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

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September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

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Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

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Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

August 29, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Few people have understood cryptic references in interviews by other actors over the decades to Harvey Keitel’s unusual powers. Keitel is in fact a master of the mystic arts, an American Magus, who has used his powers to escape disastrously prolonged shoots twice in his career…

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY, 1976
HARVEY KEITEL, DENNIS HOPPER, SAM BOTTOMS and ROBERT DUVALL are walking thru a jungle with electricity cables and camera tracks running thru it. Disorganised CREW yell at each other about the chaos while various lights fall off of the rigs shambolically connected to the trees.

KEITEL: (looking around him) I have a bad feeling about this…
DUVALL: I passed on that script. I’ll tell you this for free, George is just selling out with that project.
KEITEL: No, I meant I genuinely have a bad feeling about this, right here. I think this film’s going to get badly out of hand. In fact, I’m going to check. (He pulls a pen and paper from his pocket) Sam, can you meet me in my trailer in half an hour with the following items. Don’t stress about the eye of newt if you can’t get it readily…

Keitel hurriedly scribbles a list and hands it to Sam Bottoms who takes off running.

KEITEL: (gravely) Let’s all pray that I’m wrong…. (he holds out his hands)
DUVALL: Pray my ass. I’ve got better things to do, I’m going to go ring George again, make him cry by quoting him at himself again. “Anyone can drown some kittens and make the audience cry”. Oh yeah George, and what do you call the Millenial Falcon swooping in to save the day at the last second then?
KEITEL: Look, just what is this script that you’re so bitter about ‘passing on’?
DUVALL: Doesn’t matter. I passed on it. I did pass on it. It’s rubbish. I’m not bitter. Juvenile trash. Regurgitated Joseph Campbell. Didn’t want to be in it anyway. Only read the script as a favour to him.
HOPPER: Dude, I heard he wanted you to wear a wig for the audition. A wig! Full on Sinatra… (starts to giggle uncontrollably, while Duvall stops and the others do too)
DUVALL: (tense beat) Dennis, remember when you said you were going to strap dynamite to your chest and blow yourself up as part of an art happening, and I said that’s not performance art you moron that’s suicide with the potential to become mass murder. Well, I was wrong Dennis – absolutely do that if it feels right to you.

Exit Duvall, grumbling about space smugglers needing hair to look properly roguish.

KEITEL: (He grabs Hopper before he can follow Duvall) Dennis, I want you to listen to me very carefully. On no account are you to strap dynamite to yourself and attend an art happening.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
One hour later. FREDERIC FORREST walks into Keitel’s trailer to find Bottoms, Hopper, and Keitel, in a hooded cape and muttering readings from a book, gathered around a steaming cauldron, which is placed in the centre of a chalk pentagram.

FORREST: What the hell’s going on here?
HOPPER: He’s using the mystic arts man. Weird sister hoodoo is going on right here.
BOTTOMS: He’s reading the runes, and they are far-out my brother.
HOPPER: Psychedelic indeed, just grasp it – we have an authentic mage in the cast.
FORREST: Huh, trippy man.
KEITEL: Could everyone try very hard to be just a little less of a walking hippie cliché for a moment while I try to concentrate on reciting this Latin right?!

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA is storming thru the jungle with his PA. He is bellowing constantly at various crew members that drop ever more lights off trees in their fright.

COPPOLA: I’m surrounded by incompetent amateurs. Where is my espresso?
PA: We’re in a freaking jungle! Accept that there is no espresso machine here.
COPPOLA: Well, what am I supposed to do to keep alert in this absurd humidity?
PA: Here’s a pill.
COPPOLA: A pill. I ask for espresso and you give me NASA food. What is it?
PA: Do you care?
COPPOLA: (beat) No. (pops the pill) What’s the worst that could happen?

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Frederic Forrest is storming around Keitel’s trailer running his hands thru his hair.

FORREST: HOW LONG ARE WE GOING TO BE HERE?!
KEITEL: A year and a half at least seems to be what the powers are indicating. Divination is not an exact science. It’s not actually a science at all, technically.
BOTTOMS: Oh man, will the drug supply last that long?
KEITEL: Believe me when I tell you Sam that the drug supply will last long after everything else has run out, including sanity.
HOPPER: Oh man, can I righteously wait that long before dynamiting myself?
KEITEL: Not that sanity was in much supply to begin with… Gentlemen, it’s been… peculiar, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have to contrive to get fired as soon as I can.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Keitel knocks on the door of Coppola’s trailer. He thinks he is interrupting but it turns out that Coppola is merely bellowing orders at a tree thru the window for no reason.

KEITEL: Francis! Glad I caught you. I had some ideas I’d like to run past you.
COPPOLA: Come on in man, come on in! That’s what doors are for!!
KEITEL: (sits nervously) I want to do at least one scene thru interpretive dance.
COPPOLA: Groovy. I love interpretive dance. (He gets up and starts to dance)
KEITEL: I’d also like to juggle chickens during the plantation dinner scene.
COPPOLA: Sure. (He sits down and starts juggling cigarette-lighters, and drops them all quite quickly) Sure, sure, I’m sure you can pull it off with practise. You, man. You. (beat) You.
KEITEL: Yeaah. I, uh, I want to interpret Willard as a tomato filled with self-loathing at his hyphenated status who slowly learns to overcome his liminal status by embracing it. But only in alternating takes. The other takes – I’ll be a French mime.
COPPOLA: Interesting take on the character… Really ties in to the politics of it all.
KEITEL: I also have deep ethical issues with actually killing a cow with a machete.
COPPOLA: You’re fired.
KEITEL: Thank Christ. I was beginning to think I’d never push you over the edge.

Keitel pulls his cloak around him while he stands up and disappears in a puff of smoke. Coppola observes this without emotion, but eventually starts to look askance.

COPPOLA: I’m requesting an espresso machine gets flown in first thing or we’re never going to get any work done around here.

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

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