We SAID: Oscar Gorgeous

Staff Writer

Winners, losers and major upsets aside (poor Faye Dunaway may never recover from the Best Picture snafu), the stars hit the red carpet last night with a clear mission to put their best … everything… forward. There was a noticeable effort to stand out in the best possible way with clean lines and polished makeup. And even those who went for a … bit… of embellishment (Janelle Monae, we see you) balanced the look with subtle shimmer and gorgeous flesh toned makeup.

Red rules! Viola Davis looked every bit a winner in a svelte red number that flattered her athletic figure. Did we mention that she also made history as the first African American Woman to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony for acting? The woman is a powerhouse, and she was not here to play on the red carpet. Ruth Negga softened up the powerful rouge hue with lace and a full skirt, and sweetened the look even further with soft curls and a girlish head band.

Metallics were a big deal on the carpet this year. Emma Stone continued her gold trend with another number that on anyone else would have been doing the most. But even with brocade and fringe, the Givenchy dress lent an elegant ease that matched her famous smile. Amy Adams might not have been a contender, but that didn’t stop her from investing in lots of double-stick tape for a structured shimmering number. And Jessica Biel will definitely split the vote for best/worst dressed. Her golden high collar *doingwaytoomuch.com* ensemble at least deserved honorable mention. Her husband was opening the show, and we imagine she figured she had to make a statement by any means necessary.

Speaking of honorable mentions, we could not go without mentioning Charlize Theron. She was presenting this year, so the pressure was off. And her ease showed in a dark oscar-4metallic dress that was more practical than not. A little weight gain softened her normally sharp edges, and it’s not a stretch to say that it looks really good on her. She’s a stunning woman at any size, but it was nice to see her moving comfortably in her skin with a genuine smile and sans outrageous fake tan.

On the other end of the spectrum, Janelle Monae was doing more than her little frame could probably carry. oscar-8Her dress featured all manner of designs and embellishments. It looked like the designer simply couldn’t commit to a single idea, and decided to do everything and hope for the best. Her stylist even had the nerve to slap an embellished tiara/headband thing on her head. Fortunately, Monet is just quirky enough to pull it off, and managed to even look calm and collected in the frenetic ensemble.

At least Monae’s makeup artist got the memo about balance, and calmed things down with gorgeous flesh toned shimmers and a soft smoky eye. Her makeup was definitely among some of the best that the night had to offer. Other big hits of the night included Hailee Steinfeld (when did that child grow up? She looked STUNNING), Emma Stone and Naomie Harris.

Overall, it was a good night for fashion. We even forgive Halle Berry for showing up looking like she hopped out of the chair while her hair dresser was desperately trying to style those curls, and for wearing the millionth dress that looks just like all the other ones she wore on red carpets’ past.

He SAID: Hidden Gem

Scott F. Evans

2017 (and late 2016) continues to deliver solid African-American cinema with this week’s release of Hidden Figures.  The film tells the story of the black women, classified as “computers” by NASA, whose invaluable input helped astronaut John Glenn orbit the planet.  It’s a remarkably inspirational story that’s been ignored by cinema and largely forgotten in history.  But this film, based loosely on the non-fiction book of the same name, seeks to remedy that.

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Hidden Figures is directed by Theodore Melfi with a script co-written with Allison Schroeder and adapted from  the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  And while the direction isn’t particularly special, the film still works surprisingly well.  Melfi’s direction is adequate, certainly a step above pedestrian, but it won’t garner any awards. He does elicit strong performances from his cast though.   He and Schroeder’s script give the actors plenty to work with.  The dialogue pops and breezes along with a slightly whimsical tone without trivializing the situation.  These brilliant women had to deal with an altogether different brand of racism; one that had no problem using their amazing talents, while refusing to acknowledge their efforts.  But the script doesn’t beat you up about it by focusing solely on the puzzling racism that still permeated a scientific organization like NASA.  It doesn’t run from or soft sell it, but it also doesn’t wallow in misery.  Instead it illustrates the value of higher education in a world that is rapidly progressing through technology.

But Hidden Figures is really elevated by its cast, with every player turning in a robust performance.  Taraji P. Henson leads the pack as mathematical genius Katherine Johnson.  While the film is something of an ensemble piece, Henson truly anchors it.  She plays Johnson with a easy, yet restrained touch, giving the role a light sense of humor even as she navigates the racial minefield of late 1960’s NASA.  Octavia Spencer gives another one of her typically solid performances as Dorothy Vaughn who manages the team of “computers”.  She plays Vaughn as strong, but not in that stiff manner we usually get in these types of roles.  Janelle Monae is new to acting, but she holds her own as the determined Mary Jackson. She plays her with a bit of sauce, but not enough to push Hidden Figures beyond its PG rating.  Kevin Costner is as stalwart as ever as Al Harrison.  He’s good in the role but as it’s almost tailor-made for him, it’s not a standout.

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If there’s one criticism I’d level at Hidden Figures is that music is weak.  It’s not bad, but the score by Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer all sound inauthentic, like modern music trying to sound period.  It’s too polished and synthetic sounding.  This film was made with the relatively low amount of 25 million (it doesn’t look it) so maybe securing era-specific music rights proved too rich for the budget.

So even though Hidden Figures plays almost like a big budget TV movie, it’s still worth a look in theaters.  This is truly an important story that should serve to inspire both young and old.

He SAID: Fences

Scott F. Evans

“It’s been a long time… I shouldn’t have left you…”

August Wilson’s acclaimed play Fences finally gets a big screen treatment. While it can be very effective on stage in a live environment, it doesn’t quite work as a piece of cinema.

The problem certainly isn’t with the performances. Denzel Washington turns in yet another excellent performance as the film’s protagonist Troy Maxson. It’s almost a shock to the system to see how animated Washington plays the character. Washington can do more with a simple turn of the head or an eye change than most actors can do with pages of dialogue. Here, he goes from that natural stillness, which works so well in film, to a broad stagey-ness that sometimes feels a little phony.

Viola Davis shines as his long-suffering wife Rose. She puts everything up there on the screen. She’s able to convey both strength and vulnerability at the same time. Rose is almost a thankless role because Troy bulldozes everybody around him. But Davis never allows Rose to get lost in the midst of his destruction. Her performance is probably more grounded than Washington’s, but it’s also a less flamboyant role.

Stephen Henderson almost steals the show as Troy’s best friend and co-worker Jim Bono. No matter how great Denzel and Viola are, they’re still Denzel and Viola: two of the most recognizable faces in the business. Henderson has been around for a while, but he’s still fairly unknown to movie-goers. That near anonymity adds a layer of authenticity to Henderson’s work as Bono. He seems like a man plucked straight from any Black community in the 1950’s. You never see him acting and he gives the most genuine performance in the film.

All of the main actors in the main cast reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. Jovan Adepo is one of the newcomers to the cast bowing here as Corey, Troy and Rose’s son. Adepo handles the role with ease.  Even in his scenes with heavyweights Washington and Davis, he more than holds his own.

Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby play Troy’s brother Gabriel and first son Lyons respectively.  Gabriel is afflicted with a wartime head injury and is mentally disabled. In many films this type character can be distracting when the actor is allowed to overplay it.  Williamson keeps it reigned in though, showing us Gabriel’s mental struggles, while still underplaying it.   Hornsby is solid as the ne’er do well Lyons, but the character is unfortunately shortchanged by the script.  Much of his story happens off-screen so Lyons feels like a one-note character.

And that’s why Fences doesn’t quite work as a piece of cinema.

Washington directs the film with an almost slavish adherence to its stage roots, with too much of the action being confined to the Maxson’s backyard.   This is understandable for theater productions as there’s an inherent limit to what can be done on a stage.  But this is a movie and that visual restriction makes the film feel claustrophobic.  Maybe Washington wants the audience to experience the oppressive confinement that the characters are living in, but it feels more like him trying to remain faithful to the play rather than creating a visual theme.   The script, written by Wilson (who worked on it before his death in 2005) and Tony Kushner, doesn’t help alleviate the staginess of the film.  While the dialogue is rich, authentic, and expertly delivered, far too much of it expository.  While monologues are an integral component to theater and actors love them, again, this is cinema.  Show us, don’t tell us.  The characters in Fences spend a lot of time talking about events that happen offscreen.  Many of these events are fairly vital to the plot and could have easily been shot, making the film a fuller cinematic experience.  Instead, we’re given something that often looks like they just shot the play in an outdoor theater.

But it’s a soft criticism.  Fences is a good film.  Because it’s such an actor’s piece, the performances help make this adaptation a success.  However, the faithfulness to that theater-ish style prevents it from becoming a classic.

He SAID: Doctor Strange is Magic

Scott F. Evans

I owe Marvel Studios an apology. When Doctor Strange was announced a couple of years ago, I figured that this would be the one that wouldn’t work. The strike. The fumble. The air ball.

Dr. Strange has been around for more than fifty years in comic form, but he’s still relatively obscure to non-fans. In Marvel’s defense, this isn’t their first time at the rodeo. In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy introduced a set of lesser known characters, and the film proved to be a fun sci-fi jaunt. Ant-Man showed up on the big screen as a relative unknown in 2015. But Marvel kept it light and easy,  and delivered a jocular heist flick.

Doctor Strange is not only a minor, practically unknown figure… he’s a sorcerer.  To date, there had never been a supernatural element in the any of the Marvel films. The film’s first trailer suggested a heavy-handed affair with obvious visual nods to Inception, Batman Begins, The Matrix, and even Blade Runner. This looked nothing like typical Marvel fare and for all the wrong reasons.

It didn’t help that Scott Derrickson was hired to direct the picture. Other than the forgettable Day the Earth Stood Still remake from 2008, Derrickson was known primarily for low budget, schlocky horror films. As it turns out, he was a solid choice to helm Doctor Strange. He pulled amazing performances from the cast, although the credit also goes to the the actors themselves who are at the top of their game. Derrickson’s main achievement is re-imagining trite genre clichés and making them feel fresh, and he earned every penny with this film. Doctor Strange could have been another hand waving / twig pointing CGI spectacle, but Derrickson changed it up. Instead, we were treated to a blend of martial arts and magic, and the results are spectacular.

Derrickson keeps the pacing brisk as well. Instead of a bloated nearly 3 hour run-time, Doctor Strange comes in at just under two hours. The writing team of Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill are able to get us in and out, but still tell a complete story. The trademark Marvel humor is also present. If I had to lodge a complaint, it would be with some of the awkward pop culture references. Fortunately they are few and far between.

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I’ll go on record as saying that I thought casting Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character was an uninspiring choice. Cumberbatch is a great actor, but he felt a little stodgy for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was wrong. Strange is very similar to Tony Stark. Arrogant, brilliant, careless. The wrong actor could’ve ruined this by either aping Robert Downey Jr’s Stark or going too far in the other direction and playing Strange too heavily (like Christian Bales’ Bruce Wayne). Cumberbatch surprises by bringing a light touch to this role. He plays it straight, not jokey, but with just enough whimsy to make Strange likeable, which is Marvel’s main ingredient for success.

The rest of the cast does great work. Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One just shy of ethereal, keeping the character grounded enough to be relatable. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives Karl Mordo a rigid nobility that plays well with Cumberbatch’s looser portrayal. Mads Mikkelsen is good as the villain Kaecilius… but as in most Marvel films, the bad guy is the weakest link. That’s less of a criticism and more of an observation. Marvel films know that their heroes are the draw so that’s where the focus remains.

Definitely check out Doctor Strange while it’s still on the big screen. It’s a trippy visual feast that’s also filled with fun and interesting characters.

RATING: Theater

He SAID: The Birth of a Classic

Scott F. Evans

The following is a review of Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation. It is not another rehash of his past allegations, nor is it an unfair projection of those charges onto this work. I have no interest in retrying him in the court of public opinion. I will not be address  topics of “toxic masculinity”, rape culture, the meaning of consent, personal responsibility, or the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. If you’re looking for a commentary on those things as they relate (or not) to The Birth of a Nation, there are literally dozens of pieces all over the web devoted to that pursuit. It is this writer’s opinion that Parker’s past is irrelevant to this film.

Now that we’ve gotten that shit out of the way…

birth-6Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is nearly a masterpiece. It’s a little pretentious and some scenes suffer under the limited budget. But beyond that, this film works on just about every level. While its main strengths are in the performances, Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis turn in a very attractive looking piece. I don’t think the cinematography will win any awards, but visually it is an elegant motion picture. This is Parker’s first feature film and he already has a strong sense of pacing and control. The film moves along at a good clip and he brings the run time in at a manageable two hours. That may sound short for a historical bio, but Nat Turner’s story doesn’t feel shortchanged. The common practice in modern cinema seems to be padding these stories out to two and a half or three hours. Parker keeps it tight, hitting us with just enough to craft a more than satisfying character study.

Which is what The Birth of a Nation actually is. The film’s name and advertising are a little misleading. This is not the sprawling epic the title suggests. Instead it’s an examination of how Nat Turner goes from being an unwitting tool of oppression to an instrument of liberation. Make no mistake, this movie is about Nat Turner. The other characters, his wife, fellow slaves, slave-owners and catchers all service Turner’s arc. Parker focuses solely on what makes Turner tick. He explores the environment, and the circumstances that cause a man, raised as property and taught to teach tolerance and peace to his brothers and sisters, to rise up to fight for their freedom. Other characters have minor arcs as well. Nat’s owner, Samuel Turner played by Armie Hammer, goes from being a fairly benign presence in Nat’s life to an outright adversary. Aja Naomi King gives Nat’s wife Cherry some nice levels, taking the character from near feral to quietly dignified to supportive radical. Aunjanue Ellis, Coleman Domingo, and Jackie Earle Haley also give solid and memorable performances.

But The Birth of a Nation is about Nat Turner, and Parker dives into this role… giving us an acting class on nuance, stillness and power… both internal and expressive. Turner is a slave, so he’s forbidden to speak out against the horrors he sees. But Parker shows us through subtle facial expressions and changes in his eyes, exactly how Turner feels about these events. We see him fight to maintain control as his manhood is stripped away from him day after day. He struggles to contain himself as he sees how his sermons are used to control other slaves. Even when he finally explodes, it’s a contained fury. Many actors would go big at these moments. But Parker stays within the character he created. He plays Turner with a consistent level of strength. Even in emotional moments, you can see Turner is always in control of himself. Parker plays Turner with a kind of power rarely seen in modern black male leading roles.

“Oh no, not another slave movie…”

Yes, another slave movie, but here’s the difference. The Birth of a Nation is a tough, uncompromising film. But it’s also an empowering one. The slave characters have agency and are active participants in achieving their goals. There’s no sitting around waiting for white saviors. And while the ending may seem tragic, that’s only the surface level. Even as the rebellion is put down, the characters are even triumphant in defeat. They stood up and died free.

See The Birth of a Nation in theaters.

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He SAID: Magnificent Fun

Scott F. Evans

Did The Magnificent Seven need a remake? No. John Sturges’ western from 1960 – itself a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai – is a classic that still stands the test of time. Featuring such talents as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson, there’s little a modern version can say or do that would ever unseat that version. But director Antoine Fuqua and film lead Denzel Washington gave it a shot, and actually turned in an enjoyable early Fall popcorn flick.

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While it’s not a strict remake, the basic premise remains the same: A small team of gunmen (Samurai in the original) are hired to protect a defenseless town from invading bandits. Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto also set their story in the old west (which also makes this feel like an unnecessary remake). Fuqua makes the wise decision to cast a multi-ethnic Seven and makes the villain a wealthy industrialist and his small army of hired goons.

One of Fuqua’s strengths as a director is that he always knows exactly what kind of film he’s making. The Magnificent Seven won’t reinvent cinema. It’s not a deconstruction of the genre and it’s not a tongue-in-cheek parody. It’s a rollicking, fast-paced adventure that pushes all the right buttons. He wanted to make a good, slightly old-fashioned Western and he succeeds. Fuqua doesn’t seek to dazzle with intricate camerawork and the script is just as straightforward. Still, the creators didn’t phone it in. Fuqua knows how to stage an action scene, and Wenk and Pizzolatto weaved a pretty decent yarn. This is a good film, that’s not especially interested in reinventing the wheel.

Like the original, the cast turns in solid work. There are no career highs in this movie, but everyone delivers fine performances. This is Washington’s third time working with Fuqua. As always, he gives a master class in naturalistic acting. He’s on screen for most of the film’s run-time and there’s not a phony moment on display. Chris Pratt brings his trademark charm in a role almost tailor made for his abilities. He leans a little too heavily into his shtick on occasion, but the film’s pacing is brisk enough that we’re not distracted. Vincent D’Onofrio nearly takes it over the top with some interesting character choices, but he’s offset by Washington’s more taciturn presence. Ethan Hawke, Byung-hung Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo, and Martin Sensmeier round out the Seven. All play their parts admirably.

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The Magnificent Seven is a first rate piece of escapist fare. It won’t insult your intelligence, but won’t vex you with cinematic pretensions either. It’s designed to be enjoyed for a couple hours and fade from memory as the week progresses. It’s worth a watch on the big screen.

RATING: Theater