Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hidden Figures

Year: 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Plot: Based on the true story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three African American women who made significant contributions to NASA in their space program in the 1960s.

Review: Much like Selma and The Help before it, Hidden Figures tells the story of the struggle for colored folk in America several decades back, and is just as fascinating as those films, if not totally flawless.

The three women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, have all the skills required to excel in their respective assignments, but due to their skin color, are mostly overlooked or underappreciated by their white peers. Johnson is a math genius, a prodigy since she was young, but after she is chosen to compute equations for NASA's space program, she gets sidelined and discriminated against by her colleagues. Jackson is a brilliant engineer, but the rulebook disallows her from applying for an engineering post due to her skin color. Vaughan is doing a supervisor's job but denied the proper post and salary of such a job. And so, the women do whatever they can to stand out and achieve equal respect among their white peers and superiors.

It's actually quite fun and occasionally frustrating to see them struggle with their problems, get a small victory only to get another setback throughout the film. Director Theodore Melfi successfully shows us their plight during racial tension in the 60s, where colored folk have to use their own restrooms, sit at the back of the bus, denied equal pay and even use the same library with white people. A great example of this is when Johnson gives her boss, Al Harrison and her colleagues a piece of her mind when he asks her where she disappears to every now and then due to the fact she has to walk half a mile to use the colored restrooms.

Taraji P Henson is splendid as Johnson, and that above mentioned scene with Kevin Costner as her boss is a standout moment for sure. Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan in a subtle manner, but still retaining some of her street smart comebacks. My favorite though is Janelle Monae, who gives Mary Jackson a nice amount of spunk in her attitude. Costner is also good as the fair but very result oriented boss while Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst fill the roles of white folk who discriminate them but eventually learns the error of their ways.

While everyone's acting is spot on, Melfi's storytelling isn't as smooth as it could have been. As the stories of the three women start to take their own course, he struggles to keep a coherent flow as he switches back and forth between their stories too often, which is most evident in the middle third of the film. But overall, I liked how informative the film is, even if some of the facts were altered (it is Hollywood after all).

In the end, Hidden Figures is an inspiring true story that is well acted by its cast. It may not be as memorable as The Help, but deserves to be checked out. (7/10) 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Year: 2016
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths

Plot: Based on the true story of Desmond Doss, an American war medic who saved dozens of American soldiers during World War II without carrying a weapon.

Review: Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson's first film as a director in ten years (after 2006's Apocalypto), and he seems to have not lost a beat, judging by all the acclaim it has received so far.

This film is about the life of Desmond Doss, a war medic who rescued plenty of American soldiers during World War II at Okinawa, Japan. After a childhood incident, along with his religious upbringing and the actions of his drunk father while growing up, Doss renounces violence and enlists in the army to become a war medic. However, since he refuses to touch a firearm due to his beliefs, his superiors and fellow trainees give him a hard time, but to his credit, he doesn't quit. 

The second half of the story focuses on the battle for Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, where Doss risks his life over and over to save his fellow comrades, and never once firing a gun. This part of the story has a Saving Private Ryan feel to it, as Gibson does not relent in showing the horror and violence of war, with plenty of headshots, blood and severed limbs on screen.

Despite the lengthy screen time at 139 minutes, the film feels lean and well paced. Credit goes to Gibson for making the film's flow perfectly smooth and not wasting any time, even during the quieter moments. The battle sequences are also pretty intense and well shot, thus the second half of the film is pretty action packed and suspenseful.

Andrew Garfield puts in a strong performance as Doss, though I'm not sure if he deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar just yet. Don't get me wrong, he is great. But superb? Maybe not. Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington lend some good support as Doss' superiors, with the former giving a Full Metal Jacket inspired performance during the training scenes, which will give audiences a good laugh. Teresa Palmer is the perfect match for Garfield as his love interest, Dorothy while Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths are awesome as Doss' parents, particularly Weaving. Weaving's portrayal of a emotionally scarred former soldier is reminiscent of William Fichtner's brief appearance in Pearl Harbor, and he should have earned an Oscar nomination next to Garfield. Finally Luke Bracey, who is usually a bland actor, actually does well as Smitty, Doss' comrade who is hard on him during training but eventually comes to respect him.

Now, while Hacksaw Ridge is a great film with all the right elements in place, it feels somewhat derivative of other better war films that have come before it. Saving Private Ryan immediately comes to mind, and even Braveheart, Gibson's crown jewel, both feel more compelling than this film. 

Nevertheless, Hacksaw Ridge is a solid war film which is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, and should be watched by all war movie fans. (8/10)

Thursday, February 09, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Year: 2017
Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Franco Nero

Plot: John Wick is forced by a blood oath to do a job for an Italian mobster who seeks to overthrow his sister from her place in the underworld hierarchy.

Review: The first John Wick movie was a huge success, putting Keanu Reeves back in the spotlight as an action star. This sequel seeks to do more of what the first film delivered i.e. violence and action, and boy does it deliver in spades.

But Chapter 2 isn't just John Wick blasting bad guy after bad guy, it's also an expansion of the universe introduced in Chapter 1. In the first film, we get to see a hotel for assassins where they are not allowed to conduct business while staying in it, as well as a clean up crew on call. In Chapter 2, we are shown how wide the underworld's network truly is, and how the infamous Continental Hotel has a Roman branch, using the same rules of course. And apparently, John Wick is a well known figure in this world, as everyone knows his reputation, and a lot of them fear him too.

This time around, John is forced by an Italian mobster, who had helped John successfully retire in the past, to help kill his sister in an attempted coup d'etat. John has to finish the job and stay alive as every hitman on the mobster's payroll tries to kill him to tie up loose ends, and his sister's men are also after him for payback.

Director Chad Stahelski, who co-directed the first film, and writer Derek Kolstad have outdone themselves here by not simply rehashing what has come before, but adding more characters and layers to a fascinating universe. If you thought there were plenty of assassins in the first film, get ready to meet even more of them here, all ready to spring into action via text message, and they can come from anywhere. It's also interesting to see the various professions that support hitmen like John, such as pawnbrokers, weapons dealers and even tailors who make body armor.

Reeves is still a badass here as John, looking like he just stepped off the first film and walked into this one. I do have a slight issue with Reeves' habit of nodding his head nearly every time he says something (which is weird), but one doesn't really give a damn if he can still kick ass, right? Riccardo Scamarcio is solid as the antagonist Santino, looking like a younger version of Marton Csokas. Common and Ruby Rose (her third film in a month) also shine as fellow assassins trying to kill John, while Lance Reddick, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo all make welcome returns from the first film. Reeves' Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne also shows up as an underworld boss who uses pigeons and beggars to gather and dispense information.

As for the action, it is downright brutal from the get go. The lengthy opening sequence sees John take on the Russian mob in an attempt to get his car back, and the sight of car crashes, broken bones and bullet shots in succession is simply awesome to behold. After that? More close quarters shooting, knife fights, lots of headshots and a final fight in a house of mirrors. If that doesn't please you, I don't know what will.

Like the first film, one is left wondering why the police never show up when shit goes down, save for officer Jimmy from the first film making a comeback here. But it's a small issue that you won't be thinking about, not until the film's over anyway.

All in all, John Wick: Chapter 2 is fun, violent and bloody, as it should be. Another sequel is definitely coming judging by how it ends. Bring it on. (8.5/10)


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