Saturday, 4 March 2017

Hidden Figures

Sorry it's been a few weeks since last posting. I saw Rings & The Founder both of which were pretty uninteresting and the suffering of daily existence has been worse than usual recently.

Katherine G. Johnson with the cast of Hidden Figures
The three title characters are Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) & Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and the film is the story of their lives & work at NASA in the early 60s as Black women, against the backdrop of segregation-era Virginia. It's a story that needed to be told - we all likely know some of the white men of that era, but these women and their contributions had been left uncelebrated till now.

While a wartime Executive Order had made discrimination in the defence industry illegal, a combination of racism & misogyny meant Black women had few opportunities for advancement. Vaughan was working as a supervisor, but without the commensurate pay. Jackson wasn't an engineer because every time she qualified for the program, the requirements shifted. And Johnson repeatedly has her work claimed by Paul "computers don't author reports" Stafford (Jim Parsons, who makes a habit of playing characters that need to be stuffed in a locker).

Although there are of course liberties taken in this retelling, I don't feel that re-imagining some events in a slightly different timeframe really detracted from the story being told, although I could have done with a bit less of saviour Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his 'we all bleed pee the same colour'. Overall a much needed, heartwarming story.

Thursday, 9 February 2017


Gold channels Wolf Of Wall Street in so many ways, from the actors, plot, and themes that it's hard to see it as anything other than an imitation. McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector who's seen his family mining business collapse around him. He bets his last dollar on the theory of an equally down on his luck geologist (Edgar Ramirez) that somewhere in Indonesia, there's new people and resources to be exploited gold.

We call our industry 'the industry' because we think we are better than everyone else.

A familiar story is told: fall, bottoming out, rise, struggle, rise. McConaughey & Ramirez put in solid turns despite this. Wells and Belfort share in their unfettered greed but there's no physical humour, or chest-beating lunch scene to soften the miner's rough edges

Throughout, there's a sense amongst everyone involved that's usually reserved for Hollywood's films about itself: that somehow their jobs are no mere jobs, they're answering the call of the Earth itself, and the scene with Wells' acceptance speech for the "Golden Pickaxe" from the National Prospectors Association is a fittingly absurd ending. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

January Roundup & Look Forward

Film of the month: T2, just. Closely followed by both La La Land (an upbeat film for an already depressing year) & Manchester By The Sea (the opposite).

Worst film: Assassin's Creed, without any competition.

Seen, but not reviewed:

Live By Night: Ben Affleck, gangsters, Bahhhhstan. You've likely seen this sort of thing before, it thinks it's more than it is, and shows occasional flashes of what could have been ("You're not a bad person, but little by little all the bad things you do add up until you're not you anymore") but ultimately comes to nothing. Repent, Ben Affleck.

Moonlight: An engaging look at the life of a young Black man in Florida told in three parts - 'Little', 'Chiron' & 'Black' and how the pressures of masculinity,  conflicts of sexuality and presence of drugs impacted his development along the way. Other people knowing you're queer long before you do is universal, it seems.

February Hype Train: A lot coming out next month. A Cure For Wellness, Fences, Gold, Hidden Figures, Loving, Rings & The Founder are what immediately stand out for me from Cineworld's 'Coming Soon' list.

T2: Trainspotting

(A few minor spoilers, little more than included in trailers)

I was too young to see the original when it was first released, but I remember the buzz around it. I remember sitting in my pal's bedroom playing Fifa and reading the 'Choose Life' poster on his wall and wondering what fixed-interest mortgage repayments even were. Much to my dad's chagrin, I managed to get a copy and saw it for the first time at fifteen and no subsequent viewing has matched up to the first time you see Renton storming down Princes Street to Iggy Pop, And that's always the worry for a sequel to any seminal work, but especially this one: could it do it justice? Would it be cash-in pish, or possibly worse, an average effort we'd all forget about before the end of the year?

T2 is full of nods to its predecessor both visually and aurally - a single note of Lust for Life, Diane chiding Renton about a woman being too young for him, a new 'Choose Life' monologue, a tense scene in a toilet. At one point Sick Boy tells Mark "Nostalgia. That's why you're here. You're a tourist in your own youth" and at times it seems like that's all it will amount to, a collection of references and in-jokes that we'll enjoy in the cinema but fail to leave a lasting impression. 

If T1 was about the self-destructive naive of youth, T2 is what happens when you reach your 40s and stop to look back at the wreckage of your life. Or, as a line that recurs throughout puts it: "First, there is an opportunity. Then, a betrayal". Sick Boy & Mark are caught in this cycle, complicated by their mutual interest in Veronica, Sick Boy's business-partner and sometime-girlfriend. Can they put old differences aside for long enough to get their latest scheme up and running? Will Begbie, violent and hate-fuelled as ever, catch up with Mark and take his (well-deserved) revenge?

For me though the heart of the film was Ewen Bremner's Spud. He's still using heroin "the only friend that never left me", has become estranged from his wife and son, and tries to find some sort of salvation or purpose in putting the group's former exploits down on paper. While the rest of the cast all have some central, intensely dislikeable feature about them, Spud is now as much as ever a lovable, good-hearted character swept along by some poor choices and bad influences.

If you're a fan of the original, this should be at worst a nostalgic/"where are they now" featurette and at best a new story you'll love as much as the first. If you haven't, then watch it first: whatever you think of this piece, T1 is Boyle's best work.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Manchester By The Sea

Michelle Williams' show-stealing scene.

Casey Affleck is Lee, a depressed man living a solitary existence in Bahhhstan. We get glimpses into his daily routine and you wonder - has Affleck forgotten how to emote and nobody noticed or dared tell him? We slowly learn that Lee's adult life has been one tragedy or trauma after another, details of which are revealed to us at intervals perfectly chosen by director Kenneth Lonergan. This barrage of negativity has driven Lee to where he is now, until the long-expected death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) brings him back to his hometown.

Unbeknownst to Lee, Joe has left him as the legal guardian of his son, Lucas. We again get glimpses of what their relationship used to be like from the flashbacks that appear regularly throughout - as close as any uncle & nephew could hope to be - contrasted with the present, two men who have nothing in common but blood & grief. Their relationship provides much of the emotional substance of the film and more humour than might be expected.

Michelle Williams' role as Randi, Lee's ex-wife is a standout performance. Even though, as usual, she's only really used to give context and depth to Lee's pain. "I said a lot of terrible things to you. My heart was broken, and I know yours is broken, too". Overall, a depressingly accurate portrait of life after loss.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

La La Land

I've been looking forward to this movie since I first saw the trailer. Two of my favourite actors starring in a musical, the line "why do you say romantic like it's a dirty word?", it's tailor made for me. It's as much about the clash between personal and professional ambition as it is Hollywood, romance, or jazz.

Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own club and playing the kind of jazz he wants to play, to people who love it as much as he does. In a time of hopelessness and cynicism, his passion is uplifting. It's cool and good to be passionate about things, whether it's niche or mainstream: be unapologetic in your love for whatever it is that you find enjoyable. His backwards-looking views on jazz can get a bit 'old-man-yells-at-cloud' as his friend Keith asks "How are you going to be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?", but in the end, he knows what he likes and it's not this.

Emma Stone is Mia, an actress by way of barista. When she's not working at the WB coffee shop, she's getting repeatedly overlooked in auditions. Mia & Seb meet a few times before they click, but when they do, their relationship intensifies at a pace familiar only to other movie-couples and my fellow U-Haulers - "Is this the start of something wonderful and new / or one more dream that I cannot make true". Stone manages to breathe more life into her character than the script seems to allow for. While the film revels in its use of tropes, cliches and nods to other works, it does feel that Mia was constructed entirely from them while Seb at least has some concrete characterisation that Mia was lacking. I wanted to see more of Mia and have her fleshed out more - instead the majority of the scenes Mia & Seb share are told from his point of view. It's too much about his sacrifice and struggles, spending some more time on the impact Seb's actions have on Mia could have given the film even more emotional depth. 

I can't really make any technical comments on the singing and dancing elements, except to say that for me, Stone carried each duet, especially City Of Stars.

Stand-out performances from the leads and songs that will stick with me for a long time to come mean that, despite some failings in the writing, I'd recommend this as a must-see to anyone.

"People will come because you're passionate about it. 
People love what other people are passionate about."

Monday, 9 January 2017

Assassin's Creed

I go to see a lot of movies that I think will be bad because occasionally I'm pleasantly surprised but, as expected, this was not one of those times. I've seen more than my fair share of video game movies to know they're typically nonsensical and either loved by a fanbase despite its failings or universally derided. All I knew about the game franchise beforehand was that its appeal seemed to hinge on being Batman, but in the past. I tried to play the second game once but couldn't even get started because of all the bugs.

Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, and things haven't been going well for him. His mum dies in the opening scene to provide him with A Tragic Backstory. Flash forward, and he's executed by the state, before waking up in a compound where he's been resurrected(?) by Marion Cotillard and her dad, Jeremy Irons. Lynch is the last living descendent of 'The Assassins', who fight against 'The Knights Templar' to protect an artifact called the Apple of Eden which somehow contains the ~~~genetic code for free will~~~. The Templars want to destroy free will because they're Evil Brits trying to make hard determinism happen fascists. Is free will literally in our biological makeup? Is this gene somehow never missing in any human? What would happen if it were? Why haven't the super-scientists tried finding the gene for it instead of building their giant Evil Plot Device? We'll never know. The Plot Device in question is 'The Animus', which can allow someone to relive moments from their ancestor's lives because of ~~~genetic memory~~~. Eventually Lynch is convinced by some other Assassins & his dad that letting the Templars get the Apple is a bad idea, so all the Assassins team up and stop them.

As you'd expect, the visuals were great, and if the film was more Renaissance parkour and less fakedeep philosophy, this might have been an ok action movie.