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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 6, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 01
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Revelatory Hidden Figures an interstellar triumph
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HIDDEN FIGURES
Now playing


Hidden Figures is a revelation. Not just because of the story, one that had seemingly been forgotten, if not buried, for over five decades, but also because of the subtle sincerity that drives the narrative forward, the film itself an inspiring tale of intelligence, perseverance and achievement that in lesser hands easily could have become a facile melodramatic slog and not something utterly glorious. This is one of 2016's finest achievements, and I for one hope Oscar comes calling for everyone involved with its creation in a big way.

Based on the bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, while the script by director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and Allison Schroeder has been somewhat streamlined and fictionalized in order for a concise, straightforward story to be told, the nuts and bolts of the narrative are pulled from sadly little known historical facts. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are best friends and colleagues working at NASA in the 'human computer' program. They're part of the team assisting in the Friendship 7 Mission that will see John Glenn (Glen Powell) become the first American to orbit the Earth, and after that will be instrumental in helping the space agency realize President John F. Kennedy's dream of landing a man on the moon.

Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the director of the Space Task Group, his team of scientists charged with making sure Glenn's mission is an outright success. But they're currently in need of a new human computer to assist with their math queries, and as such Johnson is tasked to their team to crunch numbers. Turns out she's far more experienced with complex equations and with finding answers to impenetrable conundrums than the majority of her white male co-workers expected, Harrison surmising it's in the Space Task Group's interest to give her a primary role. Next thing she knows, and much to his chagrin, she's shadowing lead scientist Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), analyzing all his numbers while helping to come up with new solutions that could make sure Glenn's orbit goes as planned.

Harrison is a composite character, and a lot of the events surrounding the Friendship 7 Mission, the installation of a new IBM computer system at NASA and other various entanglements that Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson found themselves part of have been streamlined and condensed in order to fit inside the film's rather efficient 127-minute running time. But Melfi and Shetterly eschew convention where they can, relying on each woman's everyday intelligence to speak proudly for itself no matter what is going on. They don't drown the proceedings in schmaltz but at the same time don't didactically hammer home the horrendous segregated realities of the day. In the process, the Civil Rights battle growing inside the walls of NASA becomes all the more poignant, the naturalistic realism of making a deep, penetrating imprint I couldn't stop thinking about long after the film had come to an end.

Johnson is the key figure, but all three women get their opportunities to shine. What's most interesting is, even when at its most formulaic, the filmmakers find a way to make whatever actions are taking place sparkle with an electric authenticity that's invigorating. Whether it is Vaughan immediately understanding what the installation of the IBM could mean to her crack team of human computers, to Jackson's courtroom battle to take night school classes in a normally segregated classroom in order to become a NASA engineer, these potentially maudlin plot turns soar with a gracefully stimulating tenacity that's inspiring.

Even so, Johnson, as she should, always remains front and center. Her triumphs aren't just in staring down racist scientists or filling blackboards with virtuoso equations that could potentially make America's push for the moon a reality, but also at home, the loving single mother always putting her children first no matter what else is happening. Johnson is a genius, but she's also a human being, the delicate delight she takes in her friendship with Vaughan and Jackson, or the blushing self-doubt that sometimes overwhelms her during an unexpected courtship from warmhearted Army Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), all of it sparkles with realistic vibrancy.

It helps that Henson is brilliant in the role, finding just the right emotional balance as she navigates the complicated path the film follows all the way through to its rousing conclusion. She disappears completely into Jackson, her scenes with Costner having a particular electricity to them that's just plain extraordinary. But Henson is equally wondrous in her moments with Spencer and Monáe, while her chemistry with Ali (almost certain to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn in Moonlight) is resplendently off the charts.

Parson's doesn't get a lot to do other than glower and act like a heel. Even so, Melfi and Schroeder's script still refuses to use his insensitive priggishness in a melodramatic manner, keeping things rooted in a form of concrete realism that remains true all the way to the finish. Even when the film could understandably slip into a little bit of well-earned hero worshiping the filmmakers refuse to go there, the names authoring a document remaining true to history and not to typical cinematic convention. This makes the moment somehow even more powerful, this little second of victory still a cagey reminder that, for all these women achieved, the playing field they were competing on was hardly equal in comparison to that of their Caucasian co-workers.

But let's not be coy or mince words: Hidden Figures is stunning. This is a story that's not just perfect for this time, but for all times. It is a movie certain to be looked at, treasured and discussed for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is its breathtaking emotional virtuosity. It's pretty much perfect, and I cannot wait for general audiences to get the opportunity to head to the theatre and learn that blissful truth for themselves.


Moonlight awarded best picture by Seattle Film Critics Society

Barry Jenkins' film takes home 6 Seattle Film Critics Awards!
Barry Jenkins' groundbreaking drama Moonlight was the big winner with Seattle's film critics community, winning 6 Seattle Film Awards including Best Picture.

In addition to winning the biggest prize as selected by the Seattle Film Critics Society, Jenkins was named Best Director and his screenplay, co-written with Tarell Alvin McCraney, earned Best Screenplay honors. The film's cast took home the Best Ensemble Cast prize, with Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Juan, a father-figure of sorts to the film's lead character Chiron, a young African-American male coming to terms with his sexual orientation. Elsewhere, the film nabbed a prize for Best Editing, turning 10 nominations into 6 wins.

French film Elle and South Korean import The Handmaiden took home two awards each. For her performance as a woman attempting to find out who brutally attacked her in Elle, veteran actress Isabelle Huppert was named Best Actress. Elle also was named Best Foreign Language Film.

Though The Handmaiden did not win the Foreign Language award, Park Chan-wook's critically acclaimed colonial Korean drama won prizes for Costume Design and Production Design.

Joining Huppert and Ali in the actor's winning circle was Casey Affleck, who added Seattle to his vast array of wins this awards season as Best Actor for Manchester By The Sea. Viola Davis took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for her work in Denzel Washington's Fences.

Science-fiction hit Arrival, which earned 9 nominations, scored three wins, including Best Original Score for composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's powerful work - deemed ineligible by the Academy - Best Cinematography and shared a win for Best Visual Effects with Disney/Marvel's Doctor Strange.

Entering with a co-leading 10 nominations, Oscar hopeful La La Land was surprisingly shut out in all categories, going home empty-handed.

In one of the Society's newest awards, Best Youth Performance, Anya Taylor-Joy won for horror film The Witch, playing a daughter making sense of strange, unexplainable events enveloping her family in 17th century New England.

The other new award introduced this year, Best Villain, was awarded to John Goodman for his portrayal as bunker-dwelling Howard Stambler in last spring's 10 Cloverfield Lane. Goodman edged out a real-life goat, The Witch's 'Black Phillip' to win the villainous accolades.

Walt Disney's Zootopia was named Best Animated Feature, while Ezra Edelman's incredible seven-and-a-half hour look at one of the highest profile murder cases in recent history, and the racial unrest surrounding it, O.J.: Made In America, was named the year's Best Documentary.

THE 2016 SEATTLE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY SEATTLE FILM AWARD WINNERS

BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR: Moonlight (A24)

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester By The Sea

BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis, Fences

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST: Moonlight

BEST SCREENPLAY: Moonlight - Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Zootopia - Byron Howard and Rich Moore, directors; Jared Bush, co-director.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Elle - Paul Verhoeven, director

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: O.J.: Made In America - Ezra Edelman, director

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Arrival - Bradford Young

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: The Handmaiden - Cho Sang-kyung

BEST FILM EDITING: Moonlight - Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Arrival - Jóhann Jóhannsson

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Handmaiden - Ryu Seong-hee

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS (tie): Arrival - Louis Morin

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS (tie): Doctor Strange - Stephane Ceretti, Paul Corbould, Richard Bluff, Vince Cerelli

BEST YOUTH PERFORMANCE: Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch

BEST VILLAIN: Howard Stambler (portrayed by John Goodman), 10 Cloverfield Lane

Courtesy of Seattle Film Critics Society


Majestic Monster Calls an imaginatively cathartic spectacle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A MONSTER CALLS
Now playing


A majestic yew tree in the middle of the local cemetery overlooks the entire town in which 12-year-old youngster Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives. But this is no ordinary tree, this ancient guardian actually a massive monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who only comes awake when his presence is most required. In Conor, this lumbering being of bark and branch sees a soul in need, stating in no uncertain terms he has appeared to tell the boy three individual stories, one each time he visits. As payment for these metaphorical tales of hardship, heroism, sacrifice and woe, he expects a fresh story in return, and it will be up to Conor to tell him it when the time comes.

Beautiful, sincere and emotionally pure, there's a lot more going on in J.A. Bayona's (The Orphanage) powerful gothic melodrama A Monster Calls than initially meets the eye. The story of a kid doing what he can to deal with the feelings of inadequacy and weakness he's being consumed by as his mother valiantly fights against cancer, this movie is a wide-eyed stunner that intimately understands children and parents in ways that consistently amaze. There is nothing pandering about the director's adaptation of Patrick Ness' novel, he and the author joining forces to bring to life a motion picture that pulls at the heartstrings with an effortlessness that's extraordinary. A magnificent achievement with precious few missteps, to put it simply this movie blew me away.

Ness' screenplay, the author tackling that task himself, is a model of efficiency. He's streamlined his narrative in a fashion that is both familiar and imaginative, allowing the normal mechanics of a story like this to not inadvertently call attention to themselves. There is nothing forced here, the potentially maudlin mechanics that could have derailed things and made the film an insufferable bore eschewed by the filmmakers at seemingly every turn.

Conor is bullied at school, he has an overbearing grandmother who doesn't seem to appreciate him and a father who has divorced his mother and has subsequently remarried and moved to America. In lesser hands, these elements could have drowned in forced treacle. But Bayona and Ness do not allow that to happen, instead using these tried and true plot devices to augment Conor's situation, adding extra layers that grow in power and resonance as things advance to their conclusion. It's shockingly authentic, the director, not just channeling his more devilishly macabre tendencies, but also managing to play around with the genre's dynamics as if he were attempting to combine Ken Loach's Kes, Wolfgang Petersen's The NeverEnding Story and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth in one gloriously ingenious package.

What's interesting is that Bayona and Ness do not try to hide what is really going on. They're very clear in regards to the metaphors they are exploring, Conor's mother's cancer an omnipresent villain right from the start. While there is a twist, it's subtly delivered, a picture on a desk revealing an extra layer of truth that had me choking back honestly earned tears. For the most part, all of the threats confronting the child are front and center, the filmmakers refusing to sugarcoat the situation or try and paint the picture for anything than what it obviously is.

Which is where the fantasy comes in. The relationship between Conor and his monster pal is developed with graceful ferocity, the unstoppable creature able to help his new friend navigate through a cavalcade of emotions through the majesty of his idiosyncratic fairy tales. While the movie overflows in rage, while Conor does the unthinkable from time to time, it is grief, unstoppable, unassailable, ruthless grief, that courses through the veins of the story, and the refreshing simplicity in which this emotion is dealt with and discussed is why Bayona's latest ends up being such a monumentally effective marvel.

Young MacDougall is a find, the newcomer delivering a performance of surprising complexity and depth. His interactions with Felicity Jones as his mother, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother and with Toby Kebbell as his loving, if understandably estranged, father all ring true, every second building in significance as events progress. All of them work in marvelous tandem, and no matter how larger than life or fantastically explosive things might get the cast manages to ground it all in solid, inherently believable truths viewers of all ages can relate to.

There are some cartoonish elements, and the revelation as to the monster's origins is delivered with a bit heavier hand than anything else in the movie. But I adored the ways MacDougall and Jones wrap tightly inside one another's arms, while a climactic meeting of minds between the young actor and Weaver had me heartbreakingly reaching for tissues. As for the monster, not only is he magnificently voiced by Neeson, he's also skillfully realized by the film's crack effects team, each appearance a swirling maelstrom of visual ingenuity that's glorious.

At a certain point, there's only one place that A Monster Calls can build to, the outcome justifiably inevitable. But that's okay, Bayona and Ness allowing the inherent emotions at the core of Conor's journey to flower and bloom with restrained, unfettered grace. The movie is an emotionally cathartic marvel I was continually captivated by, its final moments as genuine as its title character is pretend, the overall spell it ultimately casts unforgettably pure.






Finding Neverland - Tom Hewitt finds his inner lost boy
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Pizza Klatch presents 'A Slice of the Good Life' with Rufus Wainwright

A benefit concert and auction for Pizza Klatch in support of LGBTQ+ youth

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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:

Peaches Christ and Latrice Royale present 'Mister Act' at the Egyptian Jan. 12

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Five artists to watch for in 2017
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Tartarus an exciting historical and fantastical new work
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Harriet Bullitt donates Edward Curtis' The North American Indian to the Seattle Public Library
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New Year's Eve Party at Chihuly Garden & Glass was spectacular
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Taiwan's Sun Moon Lake will cast a spell on you
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20th anniversary year of Seattle Center Festál celebrates our region's rich and varied cultures
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Gospel singer who preached anti-Gay sermon dropped by Ellen, but remains an Oscar contender
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Revelatory Hidden Figures an interstellar triumph
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Moonlight awarded best picture by Seattle Film Critics Society

Barry Jenkins' film takes home 6 Seattle Film Critics Awards!

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Majestic Monster Calls an imaginatively cathartic spectacle
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