Talking Movies

February 16, 2017

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures tells the neglected story of the black women mathematicians behind the scenes during the early days of NASA.

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Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) works as a computer in the backrooms of NASA as the fledgling agency tries to put a man in space. She is tapped to work out analytical geometry for hard-nosed director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), and suffers the contempt of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who resents her attempts to gain credit for her work on his project. Fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) have parallel struggles. Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) wants Jackson as his engineer, but she must jump through Jim Crow hoops to achieve that title, while Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) offers no help to Vaughan in her quest to be given the title of supervisor of the coloured computers given that she’s doing the job. Their difficulties are mirrored by America failing to keep pace with the USSR.

Always be suspicious of important films, they are rarely good. And always be suspicious of films based on a true story, they usually make pig-swill of history and defensively claim artistic license even as they demand Oscars for their fearless dedication to telling true stories. Director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder’s script is full of transparently bogus movie moments that are the hallmark of screenwriting designed purely to create Oscar ceremony excerpts: Costner desegregates NASA with a crowbar, Henson gives her boss the sort of haranguing that in reality precedes being escorted from the premises, and, in perhaps the most delirious touch of all, to symbolise how Johnson despite her important work had the door slammed in her face by white men, Melfi has Johnson hand over her important work and have the door slammed in her face. Indeed.

Spencer hasn’t changed her shtick since I disliked it in Ugly Betty but is Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress. Spike Lee’s calculated tantrum reaped 6/20 black acting nominations this year, but Spencer is nominated when Greta Gerwig is not for 20th Century Women, and you wonder about that during Spencer’s jaw-dropping put-down of Dunst (who is obviously a snob not a racist). A put-down redolent of the current cultural moment’s disquieting joy in fault-finding witch-hunts which insist dissent from the (ever-changing) party line betrays a racist/sexist/et al mindset which might not even be conscious of its own white privilege/toxic masculinity/et al. Hidden Figures, like Supergirl, is rather effective when it gets off its soapbox. Monae translates her soul star charisma, Mahershala Ali plays quiet grace, Glenn Powell is an ebullient John Glenn, and the rise of IBM in rocketry is fascinatingly handled.

Hidden Figures is entertaining, despite missed opportunities to dig deeper into black identity via radical Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), but its depiction of history needs to be taken with a whole cellar of salt.

3/5

March 16, 2015

Home 3-D

Jim Parsons lends his voice to a most curious animated feature about an alien forced to team up with a human child on a road-trip.

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Oh (Jim Parsons) is a well meaning Boov who has an unfortunate habit of making hilarious mistakes. Captain Smek (Steve Martin), the leader of the Boov, has an equally ingrained habit of stealing planets as he leads the Boov in their flight from the vengeful Gorg. Smek’s latest conquest is Earth. Thus Oh is kicking it back in a human apartment. When he sends an email to his best friend Kyle (Matt Jones), a traffic cop whose inability to leave his post subjects him to Oh’s chatter, he accidentally cc’s the entire universe. Including the planet-destroying Gorg… Oh runs away from punishment and encounters Tip (Rihanna), who hates the Boov for kidnapping her mother Lucy (Jennifer Lopez) and interning her in Australia with all the other humans. Can Oh and Tip work together to rescue Lucy and un-invite the Gorg?

Yes, the fate of the world rests on cracking Oh’s password and unsending an email. Because, you see, Oh is not like the other Boov; who all follow Captain Smek’s instruction that the password for all accounts should be ‘password’ – to avoid just such screw-ups. Oh is an individualist, because the most important thing, above all, is to just be yourselfzzzzz… Apparently this is the only moral any animated film is capable of containing in this century. Which wouldn’t matter that much except that director Tim Johnson (Antz) and Get Smart screenwriting team Matt Ember & Tom J Astle add almost nothing for adults in adapting Adam Rex’s children’s book The True Meaning of Smekday. And, given that Johnson successfully transposed Woody Allen’s shtick into animated form back in 1998, and that Get Smart had its moments, that’s quite surprising.

Not nearly as surprising though as the relevance of another work of late 90s CGI: Jar Jar Binks. Can you imagine sitting thru a film where nearly everyone talked like Jar Jar? Well, minus the faux accent, Home, courtesy of the jumbled-up English the Boov employ, is pretty much that film. And it grates… Rihanna shamelessly using the movie as a giant music video for song after song is less annoying because it’s explicable. Who thought garbling grammar would be inherently funny? As far as comedy goes Martin has some fun with his vainglorious role (“I admire your cowardice”), particularly one routine with Parsons (“But you might!”), but Parsons curiously stays firmly entrenched in his anti-social Sheldon Cooper rut rather than trying to stretch himself outside his TV show; similar decisions during 24’s run effectively destroyed Kiefer Sutherland’s acting range.

Home is a film for very young children, as its animated slapstick and Rihanna-heavy soundtrack might prove mildly diverting; but for parents it’s likely to be quite a slog.

2/5

September 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

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Zach Braff finally follows up Garden State, but his second film as director suggests he needed Kickstarter money for reasons other than control of casting…

Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an actor who hasn’t worked for quite some time. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports his dream financially with her boring job, and his disappointed father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition to send Aidan’s children Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a private school. The catch is it’s a Hebrew private school, leading to a religious divide between the three generations with Aidan and Sarah out in the non-kosher cold. When Gabe’s cancer returns Aidan is forced to attempt to simultaneously home-school his children to save money, reconcile his equally underachieving brother Noah (Josh Gad) with Gabe while there’s time, defend his wife against her sleazy co-worker Jerry (Michael Weston), defeat rival actor Paul (Jim Parsons) for a lucrative role, and deal with the infuriating Rabbis Twersky (Allan Rich) and Rosenberg (Alexander Chaplin)…

It’s been nine and a half years since Garden State was released here, but all those skills are still there. The indie musical cues, the deadpan comedy, the unexpected drama – all stand present and correct, but the novelty and charm are gone. Braff’s script with his brother Adam is terribly muddled. Wish I Was Here, despite an unlikely Othello gag, isn’t very funny, and some sequences (Braff pretending to be an old Hispanic…) are just uncomfortable, because, shockingly, Braff’s not very likeable. There’s a crudity to these Brothers Bloom, and even Noah’s crush Janine (an unrecognisable Ashley Greene), that is quite off-putting; and which makes the sub-plot with Jerry problematic, despite a delightfully unexpected touch, because it needs more context for us to understand why only his ribaldry is unacceptable. In fact everything feels like it needs more context, but the film already feels far longer than its 106 minutes; it is that unenviable paradox – both too short and too long. And it also rehashes scenes we’ve seen done better in Studio 60 (the unexpected positive result of a disinterested mitzvah) and Modern Family (the underprepared casual adult teacher being supplanted at the blackboard by his smarter driven student relative).

Wish I Was Here attempts to deal with heavy themes, but Gabe’s terminal illness is terribly manipulative, to the point that you’d reject Aidan and Noah reconciling with him as a mere plot contrivance, because it doesn’t feel earned. Braff is no Michael Chabon when it comes to scrutinising American Jewish identity. The glibly sarcastic agnosticism of Braff and Hudson’s characters is largely the reason they’re acted off the screen by Patinkin and King. Braff seems unaware that proudly reminiscing to the sincere and kindly Rabbi Rosenberg about how he had a double bacon cheeseburger right after his Bar Miztvah is more likely to make us sympathise with Gabe’s disappointment than cheer on Aidan. Aidan and Sarah admit they have no identity, no advice, no metaphysical certainty; all Tucker has learnt is Aidan’s flip attitude. Gabe has bequeathed Grace the Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity. Aidan belatedly ripostes by reciting ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by TS Eliot… Joyce wanted applause for his Jewish hero in Ulysses, but his Bloom ate a pork kidney because Joyce, like Braff, lacked the imaginative empathy to create a hero who took his faith seriously.

Garden State was an unexpected gem, but Wish I Was Here suggests that Braff has actually emotionally regressed as a writer since even as his ambition has soared ahead.

2/5

December 3, 2011

The Big Year

Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson star in a pleasant tale of competitive bird-watching that just stubbornly refuses to take true comedic flight.

Martin plays the retired CEO of a major company who’s trying to belatedly achieve a ‘big year’, in which he would spot more species of birds in North America in a single calendar year than any other birder. That means spotting more than 700 types of bird. This involves trekking all over the continent on hot tips to spot rare birds like the great snowy owl or the pink-footed goose, travelling to the farthest island tip of Alaska (nearer to Tokyo than Anchorage) for a week to see the Asian wildlife landing there, and chasing major storms that will cause migrating birds to touch down unexpectedly on the Gulf Coast. The lengths to which the birders go results in a number of nicely rendered stampedes and diabolical schemes and tricks as well as a charming travelogue of some of America’s prettiest landscapes.

Martin is supported in his absurd quest by his wife, but perpetually harassed by requests from his former lieutenants to head back to NYC to help them with deals. Wilson, by contrast, plays the world-record holder Bostick who is testing the patience of his wife Rosamund Pike to its breaking point. She’s taking hormones to try and conceive, but he’s never around as he’s trying to better his own record to secure his place in the history books as the undisputed best birder of all time. Black is the singleton of the trio, a divorced loser who wants to achieve something with his life, and is aided by his mother Dianne Wiest arranging his travel schedule even as his father Bryan Dennehy despairs of the stupidity of his son’s choice of goal. The adorable Rashida Jones crosses his path from time to time as a fellow birder who he just can’t summon up the courage to ask out.

It’s a delight to see Anjelica Huston crossing swords with her regular Wes Anderson colleague Wilson, over his mutiny on her birding ship in his previous ‘big year’ quest to see a rare bird rather than the whale she was showcasing to tourists. It’s also amusing to see a veritable pantheon of TV comedy actors including Joel McHale from Community, Kevin Pollak, CSI Miami’s Byron quoting British Person in the lab, Network head Jack and the demented impressionist from Studio 60, as well as Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory as a blogger causing trouble. However, this movie while big hearted, solidly acted, perfectly structured, and nicely subversive of the philosophy of winning at all costs, just doesn’t have enough jokes. There’s one sublime gag but mostly you’ll just chuckle and smile.

The verdict must rest with the good doctor, Samuel Johnson: “Worth seeing? Yes. Worth going to see? No.”

2.5/5

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