theatrical, to the screen has to be a Herculean task and the film version doesn’t entirely succeed. Denzel Washington, who directed the film and plays Troy Maxson is one of my favorite actors, someone I’ll pay to see in almost anything he does; however, whether fair or not, Washington can’t replace Jones in my memory. Troy’s lengthy speeches, many shot in close-up, have a haranguing quality that ultimately alienated me from Washington’s performance. (I know this is a minority opinion.) I still recommend seeing Fences. The supporting cast, particularly Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s best friend, and Mykelti Williamson (heartbreaking as Troy’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel) beautifully capture the rhythms and melodies of Wilson’s writing.
Denzel Washington has announced that he will bring the entire cycle of August Wilson’s plays to HBO. This is great news.
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Hail Caesar, Love and Friendship & A Man Called Ove
There were three comedies this year that made me laugh out loud repeatedly. Hail Caesar, the latest lunacy from the Coen brothers, is a loving send-up of old Hollywood. It features an all-star cast, each at the top of their game, including George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum (never better), Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, as a cowboy star (who steals the film from under their noses.) Josh Brolin grounds the film with a virtuoso dead pan portrayal of a tortured Catholic studio head, charged riding herd over the dim-witted shining stars in his care. Brolin may be the most under-rated actor working in films today.
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Love & Friendship
Love and Friendship is director Whit Stillman’s sophisticated and wry adaptation of a Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan. It features a tour de force performance by Kate Beckinsale as the shameless seductress Lady Susan and she is ably supported by Tom Bennett as her idiot suitor. These performances will probably be overlooked at award time; they are, nonetheless, pure gold.
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A Man Called Ove
A Man Called Ove, based on an international best-selling novel, is a sweet Swedish comedy about a bereft widower whose attempts at suicide are repeatedly interrupted by needy neighbors. In the title role, Rolf Lassgard is sublime.
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La La Land & Sing Street
2016 produced two charming and equally original musicals, La La Land and Sing Street. The former got the lion’s share of attention from the critics and at the box office but don’t overlook the latter.
La La Land
When I was a child, I particularly loved the MGM musicals; the gaudy Technicolor palette was almost the same as my grandmother’s plaster-of Paris saints statues and flamboyant holy cards. I imagined that heaven would look a lot like those musicals. (I came as close as a five-year-old can to experiencing spiritual rapture when I saw Gene Kelly dance with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh.) This, I thought, must be what heaven is like. La La Land, captures the spirit of the MGM musicals, but with a sadder-but-wiser point of view. Leading man, Ryan Gosling, is perfect, everything one could expect; Emma Stone is a fine actress who repeatedly defies expectations, until the scene when the film director asks her to tell a story. In this scene Emma Stone doesn’t just defy expectations, she obliterates them. More about La La Land
Sing Street, is the work of John Carney the Irish writer/director of the cult hit, Once, which was equally successful when translated into a Tony award winning Broadway musical. Sing Street’s slight plot is about a teenage boy who starts a rock band to impress a girl. Like a lot of musicals, the plot isn’t all that important but the music and performances, by a great ensemble cast led by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, in his first movie, are completely beguiling. Just looking at the above photograph makes me want to see it again. More about Sing Street
Lion, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, & Captain Fantastic
Three exceptional family films were released this year— five if you count The Queen of Katwe and Sing Street—and I heartily recommend that you do.
When I say family film, I don’t mean baby-sitting films, I mean films that are equally entertaining and engrossing for adults and children; films that have meat on their bones and are have stories that can inspire rich conversations after they are viewed.
All five films feature children protagonists; the child actors who play them give marvelous performances.
Lion tells the true story of Saroo, a five year Indian boy who falls asleep on a train and ends up lost in the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from his tiny village. He is adopted and raised by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman is wonderful as the mother). 25 years later, he sets off, with the help of Google maps to find his Indian family. Sunny Pawar plays the boy Saroo. Dev Patel plays him as an adult. (The first half hour is subtitled.) More about Lion
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a New Zealand film about a wily young delinquent from the city (Julian Denison) who is sent to live with foster parents on the edge of the bushlands. Fearing he’ll be sent back to an orphanage when his foster mother unexpectedly dies, he takes off into the bush. His reluctant foster father (Sam Neill) goes in search of the boy and is mistakenly thought to have kidnapped him. (The New Zealand dialect takes getting used to but it’s worth it.) The comic pairing of Denison and Neill is both sidesplittingly funny and deeply moving. More about Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Viggo Mortensen is brilliant as the eccentric hippie father who takes his children to live off the grid in Captain Fantastic. George MacKay, is touchingly awkward and naïve as the scholarly eldest son who has been in the wilderness so long he has no idea how to talk to girls. There is one full-frontal nude shot of Mortensen—fully justified by the story—that will be off-putting to some parents. The kids will love it. More about Captain Fantastic
I’m not generally drawn to Marvel Comics super-hero movies; the exception is Dr. Strange, which is a thoroughly entertaining adventure that demands that the ultra-rational, egocentric, arrogantly self-sufficient title character surrender to the mystical and the miraculous. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect in the title role and he receives excellent support from a first rate cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel Mc Adams, Benedict Wong and Tilda Swinton.
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2016 was a great year for actresses “of a certain age.” God bless the baby-boomers who have become a reliable demographic for medium to low-budget (think Sundance Film Festival) treats like:
Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins, featuring the insanely talented Meryl Streep, as an insanely untalented would be opera singer. She’s supported by Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory), sensational as her accompanist, and Hugh Grant, better than he’s been in a long time, as her husband. More about Florence Foster Jenkins
Hello My Name is Doris
Sally Field and Tyne Daly “My Name is Doris”
In Hello My Name is Doris two-time Oscar winner, Sally Field dispensed with earnest and cute, and graduated to wonderfully eccentric, ably supported by national treasure, Tyne Daly. (I’d love to see Fields play Veta Louise Simmons in a revival of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Harvey.)
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Susan Sarandon showed up in a wonderful dramedy, The Meddler, about a recent widow who relocates from New York to the West Coast to drive her TV-producer daughter (Rose Byrne) out of her mind. More about The Meddler
20th Century Women
Annette Bening is stunning as a single mother raising a precocious teen-ager (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 20th Century Women. The supporting cast includes a hilariously earnest Greta Gerwig, a scary Elle Fanning and Billy Crudup, in his best performance since I don’t remember when. More about 20th Century Women
Best of all is Margo Martindale in The Hollars. I fell in love with Margo Martindale when I saw her play Big Mama opposite Ned Beatty as Big Daddy in an otherwise lamentable revival of Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Ashley Judd played Maggie the Cat; it was painful.) Martindale won an Emmy for her performance as Mags Bennett, a matriarchal hillbilly drug-dealer in the FX series Justified. She returned to FX as an undercover KGB operative in The Americans, Whether or not you’ve seen Margo Martindale in anything else, see her in The Hollars! Her performance will warm and break your heart.
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Altogether a good year for movies!