Film Review: Hidden Figures

How far our values and common decency have come, and are sliding back is clearly on display in ‘Hidden Figures’ the story of the African American women who were literally called ‘computers’ during NASA’s Mercury space program. This film is part of Hollywood’s response to the ‘Oscars so white’ scandal of 2015. But most of all it’s a story about African American women who are brilliant at mathematics and by sheer bloody minded determination achieve their potential and their goals.

Hidden Figures starts with a prequel of the lead protagonist Katherine Johnson a whiz kid mathematician who because of her skin colour has to move states to get the education she deserves. Flash forward to 1961 the ‘current day’ in the movie timeline and three computers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janel Monáe) are broken down on a Virginian highway with a police highway patrol approaching. What’s on display to the audience in this tone shattering opening scene is just how much those who are not white and not male need to submit and obey to keep out of trouble because of their sex and race. This scene sets up the social standards of 1961 Virginia and although the scene’s polite in its execution not to offend the white men for showing them who they are it did what it needed to do to get the audience on side to barrack for these three protagonists.

At work at NASA it’s not any better. Everything is divided into ‘colored’ and white including coffee pots, work kitchens, staff rooms and buildings. Nostalgist’s thinking the time of John F Kenndy is a better time, would do well to watch this movie. Hidden Figures takes its time to establish this as the era of ‘separate but equal’. Yeah. Nah. Octavia Spencer’s character Dorothy Vaughan is the team leader but isn’t formally the team leader because she is ‘colored’ . Dorothy manages more resources than her immediate manager, a white colleague Vivian Mitchell — an exceptional Kirsten Dunst playing an unforgiving role. Octavia Spencer is everything you’ve read and more, and the scenes with Dunst gives us an intimate personal one on one picture of this too recent state sanctioned apartheid.

In the astro engineering lab run by an unforgiving Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the misogynist ivy league white male engineers are burning through the white female computers and as a last resort Vivienne Mitchell goes to the ‘colored’ section and asks Dorothy for her best and brightest. Finally the young girl we witnessed in the opening frames of the movie, and we the audience knows is the smartest person in any room on screen has her moment to shine. Katherine Johnson is terrified, the white engineers are contemptuous. The mansplaining and bigotry is not subtle, but neither is it obvious. It runs on screen in Hidden Figures as contemptuous silent bullying. Jim Parson’s of TV’s Big Bang Theory has the job of representing white, male and resentful. It’s unfortunately a one dimensional baddie who should just be given the black hat for completeness.

The absurdity of Katheriine’s situation is the 40 minute round trip to the ladies ‘colored’ toilet. I found myself thinking ‘and the Americans wondered why they were losing to the Russians in the space race’? Here’s your reason right up on the screen’. You’re not taking your best and brightest, your taking the best and whitest Ivy league men, then if really desperate the white women. The Russians at this stage were taking their brightest from everywhere and anywhere including the gulags.

The third hidden figure is Mary Jackson a fireball of energy who is working with an expat Austrian jew Professon Zielinski testing the capsule design. Zielnski can see past the racism, sexism, and the ludicrousness of separate but equal. He knows he wants the best, and he can see that Mary Jackson is the best engineer in everything but name and encourages her to skill up at night school. There are, unsurprisingly, problems with these two outsiders planning to help NASA. The night classes are at an all white High School that does not even allow blacks to attend.

These stories are told in a gentle way, as if not to offend or admonish a modern audience. At times I wanted Hidden Figures to be harder but then figured nobody would see it if it was — ‘Twelve years a slave’ is a case in point. Instead Hidden Figures is a feel good movie about doing your best, not standing back, not being cowered into submission and just standing up to do what’s right. For me, Hidden Figures is a beautiful story about the colour and gender blindness of mathematics and science. Katherine Johnson says at one point ‘the numbers don’t lie” and the numbers don’t discriminate either. While the overt racism of the time is played with a lightness of touch, the maths on screen is anything but. It’s a brave movie that is not afraid to mention cosine, pi, algebra, quadratic equations and not dumb things down. The effectiveness of the film’s tone in telling the story of the environment of these ground breaking women is that the racism is routine, that it’s taken for granted, and that for those that live in this environment every move has to be measured restrained, and overtly, obviously obedient and submissive while every instinct in their body is screaming for them to assert their morale and ethical rights.

Performances are all on the money with a particular shout out to the supporting cast. There’s some clunky editing just past the half way mark. While not sepia in tone, the production design does make it feel a bit Ozzie and Harriet. The script is great, and I particularly liked the juxtaposition in the script of home and work life and some of the cinematographic choices – especially the use of NASA’s archive footage of the Mercury program.

Film Review: Trumbo

In Trumbo we see a different version of Hollywood in the 1950s than that in the Coen brothers’ ‘Hail Caesar!’. In Trumbo we see ‘The Black List’ the banning of artists for their beliefs. The impact of this hidden, largely unpublicised list has a catastrophic effect. Some people die, many are imprisoned and family members and friendships destroyed as collateral damage. Hollywood’s touched on this topic before. As long ago as ‘The Way We Were’ and as recent as ‘Good night and Good Luck’ Clooney’s superb story of Morrow’s take down of McCarthy,

Trumbo the professional is something we’re all familiar with in the modern age. We know who Aaron Sorkin is, we know who Alan Ball, Lawrence Kasdan and Gary Ross are. The screenwriter was less visible in the past than they are today. They do more than write for TV and film, screenwriters do speeches for celebs (Sorkin’s commencement speech for Steve Jobs), script polishing and rewrites for studios and directors.

The Black List arose because of HUAC the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a witch hunt of radical and communist thinkers at the growing fear of the soviets reach into democracies during the cold war. HUAC ran forever (not finalised until 1975) and sought to protect Americans from communist influence. The context is important and Trumbo sets up this context quickly, succinctly and without fuss. The Communist Party of America started as a direct opposition to the fascism of Hitler, Mosley, Mussolini and Franco.

So in WW2 the Soviets are allies but at the end of the war that all changed. Life long strongly held beliefs were no longer publically safe and the politics of fear was more important than the truth. This is as true today in 2016 as it was in the 1950s.

One by one Trumbo and his writers and actor friends are summoned before HUAC. Trumbo choses a strategy that depends on the current liberal SCOTUS throwing out HUAC’s contempt of U.S Congress charge on first amendment grounds. This strategy falls to pieces when two liberal Supreme Court justices dies, one at the young age of 55. Trumbo and his friends faith in the US Justice system goes awry and he is found in contempt of Congress and serves four years for what he believes.

Once out of jail Trumbo finds himself on the Black list and unable to work. He literally loses the family farm and moves to the leafy burbs where the neighbours recognise him as the commy he is. To feed his family and survive he sets up a black market business to subvert the Black list. His intial work is for C grade producers King Brothers ( an outstanding John Goodman and Stephen Root).

Then Trumbo’s luck changes as two black market scripts win best screenplay at the Oscars. Soon the A list is knocking (Kirk Douglas with Spartacus and Kubrick in tow).
Every film needs an antagonist to the protagonist and in this film that is Heeda Hopper (Helen Mirren in what Xan Brooks calls her ‘Wicked witch of the west mode’) and John Wayne, known by one and all as ‘Duke’.

Trumbo is a great film and the known and unknown cast are strong across all major and minor roles. There’s a very good reason for this and that reason is simple it’s called Jay Roach. Yes he of Austin Powers fame but more so the Jay Roach of ‘Recount’.

Diane Lane one day will get a lifetime achievement award for all the times she’s played a stoic Mom. This Diane Lane Mom is one of her best. Brian Cranston gives a mannered performance as Trumbo, it’s a variation of Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’. Michael Stuhlburg is great as Edward G Robinson as is David James Elliot as John Wayne and the best of a great lot is Louis C.K as Arlen Hird. This is great story telling and you should go see it.

Film Review: Hail Caesar!

The Coen brothers in full esoteric screwball comedy mode are a thing of true beauty for me. Most of the screwball comedy films are set in the 1950s or before (O Brother, where art thou?) bar ‘Burn after Reading’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’. I am not a fan of Lebowski and therefore I’m against the flow of most Coen fans.

The prima facie case in point is that I’ve not met a single person that likes ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ bar me. It’s not their best, but it is the guiltiest of pleasures. While ‘Fargo’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ are two of their finest works it’s ‘Barton Fink’ that remains in my top 10 of all time. To be fair it’s time I reviewed that film, that’s for another post not here.

‘Hail Caesar!’ is their latest trip to 1950’s Hollywood, they were last here with ‘Barton Fink’. The budget has grown and as an audience member you’ve got a problem right from the start. How do you adjust to not a handful of narratives being told on film but several dozen? The Coen’s intent, it seems, is to show you how films are made. It reminds me of the Sorkin line ‘You never want to show people how sausages are made’. Here in ‘Hail Caesar!’ we see how the sausage is made. That is slowly and in pieces where seconds on film take days on set.

For ‘Barton Fink’ we had Barton’s narrative about the successful New York writer scooped up to Hollywood to write wrestling pictures. For ‘Hail Caesar!’ we have the most senior studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) not wrangling one film or movie star but the whole of Capital Studios. He’s a fixer, an enforcer, a negotiator and a lot more.

Eddie’s deep Catholicism means daily visits to the church and priest for confession. He’s a traditional family man with family values. This is established in two key scenes that open the film. The round table script discussion with leaders of all Judaeo-Christian faiths on the studios depiction of Christ in ‘Hail Caesar!’, and that a call from his wife about his son moving to short stop is not handled or blocked but comes straight through between trying to solve the disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and Laurence Laurentz (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes) frustration with dealing with a Rodeo clown Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) now dropped into his drawing room comedy as his leading man. “Were that it wasn’t so” indeed…

So it’s automatically incongruous that Eddie is cleaning up the day to day production issues but also the gaps between the publicity departments and the reality. That reality in this film is pregnant out of wedlock stars, leading actors missing for three days, alcoholics, communists, homosexuals, and gossip columnists who happen to be twins (an under utilised Tilda Swinton).

Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) isn’t missing as much as kidnaped and a ransom note arrives from ‘The future’. Given this is the Coen’s we could be going anyway with this subplot, and my particular expectations were not met, because the future is somewhere dark and earnest and relevant. It’s a deliberate juxtaposition between the make believe of Hollywood, the world outside the studio gates and the birth of the military industrial complex (the Lockheed Martin subplot).

Baird wakes up in the laundry of a Malibu house. A house through the magic of CGI that is plonked right in the middle of the beach used in ‘From Here to Eternity’ and ‘Gattaca’. When Baird wakes there are about a dozen writers and an intellectual who are from ‘The Future’.

This is where the film, and your brain as the viewer of the film have to make a decision. Do you go the easy path or the more complex one? There is rewards in both, but as a friend of mine said of this film ‘It’s Lazy’. And he’s right, it is. ‘Hail Caesar!’ has enough material for four films. I was entertained. The Channing Tatum sailor scene is worth the ticket price alone and there’s plenty more of that in this flawed gem of a film.

While I’m at it can somebody, anybody give cinematographer Roger Deakins an honorary Oscar sooner rather than later? The Cohen’s regular go to cimeatographer for a while and in this film his genius is on full display. In a single shot Deakin moves from the set to the soundstage to the real world and manages to change the tone and colour of the film. The editing is competent it can be no more with so many stories crammed into 2 hours.

Performances are breezy, and Clooney’s last scene on set is stupendous. Newcomer Ehrenreich is stunning as Hobie Doyle and the Scarlet Johannsen scenes are ditzy screwball at its finest.

For Coen fans and completests only.

Film Review: The Force Awakens

N.B. This review has a spoiler for J.J Abrams 2009 film ‘Star Trek’.

Fan boy and accomplished director J.J Abrams new Star Wars film ‘The Force Awakens’ gives original Star Wars fans everything they wanted in episode I,II & III but didn’t get. That’s exactly what’s wrong with ‘A Force Awakens’, and it’s a problem in spades.

The Guardian’s Xan Brooks and Catherine Shoud hinted in their ‘No Spoilers’ review that there is a problem with nostalgia as a driver of film content. Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion, it clouds our judgement with remembrances of things past especially of ourselves in an earlier, simplier, less complex state. Nostalgia is a state of mind before fate; and life; and experience change us to who we are today. Nostalgia betrays our judgement and in the biggest betrayal of all, nostalgia betrays the truth.

Our memory of episodes IV “A New Hope”, V “The Empire Strikes Back”, and “Return of the Jedi” is different to our actual experience of those films, especially different of our experience of those films today – not as we experienced them in 1976, 1979 and 1983.

I was eleven when I went to see ‘Star Wars’ aka ‘A New Hope’ it wasn’t Star Trek but it was a story of hope. A story of a possible future yet mystically set in the past. Most of all it was the story of a family set against the rebellion against an evil empire. Today ‘The Force Awakens’ is everything a ‘A New Hope’ was and more. This time, they didn’t screw it up. If you think that’s not factored into the way you view this film, rely on another more reliable emotion, remorse and go back in time to how you felt during and immediately after ‘The Phantom Menace’.

There is no denying Abrams’ skill as a film maker, the first forty minutes takes us editing transition, note replayed by note musical queue, back to everything we remember about the our first introduction to this canon. We as an audience cannot help but respond with a spine tingling thrill when we hear key themes played as well, sounding as great as they ever did. John William’s score is as brilliant here as it was in the first three films.

Abrams appears to have responded to IV, V & VI as strongly and as emotionally as any child. Now as the man in charge he manipulates our memories and emotions and ensures the liquid warmth of nostalgia like the most dangerous of opiates sedates us into a warm, fuzzy glow of fond remembrance and obliterates any nasty memories of the prequels. Abrams toys with us like Christolph did to Truman in ‘The Truman Show’ but this time every paying ticket holder is a ‘Truman’ being pushed, pulled and manipulated.

Abrams places us in environments almost identical to episodes IV (desert), V (ice) and VI (forest) and not in the industrial landscapes that largely dominated the prequels. The characters are the same, but different; it’s familiar, but new, older but prettier; younger, but experienced.

The problem for me as an avid moviegoer is that once you’ve seen one J.J Abrams film you’ve most definitely seem them all. The jokes, the Movie making 101 of just when you think it can’t get any worse for the heroes, it does, and then some more. Spoiler alert for JJ Abrams ‘Star Trek’ ahead. Skip the next short paragraph in italics

Think Olsen getting flambed in Abrams 2009 reboot of ‘Star Trek’ and the detonators are lost, then Sulu’s parachute getting shot, then think Kirk’s parachute failing. All in the one scene on which the entire movie depends on its success. It’s one of the oldest Hollywood tropes and there’s plenty of Abrams film making 101 in ‘The Force Awakens’.

After a while you’re brain keeps going ‘Didn’t he do this in ‘Star Trek’? Oh that’s borrowed from ‘Mission Impossible’ isn’t this from ‘Lost’? The answer everytime is yes, Yes and YES. Your brain starts to remember not with nostalgia but familiarity that you’ve seen this all before, it’s different faces and places but the mis en scene is familiar, and for most of ‘The Force Awakens’ it’s identical to what’s come before it.

That’s not to say the film’s bad. When there’s this much money being spent, nothing is bad. The script isn’t bad, the acting isn’t bad, in fact it’s very good. Harrison Ford is outstanding in an old familiar skin and of the fresh faces, John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver are all outstanding. The script is great, but we’ve seen it all before. The editing is a bit disjointed in places which is understandable when there are two editors in play. The CGI is great and as previously stated John William’sscore is as magnificent as it was when it ear wormed its way into our hearts and minds in 1976. It’s the note by note orchestrated identically almost sample like lifting of the great themes of ‘A New Hope’ that traps us and opens up those feel good vibes of long ago that work so well here. Sometimes in all of Abrams’ noise and motion it’s just a piano and that for me was as good as Luke’s theme from ‘A New Hope’ underpinning key scenes with Finn and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in ‘The Force Awakens’.

J.K Rowling time and time again when describing Harry Potter’s world would say it has an internal logic and rational, it may different to our “the reader, the viewer” logic that makes the sky blue and gravity work but the logic of Potter’s world has predictable outcomes. In JJ Abrams films there is an internal logic, but it is not to its story but to JJ Abrams story making & telling. ‘Mission Impossible’, ‘Alias’, ‘Lost’, ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ and now ‘A Force Awakens’ fit Abrams view of science. That is best paraphrased as ‘Huh?!? Dude… it’s too hard wouldn’t it be cool to do this it’d look great…’ and that’s where the nerdy fan boys and girls get a tad upset. He killed the Star Trek reboot dead with his lack of cannon respect and the basic scientific tennents (endothermy, gravity, chemistry) of any universe ahead of us, or long ago in a galaxy far far away. It’s a scary thought but Abrams could just as easily kill the Star Wars reboot too.

Did I get my money’s worth? Yep, I sure did. Was it better than I expected it to be? Yep. Was anything something I had not seen before? Nope. Should you pay money to see this? Yes.

What I’d really like screenwriter great Lawrence Kasdan and J.J Abrams to do is retell episodes 1,2 & 3 with the soft lens they used for ‘The Force Awakens’. The Star Wars origin stories deserve to be retold and remade by someone who really loves and cares about the Star Wars universe. Lucas didn’t care and it showed on screen and it’s clear from ‘The Force Awakens’ that JJ Abrams does. And that shows up on screen and we are all the better off for it.

FIFA: First Class Corruption matches the Third Class acting

Who could have guessed that the sport of fake tackles, second rate prat falls and third rate acting would be the place for first class corruption? It seems nobody is surprised with FIFA’s corruption scandal, but at the same time nobody – or at least no national or pan national association – including the world’s largest the English FA and EUFA were brave enough or had balls enough to speak truth to power.

Again.

This should not surprise anyone with a rudimentary understanding of professional sport. Not just soccer – but all professional sports. Corruption of professional sport will happen to all codes of sporting entertainment, but soccer was always going to be the first code to experience corruption because of its global market, its global advertising market and the simple fact that soccer was one of the first sporting codes to professionalise.

Sure dollar for dollar the seven hour marathons that are NFL and MLB bring in massive amounts of money to a single market but this was before Web 2.0 and true broadband created a single global market. The first sport to realise this was soccer which meant FIFA was the first peak sporting body to dine at the trough of greed & corruption.

Ironically a late adopter of professionalism the International Olympic Committee (1984 Los Angeles Summer Games) was even later than my beloved Rugby Union to professionalise. The IOC was the first to fall to interests not so much interested in the sports but the entertainment of sports as was displayed by bidding cities offering bribes, kickbacks, jobs for the boys & girls. It got kind of nasty between Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. Do we care anymore about the Olympics? I use to before 1984 but haven’t since.

Sport is now a sporting entertainment. Professional sporting codes survive as entertainment first and true sports second. Wrestling, Tennis, Volleyball have all adapted or died with the requirement to entertain first, conduct a competitive sport second.

For FIFA it’s taken a big tier two nation, one as big as the U.S.A to bring the charges against the most senior officials in FIFA. The bribes went through U.S. banks. This is ironic for some of nation states of the arrested officials would have been much less virulent in watching out for large – obscenely large – amounts of money changing hands into single person corporations and shelf companies.

Was it Sorbanes Oxley that did this? Hardly. Sorbanes Oxley couldn’t stop the worlds largest merchant banks ripping off each other and nation states, how was it ever to catch FIFA? In all probability the only reason FIFA’s scandal ridden executive is facing charges and ill repute is because of terrorism. Money makes the world go around – even for terrorists. The focus has been find the money and shut it down. Delay or inhibit radicalisation and this will reduce the risk to western targets. FIFA is collateral damage in the never ending ‘War on Terror’. FIFA will certainly not be the last. I’ll watch with minimal interest as the ‘World Game’ confirms that its back office is just as dodgy as what I endure watching on the soccer pitches of the world.