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.

hidden-figures

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

June 20, 2014

3 Days to Kill

4d129f52-9ca0-4c07-83b7-b52dff337b64Wallpaper1

Kevin Costner tries to do a Liam Neeson and escape blockbuster supporting roles by fighting international villains in Paris while looking after an estranged daughter.

CIA asset Vivi (Amber Heard) is dispatched to Eastern Europe to kill The Wolf (Richard Sammel), who will be at a hotel overseeing a transaction by his lieutenant The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) (yes, the names are absurd; Luc Besson spits on reality). The transaction, a dirty bomb, will be sabotaged by local CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), and Vivi is not to interfere. The operation, however, goes gruesomely sideways. Ethan wounds The Albino, but collapses before capturing him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Ethan retires and returns to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and daughter Zooey (Hailee Stainfeld); and awkwardly share his CIA hideout with Malian squatters. But Vivi knows Ethan is the only person who can identify The Wolf. She offers an experimental drug to prolong his life in return for some freelancing…

One-man studio Besson produces demented action films: Mark Millar’s bombastic comics moments (Black Widow catching a gun dropped from a chopper above while she’s jumping between buildings in The Ultimates) threaded together with basic plotting. But 3 Days to Kill, from a surprisingly sadistic early killing, isn’t the house style of knowing nonsense and crunching violence. McG fashioned some amusing sequences in This Means War, but, bar some moments in the hotel cold open, his action directing in a washed-out Paris is not very impressive. More worryingly this is an action movie that is seriously lacking in actual action. 3 Days to Kill can come across as an early draft of Taken; written as a serious drama about estranged father-daughter parenting. Except that such ‘serious drama’ includes ludicrous unfunny business with a purple bike, and electrocuting fixers for parenting advice.

All I can think is that Besson and Adi Hasak wrote tongue-in-cheek, but, bar a pointedly directed comedy scene with a ‘real Italian’ accountant for The Albino, that tone just got lost in McG’s shooting; which prevents Mitat (Marc Andreoni) from emulating Inspector Tarconi in The Transporter. Amber Heard tragically disappears for lengthy stretches, but in her occasional appearances Besson seems to be tapping into the hypersexualised persona she’s honed in films like The Rum DiaryThe Informers, and The Joneses. Vivi’s always dressed in some sort of leather and outré hairstyle, attends Crazy Horse cabaret to flirt with naked girls, makes both driving and injecting a cancer drug seem sexual, delivers what may be 2014’s filthiest PG-13 gag, and (in what may or may not be a hallucination by medicated Ethan) does rifle drills under Roger Rabbit red spotlights.

Costner was always a still centre as a leading man rather than a warm presence like Neeson, and his tonally confused Bessoner surely won’t reinvigorate his leading man career.

2/5

June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

man_of_steel_24

Zack Snyder reboots Superman as total fantasy, throwing an immense amount of sound and CGI fury at us, but succeeding only in obscuring his characters.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe), chief scientist of Krypton, commits heresy by the natural birth of his son Kal-El; as for centuries Kryptonians have been artificially bred for specific duties. But this regimented society is about to literally implode from its own hubris, despite a last-gasp coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) to protect the race from the folly of their ruling council. All hope for Krypton’s future is dispatched by Jor-El, encoded in the cells of his son, to a distant planet once scouted for colonisation – Earth. Kal is raised as Clark by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who counsel him to keep his powers secret. Clark works menial jobs and secretly saves people. But when he hears of an anomalous object found by the military in the Arctic he drifts north, where his powers are observed by reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Her story is rubbished by her editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but soon all earth believes it because Zod has come, and he wants Kal-El…

Man of Steel makes you appreciate Superman Returns. Singer’s visual style often mistook ponderous for majestic, but Snyder fails to fashion an action sequence to match its airplane crash as his crash-zooms and shakycam render everything an incomprehensible haze of action. The much-touted Battle of Smallville is a blur of CGI explosions, the Superman flying effects are less convincing than Donner’s owing to constant whip-panning, and Metropolis’s destruction by a gravity machine (which sounds like a nifty bass line) doesn’t match Bay’s trashing of Chicago skyscrapers in Transformers 3. Snyder was measured in Watchmen, so this is retrograde for him, but perhaps it’s his directorial response to David S Goyer writing Superman as total fantasy unhooked from any reality. Krypton is a CGI nightmare filled with fantastical creatures out of the Star Wars prequels, and bears little resemblance to previous imaginings. The film abruptly jumps from the destruction of Krypton to grown-up Clark saving an oil rig, perhaps to anticipate audience annoyance at being told this origin story yet again.

But we are told it, in momentum-killing flashbacks which clumsily rehash Batman Begins, although Costner shines in them as the voice of Kansan decency; with one truly stunning scene. Goyer’s script too often sketches personalities. Luckily Cavill, once he dons the suit, transforms vocally and becomes a rather good Superman, and Adams is a fantastic Lois. Finally cinematically we have a reporter capable of discovering who Superman is by dogged investigating! Shannon injects some complexity into Zod, but the script raises notions of Spartan destiny and Christian choice and then does nothing with them. Commander Faora (Antje Traue)’s chilling line about a lack of morality being an evolutionary advantage is a typical example of undeveloped potential. Goyer’s contrivance to weaken Superman without introducing Kryptonite is so mind-blowingly inconsistent that you’ll become unengaged enough to notice Adams acts beside a fellow Smallville alumnus, and that Law & Order and West Wing stars save the world. Incredibly Goyer’s finale has two horrendous wrong notes, and these are huge clangers akin to Batman tossing Joker off a building and then giggling when he goes splat on the sidewalk…

Man of Steel largely eschews comedy and realistically choreographed action, but aggravatingly some of its characterisation is quite brilliant. Okay attempt, Zack… Who’s next?

2.5/5

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

zack-snyder

I’ve written two pieces about Zack Snyder and one about re-booting the Superman franchise, so here’s my clever ploy to avoid repeating myself by this time writing a blog about Zack Snyder’s re-booting of Superman.

Man of Steel hits cinemas this Friday. The promotional push has come oddly late, here at any rate, with nary a poster or TV spot visible until June 3rd for a movie out June 14th. But Warner Bros has obvious confidence in this project, muttering as they are of their expectations that it will break the $1 billion dollar mark, so it’s obviously a considered choice. But have Zack Snyder’s choices as the rebooting director been equally considered? It’s long been my contention that limits are good, that Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’ is better than Death Proof and Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2 because he had to creatively respond to artistic limitations rather than engage in his usual self-indulgence. Inglourious Basterds likewise needed to be a hit with some urgency so he had to rein himself in from his original grandiose vision. You could even speculate, as I have, that, given a small budget Richard Kelly’s imagination is focused onto small-scale scenarios which hum with wit and heart, but that given a large budget his vision becomes hopelessly diffuse as it expands over ever more elaborate conspiracies; always involving water, time-travel or aliens. I say this because I think that, unlike the unloved Sucker-Punch which was co-written and directed by Snyder as an R movie and then edited into a PG-13 after the shoot, receiving Goyer’s PG-13 Man of Steel script and bringing his flourishes to bear is the best thing that could happen to him creatively.

Snyder has cast intriguingly and well. Laurence Fishburne has the natural authority you want from a Perry White, Amy Adams has the comic timing and also the abrasiveness to be Lois Lane, and the double-act of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents looks very promising. Russell Crowe as Jor-El looks like a solid choice, although it depends largely on the levels of pompousness depicted on Krypton – which we’re promised will be a caped society, whatever that means, perhaps Gerard Butler’s Sparta. By far the best choice is Michael Shannon as General Zod, a move every bit as bizarre as Scarecrow and French Connection star Gene Hackman putting aside grittiness and realism to don a comedy wig as Lex Luthor in 1978. Shannon, from the latest trailer, is bringing the baffled questioning tone of his Revolutionary Road madman as well as the customary menacing fury of Boardwalk Empire and The Iceman. Indeed the only obvious dud in the casting is picking Henry Cavill as Superman, so, only mildly important then… Cavill is physically perfect for the part, but being built like Superman is only half the task, you need the comic timing to be Clark too. Brandon Routh had the physique for Superman, but his Clark wasn’t very good, and the film suffered as a result. Cavill abundantly does not have great comic timing, which makes the promises from Snyder and Goyer that this Clark is an interpretation we’ve never seen before a worrying admission/pre-emption of comic timing failure.

0a260b179af0f55e34ce1008e3dcc596

And comedy is the big worry when it comes to Man of Steel. The teaser trailer which made it look like Clark was going to spend the whole film moping around the Pacific Northwest ruing the Discovery Channel’s decision to once again not pick his crew to feature on the next season of Deadliest Catch started the concerns. The next trailer deepened those concern, eschewing as it did super-action and seeming to promise a deeply sombre Superman which would resemble nothing else so much as a dramatisation of Seth Cohen’s essay on the loneliness of being Superman which moved his teacher to tears… Finally we got a trailer that softened the pomposity of grand thematic statements about sacrifice, leadership, moral examples by showing us some super-action, but sadly said super-action looked as if it was directed by Michael Bay in blacks, blues, greys and red with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on hand with his customary supernova to backlight the action. It also seemed to suggest this interpretation’s Lois might play like the reporter in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, debunking the small-town hero under the guise of romance and then feeling guilty. Except Goyer can’t write Capra. Indeed, under his own steam he’s given us Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield and Jumper, while the Brothers Nolan, without him, have penned Memento, The Prestige and Inception. You feel sure the Nolans work hard to pen gags, but Superman cinematically needs some good gags or it will implode.

And then there’s the CGI… Brandishing the ‘Produced by Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy’ on your promotional material only goes so far. Nolan shoots on film, on location and in meticulously dressed sound-stages, and with largely practical effects – oftentimes where anybody else would just use ghastly CGI – rendered with a very precise eye for detail by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Snyder really … doesn’t. Zod’s CGI armour and awful looking spaceship stood out for me like a sore thumb, because, along with the CGI cape for Superman, they’re the sort of bizarre decisions that could really blight a movie. Richard Donner said his Superman aimed at not at reality but at verisimilitude, but it appears Snyder has with customary abandon decided to abandon verisimilitude and go for total fantasy. Partly this is because of the times we live in, but also partly because Snyder is not particularly attached to reality at the best of times. But no matter how sombre the trailers make it look, no matter how emotionally devastating the handling of Clark’s pivotal relationships are, and no matter how thrilling it is too see a Superman Begins in which his morality is in formation – and close to Hancock than himself as a result – the scripting by David S Goyer won’t matter a damn if you just tune out when you notice that, like certain action sequences in the blighted Star Wars prequels, not one thing onscreen is actually real. And Sucker-Punch does not inspire confidence there…

So, there you go. This Man of Steel has a strong chance of crash-landing, but it could soar – let’s hope…

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

Blog at WordPress.com.