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.

Midnight Special (2016)

2016 #145
Jeff Nichols | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Greece / English | 12 / PG-13

Midnight SpecialI’m not sure I’d even heard the name Jeff Nichols before Midnight Special came along, at which point most of the gushing reviews that followed seemed to mention him with cult-like reverence. He’s the writer and director, by the way, for anyone still in the dark, and unbeknownst to me (and, I rather suspect, most people outside certain cinephile circles) he’d amassed something of a following over his first three movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, two of which I’d at least heard of). It’s kind of odd to feel like everyone else loves this guy and has been eagerly anticipating his next work and is now discussing how it chimes with his existing canon, when you’ve not even heard of him.

Anyway, his latest film* has a plot that makes me want to dub it Starman: A World Beyond… though that might indicate something about the ending, so, uh, shh! Anyway, the story concerns a dad (Michael Shannon) who’s kidnapped his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from some kind of cult, and is now on the run from both the authorities and the cultists who want the kid back. All the furore stems from the fact that the kid has some kind of special abilities, one of which has given them a destination to head for and time to be there…

The story’s style has made a comparison to Spielberg the go-to, not only for reviewers but for the writer-director himself, who’s labelled the film an homage to E.T. and Close Encounters. You can see that influence, certainly, but it lacks the effortless charm that Spielberg brings to his movies. If this is Spielberg, it’s by way of more indie arthouse fare. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. You could argue that it’s more refreshing than any of the I want to believestraight-up Spielberg rehashes we’ve seen over the past four decades; conversely, a strand of wilful obscurity means it may be ultimately less satisfying. Again, some people derive satisfaction explicitly from that lack of resolution or explanation, while others will find it damagingly frustrating. Even more than Spielberg, I felt the thing most evoked by this structure was The X Files: intriguing sci-fi mysteries that eventually lead to semi-reveals which don’t quite satisfy in themselves in part because they’re trying very hard to remain open-ended.

In that regard, it’s arguably a little too woolly on its sci-fi elements, and executes the chase-thriller aspect of its plot too slowly, to be fully considered a genre movie; but it’s also too indistinct on its cast to fully convince as a character-driven drama. You can certainly begin to infer some things about what their exact motivations are, what they’re thinking and feeling and why they’re doing what they do, but I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I’m endeavouring to build something out of the little that we’re given. That said, if I’m prepared to do Zack Snyder the courtesy of reading something into his work that may or may not be there (cf. Sucker Punch), then Jeff Nichols deserves at least the same level of kindness. But for the kind of movie whose style makes it seem like it should be about Character or Theme over more genre- and/or narrative-focused concerns, it feels there’s an awful lot of attention paid to plot over anything else. Speaking as a fan of sci-fi and high-concepts and B-thrillers and blockbusters, I actually think I’d’ve liked it more if it toned down the sci-fi and the plot, and instead focused on the characters’ soul-searching and the unusual family dynamics.

That said, there’s some great imagery. Mainly the sci-fi stuff at the end — I don’t think it’s unfair to describe most of the movie as looking solidly unremarkable, but the climax is pretty darn good. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticise the effects. Are we not past that yet? Especially when it comes to a film of this budget and scale. Nuclear familyI thought they perfectly conveyed what they were intending to convey — usually, just a kind of otherworldly light. It’s not like it’s even over-stretching its means, like so many network TV series or Sharknado-esque movies do when they try to emulate a $200 million blockbuster on a TV budget. If you’re expecting some grand CGI, maybe go watch one of those $200 million blockbusters instead of an $18 million drama.

Midnight Special seems to provoke a wide range of responses — I mean, you can say that about most films, ultimately; but some more so than others, and skimming across reviews and comments online, this is definitely one of them. Fans of American indie-ish drama-driven semi-genre movies, or of more thoughtful science-fiction, will surely want to give it a go, but how much you’ll connect with its characters or its ideas seems to be a roll of the dice. I liked it well enough, but I don’t remember seeing any particular indication of what’s inspired the notion that we should all be fawning over Jeff Nichols as the best auteur to happen to cinema since sliced bread. (Sliced bread’s early movies were great, weren’t they?)

3 out of 5

Midnight Special is on Sky Cinema from today.

* In a coincidental similarity to when I started viewing the work of another much-hailed star-to-be indie director (Ben Wheatley), I’m beginning with his fourth film. ^

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #86

A man will face his destiny.
A hero will be revealed.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes | 135 minutes (2.1 extended cut)
BBFC: PG (cut, 2004) | 12A (2004) | PG (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 25th June 2004 (Lithuania)
US Release: 30th June 2004
UK Release: 16th July 2004
First Seen: cinema, July 2004

Stars
Tobey Maguire (Pleasantville, The Great Gatsby)
Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire, Melancholia)
James Franco (City by the Sea, 127 Hours)
Alfred Molina (Frida, An Education)

Director
Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell)

Screenwriter
Alvin Sargent (Gambit, Ordinary People)

Story by
Alfred Gough (Lethal Weapon 4, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor)
Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon, Herbie Fully Loaded)
Michael Chabon (John Carter)

Based on
Spider-Man, a comic book superhero created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; in particular the story Spider-Man No More! by Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr.

The Story
Peter Parker battles problems in his personal life while his superhero alter ego Spider-Man battles the machinations of evil scientist Dr Otto Octavius.

Our Hero
Spider-Man! Spider-Man does whatever a spider can — spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies. Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got genetically-modified blood. Wealth and fame he’s ignored, action is his reward… though he’s having doubts about if it’s worth it. With great power comes great responsibility, and neither sit well with a kid who wants a normal life.

Our Villain
Doc Ock! Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs, four mechanical arms welded right onto his body — what are the odds?

Best Supporting Character
Before he won an Oscar for Whiplash, or posted photos of his insanely ripped body on social media, J.K. Simmons brought himself to everyone’s attention as the hilariously irascible editor of The Daily Bugle newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson. He was so good, they haven’t even bothered to recast the character for any of the three live-action Spidey films that have come since the first reboot.

Memorable Quote
“So here I am, standing in your doorway. I have always been standing in your doorway.” — Mary Jane

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“With great power comes great responsibility.” — Uncle Ben may be dead, but they manage to have him say it in this one too.

Memorable Scene
The elevated train fight between Spidey and Doc Ock. It was the first major sequence filmed, before the screenplay was completed, but Raimi had dreamt it up personally. It was shot in Chicago because New York no longer has an elevated railway, but Raimi was seeking to create an idealised version of the city.

Technical Wizardry
The sound effects for Doc Ock’s tentacles were created using motorcycle chains and piano wires, while the sound of him ripping open the bank vault was a hubcap scraping along the floor. The designers consciously didn’t include the noise of servomotors, to enhance the idea that the tentacles have become a part of Ock’s body.

Truly Special Effect
Doc Ock’s tentacles were built practically. Each one was 13ft long, made up of 76 pieces, fully articulated, and controlled by four people. Obviously some of their appearances are CGI, especially when Ock’s using them to move around, but every scene was first filmed using the real props to see if CGI was truly necessary

Making of
Tobey Maguire injured his back before filming began, to the extent that Jake Gyllenhaal (at the time only really known for Donnie Darko) was tapped to replace him, and even began preparing for the shoot. Ultimately Maguire recovered enough to participate (obviously). A couple of years later Gyllenhaal was one of the final contenders for Batman in Batman Begins, but didn’t get to do that either. I’m sure Marvel will find a superhero for him eventually — they do for most people.

Previously on…
Ignoring the many and various animated series and failed attempts to bring Spidey to the screen, there was the first Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man, which was the first film to gross over $100 million on its opening weekend. Also, MTV animated series Spider-Man: The New Animated Series is technically set after Spider-Man and therefore before Spider-Man 2, but I don’t think anyone remembers it…

Next time…
Spider-Man 3 concluded the trilogy with a whimper thanks to behind-the-scenes clashes, which also scuppered plans for Spider-Man 4. The series was rebooted with the unpopular The Amazing Spider-Man, which was followed by the even-more-unpopular The Amazing Spider-Man 2, leading to the character being rebooted again and integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The latest version debuted in Captain America: Civil War before starring in a solo movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, next summer.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
2 Oscar nominations (Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
2 BAFTA nominations (Sound, Visual Effects)
5 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Tobey Maguire), Director, Writer, Special Effects)
3 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Alfred Molina), Music, DVD Special Edition Release)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form
1 World Stunt Award (Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Man (Peter Parker falling into clothes lines))
2 World Stunt Awards nominations (Best Work with a Vehicle, Best Speciality Stunt (Doc Ock waking up))

What the Critics Said Then
“a sequel that not only outstrips its predecessor but has a perversity and quick-wittedness that hardly seem to belong in a comic-book movie. […] It’s unusual and gratifying to find a multimillion dollar movie that’s been put together with some thoughtfulness, that doesn’t neglect subtlety in between delivering the smash-bang-wallop. […] It’s the interest in human fallibility that sets this movie apart. The superhero who bridles at his own responsibility may not sound an especially gripping prospect, but his dilemma is explored with a conviction that, within the fantasy genre, feels almost groundbreaking.” — Anthony Quinn, The Independent

Score: 93%

What the Critics Say Now
On placing the film in his top ten for BBC Culture’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century: “First of all, the 21st century is the century of superheroes. To approach the history of this era without acknowledging that is to miss the story. Many of my peers opted to make The Dark Knight the film that represented superheroes for them, but while I like that movie it’s a crime film in superhero drag. Spider-Man 2 is an unabashedly comic book superhero movie, a film that is pulsing with the vibrant four color life of the best comic book panels and that is soaked in the sudsy soap opera of the best comic book word balloons. It’s a movie that is a perfect fusion between filmmaker and material, and it is, without a doubt, the best example of superhero filmmaking ever attempted.” — Devin Faraci, Birth. Movies. Death.

What the Public Say
“The most interesting relationship that gets explored in Spider-Man 2, however, is with Spider-Man himself. In the first Spider-Man, Peter basically became Spider-Man the instant he decided to live his life by Uncle Ben’s last few words and donned on the Spidey suit, and that was that. Here, Peter Parker basically breaks up with Spider-Man and with Uncle Ben, as he says he is “Spider-Man, no more,” and has to start over and re-bond with the hero inside of him. [The] movie makes use of this psychological relationship to refine its definition of a hero as established in the first film. It isn’t just about responsibility. It argues that the hero is inherently sacrificial. They give up even their dreams to salvage yours. This definition is much more mature and sophisticated […] It goes to show that a big budget doesn’t have to translate into senselessness. Spider-Man 2 is the intellectual experience I was looking for in a Spider-Man film with all the action that I always imagined was possible.” — Kevin Tae, Taestful Reviews

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before Spider-Man 3 came out they released an extended cut of the first sequel on DVD, dubbed Spider-Man 2.1 (remember when they briefly called extended cuts things like that?) At the time I concluded “it’s still a 5-star film because it doesn’t ruin the original — but it’s not at all essential”, though I later added a postscript to note that “I probably should have rated this lower. It may still be a good film, but the fact is the original cut’s better — even if just for the superior version of The Lift Scene. I rather doubt I’ll ever watch it again.”

Verdict

In a simpler time before every superhero movie was connected to every other superhero movie, filmmakers were free to only have to tell one story and develop the ongoing life of their lead characters (rather than juggle everyone else’s lead characters for cameos, too). Spider-Man 2 is a pinnacle of this. It takes the seeds sown by the first movie and nurtures them into more interesting and complex emotional dilemmas, without losing sight of the fact it’s a movie based on a comic book about a man who swings around the city in a red-and-blue onesie fighting crime. Nonetheless, it’s as memorable for Peter and MJ’s up-and-down relationship as it is for the stunning action sequences, which become icing on the cake rather than the raison d’être.

#87 is… no kid’s game.

The Two Faces of January (2014)

2016 #15
Hossein Amini | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English, Greek & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

The writer of Drive (and co-writer of Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but maybe he’d prefer we didn’t mention those) moves into the director’s chair with this Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Best know for her Ripley (as in Talented Mr.) tales, this is instead the story of a young American man, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who, while working as a tour guide in Greece, falls in with middle-aged American couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Apparently on holiday, they look like an easy mark for Rydal’s somewhat-con-ish moneymaking practices, but events soon transpire to reveal the pair’s secrets, and Rydal’s greed draws him deeper into their affairs.

Amini has picked some quality material for his directorial debut. The storyline is pretty straightforward, but it’s driven by some interesting characters with complex motivations. You’re never entirely sure what’s driving Rydal and Chester, even if it may appear obvious; and sometimes it can be as much of a twist that a character didn’t have a better plan as it is when their implausibly-intricate machinations are unveiled. It helps that the film has a pair of quality actors in these roles, who effortlessly bring believability to even the slightly-far-fetched elements of the narrative. This is only the second thing I’ve seen where Isaac has made an impression (the other being The Force Awakens; I’d forgotten he was in Robin Hood and Sucker Punch), but I can see why everyone’s calling him one to watch.

If Dunst doesn’t leave as much of a mark as the two chaps, it’s only because Colette is a subtler-still character. Some people reckon The Two Faces of January has a thin story and no development of its characters, but I can’t help but feel it was too subtle for such critics. On the surface it might just seem like Colette is the dim-blonde wife, going along with her husband whatever happens and flirting with their sexy tour guide, but there’s clearly more going on under the surface. How much does she really know about Chester’s actions? Is she an innocent bystander, or is she involved? Is it harmless flirting with Rydal, or are Chester’s drunken suspicions on the money?

By choosing to set the film in the novel’s original 1960s timeframe, Amini adds instant style and class to the whole picture. Didn’t everything look classier back then? I mean, Chester wears linen suits and Panama hats, not T-shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap. It just wouldn’t be the same set today. Even the locations look straight out of the ’60s, even though they’re hundreds or thousands of years old and the film was shot this decade. Marcel Zyskind’s attractive cinematography is surely to thank for that. Again, it’s an element I’ve heard some criticise as boring or plain, which (much like the above views on plot and character) I just don’t understand. It’s not showy or show-off-y, but that’s part of what works. It lets the natural beauty of the locations speak for themselves, with classical compositions and rich lighting.

The era of the setting also helps emphasise the film’s Hitchcockian overtones, which given Highsmith’s other most-famous work is Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitch, of course) is perhaps an obvious point of comparison, but by no means an inappropriate or negative one. As the narrative twists and turns, tightening the tension ever more, you think the Master of Suspense would’ve been quite pleased if this had been one of his pictures.

Filming this particular Highsmith novel was a long-held ambition for Amini (he first tried to acquire the rights after his big-screen writing debut, Jude, back in 1996). Such much-awaited dreams can sometimes lead to poor results, thanks to a rose-tinted perspective or close-minded obsession, but on other occasions the lengthy preparation pays off. The Two Faces of January is most certainly a case of the latter, a ceaselessly classy, subtly complex thriller that’s very rewarding for those open to its numerous charms.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Two Faces of January is on Film4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st, at 9pm.

The Cat’s Meow (2001)

2007 #92
Peter Bogdanovich | 109 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

The Cat's MeowPossibly-true ‘murder mystery’ set in 1920s Hollywood.

As with the similar Gosford Park, the point lies less in plot and more in characterisation — there are some good performances, especially from Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley and Edward Herrmann, though Kirsten Dunst seems a bit flat in comparison. The era’s style suits her though, and the whole period is beautifully evoked; for my money the prettiest scenes are the black & white bookends.

Sadly the similarity to Gosford Park is the film’s main shortcoming: once realised, it’s clear that The Cat’s Meow doesn’t have the same subtle complexity in its story or performances. In its own right, though, there’s much to like.

3 out of 5