Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures (2016) is good old fashioned Hollywood razzle-dazzle.  It takes a little known story, mixes in some smart poetic licence and instantly likeable performers, and turns out a belting piece of mainstream entertainment.

There is no doubt that Hidden Figures is precision engineered to pull at your heart but it is saved from being the same tired worthy film we’ve seen before by focusing on a central trio who overcome adversity with action.  From the opening scene onward the film repeatedly makes the argument for equality through sheer utility and every strand tells us that we can reach the stars if we just dump this baggage.  This turns it from a film about suffering and the past (and in turn a comfort blanket ensuring us that ‘aren’t we better’) into a positive, activist film that is utterly relevant.

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I, Daniel Blake and was anyway.

I liked I, Daniel Blake (2016).  It’s a good film that talks to ideas that I buy into; that there needs to be a social safety net and that people can be easily broken against institutions, especially when those in charge of them seem more interested in dismantling them and stigmatising those that need to access them.

And that is part of the problem.  I didn’t go to this film to be challenged.  I went on the promise of being able to tut at the current U.K. government.  I went to our local cinema’s ‘On the Fringe‘ night and felt comfortable, with my free glass of wine, as I had all my thoughts mirrored on screen and wondered how people could be treated that way.  I don’t think anyone in that room learnt anything.

The problem is the distribution.  I don’t doubt that Ken Loach still has plenty of life and vigour in him and his films remain as urgent as ever but at this point who is watching apart from the converted?  HBO’s recent genre series The Night Of (2016) made similar points about the U.S. justice system.  It was a police procedural that re-trod very familiar ground (and actually fell apart a bit during the final episodes) but crucially it was made and marketed with a general audience in mind.  The Night Of and it’s ideas will actually be talked about outside of critical and well-meaning social circles, I, Daniel Blake won’t.

I’m not casting any aspersions on anyone’s intent or talent here, the film is very good, evidently heartfelt and relentlessly human, but there’s surely a lesson to be learned about how we share ideas…

All about the moments…

Moments can lift or sink a film.  Ten seconds can make ninety minutes seem like time well spent or kill everything that went before.  Last night I watched Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and for better or worse the moments were in full swing.

Bone Tomahawk is a rather slight western tale of kidnapping and the posse that goes to rescue the girl.  It’s standard stuff with square jaws, old timers and Kurt Russell’s moustache and then there is a moment, a moment that harks back to the glory days of pre-cert ‘did you see that film where..?’ VHS.  You know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen the film, you probably won’t forget it, if you haven’t it’s worth watching and it lifts the film and carries it, perhaps throws it, over the finish line.

Then there was Rogue One, the first in a planned series of Star Wars side stories and fingertips away from being perfect.  Visually it’s stunning, with great practical and CG effects.  It also has the characters, in particular the central pairing of Jyn Erso and Cassien Andor and their team, the actors, the director, the story, the themes and ideas and Forest Whitaker, my word Forest Whitaker!  It’s brilliant and fun and then there’s the fan service, moments of redundant film buried in the uncanny valley and a fancy dress approximation of a classic character (or did he always look stupid and I’ve only just noticed?).

I’m going to go back for a rewatch because the good stuff is wonderful, it’s just such a shame that the current cinematic obsession with the miscellany of fan culture gets in the way of a perfect object.  As for Bone Tomahawk, I’ll never watch it again but absolutely, heartily recommend that you spend some time with it.

Like being stuck in a loop.

With a heap of amazing visuals and an even more interesting cast, Dr Strange (2016) falls down because it just isn’t, not in the slightest.  When we enter the Mirror Dimension all we find is the same ‘brilliant man undergoes a superficial change and remains brilliant’ story staring back at us and anything that is interesting merely reflects other, better movies.  ‘Like that corridor fight but more’ is the creative vision, enlightenment tourism in Asia the weary trope.

…but I’m being too harsh because there is fun to be had here   If you hadn’t seen a Marvel movie before I might suggest this one (although I probably wouldn’t as the Captain America stuff is by far the best).  The Stan Lee cameo made me laugh, it’s got Tilda Swinton and Madds Mikkelsen in and you liked Inception (2010) and that bit in Ant-Man (2015) right?

Oh for another Hellboy movie.  They were magic.

Watching The Girl On The Train Watching The Girl…

So maybe I watched this one too soon after seeing the recent Brian De Palma documentary De Palma (2015) after watching a run of De Palma movies.  Maybe I’m too big a fan of the 90’s films where Micheal Douglas’ manhood (mental and physical) and some shlocky plotting act as a gateway for a really interesting discussion about gender roles and machismo, or any one of a number of filmmakers who used genre to make us think and talk.

The Girl on the Train (2016), whilst being a decent film is perhaps a little too ‘decent’ for it’s own good.  Despite a cast that’s game there isn’t enough fun or provocation within the film to get it over the hill of the final act revelations.  Recent thrillers like Side Effects (2013) and Gone Girl (2014) knew that they were indecent and just went for it as the directors had the skill to play with the form.  The Girl on the Train seems a bit preoccupied with ‘quality’ to really play any games… which is a real pity as there is so much fun to be had with the way that ‘story’ and viewing are placed front and centre.

It should have been wittier and it’s very telling that the only conversations I’ve had about the film concern it’s structure.

Mike and Dave need help…

They should really let us know when there is going to be a blooper reel during the end credits of a film.  It’s a great indicator that the film is terrible but ‘please leave laughing’.  Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) is no exception and, despite some funny moments, just isn’t any good.  It’s one of those comedies in which everyone is either insane or a doormat, gay / bisexual equals sex pest, poor equals degenerate, and you find it hard to care about the wedding as it blatantly costs more than you’ll make in a decade.

But the blooper reel is interesting because it contains a joke (I say joke but I mean ‘string of words’) that is definitely funnier than the preceding 100 mins and the moment that an admonishing ‘alright’ is heard from off camera you are reminded how much play is made of being ‘outrageous’ without actually being outrageous.  Like Suicide Squad (2016) before it, the film falls down in not having the courage to actually be about bad people or the smarts to teach them a lesson without being patronising.  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) works because it’s about the ‘game’, The Way of the Gun (2000) works because it’s about people reluctantly drawing a line against their better judgement.

Blah blah, what I’m not saying succinctly is that bad people can do good things but they need to actually be bad for the journey to be satisfying.  The mistake here is thinking that identifying with a character and liking them have to go hand in hand.  Or just thinking that anyone would give a monkeys.  The film should have been about the sister.

M.C.P.T.S.D.U a.k.a. Jessica Jones

I’m not the biggest fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (M.C.U.),  a couple of the movies are really good but it’s essentially a (admittedly well made) culturally imperialist content generator: racking up minutes and occupying multiplex screens.  But when you combine the films with the Netfix Originals offerings, Marvel have, maybe inadvertently, created a rather significant and interesting gap between the two with the small screen offerings playing out as the damaged echo chamber of the film’s classic bants tinged mass destruction.

The films have obviously already started to react to the previously unmentioned mass destruction in very direct ways, the plots of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice directly concern the aftermath of these cataclysm and the latter even seems driven to insanity, but they are still top down views.  Films about billionaires, gods and Government operatives.  Jessica Jones (2015 – ) is the view from the cheap seats.  It’s a series that directly references the MCU, infuses everything it does with the shackles and scars of the past, and successfully grounds it by having real and unimaginable trauma as it’s main focus.  It’s also infused with mistrust of motive and power and the superhero ‘powers’ are almost invisible until they are used in blink and you’d miss it moments or damaging frantic fights.

Jessica Jones is the best that Marvel currently has to offer.  On it’s own it would just be a very strong and interesting series, with smart writing and great performances.  With the weight of the MCU’s glib body count it’s turned into a diamond.  I’ve still got two episodes to go before completing the first season, I might just cry if she starts wearing a costume.

 

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

So, Independence Day: Resurgence is sort of fun at individual moments and just plain bad for the majority of it’s run-time, during which your attention is kept by being reminded of the numerous better, smarter movies you’ve seen all this stuff in before.  Apart from the returning characters, no one is memorable and even then no one has changed at all or gets any kind of character arc on this new adventure (apart from some accountant bloke).

But there is some interest here in the world that has been built; an alternate post-invasion society that has been reaping the benefits of all that crashed alien tech and global peace has been achieved through military co-operation against a further threat.  But the film doesn’t really go into this because it would probably have an awkward time explaining that militaristic societies are often easy to confuse with fascist ones.  In short Ender’s Game (2013) is a more interesting and honest sequel than this.  As it stands the next step, the hinted at (flat out stated) sequel, is Starship Troopers (1997).  When the aliens have been defeated I guess we enter the nightmarish benign utopia that is Star Trek (1966 – ) and that makes Firefly (2002) the fightback.

I guess.

If you care about that sort of stuff.

Anyway, Independence Day: Resurgence, it is what it is and it was never going to be anything else or more and my parking space was gone when I got home so I had to park at work which is a ten minute walk in the rain.  This film didn’t really leave an impression on me.

Son of Saul / Saul fia (2015)

The problem with representing the Holocaust on film is that you are making entertainment, and that is uneasy when you are talking about the 20th Century’s greatest scar.  I’m not suggesting that the Holocaust is sacred amongst all obscenities but it’s a defining event for a number of reasons; firstly the murder, secondly the mechanisation of murder talks to us about the danger of progress and, finally, I think guilt plays a part, not only in the ‘people like us’ nature of both perpetrator and victim but also the underlying feeling that had the Nazi’s not had a racial insanity and poured resources into their clinically, bureaucratically, named ‘final solution’ or viewed Eastern European people as lesser, they may have won.  The Reich broke itself on the Soviets and the victims of the Holocaust and the Western world reaped the benefit.  Treading carefully feels like the least we could so.

So how do films adequately deal with this? 

Most don’t.

Of all the Holocaust / Nazi atrocity cinema (discounting documentaries) there’s three that really stand out.  Good (2008) is interesting in that it follows the proverbial ‘good German’ who makes small compromises until he finds himself in the Bosch like madness of a concentration camp.  Come and See (1985) is a stunning work that shows the SS war machine at it’s most unchecked.  The village massacre scene acts as a counterpoint to the too controlled, too aesthetically neat ghetto clearance that features in Schindler’s List (1993) and, years later, would find itself mirrored on Jake and Dino’s Chapman’s art work Hell (2000).  Now we have Son of Saul (2015).

With a perfect match of form and content Laszlo Nemes’ film puts us right into Auschwitz as it follows a member of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoner’s forced to carry out manual labour in the camp) who finds the body of his son amongst the dead and sets out to give the boy the decency of a funeral.  Nemes uses a 4:3 frame (recalling Shoah (1985))  and rarely moves away from keeping the central character in shallow focus.  This simple technique keeps the sights but does not wallow in the detail, allowing the film to rival The Revenant (2015) in terms of it’s visceral feel whilst, crucially, keeping humanity centre stage and reminding us of the sheer human work that went into the machine.

Son of Saul is a great piece of cinema that, despite the constant presence of death and suffering, is so much more alive than similar films as it forgoes the cinematic comfort of survival and instead offers a tale of a person reclaiming agency and purpose in a man made hell.

Highly Recommended.