Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Onward (2020)

Image is property of Disney and Pixar

Onward – Film Review

Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer

Director: Dan Scanlon

Synopsis: After receiving a gift in the shape of a magical staff, two young brothers set off an exciting quest to discover if the power of magic could give them one last day with their late father….

Review: A world steeped in fantasy is something that human beings seem to be intrinsically drawn to because regrettably they are worlds that we will never get to experience for ourselves. Perhaps this is why stories set in places such as Middle Earth have that everlasting appeal. But what if you took a modern day metropolis and mixed in some fantasy elements, and add in a society that has consigned such elements to the past be just as enthralling? Thanks to the brilliant wizards at Pixar, the answer to that is a resounding yes.

In the town of New Mushroomton, where magical beings have very much settled for a life of the ordinary routine, reside the Lightfoot brothers, Barley (Pratt) and Ian (Holland) living with their mother Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus). Barley is the typical emo/grunge type who’s just a little bit too much into into his fantasy board games, who pines for a return to the bygone fantastical era. Meanwhile, Ian is someone who isn’t quite sure of himself yet. As a gift from their late father, they’re given a staff that was not to be opened until Ian’s 16th birthday. When they discover the staff has magical capabilities, the two brothers set off on a quest to discover if the magical staff could be used to bring their late father back to life for one day only.

Having spent the last few years mostly focused on sequels, it’s always exciting to see the Pixar Brain Trust turn their creative minds into something fresh and original. As their previous films such as Inside Out and Coco demonstrate, when creating original content is usually when they strike gold. Yet again, their streak continues as Onward is further proof that they still have that magic touch, quite literally. As the two brothers at the centre of this quest, the voice work of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt is exceptional. Due to the strength of the voice work, the brotherly relationship that these two have immediately comes to the fore, and it helps to flesh both of them out as layered characters that you can empathise with.

The argument could definitely be made that there’s perhaps a formulaic nature to this story of two siblings going on a quest to establish and develop a great understanding between themselves. However, the screenplay by Scanlon and co-written by Jason Headley and Keith Bunin tell it in a manner that brilliantly utilises the modern aspects of our society, and simultaneously the elements of a fantasy world to drive the story forward. This also provides scope for them to brilliantly weave some humour, into what is yet another emotional story from this studio that has an everlasting knack to tug on your heartstrings.

With so much focus being on the brothers and their quest, it does mean that the supporting characters, such as their mother Laurel and a legendary former magical creature (Octavia Spencer), are relegated to sideline roles. However, the main quest and its impactful messages of the significance of brotherhood, will certainly not be lost on those who grew up with a brother in their lives. Even more so for those who have a brother that they look up to, and whose support when growing up can be of immeasurable value as they reach the adult years of their life.

Bolstered by excellent voice work, and a humorous blend of modern and fantasy ensure that those wizards at Pixar produce yet another magical and touching piece of storytelling.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

The Shape of Water (2018)

Image is property of Fox Searchlight Pictures and TSG Entertainment

The Shape of Water – Film Review

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Synopsis: In the middle of the Cold War, a mute woman working at a top secret research facility develops a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that has been brought in for testing.

Review: Hollywood is certainly no stranger to stories about love, but when you have a director like Guillermo del Toro, here’s a filmmaker who’s certainly no stranger to making a couple of films about some intriguing creatures. Hence, to merge these together for a film with themes of love and acceptance at its core, and fuse these with some fantasy elements, it’s a unique mishmash of genres, the latter of which is right up del Toro’s alley. It’s most definitely bold film-making, but it also happens to be exquisite and beautiful film-making at the same time.

Set in Cold War 1960s USA, Elisa (Hawkins) is a mute woman working at a top secret research facility as a cleaner. She goes about her shift as normal with close friend and co-worker Zelda (Spencer). Their job is very unremarkable, about as mundane as it gets. This is until the arrival of an extremely rare amphibian creature that has been brought in to give the USA an advantage in the Cold War arms race changes everything for Elisa as she forms a very close relationship with the creature.

Love at first sight

To have a leading role in a film and be a mute requires an actor to have extraordinary ability, and thankfully Sally Hawkins has that in abundance as she delivers a truly  remarkable performance. Without saying a word she manages to convey the trauma that her past has clearly inflicted on her. Yet through it all she shows such raw and powerful emotion, about her life and her feelings for those around her, which is an extraordinary accomplishment.  The way that del Toro builds the relationship with his leading lady and the creature (portrayed by GDT regular Doug Jones) is beautiful to watch and to do so without either character uttering a word is all the more remarkable. It serves as a timely reminder that love is such a powerful emotion that it transcends anything, be it disability, gender, race, religion.

Alongside Hawkins, Octavia Spencer provides excellent support as Elisa’s best friend and who also serves as her sign language translator. Likewise for Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s roommate who’s desperately trying to get back on the scene as an artist, who also has his own set of problems that he’s trying to fight. The two of them give Elisa the support she needs as she tries to build her romance with the creature. On the opposite side of that coin comes Michael Shannon’s Strickland, who definitely does not share the emotional connection that Elisa has for the creature. It’s a similar role for Shannon, this no nonsense mean-spirited bad guy, but he does it so well it’s undeniably intriguing to watch.

The work done by the make up team to create the creature is once again absolutely extraordinary, and with some absolutely mesmerising production design and cinematography. The film looks immaculately beautiful, which works to reflect the incredibly heartfelt and touching story that del Toro brings to the screen, which is boosted by an immaculate score provided by Alexandre Desplat. Not everything that you see on screen is pretty mind you, what with it being set in the Cold War, there’s a fair few agendas flying around.

The central themes that this film champions remain as relevant today as they did over half a century ago.  Pitching this film was probably not the easiest film to have been given the green light, but when you have a director like del Toro on board you’ve got enormous potential for greatness, and this is his drenched masterpiece.

A beautiful blend of genres results in a touching and powerful story, soaked with gorgeous visuals and an absolutely stunning turn from Hawkins, this is cinema at its most majestic and magical.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Image is property of Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films, TSG Entertainment and 20th Century Fox

Hidden Figures – Film Review

Cast:  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons

Director: Theodore Melfi

Synopsis: Telling the true story of three African American women who during the 1960s Space Race made ground-breaking strides to provide NASA with vital data critical to the US Space Program.

Review: In the 1960s, while the Space Race between the United States of America and the USSR was becoming fiercely competitive, it was almost unheard of for a woman to take a front and centre role in the pioneering and creative work that was going on at NASA, never mind an African American woman. Division and segregation was still very strong in these times, there was very little mixing. Which makes the achievements of three women in particular, who worked on NASA’s program in the sixties, so incredibly remarkable and ground-breaking, in every sense of the word.

These three women in question, Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) start out working in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center, and in a divided country, there was never any expectation for them to be in real positions of power, where they could make a real difference. Before long however, due to their extraordinary talents, they begin to make waves. Soon enough, all three make their contributions to the US Space program and thanks to their pioneering work, the missions that followed in the sixties were made that much more attainable thanks to these extraordinary women, and for a long time, they certainly were hidden figures of history.

However, the incredible story of these women is now getting the recognition it absolutely merits thanks to director Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Allison Schroeder. The script manages to strike a perfect balance of really serious and dramatic moments, mixed in with plenty of rather brilliant humour. These women do have just about every obstacle thrown in their path that they could, from a society that really frowned upon black people sharing just about anything with white people. There’s no violence and brutality to be found (though that certainly existed) the story merely focuses on the obstacles these women faced, and how they defied the expectations society placed on them.

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The acting from all three leading women is simply tremendous, and all three could very well land Oscar nominations. Their chemistry is excellent and you really feel for each of them whenever their work is restricted or impeded by their mostly white and mostly male colleagues. But by far and away, the leading light is Taraji P Henson’s Katherine who is called up to work as part of an integral mission for NASA, due to her extraordinary mathematical ability. Her story is certainly more of the main focus, but it does not detract from other two ladies, as their story lines weave together, as they strive to not only help NASA, but break the stereotypes that were placed upon women in their position.

Where the story errs a bit is in the telling of the private lives of the women, which although important as it gives them character depth and ensures that the audience is able to understand their characters and bond with them more, does detract from the story a bit. It’s not overbearing, but you might perhaps wish to see more of their work at NASA. Also the movie does try to explain a lot of the mathematics but unless you’re a mathematics genius, it is more than likely to fly straight over your head like a rocket.

The Space Race of the 1960s is an era known to many. Yet the story of these remarkable women is one you probably didn’t know, but you really should, as it sheds light on a very important story that needs to be seen by everyone. Hopefully with this film, these women will no longer be the hidden figures of history that they have arguably been for a great many decades now.

A story with real heart, substance and emotion at its core, anchored by beautiful acting, Hidden Figures tells a vital story that everyone, everywhere should know about.

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