Hidden Figures (2016)

One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.


I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.

Hidden Figures film posterCREDITS
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.

McFarland, USA (2015)

The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.

McFarland, USA film posterCREDITS
Director Niki Caro; Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson; Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

In truth, though, no individual performance does end up dominating Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — as far as the title goes, it’s more about the shadow than the recruit. Aside from Branagh, we have Kevin Costner playing the guy quietly running the show, while Keira Knightley is an afterthought of a girlfriend. Amongst all this, Chris Pine has his running-around-making-stuff-happen shtick down from the rebooted Star Trek series, but he’s a curiously inert presence. Part of that is do with the way the film downplays the heroics and the patriotic flag-waving. Sure, he’s trained as a Marine following 9/11 and ten years later, gets the chance to save the day in a frenetic sequence based more-or-less at Ground Zero NYC. Yet his character is more of a back office wonk, tracing financial transactions and trying to explain it to Kevin Costner’s Commander, who — no doubt on our behalf — gamely exhorts Jack to use simpler words. And the final confrontation is between the two men, Jack and Viktor, rather than really about global geopolitics or high finance. It makes for a more interesting central character, I think, but perhaps a less satisfying action movie.

Of course, the character is based on famous Cold War-era conservative Tom Clancy’s gung-ho patriotic spook of the same name, developed over a number of novels (and already adapted into a number of films). If some of the jingoism has been toned down by the British director, then we still get some gloriously old-school villains, what with our Soviet Russian baddie, meaning a large chunk of the plot takes place in a Moscow whose modern shiny glass-and-steel edifices jostle with the more picturesque charms the film is at pains to present.

No one’s going to try to argue this is a masterpiece, and it has its longueurs. But it does what it needs to do without too much fuss. The style is all fairly straightforward and unshowy. Pine does his stuff, Knightley scrubs up quite well as a (medical) doctor, and Costner broods effectively. And, like the director he is, Branagh plays a character who thinks he’s in control, but just maybe someone will come along and find a hole in his plotting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit film posterCREDITS
Director Kenneth Branagh; Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy); Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos Χάρις Ζαμπαρλούκος; Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014.

Man of Steel (2013)

Zack Snyder is not a name to inspire great confidence in filmgoers (at least not those I’ve talked to). I’ve only actually seen one of his directorial efforts, and I may be in a minority in quite liking Sucker Punch (2011). That was a film which seemed to depict its abused characters coping with and overcoming their traumas by reconfiguring them as video game challenges; it may not have been entirely successful, but it was a very interesting concept. There’s plenty of trauma in Man of Steel, too, but mostly on the audience’s part. The film itself seems curiously shorn of any human emotion, at least by the time it reaches its absurdly overextended denouement.

A key moment for me in this respect is a kiss shared amongst the crumbling detritus of a ravaged Metropolis, a falling skyscraper barely enough it seems to get the two to break off their kiss to take a look. It would be a moment of bathos if I could rouse enough emotion to care about anyone by this point, but after half an hour of mechanised (and curiously bloodless) destruction, there’s little empathy left in me. If this and Marvel’s The Avengers last year are anything to go by, American blockbuster movies seem to revel in destroying their cities, which is a curious place to be all things considered.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film concerns itself with the origin story and is (relatively-speaking) fairly low-key and interesting. Most filmgoers are probably aware of the basics: how Kal-El is sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El, pursued by General Zod and his gang of usurpers; how he grows up in rural Kansas as Clark Kent, only slowly growing to understand and control his special powers; how he meets and falls in love with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. If there’s a sense that some of this is superfluous for most viewers, it’s nevertheless welcome if only for its calmer tone and pacing.

It’s never far from the surface that the Superman mythology is a thinly-coded Second Coming allegory, with Kal-El/Clark as a specifically American Messiah; he even has a scene of questioning doubt in a church at one point. As his father, then, Russell Crowe does a good job as a calm centre of Krypton’s benevolent patriarchal power, matched by Kevin Costner as Clark’s human father, even if a lot of his role involves staring off into the middle-distance and mouthing moral platitudes. Nevertheless, Costner’s a master at this kind of thing, and does it well.

These snippets of his rural upbringing are interwoven as flashbacks in what has largely become a peripatetic existence for Clark, as he shows up in enough different places to pique the interest of reporter Lois Lane. The way this unfolds all feels rather perfunctory, and Amy Adams, although likeable as an actor, has little to work with here. It’s not, in truth, a great film for actors of subtlety and imagination. Michael Shannon, for example, plays General Zod, and though he may have had some great roles in his time, Zod seems to require little more than shouting and glowering, a waste of Shannon’s more acute talents. Luckily, this helps the blandly attractive Henry Cavill to impress more as the titular hero. In a film where actorly insight has been pushed into the background, looking the part becomes more of an asset, and Cavill with his chiselled jaw and impressive physique certainly does do that.

I’ve already mentioned the way that by the end, the film seems to lack a sense of humanity: it’s a dour and serious film, dark and brooding without much in the way of levity or humour. This certainly sets it apart from the earlier film series with Christopher Reeve, and may point to the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight franchise similarly ‘rebooted’ the Batman story, kitting out its world in cold, hard metallic surfaces and glowering darkness. But Batman is an anti-hero at best, where Superman is supposed to embody all the best of humanity. By the end, I feel as a viewer like Laurence Fishburne’s newspaper editor, watching impassively at the filmic destruction all around. Perhaps he feels unable to move from his window (though he does, at length) because he too is wondering where it all went wrong.

This is undeniably a visually impressive film, but at some basic level it has gone awry. I am left cold by its cold surface textures, and there’s little to convince me that any of the characters have any heart. And for a film about a character embodying the best of human nature, that’s a real failing.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Zack Snyder | Writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (based on the comic book Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) | Cinematographer Amir Mokri | Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 19 June 2013

My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing