Hidden Figures (2016)

2017 #170
Theodore Melfi | 127 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Hidden Figures

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is about three black women working at NASA in the early ’60s, a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

It’s a double whammy of timely issues, then: they struggle to prove they’re clever and have scientific know-how because they’re women, and they struggle to prove they’re worth treating with respect because they’re black. How depressing that these things are still relevant over 50 years later. That said, any right-minded person watching it will still be suitably appalled that this kind of thing went on at all — even when you know about it, seeing it played out is something else.

Of course, it comes with a positive message attached: these people overcome their societally-imposed disadvantages to be awesome nonetheless, fighting everyday sexism and racism left, right and centre to eventually prove their worth. Hurrah! It’s a strong message, even more powerful thanks to it being a true story, and no doubt goes a long way to explaining the film’s success. As a movie in its own right, it’s nothing particularly special. There are good performances from a high-calibre cast, but everything else is pretty standard for a biopic — well done, but there’s a reason the film’s Oscar nominations were for acting and screenwriting.

4 out of 5

Hidden Figures is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Napoleon (1927)

aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

Awakenings (1990)

2017 #154
Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Awakenings

Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

4 out of 5

Musical Review Roundup

My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Sing Street placed 7th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

    aka Sully

    2017 #58
    Clint Eastwood | 96 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

    You remember that time someone landed a passenger plane on New York City’s Hudson River, right? This is about that. At the time the pilot was widely hailed as a hero… or so we thought! Turns out that, behind closed doors, some investigators seemed keen to put the blame on his poor decision-making (or they did in movieland, anyway — the real world may’ve been a bit different). So rather than just an exciting drama about a guy landing a plane (which does sound like a thin story for an entire movie), Sully is almost a legal drama: was the heroic captain actually heroic, or did he make a stupid decision that lucked out? (I’m sure you can guess which wins.)

    Tom Hanks is perfect for the lead role: he’s the exact right mix of everyman and hero; the unassuming guy who knows the right thing to do, and does it. He even doubts himself after the fact, just so we can be even more sure that he’s a genuinely good guy. The rest of the supporting cast fade into the background a little, with Aaron Eckhart solid as his supportive co-pilot (I assumed he’d turn on Sully, for some reason, so that was nice) and Laura Linney as his wife on the other end of the phone, in a subplot that I suppose is meant to help humanise the hero pilot but really goes nowhere. The same is true for a scattering of flashbacks to Sully’s previous adventures in flight. Even having expanded the film out to the post-landing investigation, it still struggles to find enough material to fill its short 96 minutes.

    Landin', landin', landin' on the river

    I liked Sully a lot while it was on. It’s well made (though sadly not available in its IMAX format for home viewing), Hanks is always watchable, the supporting cast are good too, and the headline incident is effectively staged, including the post-landing rescues. It’s a heartwarming story of real-life drama and heroism, with a punch-the-air-type moment when Sully is vindicated. But as that outcome never seems in doubt, and the film sometimes twiddles its thumbs in getting there, it’s not all it could be. Or, actually, maybe it is all it could be — and that’s fine.

    3 out of 5

    I could tenuously link this review to American Independence Day by talking about Sully being an American hero or somesuch, but… oh wait, I just did.

    Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

    2016 #162
    Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

    You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

    It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

    Some people never grow up...

    As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

    As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

    3 out of 5

    Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • Partners in Crime… (2012)
  • Charlie Bartlett (2007)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


    Partners in Crime…
    (2012)

    aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”

    2016 #189
    Pascal Thomas | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 12

    Partners in Crime…

    André Dussollier and Catherine Frot star as Agatha Christie’s married investigators Tommy and Tuppence (here renamed Bélisaire and Prudence) in this third in a series of French adaptations of Christie stories (best I can tell, the first two aren’t readily available in English-friendly versions).

    Based on the short story The Case of the Missing Lady, it sees Tommy and Tuppence Bélisaire and Prudence investigating the disappearance of a Russian heiress at a suspicious health farm, while also quarrelling about their relationship. It’s very gentle comedy-drama, even by the standard of Christie adaptations, with a thin mystery, thin humour, and thin character drama, which all feels a little stretched over its not-that-long-but-too-long running time. I shan’t be seeking out its two antecedents.

    2 out of 5

    Charlie Bartlett
    (2007)

    2017 #9
    Jon Poll | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Charlie Bartlett

    Anton Yelchin is the eponymous rich kid trying to fit in at a regular high school, which he does by becoming an amateur psychiatrist to his classmates, in a comedy-drama that plays as the ’00s answer to Ferris Bueller. It starts out feeling rather formulaic and predictable, running on familiar high school movie characters and tropes, but later develops into something quite emotional. It’s powered by excellent performances from Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr, as the school’s unpopular and unprepared principal.

    4 out of 5

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    (2016)

    2017 #34
    Stephen Frears | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG-13

    Florence Foster Jenkins

    Try to ignore the fact Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar nomination away from someone more deserving (for example, Amy Adams. Well, no, definitely Amy Adams), and she gives a good turn as the titular society lady who couldn’t sing for toffee but thought she was fantastic, and used her wealth and influence to launch a concert career. She’s only enabled by her doting… assistant? Lover? Husband? You know, the film blurs that line (deliberately, I think) and I’ve forgotten what he was. Anyway, he’s played by Hugh Grant, who is also good.

    It’s a gently funny comedy, as you’d expect from the subject matter, but one that reveals a surprising amount of heart and depth through Florence’s attitude to life, as well as how her men (who also include The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the third lead; also good) attempt to care for her needs.

    4 out of 5

  • The Pianist (2002)

    2016 #175
    Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

    The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

    If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

    5 out of 5

    The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    Into the Wild (2007)

    2017 #7
    Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

    Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

    The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

    At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

    2 out of 5

    Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)

    2017 #6
    Jeremy Konner | 50 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie

    Almost a year ago, Donald Trump was still just a Republican candidate that half of the US and most of the rest of the world laughed at, waiting for something to come along and make him go away. And at that time, this was released: a feature-length(-ish) spoof from sketch comedy website Funny or Die, with a (sort-of-)starry cast, that no one knew was coming. That surprise factor — “a website that does short sketches has made a whole movie and it stars famous people and we didn’t know about it but it’s out now!” — is, frankly, the most memorable thing about it.

    Introduced by Ron Howard, who supposedly discovered a VHS copy at a yard sale or something, the film poses as a lost ’80s TV movie produced by Trump himself as an adaptation of his best-selling book of the same name. Trump is played by Johnny Depp, under a pile of prosthetics and doing a passable version of that distinctive voice, who comes across a kid and relates some exploits from his life. There are cameo appearances by quite famous people like Alfred Molina, Henry Winkler, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, Robert Morse, Room’s Jacob Tremblay (looking vacantly amused), and Christopher Lloyd doing what most of his career has consisted of these past few years: playing Doc Brown in a Back to the Future joke/reference. There are some other people who get billed above some of those people, so maybe they’re also famous in America, I don’t know.

    Make kung fu great again

    Considering its pedigree, it should come as no surprise that The Art of the Deal: The Movie plays like a very long, out of control sketch. Just like all sketch comedy, some jokes land better than others, and just like most sketch comedy, it begins to outstay its welcome by the end. It gets a lot of passes because Trump is so ridiculous that anyone taking the piss out of him is always welcome, and as such it ticks over with a level of slight amusement rather than outright hilarity.

    Bits that do land include the ever-so-’80s title song by Kenny Loggins; the ethnicity of the kid suddenly changing every time Trump notices it; a bit about him paying tramps to piss in a building that (accidentally) has added resonance now; some of the comedy end credits; and a post-credit bookend with Howard, who declares that “we should probably just pretend that this film, and in fact Donald Trump, never even existed.”

    Indeed.

    3 out of 5