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

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February 1, 2012

Man on a Ledge

Asger Leth makes the jump from directing documentaries to directing features with a caper movie, which sees a potential jumper provide distraction for an audacious heist.

Sam Worthington is the mysterious suited man who checks into the Hotel Roosevelt as the splendidly implausibly named Jay Walker, and promptly steps onto a 21st floor ledge bringing traffic to a standstill in Midtown. Cops surround 45th and Madison predicting that if he jumps he’s going to make quite a mess, as well as ruin the reception honouring Dave Englander, Ed Harris’ reptilian corporate monster. Leth neatly flashbacks to Worthington in prison as we discover he’s actually Nick Cassidy, a disgraced ex-cop who stole a fabled diamond from Englander. Nick then delightfully explodes a cinematic cliché while staging a jailbreak at his father’s funeral. Leth quickly reveals that Nick’s ledge stunt is cover for his brother (Jamie Bell) to steal the diamond again to prove Englander’s fraud, and playfully teases us with the possibility that Nick’s ex-partner Mike (Anthony Mackie) is aiding him too.

The situation escalates as Nick’s specially requested NYPD negotiator Lydia (Elizabeth Banks) arrives even as Kyra Sedgewick’s TV news reporter stirs up the crowd; who are equal parts clumsy Dog Day Afternoon homage and Occupy Wall Street reference. The execution of the heist is good fun, but not as slick as the Soderbergh Ocean’s gold standard, and the final act is pure implausible Violence as Function with characters shooting everything in sight in the hope a resolution might emerge from the gunsmoke. Oddly enough the performances are what remain in the memory afterwards. Banks is part of an unusual cabal (Emily Blunt, Judy Greer, Sarah Paulson) of wonderful comedic actresses who are equally effective in dramatic parts. Her introduction as the burnt-out Lydia is pure low-comedy but she thereafter powers the drama.

Worthington continues to be an adequate leading man, but not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Jamie Bell displayed signs of impressive acting maturity in last year’s Jane Eyre but he fares less well here, shackled as he is to a comedy double act with the deeply unimpressive soap star Genesis Rodriguez. It’s hard to know if Rodriguez was cast purely for her physique, showcased in one sequence, or whether she’s being let down terribly by the scripting of her part. Her character feels as tonally wrong as Ugly Betty’s Hilda Suarez being dropped into the screenplay for Inside Man. Mackie and Harris are sadly underused, but Harris Fassbenders immensely because Englander is the sins of the 1% made flesh. Titus Welliver is equally joyful as Nathan Marcus, head negotiator who’s overly deferential to Englander’s power.

Man on a Ledge isn’t a dazzling film by any means, but it is solidly entertaining for its 102 minute running time and ends pleasantly with one last feel-good twist.

3/5

August 18, 2011

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie is less concert film, featuring most of the cast of Glee performing in character, and more socio-political manifesto by Ryan Murphy.

The film opens with backstage interviews with the Glee cast. Oddly some of them stay in character and some don’t. Their character names then flash up on screen during their on-stage introduction and Artie stays in his wheelchair just to hammer home that they’re performing in character as New Directions, sort of. If the film wants to refer to the performers by character name, I’m happy to oblige and save myself a visit to IMDb. Proceedings begin, of course, with the trademark god-awful cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. The words ‘of course’ apply to most of the numbers. This is a greatest hits package of songs that the show has affixed to particular characters, all of whom get the chance to step up and strut their stuff.

Miss Holliday cameos for one Ce Loo song, but Mr Schuster is conspicuously absent. Puck, Mercedes and Artie all get to show off with solo songs but the most notable turn is Britney’s energetic performance of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, which is outrageously sleazy, and leads to the thought that 3-D works well for horror and animation but is perhaps also something that could enhance musicals. Not that it works particularly well here, the choreography is too basic for there to really be anything to show off, but there are moments when it adds something. But while they fail to exploit the third dimension these are good performances – Mike Chang can dance! As indeed can the other secondary characters. But then the lead characters can really sing. Rachel belts out ‘Firework’, and, as Nadine O’Regan has noted, Katy Perry’s lungs resemble those of a blue whale.

Regrettably this is not solely a concert film. There are endless inserts following three Glee fans. Apparently Glee cures Asperger’s, makes dwarves (their term) popular and enables gay students survive high school. Apparently I hallucinated three hilarious pre-Glee seasons of Ugly Betty valorising a hopeless nerd, celebrating difference and positively depicting a fabulous high school student… Lady GaGa’s ‘Born This Way’ is the show-climaxing statement of socio-political intent, but Glee cannot sustain this solving-all-the-world’s-problems-with-a-soft-shoe-shuffle pomposity – what could? Glee is just a TV show with glaring limitations. It’s a blender which flattens all music. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Inertia Creeps’ would all emerge sounding the same, as deeply over-produced pop. I previously criticised its lack of ambition beside Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, and here Kurt performs ‘I Want to Hold your Hand’ – precisely as Taymor reinterpreted it! Even their innovations are derivative!!

This is a genuinely enjoyable concert, but the documentary segments are actually mildly disturbing…

2/5

(P.S. Stay on after the credits for another signature song…)

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