Movie Reviews: A Monster Calls and Hidden Figures

A Monster Calls

Cary, NC – A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), is a fantasy drama about a young boy dealing with his mother’s terminal illness. Starring Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and newcomer Lewis MacDougall, A Monster Calls is an emotional and deeply satisfying family film that deals with loss in as honest a way as a film with a giant tree monster can.


Fantastic Performance From Newcomer

MacDougall is an absolute revelation in the lead role of Conor, a boy seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. MacDougall runs the gamut of emotions as his character adjusts to living with his stern Grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) as he watches his mother slowly die. MacDougall never seems anything but real as a child in an impossible situation.

Jones is equally as heartbreaking as MacDougall’s mother. It’s another fantastic performance from Jones, who is quickly proving to be one of the most talented actresses out there, with her heroic turn just last month in Rogue One and her Oscar nominated role in the The Theory of Everything a few years ago.

Neeson Reminds Us How Good He Really Is

However, the film’s secret weapon is Liam Neeson as the titular monster. I think it’s gotten to the point where people have kind of forgotten how good Neeson can be, thanks to his recent stint as an action hero (which I have greatly enjoyed by the way).

Granted, this is only a vocal performance, but the man has a great voice, and he brings a wonderful gravitas to the film. Scary, kind, and gentle all at once, Neeson reminds us what a presence he really is. Between this and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Silence, it’s looking like he’s ready to prove he can still deliver the goods.

Excellent Family Film

Director Bayona has made one of my very favorite kind of family films: one that isn’t afraid to be honest with its audience. While rated PG, it’s possible it could be too intense for the youngest of viewers, but the film never goes too far or too scary. A Monster Calls really is a tremendous experience, and I’m hoping it finds as wide an audience as possible. Definitely worth the trip!

Hidden Figures

Cary, NC – Hidden Figures is the true story of three scientists and mathematicians who prove invaluable to the American space program at a time when they, as black women, were not seen as peers to white, male engineers. The result is a fascinating look into our history to cheer on some unsung heroes.

Excellent Cast

One of the benefits of Hidden Figures (or Hidden Fences, as the Golden Globes prefers to call it) is that our three main characters do not necessarily work together. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – played by Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Janelle Monaé (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station) respectively – all go to work for NASA but take on very different roles. Johnson, in arguably the main role, puts together the math needed to send a manned craft into space and back, while Jackson fights to become valued as an engineer and Vaughan oversees computers and checks everyone’s work while not getting the credit.

While breaking up the characters, we get to see them as individuals and also explore different forms of discrimination they all face. And one of Hidden Figures‘ other strengths is how it ties prejudices and biases in the early 1960s to the ones black women still face today through some inspired word choices and framings, thanks to director and writer Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, Park Day).

The cast is stacked beyond just these three leads, who all pull off a terrific performance. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) pulls off somewhat of a metamorphosis as a rude and bigoted engineer who looks down on Johnson and the entire team of black women working at NASA. It’s a far cry from his usual roles where he is cheerful or at the very least endearing.

Kevin Costner (Bull Durham, Dances with Wolves) plays the head of Johnson’s unit and both offers encouragement but also gets pushback when she asserts her own ability and self-confidence. And Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) plays Johnson’s old love interest, now gone because he doesn’t believe women, specifically black women, can be respected at NASA, though Ali’s character is seen far too little for an actor of his magnitude.

Some Hollywood Cheese

Ali’s lack of a role is part of a larger problem with Hidden Figures. While the subject matter is terrific and it is executed faithfully as far as I know, it falls into many pitfalls of large Hollywood movies. Many characters come across as plugged in, like numbers in one of Johnson’s math formulas, to keep the movie going.

Many movies operate off of some kind of formula, especially when it comes to big-budget action movies, and here the formula is a little more visible than usual. Now this is not bad per se but it prevents Hidden Figures from rising to a truly great level and with a different approach, it could present even more of the message and history of Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan’s story.

What keeps Hidden Figures strong, aside from its already very compelling true story, is the performances. Without actors of Henson, Monaé and Spencer’s calibre, the movie would fall apart but they each carry it forward and keep audiences engaged.

Worth Seeing

If you are interested in American history or science, this cannot be a movie you miss. As Hidden Figures teaches, a lot of important people often do not get the credit or recognition they deserve and this movie offers a chance to celebrate the women who made the space age possible.

Jordan Hunt reviews movies for CaryCitizen. Read more Movie Reviews. Photos from Facebook (A Monster Calls/Hidden Figures).

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