Saturday, February 4, 2017

Double Feature Review: 20th Century Women and Hidden Figures

Last weekend, I saw two of the better "2016 films," which, in my book, are going down as 2017 films. 20th Century was my best experience in a theater since I saw Manchester By the Sea, La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Hidden Figures was my best pirated DVD screener viewing in quite a while as well.

20th Century Women

This film is the story of a single mother (Annette Bening) raising an only son (Lucas Jade Zumann) along with a liberal handyman (Billy Crudup) and two other females: a young punk photographer embodied by Greta Gerwig and a young teenage neighbor portrayed by Elle Fanning. None of this is what makes the film interesting.

This film is interesting because of all the textures and details that make it stand apart from most domestic indies. The minds behind this films are well-informed and the eclectic permeates. For starters, I can't remember another film that was set in Santa Barbara.  Then there is the music: hardcore punk and new wave share the movie with dreamy synthscapes. Oh wait, the mother also puts on some old time jazz throughout, which gives the film  another layer of elegance.

There are moments of visual poetry as the son skateboards down tree-lined streets, cutting through sun and shadow.

The handyman is a laid-back, open-minded character who manages to avoid becoming a stereotype-spewing mannequin--no, he's a quirky character who makes his own shampoo and has a missed calling in pottery. My dad also has a missed calling in artistic pottery.

Then there is the incorporation of stock historical imagery to further express character origins, which imbues these character with a palpability akin to real people in a documentary.

Greta Gerwig's character turns  the son onto hardcore feminist literature, which is quoted often throughout this movie and discussed, which turns the audience onto feminism in a way that no film I can recall ever has. Feminism is referenced all the time in media but rarely is the actual rhetoric included. This film has a credibility on the topic that so many other films and shows lack.

Adding to the film's sophistication is a clip of Koyaanisqatsi, a 1980's time-lapse examination of the relationship between civilization and nature set to the overwhelming droning minimalism of Philip Glass.

Then again, this is also just a really funny film with humor coming out of some unexpected but completely natural juxtapositions of character and behavior.

And then there is the inclusion of highlights from Jimmy Carter's under-appreciated "Crisis of Confidence" speech (especially between 10:00 and 20:00). He really hit the nail on the head with what's holding us back as individuals, and as a society, in modern life.

Fortunately, nothing is holding this film back.

Hidden Figures

The last five years has seen a string of great films come out about obscure or under-appreciated history: Argo, Bridge of Spies, The Intimidation Game, Hacksaw Ridge, and this one, among others. I'm sure I forgot some.

This film shows us the inconvenience and inequality of separate but equal laws. From ridiculous bathroom routes to having responsibilities without title or pay, we get a sense of the discrimination.

Yet, this is a lighthearted film, so turn away if you want something darker. Furthermore, there are definitely some anachronistic behaviors and lines throughout.

Taraji P. Henson gracefully gives us the opportunity to appreciate one of history's greatest mathematicians. Octavia Spenser's Dorothy Vaughan was amazingly prescient about the future importance of computers as embodied by the IBM. Janelle Mone's Mary Jackson helped break barriers between women and educational and professional opportunities. Her persuasive speech is inspirational and made me realize what a college admission essay (or anything persuasive) should feel like if ever I should apply again.

Music is life when it comes to film. The musical score at times seems to quote Thomas Newman's theme music for The Newsroom, and at other times it works in some muted trumpets and deep bass, hallmarks of African-American music. Pharrel Williams provides songs that keep the drama engaging and flowing. And I definitely prefer the music here to John Legend's La La Land stuff.

In the end, this film opened my eyes to some fascinating, inspiring and vital history via a glamorous package.

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