Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Janurary Mini-Reviews - Part 1.

In preparation for the Oscar season, and for my Best and Worst lists of 2016, throughout the month of January, I'm going to be posting some smaller reviews of films I've been checking out in the meantime. Hope you enjoy!

Amanda Knox:
Everyone loves a good monster. Well, whether or not she actually was one, the media and public had a field day labeling Amanda Knox as one, following her accusations and incarceration for the murder of one of her Italy housemates. At least, until she wasn't anymore. Although, even since her double acquittal, there are still those convinced of her guilt in the crime. Based on what? Logic? Evidence? Or, more likely, personal intuition? Are these beliefs subject to the biases and convictions of other people? Whether or not Knox was simply acting out in oddball ways towards the event, or whether she's the most gifted actress of the century, such personal readings are never a good substitute for physical evidence. This slight, but engaging documentary speaks volumes about the gleeful vilification of public figures, from journalists and news contributors laying out eye-catching headlines, to an impatient police force pressure into leaping to conclusions. We live in a society that likes to lay out very thin black and white divides, but judgment like this often comes at the expense of truth, with so-called "professional stories" becoming more like guilty pleasure gossip.

**** / ***** 

Taking great responsibility to carefully bring the award-winning play to the screen, Denzel Washington sets foot in the director's chair for his first time since The Great Debaters, and crafting an imperfect, but highly engaging piece of work. It's quite obvious throughout Fences the play-like origins of the original work, both a blessing and a curse throughout the film. Good because it allows for some fantastic extended interplay between its numerous actors on display, but bad because the very reserved and limited locations can sometimes make the film arduous to watch, not exactly pepped up by any flair. However, as un-cinematic as the film may seem, these issues are still made up by the simple fact that the film's cast is just that good, bouncing off of each other with natural and subtle reactions, and each actor getting at least one great standout moment to impress the viewer, but never to the degree of pandering. Washington has the showiest role of the bunch, electric and thoroughly intense at capturing a time-tested man hung up on the past, one underlined by mysteries and tall tales, and always one bad word away from flying into a rage. Special notice goes to Viola Davis for her outstanding work as his character's wife, herself a time-tested woman faithfully dedicated and patient of her husband, as straining as it may be to put on such a brave face day by day and act as his personal support, sometimes struggling and failing to keep composure as she proceeds to lash out at him for his actions while still retaining respect and empathy.

****1/2 / *****

The Handmaiden:
The latest from Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook, a thriller of lust, liberation, and deception, is not an easy sit, but makes for an engaging and suspenseful time. The Handmaiden is split into three separate chapters, showing the progressions and interwoven connections of various characters, often pulling protagonist switches in the meantime. This turns the film into a gripping guessing game, as once sweet moments can soon be laced with sinister connotations on reflection, especially as the film dives deeper into tackling the sexual objectification of the male gaze, and it's a structure that will likely reward repeat viewings, as once nuanced moments will bear more significance the second time out. But outside of its unpleasant brutality, the film not only manages to find some tickling dark humor, but like any erotic thriller should, builds a palpable sense of chemistry between central characters, whether they be of great passion, or of venomous disdain. It's also a gorgeously designed and photographed film, as the confines and the atmosphere greatly vary based on the personal emotions of characters.

**** / *****

Hidden Figures:
Mankind has always been one to break protocol as we evolve, but even so, the idea of three African-American women working in the backrooms of NASA eventually helping define history - at a time when segregation was still in full effect - seemed unthinkable. Hidden Figures itself doesn't exactly do much to shake up its biographic roots, nor does it intend to reach for any overly ambitious heights, but for what it is, a heartwarming and thoroughly entertaining tribute to those important figures, it's an absolute delight. Sentimental at its core without feeling saccharine (even if slightly toning down its segregation roots), the meat and potato facts and interwoven character interactions do provide compelling drama and entertainment, faithful to the sense of personal judgment and condescension (even unintentionally) of the time, but still retaining a sense of humor and endearing lightness for easily digestible entertainment. The film largely thrives based on the strength of its fantastic ensemble cast, and especially from the irresistible chemistry between the three leads. Taraji P. Henson is a spirited and deeply felt lead performer, her reactions and emotional connection often carrying the film with superb results, but it's ultimately her two candid co-stars who wind up stealing the show, such as Octavia Spencer as a snarky and sweet center of command within her personal unit, and newcomer Janelle Monae playing fierce and persistent with an added grace and eloquence to go with it. Oscar nods for any of them would be more than welcome.

**** / *****

It appears that shoddy track records seem to run in the family, as this thoroughly underwhelming directorial debut from Ridley Scott's son Luke comes to prove. Credit where it's due, he's certainly inherited his father's immaculate eye for visual detail (save for some fight sequences that are edited like a Taken sequel), but that sleekness in visual style is all that the film truly has going for it. The film is thematically based around the topics of abuse of god-like creation, and the right of an experiment to live and be free, as opposed to being manipulated by their creators, but squanders all of these qualities in its lack of development or ability to hold a consistent mood, making it feel like a poor man's Ex Machina. Furthermore, the film has no idea how it wants the viewer to see Morgan. It expects the viewer to feel saddened and sentimental to her, yet then sporadically decides to turn her into Jason Voorhees. Not that it can't make us feel sorry for her and fear her, but the film struggles to find any convincing balance. It should have also thought to give the other players more depth beyond single notes, with these supposedly intelligent characters making exclusively stupid decisions, including not knowing basic protocol, or even considering Murphy's Law at any point in their experiments. It makes you feel bad for the all star talent on display, some of whom like Kate Mara may even be doing the project as a favor to Ridley Scott. It could have made for a profound thriller had it been able to build any momentum, but by the time it rolls in a ridiculous twist at the end (not even surprising because of how hammered in it is), it feels like it's practically given up out of apathy. The result is an ambitious debut that lands with a resounding thud.

*1/2 / *****

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