Hidden Figures: film review

It’s sad to think that just 50 years ago, America was still segregated. And that men would make comments like, “This curriculum isn’t written for women.” It was a struggle for black people and for women, and a real struggle for black women.
But Hidden Figures tells the story of some remarkable and gifted Black Women in the 60s who defied regulations and exceeded expectations to become some of the most important people in the space race.
The film follows a group of three friends who work at NASA on the space programme, there’s the matriarch of the group, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) who is working as a Supervisor in the computer department of NASA, looking after the black women, yet without the pay or the title. She’s a smart cookie who can jump start a car engine and knows her numbers.
Then there is sassy Mary (Janelle Monae), a glamourous and mouthy lady, and fiercely intelligent. She works at NASA as a computer but has aspirations of being an engineer. She says if she were a white man, she already would be a NASA engineer, but because she is a black woman, she can’t attend the school where she needs to take the course to qualify as an engineer.

Then there is Katherine (Taraj P. Henson), whom the story centres around. She is the most brilliant mathematical mind at NASA, but because she is a black woman, gets overlooked. She is called up to the Space Task Group to calculate the trajectories toget astronaut John Glenn into orbit and while her work is just as good, if not better, than everyone else’s, she is subjected to suspicion and ridicule.
She is made to drink out of a separate coffee pot and has to walk half a mile across campus to use the black ladies’ bathroom. Not to mention she struggles to do her work properly because her manager Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) insists on striking out key pieces of information with a black marker before handing it over to her because she “doesn’t have clearance.”
The head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), is not concerned with race relations and is focused purely on winning the space race to put a man on the moon. He is dealt a blow when the Russians beat the US to putting a man into space and becomes more determined than ever. He is so impressed with Katherine’s work, and is one of the few who values her work, and although he never says it, you can tell he is impressed with her gumption as she frequently stands up to him and to Paul to argue her point.

It’s an excellent cast and they were recognised at the Screen Actors Guild Awards with Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. The comradery and diligence of the three leading ladies really shines through, and Costner is excellent as the authoritative father figure. Parsons is less, well ‘Sheldon’ but plays the nearest thing to a villain in the piece as he refuses to acknowledge Katherine’s intelligence. There is also a good turn from Kirsten Dunst as a supervisor who claims she isn’t racist, but actions show otherwise. And Mahershala Ali (who is tipped for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Moonlight) as Katherine’s love interest, a hunky but ill-informed Colonel, Jim Johnson.
Hidden Figures is an interesting and compelling story as the three lead women battle to get themselves heard and respected while doing what they do best: making the numbers work, both on a blackboard and in the case of Dorothy using the new IBM machine.
However, with the inundation of films at the cinema in the last month for awards season, I wouldn’t say that this is one of my favourites. The cast was excellent, but the story was slow at points and I found myself checking my watch a couple of times – never a good sign.

It’s a story that needs to be told – about women standing up to do their job and achieve great things in the face of adversity (Katherine Johnson was awarded with a Medal of Honor for her work). But the film feels skewed to be a feel good experience when the reality was far from that. Yes, that’s Hollywood, and sometimes it’s nice to see a film with heart and leave the cinema with a smile on your face, but it almost plays the white men, Parsons in particular, as pantomime villains.
The trailer was great, but it was one of those montages that meant that you can work out what happens in the entire film: women struggle against prejudice, Katherine gets pulled up to a really high profile job at NASA, she has to run across campus to the bathroom so Kevin Costner uses a crowbar to knock the ‘colored bathroom’ sign off the wall. Katherine scribbles equations furiously on a blackboard… And because it is based on real life events, we all know that John Glenn gets into space and returns safely.
Hidden figures is a good film, a happy film, but it doesn’t offer much new in a predictable, light-hearted story. These ladies may have helped the US win the space race to the moon, but I think the film is unlikely to win at the Oscars.


Hacksaw Ridge: film review

A soldier who doesn’t believe in killing or violence? Seems like a bit of a dichotomy, but that is the true story of Desmond Doss: a medic in World War Two who saved hundreds of lives.

The story begins in Doss’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia when he is just a child, and his father (Hugo Weaving), a Great War veteran, encourages him to fight with his brother: it doesn’t end well and Desmond contemplates the consequences of his actions while considering the ten commandments, particularly the one that his mother (Rachel Griffiths) tells him is the worst: Thou shalt not murder. 

Fast forward a few years to Desmond in his late teens (played from here on by an excellent Andrew Garfield): a good Christian boy who wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the education for it. When he helps save a man trapped under a car and fashions a tourniquet from his belt, he ends up accompanying him to the hospital and falls in love with a young nurse named Dorothy on first sight. He courts and eventually woos her and tells her of his desire to help people and his interest in medicine; she lends him books on anatomy which he devours.

At this point in the film, WW2 is well underway and Pearl Harbour has just happened; all the local young men are enlisting, including Desmond’s brother, which infuriates his father, who suffers from PTSD and depression as a result of his service. Desmond feels it is his duty to sign up too, but wants to be a medic as he feels that way he will be saving people, not killing them. But despite his noble intentions, Desmond faces trouble when he becomes Private Doss in the army.

Doss’s problem is, he refuses to even touch a gun, and all military personnel are required to carry one when serving and must pass the rifle  requirements to qualify for the forces. He endures mockery and physical violence from his cohorts who continually bate him, and punishment from his Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and Captain (Sam Worthington), but sticks firmly to his belief.

It seems like Sergeant Howell has some sort of sympathy or understanding for him, but the Captain wants to try to make things as difficult for Doss as possible in an attempt to make him quit. I was surprised to see Vince Vaughn in such a serious role, but he pulls it off with aplomb; the stereotypical drill sergeant that shouts and spits in the faces of all his privates as he puts them through their paces in training. Though not quite as terrifying as R. Lee Ermmey in Full Metal Jacket, and there’s an emotional side to his character as well as he tries to understand Doss and this side comes through again when he fights on the battlefield. 


He is eventually allowed onto the battlefield with his unit, and it is a violent affair. It’s probably more gory representation of war than Saving Private Ryan, but with the comradery of Band of Brothers. For Doss, who is so brave in the face of danger when it comes to helping and saving others, the battlefield is almost easier for him than training camp when he had to fight for his right not to carry a weapon. 

As the US fight as against the Japanese, the film portrays war as truly brutal. Shots are fired, grenades are thrown, the Japanese spear men with their bayonets, blood and guts fly, literally. It’s not the easiest of watches. I’m not particularly squeamish and I flinched and yelped several times as men had their legs blown off and tried to stuff their own guts back in. 

Amidst the violence and mayhem, It’s Doss’s faith, that he so adamantly stuck by throughout training, that helps him survive Hacksaw Ridge, the eponymous battleground that the soldiers fight on, named so because it is at the top of a sheer cliff face that looks like it has been hacked off. Doss always carries with him a picture of his girl Dorothy inside her miniature Bible, which fits neatly in his breast pocket. I did wonder if he was going to get shot in the chest and saved by the Bible: it’s cheesy, but hey, it is a Mel Gibson film.

Gibson seems to have redeemed himself with this film, earning nominations for Best Director and Best Film at several of the big award ceremonies, including the Oscars, after years of controversy and faux pas, remember Passion of the Christ? The film is well shot with Hacksaw Ridge seeming bleak and immense, with clever use of the fog on the battlefield. As discussed in my previous blog, I think it could win the Oscar for Best Film Editing (won the BAFTA), and for Sound Editing.



The star of the film is Andrew Garfield, who’s voice is slightly grating, but in fact is a spot on impersonation of the real Desmond Doss (who is shown in footage at the end of the film). Garfield dropped of the radar after he was ditched as Spiderman after just two films, but this really shows his talents as an actor. He’s had a busy couple of years while he’s been out of the limelight filming Hacksaw and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. This is a demanding role, both physically and emotionally, but he nails it. My only criticism is that his hair remains perfectly coiffed throughout, even on the battlefield. That’s a lot of product to maintain such a beautiful quiff. I thought the army made you shave your head?! 

Perfect hair and all, Garfield has already won several accolades for the role, including Critics Choice for Best Actor in an Action Movie, and awards at Palm Springs and London Critics Choice, but it unlikely to pick up the Best Actor Oscar as he faces tough competition from the likes of Casey Affleck, Ryan Gosling and Denzel Washington. 

Hacksaw Ridge is a unique and captivating story and it’s wonderful when true and inspiring stories like this can be told to millions of people through the medium of film. It’s hard to believe that this really happened, that there is someone so brave and selfless as this in the world. He was the first man to receive the Medal of Honor without ever firing a weapon, and until his dying day remained humble and dignified. 

Lion: film review

From the opening credits with sweeping geographical shots across Tasmania and Calcutta, you know that Lion is going to be full of spectacular visuals. It certainly earned its win for American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases (what a mouthful!).

Lion is a beautiful film: beautifully shot and a beautifully moving story of loss, identity and family. The film opens in the heart of India with little Saroo marvelling at butterflies fluttering around him in a barren valley and his brother Guddu calling him to follow. The young pair live in relative poverty with their mother and younger sister; they steal coal off passing freight trains to exchange for milk at the market. 

Little Saroo sees a vat of jalopies being made, a fried Indian treat, and begs his brother to buy him one, but they cannot afford it. One day I’ll buy ALL the jalopies, declares Saroo. He is a strong willed-five year old who will do anything he can to help his mother and brother and begs Guddu to let him accompany him in a trip to earn money.

But unfortunately, when left unaccompanied, Saroo strays onto a stationary train at the station platform, which then sets off cross country, travelling for days all the way to Calcutta. He then finds himself lost and misunderstood as he speaks Hindi in a Bangladeshi region. There are plenty of other lost and orphaned children on the streets, so nobody bats an eye lid at poor little Saroo.

This part of the film is endearing as you view the streets of Calcutta through a child’s eyes: the disapproving looks from adults, people bathing, washing clothes and playing in the river, sifting through the tips (reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire) people sitting in restaurants looking out at the beggars.  

His two month journey from the train station to the orphanage demonstrates his tenacity and bravery. Not to mention his literal street smarts. When he arrives at the orphanage, one of the other children tells him, this is a bad place. But there is hope, as so only a lucky few get to leave. 

Saroo is one such lucky one. He gets adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Tasmania. His adoptive mother Sue, played by Nicole Kidman, is full of love and kindness, as is her husband John. But it’s Sue’s motherly instinct that really comes across as she gazes lovingly at him in the car on the first journey to his new home and watches with fascination as she lets him roam the house and explore his new home. His face lights up when he opens the fridge and finds it packed with food. 

Kidman is excellent in what must be a meaningful role for her, as she has adopted children of her own from her marriage with Tom Cruise. The film sees her go through so many emotions, all of which she portrays so well. Kidman has always been good at being a bit weepy, but her delight with newly-adopted Saroo is heart-warming. 

He lives a happy life with his new family, but it is disturbed a year later when they adopt another son, also from India. He is not as strong willed as Saroo and has clearly been through a lot; he screams, he kicks, he beats himself. And it takes its toll on loving Sue who can’t bear to see her child in so much pain. But Saroo, still placid and loving, helps her through.

The story then flashes forward twenty years to Saroo, all grown up (now played by Dev Patel) and off to study in Melbourne – hotel management. Where he meets the love of his life, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara. When hanging out with s new friends and doing the ‘getting to know you’ part of university, he begins to question his own origins. He’s from Tasmania, but really he’s from Calcutta, he was adopted. Important question, who does he support in the cricket? “Aussies all the way, mate.”

Then one night when he is at an Indian friend’s house, he goes to the kitchen to grab a beaver and sees a whole plate of jalopies. He smells them, takes a bite and memories of his childhood all come flooding back. “I’m not from Calcutta,” he says as he realises much of his early childhood had been suppressed. 

Patel has come a long way since his days as an awkward skinny teenager playing Anwar in Skins. He nails he Australian accent and, like Kidman, his range of emotions is impressive as he battles his inner demons of wanting to be loyal to his adoptive mother. But having strong instincts to find his birth mother and his brother. 

He beings a mission to work out where he really came from, with the help of Google Earth and the support of his girlfriend. Though he doesn’t tell his mother Sue and his father about his project, as he does not want them to think him ungrateful. But the project consumes him to the point where he quits his job as he becomes obsessed with finding out where he came from.

Nobody recognises the name of the small village he was from, all he knows is that if you walked through the trees next to his village and across the barren valley, you would reach the train station where he strayed onto the train. It had a large water tower opposite the platform and that is all he had to go on when examining the topographical images on Google Earth within hundreds of miles’ radius, based on how long he was on the train and how fast old diesel trains travelled.

The film is spectacular is watch, with beautiful cinematography showing the contrast of poverty-stricken Calcutta with the opulent seaside towns in Australia. The sound is also great, with much of the impact lying in the moments of silence, allowing observation of the visuals until interrupted by a small sound like the rumble of a train or the click of a cricket. 

Much of the film’s more poignant moments lie in Saroo’s connection with his loved one, which is portrayed with close up shots of him gazing into others’ eyes as he realises more about them and himself in the moments of reflection, from holding Sue’s face as he wipes her tears as a child, to lying on top of his girlfriend Lucy and intimately looking deep into her eyes, to later in the film when he meets pele from his past – no spoiler here!

I was in tears as the lights came up in the cinema, particularly the real-life footage of the people the story was based on that are interspersed with the credits. It’s a heart-warming film that I’m sure will take home some more awards in the upcoming ceremonies and I recommend seeing it. 

Can La La Land win all of its 14 Oscar nominations? 

La La Land has been nominated for a record-equalling 14 Oscars, matching All About Eve and Titanic’s record. It has already won a record-breaking seven Golden Globe Awards. Some people are disputing the hype. I believe the reason it was so successful at the Globes is because it’s a musical, and the Globes divides it’s main awards into two categories: Drama and Comedy or Musical; so La La Land and it’s actors did not face competition from the likes of Moonlight and Manchester on Sea. 

The same could be said of its numerous Oscar nominations: being a musical it has a good score, original songs, good staging, production and cinematography. But none of that is to take away from what a great film it is. 

Can it win all the awards it’s been nominated for? I’ve broken down the categories to find out. Let’s start with the actors…

Best Actor – Probably not

Ryan Gosling has gone from indie darling to fully fledged superstar in recent years and this film has only cemented his status as the top. He is a very versatile actor, having starred in teary romantic dramas like The Notebook in his early days, gritty indie films like Drive where he kicks a man’s head in, comedies like buddy cop film The Nice Guys, opposite Russell Crowe, and now he can add a musical to his roster. 

His singing and dancing may not be the best ever seen on screen, but this makes him more endearing. The iconic dance sequence at sunrise overlooking Hollywood sees him not quite elongate his arm enough and his singing is sometimes ever so slightly flat. But what he lacks in technical perfection, he makes up in charm; like a modern day Gene Kelly. 

Most impressive is the fact that he learnt jazz piano for the role; so well in fact that they didn’t need the hand doubles that they hired for the close up shots. He modestly claims he had some experience on the keys from his youth playing in a garage band, but jazz piano is a whole other matter. And he nails it.  
In terms of emotive acting, those soppy eyes come in use as he lusts after Emma Stone and you can feel his frustration and determination as the struggling jazz artist, just as much as you can feel how much he really loves Mia.

Will he win? Personally I think Casey Affleck has a better chance for his gritty performance in Manchester on Sea, and after his win at the SAG Awards, Denzel Washington could also be a threat. So probably not, sorry Ryan. 

Best actress – Probably, yes

Like Gosling, Emma Stone has also become a Hollywood darling. Comedy is her strong suit: she has excellent timing and good improv skills, building her CV with roles in clever teen comedies like Superbad and Easy A. She has been gradually working her way towards more ‘serious’ roles, appearing in The Help, then Birdman – for which she was Oscar nominated as the eponymous character’s troubled daughter. 

She still gets some laughs in this film, but also like Gosling, it’s her frustration and determinedness, that soon subsides into hopelessness, as she chases her dream of being an actress attending audition after audition. “It’s just a pipe dream,” she soon concludes. But Gosling’s Seb urges her to keep going. 

Stone’s dancing, also like Gosling’s, is not technically perfect but the pair match each other well. She has appeared on Broadway, in the 2015 production of Cabaret, so she’s certainly got the musical chops. I was not blown away by her voice until the Audition song (The Fools Who Dream) where you can feel every word she sings. It brought tears to my eyes; simply beautiful. I’m sure her performance played a large part in the song being nominated for Best Original Song – a bonus nomination following the lead song City of Stars also being nominated for that category.

Stone is currently favourite to win Best Actress. I personally think that Natalie Portman in Jackie was better. And she’s also got competition from Isabelle Huppert for her role in French film Elle after she picked up Best Actress in a Drama at the Golden Globes. I think Stone will win because Hollywood loves her, but I think Portman deserves it more. 

Best achievement in directing – Yes

Damien Chazelle should win this award. He’s just picked up the top honour at the Director’s Guild Award, making him the youngest person to ever pick up the award at just 32 years old. When accepting a medallion for his nomination he said, “I’m a movie-maker because I’m a movie lover, first and foremost.”

He went on to say, “Movies are powerful, because they speak to everyone. They speak to all countries, all cultures.” Hear, hear. His 2014 film Whiplash, which helped him to raise funds to make his passion project, La La Land, proved that the man has talent, but this film is his crowning glory. It took him years to get made but was worth the wait. I hope he’ll be rewarded for it.

Mel Gibson won’t win Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, he’s fallen out of favour with The Academy following his numerous rants, scandals and faux-pas. There is a case for Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, La La Land’s biggest threat overall and the kind of gritty drama that usually garners lots of industry love and awards. And director Garth Davis won the award for First Time Feature film at the DGA, putting him in the running for this award. But basically, Chazelle is a shoe-in for Best Director.

Best original screenplay – Maybe

La La Land is a truly lovely story; a modern love story about modern Hollywood, Chazelle’s love letter to Hollywood. His script is on-point: witty, good dialogue and some poignant quotes, “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired, then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope”, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” And the fact that it’s all so effortlessly interwoven with songs and dance routines makes it even better.

Some people, myself included, have disputed the ending (SPOILER ALERT) saying that Mia and Seb should have ended up together to create the saccharine Hollywood ending that so many longed for, but it’s a solid story and has real heart. If it wins, La La Land will be the first musical to win this category since Mel Brooke’s The Producers in 1967.

This year sees three black writers nominated in the screenplay category for the first time, a big improvement since last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Hell or High Water was a great film: another modern take on a traditional genre, though this time for Westerns. The Lobster was ridiculous, but in a good way, but is certainly an outsider. 20th Century Women may have stood a chance if La La Land weren’t in the category; I think Manchester by the Sea is Chazelle’s biggest threat in this category, but he has a good shot at winning this little gold man.
Best achievement in cinematography – hard to say, but probably

There’s no arguing that La La Land is beautifully shot: it’s full of colour and some shots could easily be taken as individual stills and framed they are so picturesque. Shot in CinemaScope splendour, the film’s visuals continue the whole film’s nod to traditional films: it’s like when colour was first introduced and films were so heavily saturated in colour, just because they could be. And it works: it’s a happy, colourful film so a happy, colourful canvas fits.

Conversely, Moonlight’s dark visuals reflect the film’s dark themes effectively. Lion is one of the more visually beautiful films this year with great sweeping scenes of Calcutta and an effective narrative shooting some of the film from a child’s point of view. It has already won the American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases, so maybe Lion will beat La La Land to the punch.

Best achievement in film editing – No

La La Land could win here, but I would be obliged to say that another film might snag this one. But I don’t know who… Arrival or Hell or High Water both stand a good chance: original screenplays that certainly saw the editors face tough decisions on the cutting room floor to make succinct films: and coming in at just one hour and 42 minutes, Hell or High Water was enjoyably concise while still being powerful.

Then there is Moonlight which spans over several decades, so had a lot do to make a compelling story. 
Moonlight also marks the first black woman to earn an Oscar nomination in film editing for Joi McMillion, who edited the film with Nat Sanders. Also in the category is Hacksaw Rigde. Big action and war films often win Best Film Editing, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the war epic win here – Mad Max Fury Road, 2016; The Hurt Locker, 2010, The Bourne Ultimatum, 2008, Black Hawn Down, 2002; Saving Private Ryan, 1998 etc. I rest my case.
Best achievement in production design – Maybe, but likely not

This category is a big MAYBE. The sets and scenery are beautiful, particularly in the epilogue: that should win an award in itself. But Jackie is the biggest competition for La La Land here thanks to the beautiful and meticulous recreation of the White House. When Jackie presents the televised tour of the White House, you can see the level of detail put into everything: from the Oval office to her bedroom and the Lincoln Room, not a hair is out of place; this is a strong contender. 
But let’s not forget Passengers, which could be a dark horse. The film was pannedd by critics in terms of script and plot, but there’s no arguing that the large-scale set of the spaceship is quite spectacular. Passengers could take us for a ride on this one, but I’m betting on Jackie.

Best achievement in costume design – No

While the costumes are nice, they are just that: nice. Good bold, primary colours, like when Mia and her friends swish and flick their way down the road to ‘Someone in the Crowd’ and Mia’s bold yellow sundress against the deep purple backdrop on ‘What a Lovely Night’. 

Designer Mary Zophres will probably lose out to Jackie’s Madeline Fontaine who so successfully recreated the former First Lady’s most iconic outfits, including the two piece and pillbox hat that lead to her being called ‘the widow in pink’.

Best achievement in music written for motion picture, Score – Yes

There has been an abundance of great scores in film this year, Jackie was particularly beautiful and poignant, and I enjoyed the music for Arrival (so was surprised not was not nominated). Lion and Moonlight also serve up stirring soundtracks, but La La Land is truly excellent. I’ve got the soundtrack on my personal playlist at the moment and the hashtag LALALANDONLOOP was trending soon after it was released.

I’d like to say that La La Land has got this on, but maybe Passengers will sneak another one in here: space films always have a good score: Gravity, Moon, Alien, and of course 2001: A Space Oddessy of course being the pinnacle. 

Best achievement in music written for motion picture, Original song – For sure

La La Land has got the best chance out of any film in this category quite simply for the fact that it has two nominations: for the lead song City of Stars, and for Audition (The Fools Who Dream). I think City of Stars will win; it’s a simple but enjoyable ditty that’s as catchy as it is enjoyable. 

Also in this category is the song from Disney’s Moana – How Far I’ll Go, sung by Alessia Cara and written by multi-award winning Lin Manuel Miranda. I’m sure he would like to add another trophy to his cabinet case following the success of Hamilton, and he probably would have if this were any other year. There’s also Justin Timberlake’s feel good pop hit from Trolls, Can’t Stop the Feeling, but this had a better chance in the charts than at the Oscars. 
There’s also outsider The Empty Chair from Jim: The James Foley Story. Nope I hadn’t heard the song until I just looked it up now, either. 

Best achievement in sound editing – No

This award usually tends to go to more blockbuster, ‘big bang’ style films, so I don’t think La La Land is a shoe-in for this category, as good as the tapping of Mia and Seb’s feet are when they dance.

Hacksaw Ridge will probably win this along with editing due to format of film, although Arrival was good and would like to see it win something! Also nominated is Deepwater Horizon – lots of big bangs there, so maybe! And then there’s Sully, the surging noise of plane going down and the droning crowds from Sully’s point of view make it another likely contender, but I don’t think this one is for La La Land.
Best motion picture – Yes, Yes Yes!!

The big one. Best film. Can it do it? I think it can. As you may have read in my previous post, Hollywood loves films about the movie industry. The Oscars are voted for by The Academy, made up of employees of the film industry, so it is likely that they will lap up the golden age Hollwood nostalgia of La La Land.

Besides that, it genuinely is a lovely film – a modern musical that brings a smile to your face. With such heavy going and emotional films scooping the award in the last four years: Spotlight and especially 12 Years A Slave, it would be nice to have something a bit more upbeat – like The Artist – to scoop the top gong at The Oscars this year. 

It has all the components of a great film: good story, good acting, good cinematography; nice to look at, nice to listen to. The fact that it has been nominated in so many other categories proves what a well-rounded film it is. It’s popular with critics and audiences alike and I think it’s likely to go down in history as a new classic: the go-to example of a modern musical. 

Good luck La La Land!

Arrival: film review

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch this film as closely as I would have liked to, as whilst watching I came down with a case of norovirus, which started with intense stomach cramps so bad I thought that I was in a sci film myself and an alien was going to erupt from my stomach! I find there’s something strange about watching films which have a deep meaning or message to them when you’re not well; I tend to question things more. I watched Ex Machina on the sofa last year when I was sick and by the time it was finished I was questioning humanity itself! Now I tend to stick to You’ve Got Mail if I’m feeling ill and sorry for myself. 

But back to Arrival: heralded as another ‘intelligent sci fi film’ – which I am always cautious of; I personally wasn’t a fan of Intersetellar, controversial I know. But I think Amy Adams is always fantastic and I LOVED director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, so I was keen to see what this film held in store.

Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist who lectures at a university and is approached by the government when large pods from outer space appear on earth. She has done some translation for the government before so has security clearance – they need someone as soon as possible to try to communicate with whatever is inside these pods to establish what they want and why they have arrived on earth. There are 12 that have landed in seemingly random locations all around the world. She is taken to one that has landed in remote Montana in the US.

She is joined by scientists Ian Donnelley, Jeremy Renner -,who is not being action man running about and punching people as he usually does these days. The team is lead by army Colonel Weber, Forest Whitaker. They arrive at base and are given their own teams tapping away on computers to instruct; they suit up before entering the pods in an attempt to communicate with the aliens.



It’s hard to talk about much more about the plot without revealing anything, as so much of the enjoyment of watching it comes from the viewers’ questions: will we see the aliens? Will they talk back? How do you go about talking to an alien anyway? Is there going to be a battle – the army’s on standby with big guns, and China and Russia are involved, so probably!

The story unfolds, interspersed with a series of images of Adams with her daughter growing up, who sadly suffers from an incurable illness in her teens. This is the opening sequence of the film, Louise narrating ‘the day when you arrived’ – leaving us unsure if she is talking about her daughter or the aliens. 

The film is intelligent – it’s about communication, miscommunication and humanity as much as it is about aliens. There are some things that I found a bit inexplicable, but it’s sci fi, it doesn’t have to be logical. It’s a generally well-thought out film with good pace and effective moments of tension. As the humans learn to communicate with the aliens, what really comes through is peoples’ inability to communicate with each other, whether it’s the members of the task force or the the twelve countries who are talking to each other as they tackle the mystery of the pods in their own countries. 

I watched Adams on the Graham Norton show talking about the film and she mentioned an ‘elephant in the room’ in the film – the thing that makes everything make sense is effectively staring you in the face the whole way through the film. I got there thirty seconds or so ahead of my boyfriend, but unfortunately not until the secret was being revealed and I kicked myself for it! It’s very clever! I will say no more on the matter…

The film has the typical heavy, Michael Bay style base in scenes where it is called for, but it’s not overused as it now often is in so many space and action films. The score is actually rather beautiful, particaluarly in the scenes of Louise with her daughter, arguably the most emotive parts of the film. But there is also something beautiful in the way the aliens are portrayed and despite the thriller elements to the film, it is as time almost serene.

Although this is science fiction, it is one alien invasion film that does seem plausible, it’s not got the brashness of Independence Day or the melodrama of Signs. The film mentions the government’s contingency plans, which led me to question: does the world really have contingency plans for alien invasion or arrival? Is there really someone who’s job is to decide what happens if or when extra terrestrials arrive on Earth? Probably, yes. And Arrival is a good cautionary tale of how mankind should act should the scenario ever arise. 

Jackie: film review

“I’m not the First Lady anymore,” says Natalie Portman as she plays Jackie Kennedy to perfection in a film detailing the week following the assasination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. The film is narrated through a journalist’s interview with Jackie as she recounts her life with and without JFK, and is told in a series of non-linear flashbacks, each one revealing more intimate details about her life than the last.

Portman looks beautiful but frail and looks surprisingly like Kennedy from some angles, especially from side on, and plays her to a tee, channeling her mannerisms and Jackie’s distinctive accent. She flows effortlessly from steely determination to bereft despair and even moments of horror as she remembers trying to hold her husband’s head together in the car and as she washes the blood splatters off her face as she sobs in the mirror on Air Force One. But despite her physical and emotional fragility, she plays a woman emitting strength as she demands respect for her husband in the form of a state funeral to rival President Lincoln’s.

When riding in the ambulance with her beloved Jack’s body and her brother-in-law Bobby (played brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard) she asks the driver and the nurse, do you know who James Garfield was? Do you know William McKinley? What did he do? Neither knew, but Jackie did: they were presidents who were assassinated in office. She asks the same of Abraham Lincoln and of course they know the answer. She wants her husband to have a legacy, to be remembered and respected like Lincoln. 

And so she sets about organising his burial and funeral, whilst mourning and battling her grief as she berates herself for being a bad mother, bad wife and bad First Lady – contrary to the opinion of many. She is wonderful with her children in a heartbreaking scene where she tells them that their father won’t be coming home. At this point she reveals that she has suffered loss in the family before, when her son Patrick died at just two days’ old. She tells the children that Daddy has gone to see Patrick in Heaven. She also lost her daughter Arabella at birth, so her life was not without grief up to this point. 

Portman portrays Kennedy with poise in a part she seemed born to play. In a film produced by Darren Araonofsky, who previously worked with her on her Oscar-winning Black Swan, you wonder if this film is just a vehicle for her to scoop more awards. But in fact the entire film is moving and insightful, and Portman is at the heart of it.

There are flashbacks to when Jackie presented a televised tour of the White House where director Pablo Larrain cleverly splices together real footage from the television show with shots of Portman, adding a grey grainy filter to the screen and crackly overlay to the sound, you wonder if it’s actually Portman speaking or Jackie herself, especially when JFK makes an appearance and everything fits seamlessly together. 

Jackie spent time and money redecorating the White House before filming the documentary, allowing a glimpse into some parts of the building that had never been seen by the public before. She took great pride in the history of the building and buying old artfacts that belonged to pervious Presidents, particularly Lincoln. You can tell she has a certain affinity with Mrs Lincoln as she tells the camera that Lincoln would question why she spent money on furniture and things to fill the house. But as she says to the reporter when she is accounting her story, “Things last much longer than people.” 

You get a sense of guilt from her, that she felt she never really deserved her life as first Lady. When talking of the White House she says, “It’s not my house, I never lived there,” and later confides in the priest, an excellent turn from the now late John Hurt, “I never wanted to be famous, I just married a Kennedy.” But she takes it all in her stride as she tries her best to be the First Lady she thinks people wants. And she has a sense of duty to presidential history as she goes about restoring the White House, calling it ‘the people’s house’ to camera, buying up old antiques. And of course orchestrating this grand funeral for her beloved Jack, as she calls him, in Lincoln’s image.

The score is beautiful: emotive strings, rousing horns and mourning woodwind. The music really emphasises the distress and emotion portrayed on Portman’s face. And as well as having a near-perfect soundtrack, the wardrobe is spectacular. Madeline Fontaine deserves her Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design for her recreations of Jackie’s suits, including the red two-piece she wore in the televised tour of the White House used on the film posters, and the iconic pink boucle skirt suit and pill box hat with navy trimming she wore when her husband was shot as he sat next to her.  

Portman faces tough competition in the Best Actress category this year, and has so far missed out at the Globes and the SAGs, but I think she deserves the Oscar. It is a stronger performance than Black Swan which wonher her last little gold man, and personally I think a more compelling watch than that of Emma Stone in La La Land who is the current favourite to win. The film itself is moving and insightful, if a little slow in the middle, but definitely worth a watch for Portman’s performance, the rousing score and the beautiful costumes.