Drama, Reviews

Hidden Figures

hidden_figures

Copyright © 2016 by 20th Century Fox

Story
In 1961, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia staffs Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematician who is reassigned into an all-white team in the Space Task Group commanded by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to assess the calculations of the scientists scurrying to match Sputnik and launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space. Exceptional at her work, she is indispensable to NASA but is troubled by the mistreatment from the rest of the men. Her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) face similar barricades to their careers but their determination pay off as they become key figures in contributing to the space race.

Review
Celebrating a life’s work and presenting it as entertainment would normally have the protagonist face with insurmountable adversities that finishes on an inspiring high. Such examples of optimism inculcated about the minority include ‘Ali’, ‘Invictus’, ‘42’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and ‘Selma’. These great men of colour encouraged equality through their intellect, compassion and resolution.

But let’s make room for a few more to join the coveted list. The ladies at NASA are stepping out from their crummy basement and essaying for their own progression in a workplace systematically run by white men. ‘Hidden Figures’ is a frank, pleasing tale of triumph that radiates with current relevance fronted by a fiery Henson and an imposing debut from Monáe.

The quiet dignity Henson adorns Johnson is infectious that you cannot help but be enamored by her struggle. It sets the audience up to the film’s big, purgative moment, one that is no stranger even till this day. Monáe’s Jackson is brassy. Queenly yet delicate, she is the most forthright and ambitious of the lot, flaunting her mind and independence with attitude.

There is a universal fascination of overcoming obstacles and inequity for mankind’s greater victory. ‘Hidden Figures’ brings these previously unjustly invisible women to global recognition while avoiding broad-stroke beats of a civil rights drama and focusing on the women’s private lives. The script has been accused of fudging the facts and intentionally saccharine-coated but it is visibly off trajectory if this crowd-pleaser never saw the light of day.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated PG for thematic elements and some language

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Drama, Reviews

Ben-Hur

ben-hur

Copyright © 2016 by Paramount Pictures

Story
The friendship of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) is tested after Messala revisits his home in Jerusalem as a revered Roman officer. It reaches breaking point when Ben-Hur refuses to spy for his adopted brother on the Zealots who are against the oppressive Romans. In a failed assassination on Pontius Pilate’s (Pilou Asbæk) life from a young Zealot, Gestas (Moisés Arias) whom Ben-Hur is harboring, he shoulders the blame and is condemned to enslavement in a galley. After five years of slavery, the galley is wrecked in a naval attack and he journeys back to Jerusalem with Sheik Ilderim’s (Morgan Freeman) support.

Review
“For the right price, they’ll let you do anything”. Monetary motivations aside, consenting a second remake for the 21st century feels judicious and John Ridley polishing the script restores some required faith. As terrific the Oscar juggernaut is (11 wins and stayed victorious for almost four decades until ‘Titanic’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ matched the record), a modern spin could rejuvenate interest.

The 1959 tale of two friends / brothers driven apart by ambition and religion fuels the rage of the wrongly accused Jew with a heartrending finale that is accompanied by impassioned music from Miklós Rózsa. Even after the umpteenth viewing, being dry-eyed is a test I repeatedly flunk gloriously. Big shoes for Timur Bekmambetov and a predominantly unknown cast to fill 57 years later.

From the math, the numbers are disheartening and the film has been dismissed by both secular and religious groups. As it turns out, it is not the calamity that many pundits prophesied before its release. In defense, this re-imagination strives a profounder insight into Ben-Hur and Messala’s relationship before all hell breaks loose. Although fleeting, it maneuvers to a lachrymose conclusion nevertheless.

The chemistry Huston and Kebbell share is adequate and both actors are laudable successors to Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Now to address the elephant in the room, is the chariot race any good? A crowning glory for ‘Ben-Hur’, we are enticed ahead of Bekmambetov’s vision with a visceral, furious and raucous affair. It is a valiant bid to upstage William Wyler’s hit but CGI trickery does quell its magnitude. Bummer.

Rating
Entirety: B
Acting: B+
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images

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Drama, Reviews

Imperium

Imperium

Copyright © 2016 by Lionsgate Premiere

Story
Young and eager Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is appointed by Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) on a covert mission in infiltrating active white supremacist groups to locate some illegally obtained Caesium-137. Possessing an empathetic nature, the FBI agent gains the members’ trust and bonds with Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), a presumably moderate member in the cult. As they spend more time together, he is torn between his friendship with Conway and duty to the bureau.

Review
Hate to say it but not everything is rainbows and unicorns. If you think that seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses will somehow prevent the vile acts humans inflict on each other, be ready for a rude awakening to reality. Physical violence scars the human body but a verbal assault damages the psyche and spirit that breaks even the strongest of minds.

We keep telling ourselves that it gets better over time. It really does not. Racial and gender discrimination are still at large. We would like to believe that the progress being made by the select few are representing the larger issue but the facts are anything but significant. Politics, hardly at its finest hours are either flubbed by corrupt politicians or are impeded by glacial decision making.

‘Imperium’ validates what is suppurating underneath a guise of tolerance and acceptance. White supremacy fashions an audacious uprising and it ain’t pretty. The young are ‘educated’ early on and we are alerted to the alarming numbers of various factions through Foster’s undercover work. The quick movement from one group to another intensifies the pacing without losing the details of their modus operandi.

Advancing the events from succumbing to mediocrity is Radcliffe, once questioned about his legitimacy as an actor has unquestionably perfected his magnum opus. Collette is ballsy and nurturing while Trammell’s everyman charms effectively strings us along to a malign end which only augments enmity is borne out even with the noblest of intentions.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated R for language throughout

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Drama, Reviews

American Sniper

American Sniper

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Story
From the memoirs of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) who chalked up 255 shootings while working for the United States Navy SEAL is the most feared sniper ever to be documented. His motivation begins after watching a televised coverage on the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. During a night out, he meets Taya Studebaker (Sienna Miller) and they soon wed. When the sudden attacks on September 11 2001 hit American soil, Kyle is deployed to Iraq. He has been returning to the Iraq War for a total of four tours but in each tour, he finds it increasingly trying in readjusting back to life within the community which continues to keep him mentally distant from his family.

Review
Advancing silently undetected and hitting the bull’s-eye, ‘American Sniper’ swoops in and makes a killing for an enormous chunk of the box office pie in its first week of wide release ($89.2 million over a 3-day period) and scoring six Oscar nods including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Actor’. Outpacing actual tentpoles, the war drama has set several January milestones and in less than two months, it surpassed ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’ as the top dog for 2014 stateside.

So what is the secret of a real-life hero muscling his way into superherodom? A native of Odessa, Texas, Kyle’s virtues are governed by his father’s firm moral code to protect the sheep from the wolves and holding on to this philosophy fuels his burning desire in glorifying, I mean, eradicating the acts of terror. With 160 kills legitimately verified by the Department of Defence, Kyle is the sheepdog he so loyally mimics to serve and protect.

If not marred by a serious arm injury, the States’ deadliest marksman in military history may still be alive, living out as a professional bronco rodeo rider working on a ranch with wife, Studebaker. The writing of her character comes off tritely bland and needy but Miller charges ahead with respectability, grace and pathos in a minor role as the woman who is desperately trying to keep her loneliness and husband’s emotional state (sanity) in check.

Ultimately, it is Cooper whose dynamism and versatility deserves the highest praise for imbuing Kyle with dollops of masculinity yet the mental agony and deterioration on display after each tour are encapsulated intensely by the four-time nominee. Mission after mission, he is always clearheaded and cool as a cucumber when taking out his targets although it still rattles him if the mark concerned is a kid with an extreme imagination where firearms are so easily available.

A fact that director Clint Eastwood shrewdly capitalises on. It is the film’s most engaging section in the sometimes confusing and plodding narrative. War is bad, we get it. Somehow, I cannot help but notice that the rest of the movie feels like a bias description of the truth (again). I am all for world peace. If branding an entire nation as overt baddies, traitors, cowards or brainwashed savages is the way to go, then I want no part of it.

Rating
Entirety: B
Acting: A
Plot: B

Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references

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Drama, Reviews

The Imitation Game

Imitation Game

Copyright © 2014 by The Weinstein Company

Story
At the start of World War II, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is hired by Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as a cryptanalyst to manually decode the Enigma machine used by the Nazis for their encrypted messages. However, the process is too time consuming and the setting of the device changes everyday. To hasten the collaborative efforts from his team mates comprising of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) and Jack Good (James Northcote), Turing designs a bombe and builds it via funding from the British Prime Minister. If the equipment succeeds, the Allied forces will have the upper hand over the Axis powers.

Review
Last I checked, being ‘unique’ is not a crime. In fact, it is celebrated for the excitement diversity has contributed to a modern society emerging more pallid and droning by the day. While still taboo as far as homosexuality is concerned, homosexuals now are at least treated with the respect they deserve, judged not for their preferences but capabilities and have made progressive strides in well-rounded depictions on either television or film.

Not so if you are Turing or any of the 49,000 British men who are unjustly sentenced for gross indecency living between 1885 and 1967. A historic achievement in breaking the Enigma code with the help of the bombe he developed during his employment at Bletchley Park not only truncated the Second World War by two years, it also managed to save more than 14 million lives. Though a collective participation, there is nothing short of greatness.

A tightly guarded secret for more than half a century, he is forbidden to reveal any of the details and chemically castrating him for his proclivity towards other men is the sole ‘reward’ the government has bequeathed to this mathematical whiz until a royal pardon is accorded by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. Capturing Turing’s oddities and infusing with affecting sincerity is played out by a self-assured Cumberbatch and his younger self being supremely emulated by Alex Lawther.

The troubled and misunderstood logician can be loathsome but Cumberbatch’s prowess in deciphering his protagonist’s lack of people skills is speedily compensated with just enough sweetness in a room full of disbelievers. His thorny relationships with his colleagues and superior (albeit exaggerated for dramatic effect) are funny yet requisite to his firm principles that his machine will work. In comes Knightley who relieves some of the tension away from the battle of the brains.

Recruited for correctly solving a crossword puzzle and surpassing Turing’s test, Knightley is willful, intelligent and unabashedly forward, a woman you do not want to be embroiled with in a game of wits. She rises above the hierarchy which has been placed on women in that period and her budding friendship with Turing serves as an antithesis to a decrepit world. Knightley may be too glamourous but the criteria should not hinder the selection if she has the range to pull it off.

Despite garnering Graham Moore an Oscar for his screenplay, prior to the win, he has been barraged with criticisms for the inaccurate portrayal of the characters (Turing, Clarke and Denniston) and proceedings (breaking Enigma and a double agent in the midst). The fact is still unchanged that one man’s (and team) ambition to stop a global threat cemented the way in the advancement of artificial intelligence we now know as the computer. My friend, there is hardly anything imitation about it.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking

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Drama, Reviews

The Theory of Everything

Theory of Everything

Copyright © 2014 by Focus Features

Story
Told through the eyes of Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is on the verge of ascertaining that black holes are contributors to the creation of the universe when he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Doctors say he does not have long to live but undeterred, with Wilde’s undying support and love, he does not give up the fight to finish his research. They marry and as their members of the family continues to increase, so does the scholar’s accolades, resulting in the hypothesis of his earlier study being published in 1988.

Review
Time is money. Often taken for granted due to its imperceptible nature, we forget how fragile life can be until it hits you on the head with a loud thump. Blessed with unparalleled intelligence but cursed by a failing body, Hawking’s world comes crashing down into an abyss of despair when he receives the devastating news (he has not more than two years before he succumbs to the sickness). He is now 73 and ‘A Brief History of Time’ was a chart-topper on the British Sunday Times for 237 weeks.

Adapted by Anthony McCarten from the recollections of Hawking’s first wife whose marriage to the scientist for 30 years is an odyssey ripe for an intimate treatment actualised sensitively through James Marsh’s direction. ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’ may be centred from Wilde’s perspective accepting and coping with her husband’s deteriorating condition but Marsh does not neglect the everyday plight our PhD holder from Cambridge has to endure.

A reminder to live each day like it is your last, Marsh ensures the message is not lost in mawkishness and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score unobtrusively allows Redmayne and Jones to excel in their Oscar-nominated performances (edged out by the former only because he replicated an exact physicality of the real Hawking which has been rewarded handsomely so far from the Globes, SAG and BAFTAs for the ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’; the real shocker would be if he actually loses in the Oscars).

It is difficult to compare if fellow nominee Benedict Cumberbatch of ‘The Imitation Game’ who played the part the first time a decade ago is any better (or different) but Redmayne’s delivery is nothing short of being phenomenal. As his ailment leaves him speechless, the ‘Les Misérable’ star can only convey the hurt and frustration via a lift of a brow or a half smile yet these mannerisms speak volumes of his character’s perseverance and strength to his family and friends.

Heavily invested as the epitome of patience and loyalty in a trying household and not falling behind is Jones’ poised and restrained grace which could have gone stereotypically nagging or prickly if not carefully represented. Akin to the pairing’s contrasting faith in God, neither Redmayne nor Jones will be complete without each other. Even with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) and Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) stepping in midway, the couple’s unbreakable bond works wonders whenever they are together.

I could be just nitpicking but it would have made for more insightful viewing if details about Mr and Mrs Hawking managing their finances and family’s reaction to Wilde’s ever growing responsibilities are examined further instead of skimming over fleetingly (Emily Watson in particular barely registers). But because Marsh and McCarten have chosen the theory about life, it is (almost) everything a Hawking movie should be although they do intermittently stumble on the man’s scientific breakthrough.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material

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Drama, Reviews

The Fault in Our Stars

Fault In Our Stars

Copyright © 2014 by 20th Century Fox

Story
Suffering from severe thyroid cancer, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is made to join a support group by her mother, Frannie (Laura Dern) for fear the illness may sink her into depression. There, she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) and his blind best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff). Gus is smitten by Hazel’s beauty and intelligence but Hazel is contented to only remain as friends, wary of moving the relationship further due to her condition. She eventually gives in to Gus’ persistence and begins a romantic journey with him.

Review
We have seen how love stories in the hands of Hollywood usually play out to the masses – (a) a couple meets in the manner most convenient, fall in love and live happily ever after or (b) the pairing will reunite after a long and tiresome misunderstanding which if not treaded carefully can reduce tension built prior only to be apart again by death, ‘unforeseen’ conditions or the end of the world (any of the direction opted is quite a money maker but personally, a beautiful death garners a couple of awards along the way).

It is not to say that they cannot be entertaining or even enriching for the soul. After all, one of the most adored movies of all time is the unforgettable ‘Gone with the Wind’, a sweeping love epic that has everyone echoing the name Scarlett and Rhett’s fervent obsession for the part Irish beauty has become a staple in popular culture. Like so many other reel romances, what separates between the appealing and the appalling is the instant connection the pair of leads form when they first meet on screen.

Extra points are granted if you do not go into glucose overkill from the inanely sweet spewing of what is passed off as real conversation between a man and woman so deeply in love. And there lies in the strengths of ‘Stars’. It follows the tropes of a romantic drama but engaging the best parts of its limited structure, it manages to come out fresh and unabashedly honest. For a film that deals on a serious subject which seemed tailored for a ‘Hallmark’ feature, this is as real as it gets.

Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from the bestselling novel by John Green, we are immediately drawn into Hazel’s acerbic wit that is imbued with the right dose of vulnerability brought about by the talented Ms Woodley. Her grim outlook on life is morosely pleasurable to watch (if you are suffering from a life threatening disease and the book of choice is ‘An Imperial Affliction’, you would be depressed too). Thankfully, the darkness is illuminated with humour interspersed sensitively to retain the essence of a touchy matter.

Rising star Elgort who has been paired up with Woodley before in ‘Divergent’ is comfortable and confident assuming the role of Augustus while Wolff’s mannerisms reminds me of a less excessive Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Even Dern and Sam Trammell are not wasted on their thankless roles as Hazel’s supportive parents. No doubt that its influence is strictly for a very specific group and you will be a wreck come its conclusion (‘Love Story’ anybody?) but is it okay to find solace in the most unlikeliest of circumstances from the many faults our stars are up against? Always.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language

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