Saturday, 13 May 2017

Theodore Melfi - St Vincent and Hidden Figures

Acclaimed Writer, Producer and Director, this blog concentrates on Theodore Melfi's two most recent cinematic feature length releases: St Vincent in 2014 and the Oscar nominated Hidden Figures in 2016.

It is not my intention to provide spoilers for the coming two films, but rather my purpose is to give an overall flavour as I do not want to spoil these films in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these uniquely different cinematic creations.

Please also feel free to visit my archives!

St Vincent (2014)

"You got a lovely smile. You should do it more often"

"St Vincent" was Theodore Melfi's first cinematic release in fifteen years since his debut feature "Winding Roads" was released in 1999. He produced and directed numerous short films in the years between cinematic releases before returning to the big screen in 2014 with this comedy/drama set in Brooklyn, New York. For me, the film felt very much like a feature of two halves and where it failed was in it's first half and more specifically the awkward comedy which simply didn't chime with me, whereas I warmed to the film as it entered the second "half" (there are no halves obviously but I sincerely felt the film was split in two) with it's concentration on the drama and humanity shown by an eclectic mix of characters. Where the first half of the film fails is the scatter gun approach to the jokes and gags that rarely if ever land and an utterly dispassionate and cold approach to every central character. Conversely, the film really finds its stride when the jokes are largely dispensed with and a more thorough and in depth approach is taken with the development of both the story and characters with the film as a whole benefitting enormously for this.

In the titular role of "Vincent" we find the magnificent Bill Murray who armed with a strange accent is on superb deadpan form as a middle aged drunk who has seemingly given up on life. Poorly dressed and living in a dirty unkempt house that is a mirror of his personality and state of mind, Vincent is a grumpy old curmudgeon cocooned inside his own miserable existence, angry and full of regret at a life now passing him by. Penniless and a self professed "schmuck" he has walled himself off from the world and the antipathy he has towards other human beings whose interactions just antagonise him, and occasionally comically so. "Dig deep and you see a man beyond his flaws" but Vincent does not make this easy! An uneasy first meeting with new neighbour "Maggie" (Melissa McCarthy) slowly shows this to be the case but more so her young son "Oliver" (Jaeden Lieberher) who by sheer accident and the twist of fate introduces the much older man back into the land of the living. Here the film excels as we see the awkwardly difficult Vincent tasked with looking after young Oliver in the only way he knows how: introducing him to the delights of his local drinking hole and the joys of betting at a local horse racing track! Murray is brilliant as per usual in his distant, deadpan and aloof performance but it falls to Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver in his debut feature film performance to be the film's true saving grace with an outstanding portrayal of a young boy far older than his tender years and who is incredibly well mannered and always addressing his elders as "Sir". Their joint scenes are a true joy to watch at times. Melissa McCarthy is admirable in a somewhat backseat role here as Oliver's Mother whereas Naomi Watts has much more of a supporting role as ostensibly Vincent's best friend "Daka" a pregnant "Lady of the Night" and in a film of questionable accents, adopts a truly awful and grating Russian accent! Further substantial female roles fall to Kimberly Quinn as "Nurse Anna" and Donna Mitchell as "Sandy" with Terrence Howard in a cameo as money lender "Zucko". The film's final central performance is a stellar one, and highly comedic one at times too, from Chris O'Dowd as "Brother Geraghty", an unorthodox teacher at the local Catholic school who proudly proclaims that everyone is entitled to their opinions on religion but "I have the best religion as it has the most rules".

"I don't need to hear the whole story" is an often employed phrase from a grumpy Vincent to anyone who cares to share their tale with him and in this vein I shall refrain from any further hints or spoilers. Suffice to say, each of the characters described has a narrative arc in a story that demands your engagement as the film progresses into it's second, and much improved half and which is beautifully accompanied at times by Theodore Shapiro's musical score and a soundtrack including songs from Jefferson Airplane, The National and Green Day before ending over the closing credits with a Bob Dylan classic, Shelter from the Storm. 

I warmed to St Vincent as the film progressed before shedding a tear or two as the film approached it's bittersweet denouement. Not a classic by any means and not without its flaws, I just expected rather more from Murray, McCarthy, Watts et al.

Hidden Figures (2016)

"Here at NASA we all pee the same colour"

During the latter part of 2016 and the beginning of the new year I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures on countless occasions on my many visits to the beautiful dark confines of my local picture house and had come to a naive conclusion: that this based on a true story film has been given a heavy dose of Hollywood glitter and schmaltz and I wouldn't engage, enjoy or appreciate the film in any way. And how wrong I was! I ended up re-watching this joy of a film on three separate occasions at the cinema each time gaining a new appreciation or insight into a wonderful film, the premise of which is a simple one but with three main characters far more intriguing, interesting and brilliantly re-created on the big screen. With the world in the midst of the cold war between the United States and Russia in 1961 the "space race" in on between the two world superpowers to dominate space and put a man on the moon. In these highly charged times of racial inequality and discrimination, NASA turns to three black mathematicians or "computers" to calculate the trajectories and equations needed to launch and importantly, return their astronauts safely into space and back again.

Katherine Johnson 
(Taraji P Henson) Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2009 for her excellent portrayal of Queenie in David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Taraji P Henson was unfortunately overlooked for another Oscar nomination for her portrayal here as Katherine Johnson, the acting honours falling to her co-star Octavia Spencer (see below). Henson's performance, although the quietest and more reserved of the three main characters is paradoxically perhaps the larger of the three as she displays her precocious talents as a "computer" running intense and in depth mathematical equations all against a backdrop of misogyny and racism as she's thrust into an all male and, more importantly, all white working environment at NASA and which is in essence their nerve centre for the calculation of trajectories for the astronauts leaving and returning to Earth. Katherine's bright, beaming smile hides the constant conflict endured with "Paul Stafford" (Jim Parsons) a Lead Engineer at NASA and a brutish misogynist who seems intent on making her already difficult assignment even more so as she's constantly surrounded by an antipathy and quiet antagonism from her all white, predominantly male colleagues. A single mother of three very young girls and deeply in love with "Colonel Jim Johnson" (Mahershala Ali), Katherine's rising determination as well as her undoubted skills are quickly appreciated by NASA Director "Al Harrison" (Kevin Costner) and soon Katherine's role becomes ever more pivotal in NASA's on going test flights into space.

Dorothy Vaughan 
(Octavia Spencer) Following her stellar performances in films such as The Help and Fruitvale Station, Octavia Spencer was rightly awarded her Oscar nomination in 2017 for her portrayal here as Dorothy Vaughan. Determination is a watch word for all three main characters in Hidden Figures and in Dorothy Vaughan we have it in spades from Spencer's quiet resolve to succeed at NASA, make a name for herself, break the colour bar that separates her and her team of computers from the mainly white populace and to become a recognised Supervisor in her own right. "You don't mess with Mrs Vaughan" and never is this more apparent than with her constant run ins with "Vivian Mitchell" (Kirsten Dunst) a repugnant, aggressive and overt racist and a role so diametrically different to her more acclaimed roles and one in which Dunst truly excels. Although she would ultimately lose out in the Oscar stakes to Viola Davis' phenomenal performance in the Denzel Washington directed Fences, Spencer fully deserved her Oscar nomination for an equally power house performance of stoic determination against all the odds.

Mary Jackson 
(Janelle Monae) 2016 was a break out year in the career of singer turned actress Janelle Monae with her assured performance in the multi Oscar winning film Moonlight as well as her performance here as sassy, fast mouthed Mary Jackson. Fiercely proud of her black heritage and driven by her determination to succeed as an engineer in a world dominated by white, middle class men, she draws inspiration from her husband "Levi Jackson" (Aldis Hodge) and particularly Lead Engineer "Karl Zielinski" (Olek Krupa) and strives to do whatever it takes to overcome the crippling odds stacked against her as she opines "Every chance we get to get ahead, they move the finish line". Last year saw two highly polished and accomplished performances from Monae and these will no doubt propel her into the A List for numerous acting roles to come.

In addition to the aforementioned stellar performances one further portrayal is worthy of great acclaim, and that is in the guise of Kevin Costner as NASA Director Al Harrison. Resplendent in a crisp white shirt, grey suit and glasses, the ever dependable Costner is on top form as a dry and driven manager of people and human beings, personalising them rather than falling back on their skin colour or the politics involved, often in a comedic way which is another of the film's true highlights. The mission is paramount and they must succeed before "The Russians plant a flag on the damn moon!". Interspersing stock footage of the day, from Yuri Gagarin to JFK, Hidden Figures (a pun both on the hidden people involved as well as the mathematical equations adopted) truly excels on every level as a film that I'm quite happy to admit that I was completely wrong in pre judging it! From the stellar performances of Henson, Spencer, Monae, Costner, Dunst and Parsons through to some superb musical choices including time period tracks from Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson and Ray Charles amongst many, many more, Hidden Figures garnered a total of three overall Oscar nominations in 2017 and rightly so in a film tackling the true space race of the 1960's as well as the highly charged racial and political climate of the time. Smart, engaging, entertaining, enlightening and truly heart felt, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Don't make the same mistake as me and dismiss this film out of hand before watching or you might be missing out on a real gem of a film!

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