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

November 22, 2016

Re-Routh Superman!

The guest appearance of Superman on Supergirl for 2 episodes; which displayed more wit, swagger, and simple sure grasp of the character than Zack Snyder’s 2 movies; led me back to thinking about a couple of unrelated moments this summer.

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I was watching Legends of Tomorrow, the audacious episode where three of our heroes are left behind in 1950s America, and someone walked past, stopped, and asked “Is that Superman?” And yes, it kind of was. Brandon Routh, bespectacled, waistcoated, and jacketed, was lecturing excitedly on physics and slightly bumbling in keeping the space-time continuum free of catastrophic paradoxes. I have always considered that Routh in Superman Returns was a fine Superman, but I was less sold on his Clark Kent. His sensational cameo in Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, effectively playing Bizarro for extra meta-laughs, served notice that the still young Routh was developing his comedy chops apace. But with Legends of Tomorrow there is no doubt that the secret identities Ray Palmer and Clark Kent are starting to become interchangeable on occasion, and if Routh is secretly auditioning to get his cape back (Hell, Routh’s superhero guise still involves wearing a suit largely composed of red and blue), he’s certainly won me over regarding his ability to play Clark. So, with Snyder now having failed miserably, twice, to show that he understands in the slightest the character of Superman, has any coherent vision of how to direct Super-action, or has any sense of humour, might it not be time to simply pretend the whole thing was a fever dream and make a semi-sequel to Superman Returns, bringing back Routh to the role he only got one shot at?

DC's Legends of Tomorrow -- "Left Behind" -- Image LGN109A_0220b.jpg -- Pictured: Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer/Atom -- Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW -- © 2016 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW — © 2016 The CW

And the second unrelated moment… Watching Olivia Munn in X-Men: Apocalypse after watching her in season 3 of The Newsroom I was once again disappointed at how an actress who dominates a television screen ended up standing around like a mislaid prop on the big screen. If there was only some role in a superhero movie that would be as juicy for Munn as Sorkin’s creation Sloan Sabbith was… If only she could again play a journalist, someone with an overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop. Someone like… Lois Lane. In 2010 I wrote on this blog that Lois “lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you. Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics.” Take a look at Munn in action as Sloan in the clip below, and imagine a Lois whose breath-taking abrasiveness in the service of the Daily Planet becomes perversely loveable.

The Snyderverse demonstrably is not working, and the Berlantiverse demonstrably is; surely it’s time for DC to acknowledge reality, reverse the reboot, and give Brandon Routh back his cape and give Olivia Munn another charismatic vinegary role.

April 13, 2016

CinemaCon 2016

Burbank, CA was the location for Warner Bros. Pictures’ CinemaCon 2016, announcing developments in the studio’s wide-ranging slate. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced the headline confirmation that Ben Affleck—who will reprise his Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie—will direct, as well as star in, a new stand-alone Batman.

batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice

The WB’s presentation was illustrated by trailers and film clips—including some never-before-seen footage—and appearances by major stars and film-makers involved in the movies.  Tsujihara’s has talked about basing the WB’s future on the key franchises of DC, animated LEGO® features, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but the current slate also encompasses dramas, action adventures, horrors, and comedies. Sue Kroll, new President of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution, and Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, new President of Worldwide Distribution, also spoke. Kroll said, “CinemaCon is always one of the high points of our year: when we get to introduce our upcoming slate to our partners in the exhibition community who are responsible for bringing our films to audiences worldwide,” while Kwan Vandenberg added, “We appreciated the enthusiastic participation of actors and filmmakers from every title, who added tremendous star power to the presentation.”

Ben Affleck and Amy Adams kicked off the presentation with a bang, introducing a reel spotlighting the studio’s ambitious slate of DC films.  The roster includes the new Justice League film, as well as stand-alone Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg features. Embattled Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder closed the reel with a greeting from the Justice League film set, surrounded by his stars. The DC preview also included a glimpse of the summer’s hotly anticipated super-villain team-up Suicide Squad before its writer/director David Ayer took the stage and introduced the main ensemble cast, led by Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, and Joel Kinnaman.  The extended version of the Suicide Squad trailer was met with loud applause and the buzz surrounding the film was palpable.

Host Mario Lopez went through the rest of the summer line-up, with advance footage from the wide range of titles, introduced by stars and filmmakers including Russell Crowe for Shane Black’s action comedy The Nice Guys, Emilia Clarke for the drama Me Before You, director James Wan and stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson for the supernatural thriller The Conjuring 2, Teresa Palmer and David F. Sandberg for the horror thriller Lights Out, Kevin Hart and Rawson Marshall Thurber for the action comedy Central Intelligence, Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz for the adventure The Legend of Tarzan, and director Todd Phillips and his Hangover star Bradley Cooper reuniting for the comedic drama War Dogs based on real events.

WB then unveiled films on the drawing board from the Warner Animation Group.  Chris Miller, Phil Lord, and Nicholas Stoller introduced titles in the pipeline, anchored by The LEGO®Batman Movie, The LEGO® Movie 2, and Ninjago.  Stoller, who co-directed the next film on the slate, Storks, was joined by fellow director Doug Sweetland and voice talents Andy Samberg and Katie Crown to present new footage from the family adventure.  The animation portion wrapped with never-before-seen footage from The LEGO® Batman Movie, presented by producers Lord and Miller, and the voice of ‘Batman’ himself, Will Arnett. The presentation closed with a look Warner Bros. closed the presentation with a look at Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling.  Four of the film’s stars; Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler and Colin Farrell; introduced the new teaser trailer and a look behind the scenes of the film.

It is a keen irony that the WB is currently taking flak for launching the Cinematic DC Universe with the humourless dourness of Batman v Superman, while the TV DC Universe is universally beloved for its lightness of touch, almost as if two prime directives are colliding. The need to maintain the WB’s vaunted position as a home for cinematic artists that respects directorial vision – whether that be Kubrick, Nolan, or Affleck – becomes self-defeating when the artist in question is Zack Snyder, and when an entirely less sombre vision, exemplified by writer/producer Greg Berlanti’s roster of Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, is available free to air weeknights.

December 3, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part II

If you’ve read the previous piece then you’ll be aware that I was quite often watching the adventures of the young(ish) Clark Kent for laughs.

So, why did I stick with Smallville? Season 1 was fun. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was consistently entertaining, promised great future developments (not least when Lex’s future was glimpsed and it showed a white-suited black-gloved President causing a nuclear apocalypse), and the central conceit of a good Lex and a young Superman being friends was irresistible. You also had a nice thwarted but plausible relationship with Lana, complemented by Chloe’s loveable cub-reporter in the making digging around for meteor freaks for her Wall of Weird oblivious to the fact that her best friend was the freakiest. Season 2 was where the wheels fell off the wagon. I stopped watching for a while, as the removal of the obstacle didn’t lead to Clark and Lana becoming a couple, but instead to Millar & Gough ratcheting up the badly-written teen angst to unbearable levels. It also began a trend of dotting poorly explained ‘important arc plot points’ randomly at the end of episodes, and then forgetting about them for weeks, something which over the years eventually made the show both incomprehensible and unintentionally hilarious. Still the idea that Lex was prophesied to go bad by Indian Caves intrigued… Season 3 was loudly rumoured to have Ian Somerhalder starring as Batman, and Drew Z Greenberg writing episodes inspired by The Dead Zone. Only one of those happened though. Somerhalder was terrific as a haunted bad boy who disappointingly turned out to be Lionel’s stooge, but there was a nice exit for him in a Frequency inspired episode, and Chloe became more complex as she dallied with Lionel’s patronage. The best moments of this season though couldn’t rescue the overall sense of portentous drift, exemplified by the awful finale which killed off half the cast to the strains of opera.

I dragged myself back for season 4 because Jensen Ackles had joined the cast, and was surprised by a belter of an opener which kick-started an excellent fourth season that I regard as the highpoint of the series. A badly needed sense of fun was restored along with a completely new skill at touching moments. Millar and Gough finally lightened up, letting Clark fly in the season premiere with accompanying dialogue of “What is that? Is that a bird?” “Maybe it’s a plane”, while that episode for the first time in years actually felt like this show was derived from Superman comics, rather than The Flash; which is what the stubbornly non-flying Clark had made it veer towards. Ackles’ villain enlivened an actually well-developed arc chasing crystals that would create the Fortress of Solitude. Erica Durance unexpectedly arrived as Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (and made Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang look wish-washy) and developed a wonderful spiky relationship with Clark. Chloe finally got to know Clark’s secret and, in a beautiful touch, had to teach an amnesiac Clark how to use his powers – in the knowledge that she’d have to go back to pretending she didn’t know about them soon enough.

Season 5 started off with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude and Clark and Chloe becoming a super-team: she detects crime, he fights it. The T-1000 reinterpretation of the Kryptonian artificial intelligence Braniac was rather great, and the Buffy overtones of James Marsters appearing for the writing of his colleague Steven S DeKnight were complemented by the ‘Clark goes to College and has a hard time of it’ feel that echoed season 4 of Buffy. There was a priceless conversation in which Clark and Chloe attempted to discuss the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ problem, but the quickly reversed proposal to Lana which led to Jonathan Kent’s death was a disastrous mis-step for the show that brought proceedings down to the level of season 2’s angst in its insistence on burdening Clark with farcical levels of guilt; because apparently that’s what real drama is all about. The decision to move Lana towards Lex romantically was nicely done, but the feeling that Clark should be further down the road towards being Superman was starting to nag. The finale which saw Lex taken over by Zod’s spirit and Clark trapped in the Phantom Zone burned down the house in style.

Season 6 saw Clark roar back from the Phantom Zone but in doing so unleash a horde of loose phantoms, the rounding up of which became his season arc mission. It was a step down from the previous two arcs but this season was characterised by let-downs as Lex possessed by Zod was dealt with far too easily, Green Arrow’s arrival promised a Batman like level of conflict that never really arrived, and Lana and Lex’s marriage bafflingly retreated from emotionally destroying Clark. However a finale in which Bizarro arrived and all the female leads died was a stunning episode. Season 7 saw the arrival of Supergirl, who was never really given a compelling reason to be on the show, while Bizzarro was dispatched too easily only to gleefully reappear undetected, but still arguably underused. The revelation that Chloe had become a meteor freak thru continued exposure was brilliant, not least her struggle to keep the secret from her boyfriend Jimmy. Lex finally killed Lionel, and also bafflingly his brother the Daily Planet editor, to become a supervillain rather than previous season’s St Lex being lied to by Clark. However Clark still not being Superman rather undermined their apocalyptic clash. Season 8 saw Lex replaced by his ret-conned protégé Tess Mercer while Sam Witwer starred as Clark’s ret-conned Kryptonian stowaway Doomsday. Chloe’s descent into darkness as she was taken over by Braniac was delicious, but her half-romance with Witwer’s heroic EMT was always unintentionally funny as she and Clark defended him against Jimmy’s charge that this man was obviously a serial killer, despite continual evidence supporting Jimmy. This left an extremely bitter aftertaste when Jimmy was unnecessarily killed in the finale to guilt-trip Chloe for trying to separate man and beast to save the man. Oh, then Clark abandoned her.

Season 9 saw General Zod, as a Kandorian clone, pop up in Tess’ mansion (it was never really satisfactorily explained how) thus beginning endless half-written political machinations between Clark and Zod over leadership of the Kandorians. Tess was revealed as a member of the shadowy organisation Checkmate run by Pam Grier, and hilariously Senator Martha Kent reappeared as their nemesis the Red Queen, who’d been acting sinisterly to keep Clark’s secret safe. Brian Austin Green as Metallo was absolutely thrown away, and it became all too noticeable for budget reasons that Metropolis only had one street – shot from different angles. Season 10 introduced Jack Kirby’s villain Darkseid as the final season nemesis but he never really showed up properly, but manipulated his minions in a number of poorly explained sub-plots, while The Suicide Squad were almost entirely squandered. Ultimately not just Lionel but then Lex returned for the finale where Clark finally just became Superman – after previous inane episodes had set a new record for ‘well that was easy’ moments, not least one of the minions of Darkseid destroying the Bow of Orion with contemptuous ease, having proclaimed loudly that it was the only weapon that Darkseid feared. The End…

Smallville ran for 10 seasons. Along the way there were heartbreaking episodes, such as Chloe’s reunion with her stricken mother who for a brief while was lucid again, adorable episodes, such as the first appearance of Krypto the Superdog, and brilliantly fun episodes, like the formation of the Justice League. But all too often episodes were entirely dependent on having a cute high concept or a good writer simply amusing themselves. So we got Steven S DeKnight writing Saw with Lionel Luthor, while someone else Fassbendered in rewriting The Game with Oliver Queen as Michael Douglas and Chloe as Sean Penn. What could be great on a micro level could never really break out of the shackles that kept the show from being great on a macro level. Hence the crippling levels of angst, endless body-swap episodes, Clark affected by shade of Kryptonite episodes, and parallel universe episodes. Watching the finale you realised that Erica Durance and Kristin Kreuk each starred in 7 seasons of Smallville but that Durance made Kreuk’s performance look anaemic from the moment she arrived, and the crushing weight of the mythology made you impatient for Lois and Clark from that point on. The show left Smallville itself in the rear-view mirror in season 5 but persisted in refusing to let Clark fly or don the cape for so long that it became increasingly infuriating/embarrasing. The handling of the major villains always disappointed – a synecdoche for the whole show. The implicit hook of the souring of Clark and Lex’s friendship was never paid off satisfactorily. Lex was in 7 seasons of Smallville, but at no point did you feel there was a clear endpoint planned where he and Clark would rise to their respective destinies. Its own continuously imperilled success condemned Smallville to continually deferred gratification.

Smallville never quite achieved its promise, but it handsomely saw off the challenge of Superman Returns, and kept live-action Superman viable despite all the nay-saying about the redundancy of the character in a Dark Knight world, and that’s not to be sneezed at. I just hope that Allison Mack and Erica Durance manage to walk into better written TV roles.

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