20th Century Women: You could tell right away this is a film based on someone’s personal experiences. And, presto, that’s exactly what it is. Director Mike Mills’ film is about his mom, an eccentric iconoclastic “Depression” era woman played by Annette Bening, and himself, a 1970s child highly influenced by the women in his life, including his reading of feminist tracts like Our Bodies Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. The film’s most striking character is Dorothea (Bening), who refuses to be pigeonholed, and who has some interesting ideas about self-knowledge and independence. But the film is too long, takes too many plot deviations and overall is a bit of a bore. (I must have looked at my watch 10 times.) (The film is nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the Oscars.)
Silence: This has been famed director Martin Scorsese’s passion for decades, based on the Shūsaku Endō novel. Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield play two 17th century Portuguese missionary priests in Japan, where Christianity is brutally outlawed. This film lasts almost three hours and, well, it feels like it. It plods along with the same repeated scene cycles which might be described as hiding-praying-being captured. You’d think a story like this would have lots of drama but the movie is extremely flat. This could easily have bene corrected by adding, for example, surrealism or abstraction, or somehow counterpointing the events depicted with those elsewhere in the world to provide a larger picture of the historic times. By delivering the film as it is, if Scorsese thinks he has created a masterpiece, then he's a little too full of himself. (The film is nominated for Best Cinematography for the Oscars.)
The Founder: Of the four films reviewed here this is the best. It’ a straight forward look at the rise of uber businessman Ray Kroc and the creation of the McDonald's corporation, from its roots in a California drive-in to growth in suburban Chicago in the 1950s. Michael Keaton as Kroc (picture above) is front and centre and fabulous as the no holds barred businessman. John Lee Hancock’s direction is crisp, fast-moving and absorbing. Most surprising is the film’s lack of mockery and condescension. McDonalds, after all, could have been an easy target. Rather, the film is an objective telling of the fantastic business success of one of the world’s most iconic corporations, whether you like the company or not. (Why has this film received no nominations for this year’s Oscars?)
Hidden Figures: The wonder of this film is that such a story even existed, that NASA – which probably most people think of as a benign forward-looking organization – discriminated en masse against black people. But let’s face it. The women depicted in this film worked for NASA in Virginia just as the space program was taking off in the late 1950s. It was the era of segregation. Of course, who knew that there was a large group of female African-Americans who were the living “computers” for space age mathematical formulas, including some of the most critical calculations to get a man into space? The film’s direction by Theodore Melfi is somewhat uneven, detours into slapstick on occasion, and I wasn’t crazy about the contemporary score. But it’s a sweet story about overcoming the hideous prejudice which afflicted so many American institutions. (The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan) for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Writing (Adapted Screenplay).