The Graduate (1967)

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**** (all thanks to Anne)

The Graduate is Anne Bancroft, so to speak. Dustin Hoffman might play the eponymous character but it is Bancroft who carries the weight of the film, when it has any. Playing the part of the bored recovered alcoholic housewife Mrs Robinson, Bancroft seduces Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock to feel alive. It’s a rush for her, one that doesn’t require conversation to maintain. She dismisses Braddock’s attempts at getting to know her initially and then allows herself to speak, more as self-reflection rather than having any connection with Braddock.

Mrs Robinson is the most perceptive character, writing off her pretentious and self-deluded husband and seeing Benjamin as aimless, in need of some type of direction. In no way is she taking advantage of him but she is also ensuring she is not taken advantage of. Interestingly, she warns Benjamin, even makes him promise, not to take her daughter Elaine (played by Katherine Ross) out. At first we see this as jealousy, but as the film progresses perhaps it is foresight as Mrs Robinson might know exactly the type of person Benjamin is.

It is when the story shifts to Benjamin’s “love” for Elaine Robinson that it grinds to a halt and turns into farce. Benjamin is annoying at first. He is a gifted student whose form of rebellion manifests not in his awkward dalliances with Mrs Robinson but in his willingness to do nothing else except sunbath in the backyard pool. His parents are presented as squares who have put their son on a pedestal and expect him to follow the path laid before him. This culminates in a scene where Benjamin tries out a new present in front of family friends – a scuba set. It is here we get our unintentional respite from Benjamin as he sits at the bottom of the pool as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” plays, Benjamin reflecting on his life and situation and we enjoying the absence of Benjamin’s voice.

Elaine is barely developed as a character and the little parts we do see are not great. As Benjamin is moving from annoying to downright creepy with his insistence on being with Elaine, Elaine is becoming a very submissive character. It’s hard to imagine a daughter running off with the man who broke up her parent’s marriage, even if it is lazily and poorly played off as the mother’s fault. Added to this is that Elaine and Benjamin spend very little time together before they make this decision. Is this youthful exuberance or just two stupid people, one possibly a little crazy?

The ending sequence seems to be there purely for suspense but can’t save itself from being farcical. Fighting off hordes of people and then locking them in a church with a cross so you can literally run away with the bride is as far out there as most films will go. The problem with this ending is that the beginning sets such a different tone that it doesn’t make much sense to include this unless you want to say that the affair between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson is just as unlikely. Perhaps it is, given what a bore Benjamin turns out to be.

The irony that Benjamin falls for the girl who his parents insist he take out should not be lost on the audience, however unintentional it is. This is a clear indication that what made Benjamin different was solely Mrs Robinson and not something that resides within himself. We can be sure that Benjamin will ride an unoriginal path after the credits roll, something he may have realised going by the look on his face.

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The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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****

What I like most about The Edge of Seventeen, Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, is that it gives us a very realistic protagonist in the form of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She is a 17-year-old who feels like she doesn’t fit in and acts accordingly. The viewer understands why people avoid her because her form of communication, usually sarcasm, can be grating at times. Also, like most teenagers, she feels she is the only one who suffers and feels pain. This limits her ability to see the commonality in those around her. The film avoids the usual pitfall of similar teenage angst stories where the protagonist seems like a really likeable person who would fit in in normal circumstances but is thrown, against their will, amongst evil people who mistreat them. In The Edge of Seventeen, it is much more – a mix of Nadine’s personality, how that combines with the personalities of those around her and the experiences she has been through.

Whilst there are some genre tropes such as the budding boyfriend she doesn’t realise is there and the fairy tale ending, there is a lot of depth packed into the first three quarters of the film. We simultaneously see the world from Nadine’s perspective and the world’s perspective of Nadine. This is achieved through rich characterisation of supporting characters. Her brother Darian (played by Blake Jenner) is the person Nadine compares herself with constantly. He is handsome and seems to fit into every situation with aplomb, a characteristic Nadine craves. Her mother Mona (played by Kyra Sedgwick) appears to be her main outlet of angst. They are constantly clashing even though there is a lot of ground for commonality. The passing of Nadine’s father has left Mona with the same void of acceptance, however, she is more empathetic about life even if it is tinged in pessimism, noting “Everyone is as miserable as I am. They’re just better at pretending.”

Mr Bruner (played by Woody Harrelson), one of Nadine’s teachers, is our foil in dealing appropriately with Nadine. He is similarly versed in sarcasm and is able to astutely tell the difference between teenage exaggeration and real emotional fragility. The scenes they share are often the funniest and Harrelson and Steinfeld have a really great chemistry. There is also Erwin (played by Hayden Szeto), a classmate of Nadine’s who is interested in her. He is similarly awkward and somewhat of an outsider but Nadine is too self-absorbed to realise the reason for his attention and their similarities. Krista, Nadine’s best friend (played by Haley Lu Richardson) is the only character that isn’t served by the screenplay. She is quickly shifted aside with little emotional weight given to her story arc.

These generally rich characterisations are what invests us in the film. We recognise the characters as real people, not two dimensional plot servers. This, coupled with familiar events (liking someone but fearing rejection; family arguments and more) and contemporary conundrums (such as accidentally sending a regrettable Facebook message) allows the film to be fresh and insightful, resonating with all those who ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

This is why the ending is such a let-down and stops The Edge of Seventeen from being a great film. It becomes every other story where the protagonist has an overnight revelation and immediately turns everything around. Nadine, after some inspiring words from Darian, sees things in a different manner and accepts who she is and those around her, leading her to the realisation that Erwin likes her for who she is. This is too convenient for me and goes against the realistic nature of what we have seen previously. The ability to accept ourselves and environment isn’t the result of magical words spoken. It takes time. A lot of it, in most cases. Whilst the film is no doubt suggesting hope to those who feel like they are in Nadine’s situation, making the ending so typically Hollywood does a huge disservice to the genuineness of the beginning and middle. It’s so crass that Nadine is even seen riding a bright yellow bike to go along with her bright, happy new disposition. Ultimately, the ending is unintentionally cynical in that it offers only the most unrealistic chance of hope.

Even with this ending, The Edge of Seventeen highlights Kelly Fremon Craig’s ability to write strong characters and her delivery behind the camera is enough for me to be looking forward to her next film, whatever that may be.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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***1/2

Manchester by the Sea, a film about an emotionally reclusive man coming to terms with the death of his brother and being named guardian of his nephew, doesn’t feel that fresh. The mechanics of the story are well worn and there is nothing ground-breaking presented. However, Kenneth Lonergan should be commended on not giving the characters unrealistic turnarounds or showering the audience in fairy tale catharsis, but rather allowing gradual change and small progress to be made.

This is Lee Chandler’s (played by Casey Affleck) story, a man with a guilty conscience, whose life has been completely flipped around by one harrowing event. We learn this in a series of flashbacks as we progress through the timeline of Lee’s brother’s death. This death has resulted in Lee being named guardian of his nephew, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). It is in coming to terms with this that we see Lee progress as a person, but not too far as he still can’t shift the guilt he feels as a result of that one event in the past.

We find that Lee is quick in response and anger, a result of the weight of the past indiscretion and too much drinking, a solace that brings no joy or healing. The responsibility of guardianship seems to pull Lee towards a path that might eventually lead him out of the darkness he has fallen into. The expertise in not giving him a complete life turn around allows the film to resonate more realistically.

The acting is commendable with some standouts. I am not in agreement with most people and don’t think Casey Affleck’s performance is amazing. It is solid but it doesn’t feel like a tour de force. I thought Lucas Hedges was wonderful as a son dealing with his father’s death in a teenage-like manner, on the surface seemingly unaffected but hurting once the veneer is pulled away. The standout is Michelle Williams who has very limited screen time but brings real emotional gravity to every scene, something that Affleck misses mostly. Her main scene is the emotional peak of the film and it is entirely carried by her.

There is some nice imagery that plays out throughout the film with a recurring motif of fishing and the water, which represents Lee’s brother’s legacy in a way. It is a small battle over a boat between Lee and Patrick that pits sentimentality and practicality against one another, with sentimentality ultimately winning. It is a pleasing moment in a film with, intentionally, very few.

Hidden Figures (2016)

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***1/2

The plot of Hidden Figures is a simple one. A group of people backing their talents to overcome a number of obstacles. The defining difference for this film is that the group of people are black women working for NASA during the early 60s amid the height of the space race against the Soviets.

The film begins to fill the void that was well documented a year ago with #OscarsSoWhite in that it takes a general story structure that has been done time and time again and applies it to a different group of people, something that hasn’t been done often enough. This very fact gives it a bit of freshness and novelty that allows the duration of the film to be enjoyed.

At least two of the three leads are very good. Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as Katherine Johnson, the ultra smart calculator who has to overcome racism and sexism to help get the first American in space. What begins as turning the other cheek to do the work she loves escalates to a wonderful monologue disavowing the way she is being treated. It is fiery and passionate and adds a fair bit of weight to the film. Also, even though her love arc with Mahershala Ali’s character feels a little shoehorned in, they both create a memorable scene that elicits a good deal of emotion.

Octavia Spencer, playing the part of Dorothy Vaughn, is a very strong screen presence and delivers time and time again, whether it is continually fighting for a promotion or self-learning and then teaching FORTRAN to ensure her job, and the job of other black calculators, are not made redundant.

Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, the other figure of the film, doesn’t quite carve out her own path or identity. We follow her through the film as she fights against institutional racism to be able to study to become an engineer, and we do feel happy when she achieves this, but the story doesn’t really allow for three strong characters and, as such, Jackson is relegated.

In amongst the main characters are quite a few two dimensional ones. Jim Parsons plays an incensed mathematician who can’t stand that a black woman has to check his numbers and is better than he is. Kevin Costner is passable as the leader of the team who doesn’t care about any other attribute that a person has other than if they can get the job done well. He does, at one stage, smash down a toilet sign, not necessarily as a sign of emancipation, but one of productivity. Kirsten Dunst is the female Jim Parson’s, blocking promotion and acting as a tangible obstacle. They all add a little bit to the story but would have served the film and story better with a bit more depth and development.

There are some glaring issues that stop Hidden Figures from reaching greater heights. Racism feels to be approached from quite a sanitised position. Long dashes to the bathroom and being denied library books is about the depth of the tangible racism that is shown. A few shots of segregated busses and water fountains are included. Even when a local cop is gearing up to be particularly unpleasant, a flash of a NASA card is enough for him to escort the three women to work. Considering the film is set on the cusp of events such as Medgar Evers’ death and the creation of the Black Panther Party, it feels isolated. Perhaps the film doesn’t have the remit to show such intense hatred, but the fact it feels like it isolates the women’s struggle from the overall struggle is a downfall.

This isolation also feeds into the ending where everything worked out fine and perhaps it did for these ladies, but a story that is meant to be representative of the black struggle loses value when it shows a happy ending whist that struggle is still well and truly ongoing.

These points aside, the film should be commended for shining a light on people who society previously deemed unworthy of praise and doing so in a manner that is enjoyable and emotionally resonates on some levels.

Fences (2016)

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***1/2

Fences is about a man who is unable to be empathetic. Troy Maxson, played by Denzel Washington, can only see things from his own perspective and only takes lessons from what he has been through. In that sense, he is unable to handle the changing world and any views that differ from his own he equates to idiots and morons.

Troy comes from a tough upbringing, having an abusive father and being forced out of home at 14. This led him to a life of crime which resulted in jail time. Yet, it was here where his love of and skill in baseball allowed him to refocus himself. He was good enough to play in the Negro Leagues, at a time where segregation in America extended to sports. He made no money from this and learnt that working hard at a job was the way to set up your life.

This translates into his relationship with his son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo). An aspiring footballer who has the chance of a college scholarship, Cory’s dream isn’t dashed by racism but by his father who can’t see past his own experiences to a changing world where players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron are starring for their respective teams. Of course, for Troy, these guys are nothing but second raters, an opinion that is drenched in bitterness at not getting his own shot at the big leagues.

Not only does Troy’s experience of the world shape his relationship with his son, it also blinds him to the sacrifices his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, has made. She rightfully points out that for everything he has been through in the past 18 years, she was standing by his side. That if he felt like he was going no where, she was next to him, also going no where. This inability to empathise leads to a decision that will forever taint this relationship, although the final result of this is forced on the audience as some kind of catharsis, which doesn’t quite hold.

Whilst some of the characterisation is well developed, particularly Troy and Rose, there are some patchy parts. Fences never feels like it fully deals with religion even though it seemingly wants to. Troy has a brother who is handicapped and he is the main vessel for religion sentimentality. This makes the majority of the religious allusions seem to be steeped in craziness. Again, a concluding scene feels out of place, awkwardly suggesting some form of superior being.

It’s quite clear that the film is based off a play. The scenes are few and repeating, yet are never fully utilised. The camera work is basic and stunted at times. One scene in particular, where Rose drops a rose, is very poorly shot. Another questionable shot choice is when Troy is screaming outside his window and the camera is positioned behind him, shifting to an exterior shot once Troy has left the window. A more effective choice would have been to film the whole speech from the exterior, with us watching as the rain trickles down Troy’s face.

Two great performances by Washington and Davis leave the audience with a warning of those who can only learn from their own experience and ascribe their beliefs to everyone else. Whilst the story’s ambition might be higher, it never quite delivers on the other premises it holds. This shortcoming ultimately stops the film becoming something more profound and memorable.

La La Land (2016)

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****1/2

“Here’s to the one’s that dream”, Emma Stone’s Mia sings in her final audition. This one line is the essence of Damian Chazelle’s La La Land. In it, we see the aforementioned Mia, a barista on a movie lot, time and time again pursue her dream of becoming an actress through auditions that even the casting agents don’t want to be at. We follow Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, through various music ventures, from playing holiday tunes surrounded by uninterested diners to playing synth in an ultra-contemporary jazz band just so he can one day open his own jazz club. These are the dreams and La La Land is the story of pursuit.

The reality of this pursuit is tampered with, somewhat, by Chazelle who employs Justin Hurwitz’s wonderful score to elevate the mundanity of life to something ethereal. Whether it is making a party invitation the potential to super stardom or a walk to the car a possibility for budding romance, the light and playful colours employed are matched by the airy tunes and funny lyrics. Anyone who has ever been to Los Angeles will know that it has never looked better than when Mia and Sebastian are singing.

I believe it was Scott Tobias on Filmspotting who said that La La Land was a musical made for film. From the opening sequence of hope whilst commuters are stuck on one of the many Los Angeles freeways to Sebastian escorting Mia back to her car, invoking Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the exquisite dream sequence at the end, the film employs tracking shots and long takes whilst moving through scenery. These scenes are pure joy and though Gosling and Stone aren’t the world’s best singers (Stone comfortably plays Gosling off a break though), they add unique touches to each moment that gives the film even more warmth. Gosling, in particular, is honing his comedic skills even further (I hope Chazelle wasn’t one of the directors Stone was referring to here).

For all the joy and fun this film has, it is still grounded in the very real notion that dreams require sacrifice. Chazelle could have taken an easy path to the finish, but he chose to take one of meaning, which elevates the film to something more than your ordinary musical. It has laughs, it has catchy tunes and it will have you singing “Here’s to the one’s that dream” when it’s all over.

PS: It has been well documented recently that Hollywood has a problem with diversity and lacking diverse voices. This is a criticism of the industry itself but a few critics have taken this as justification to relegate Chazelle’s view of jazz to the bench. Yes, jazz is heavily influenced by black culture and it would be wonderful to have more black voices making films but Chazelle can’t be expected to not make a film because he falls into the majority. Also, the argument that Sebastian, a white man, is saving jazz is best summed up by Scott Tobias (again): “He’s not trying to save jazz, he’s opening a fucking club.” Sebastian has an ideal of what he thinks jazz is but I don’t feel like John Legend’s character is shown as a sell-out. He has one of the deeper lines when discussing Sebastian’s hang-ups with old jazz (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”) and the photo shoot only portrays the photographer as a naff, not the band. It shows that Sebastian isn’t comfortable in that situation. It’s not his dream.

The Equalizer (2014)

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∗∗∗

Antoine Fuqua has added another run of the mill action film to the one man wrecking ball genre with The Equalizer. There is very little to differentiate the film thematically or stylistically with similar films such as the Liam Neeson-starring Taken series.

For such films, plot is never the draw card so, naturally, it doesn’t see a lot of development. Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), an ex-black ops agent now working at a hardware store, becomes involved with the Russian mafia through their abuse of a young prostitute (Chloe Grace-Moretz) who frequents the same cafe that McCall does at night. We follow McCall as he works his way through the mafia, leaving a trail of destruction and violence behind whilst employing a number of signature traits such as his time keeping ability and his eagerness to help out friends with their personal issues.

It is this destruction and violence, for better or worse, that the audience comes to see. However, there is nothing nuanced or new about what Fuqua delivers in this aspect. We’ve seen it done just as well in a number of films before. In the aspect where The Equalizer should be standing out from the rest, it is happy to take a seat and settle for similarity.

The one draw card that makes this film at least enjoyable, even if it is mindlessly so, is Denzel Washington in the lead as the meticulous ex-black ops agent. It is always fun to see Denzel give a strong performance no matter which film it fits into. We buy into most of what Denzel is doing with the usual suspension of reality when it comes to vigilantes taking down masses of armed men. We feel his kindness when he wants to help people and this sets up why he is so willing to take on an entire mafia. Although, I choose to believe he also enjoys what he does as well. It makes the character more believable, especially when we see some of the more creative methods he employs to dispatch his enemies.

The Equalizer is a film for the ages in the sense that you could have watched it when it came out, now or watch it in 20 years’ time and what you take away won’t change. It isn’t political about the Russian mafia, choosing to accept that it exists without reasoning. It doesn’t condemn prostitution or even comment on it, leaving the viewer to make up their own mind on what is a relative side note. The only thing it was saying in 2014, now and will say in the future is that it’s fun to watch one guy, who is sentimentally motivated, kill a bunch of two dimensional throw away bad guys in various graphic ways of violence. For this, The Equalizer will only be remembered as a film that mildly entertains.