Hidden Figures (2016)

hiddenfigHidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of three female African-American mathematicians who suffered from racial and sexual prejudice when working for NASA in the early years of the US space program, for which they played a vital role in the race against the Russians. If that makes it sound like a dark and gritty subject, then I’m describing it wrongly- although it can be unsettling and get the blood-pressure rising (I vented at the screen a number of times at the racial prejudice exhibited by some white characters in the film), it is nonetheless a very positive, life-affirming and warm film which serves as a perfect antidote for our times. I haven’t enjoyed a film quite as much as I did this one in quite awhile, and its a wonderful reminder of why I love movies. Sometimes they can just leave you with such a buzz. Priceless in this day and age.

I’m sure there may be technical goofs and factual errors, dashes of artistic license etc but the hell with any of that, sometimes a film is just such wonderful storytelling and drama that I don’t care: this isn’t some stolid documentary, this is a film with heart and soul and passion and some really fine, standout performances from the leads (Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) with a surprising weighty gravitas from Kevin Costner that reminds what a great screen presence he can be.

Its great, I couldn’t praise it enough. Its funny, informative, emotional, transcendently uplifting and inspirational: absolutely terrific.

Funnily enough (as in funny peculiar rather than funny ha-ha), I watched this from a Network screening on Channel Four which I recorded over the Christmas season, complete with commercial breaks etc. (which I zipped through with some aplomb- like riding a bike, you never forget speedy use of the remote). Watching films this way is something I so rarely do now, as I noted when I caught Deep Impact again several days ago: must be a sure sign that it was Christmas. I remember being curious about Hidden Figures back when I first saw a trailer years ago, I’m not sure why I didn’t buy it when it dropped on disc release as its subject matter (the 1960s space program) is a fascination of mine, but probably it was back when I was trying to rein in my reckless buying of discs, certainly of blind-buying them. The irony that I now have to search out a 4K UHD copy because it turns out I completely fell in love with the darn thing does not escape me.

Anyway, if like me you were negligent in not catching this film earlier, do yourself a favour and give this unapologetically feel-good film a go. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it. In this age of Covid, we sorely need films like this to warm our hearts: consider it an antidote to the lockdown we’ve just been dropped into again.

Genius Party & the Shelf of Shame

geniusp1There’s a section of my Blu-ray collection that looks particularly shameful, in that so much of it remains unwatched: my anime films and television series. There’s some absolute jewels in anime, films like Akira and Millennium Actress, and television shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop and Kids on the Slope, which remain absolutely personal favourites that are very dear to me. Most are really discoveries bought ‘blind’ on DVD or Blu-ray and its always doubly rewarding when they turn out to be something really good. There’s a few I’ve tried that didn’t really ‘click’ but that’s a part of the risk, I guess. Here in the UK a specialist label, All the Anime, have done for Anime releases what boutique labels like Arrow and Eureka etc have done for mainstream material, possibly only more so, because All the Anime have a tendency to release series in elaborately packaged releases, in lovingly-designed slipcases and boxes that elevate them to collector pieces. Unfortunately for the likes of me, such releases are particularly inviting even though I clearly don’t have the time to keep up with them, and as they are mostly limited editions, if you don’t pick them up when they come out, you can miss out. God, I hate limited editions, whether they be Blu-ray discs or soundtrack CDs or Super Deluxe CDs.

That’s a roundabout way of explaining why I’ve got far too many anime Blu-ray discs on my Shelf of Shame that really need catching up with.

geniusp3So here is Genius Party, an anthology of animated shorts that was released with its follow-up collection, Genius Party Beyond, in a box-set with a 144-page making-of/artbook a few years ago now by All the Anime. Its a little like a Japanese Fantasia or Heavy Metal Movie, disparate shorts that are more experimental than narrative. They tend to lean upon visual strengths rather than storytelling, and some are clearly more accessible than others: anime usually has a non-Western, Japanese ‘bent’ regards humour etc that can make it all a little frustrating and ‘marmite’. On the whole, Genius Party largely works and is rewarding, but at its worst it proves quite baffling, such as the second short, “Shanghai Dragon” which is just irritating in the extreme, frankly. Fortunately since the shorts are, as the description implies, all fairly short, they don’t really outstay their welcome, so if there’s one that proves a dud its quickly followed by the next. Of the seven shorts that make up Genius Party, I’d say three were really good  (“Deathtic 4”, “Doorbell” and “Baby Blue”) with two worthwhile  (“Genius Party” and “Happy Machine”) and two that, well, that’s what the chapter skip button is for (the frankly ‘I-never-want to-suffer-through-that interminable-tosh-ever-again’ “Limit Cycle” and aforementioned “Shanghai Dragon.”

geniusp2My favourite of the bunch has to be the strange, utterly bizarre “Deathtic 4″in which a Halloween world of monsters and zombies is depicted like some kind of Nightmare Before Christmas on acid. Its so strange and captivating visually that it just bewitched me and made the purchase of the discs worthwhile, and just demonstrates how beautiful and unusual anime can be- its just so unlike the traditional mostly family-oriented animation we see in the West from the likes of Disney and Pixar. “Deathtic 4” has the feeling of glimpsing someone else’s dreams, vast and otherworldly, and reminds of the endless possibilities of animation as an artform. The short does have a plot, of a sort (one of the creatures discovers a frog, from our world, and the story narrates his race to return the frog to where it came from whilst being pursued by the authorities) but really like most of the Genius Party shorts, any plot is secondary to the gorgeous animation from Studio 4°C. 

geniuspbSo then we come to the second of the films in the set, Genius Party Beyond, which was released a year after the original, and featured just five shorts which were, I believe, leftovers from the first project. On the whole I think all five are stronger entries (there’s certainly no utter bomb like “Limit Cycle”) and at the very worst they are at least visually arresting. My favourites of this bunch are “Moondrive” which is a sort of heist story set on the moon with a really curious style of animation,  “Toujin Kit” which features really clean, very European-style artwork such as you’d find in a graphic-novel, and “Dimension Bomb” which, while it doesn’t really have a narrative, as such, throws so much bizarre and beautiful imagery at you, I think its best just to soak it up and go with the intoxicating gorgeousness of it all. The two lesser shorts, the opening “Gala” and “‘Wanwa’ the Doggy” are stronger than the weakest entries from the first film. 

geniuspb2So that’s Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond, and one more set removed from the anime corner of the Shelf of Shame. We’ll see how 2021 goes regards this particular section of the Shelf of Shame but I’m hoping to make some headway.

Proxima (2019)

prox2Single-mother Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) is a French astronaut preparing for a year-long mission aboard the ISS, and in the final weeks leading to the mission she finds that her relationship with her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) is threatening to fall apart as the child starts to resent her mother for leaving her.

Proxima naturally reminded me of the similarly-themed Lucy in the Sky, in which Natalie Portman delivered a fine performance as an astronaut returning to Earth after a Space Shuttle mission finding herself unable to resume the normal life she had left behind. Proxima flips things around somewhat, dealing with the lead-up to a space mission and the toll it takes on personal relationships, but it shares topics such as women working in what is usually accepted as a mostly male-dominated profession and the unique pressures women face having to prove themselves equal. Proxima is clearly the superior film as it defttly navigates the many arcs running through it without being overly preachy or melodramtatic. For me, if it falters at any point its when Sarah abandons her pre-flight quarantine (essentially endangering the mission and her fellow crewmembers safety) in order to have one last important night with her daughter, to finally make peace with her and the situation they are caught up in. Emotionally, it works and acts as something of a crescendo for the film, but intellectually its sets up all sorts of alarm signals, which is unfortunate, because on the whole the film is quite remarkable for being both character-driven and involving, but also authentic in how it portrays the beaurocracy and administration around an astronauts career and the physical and intellectual intensity of their training. Being an astronaut is not a normal job, leaving the Earth is not a normal event, but men and women have to navigate the normality of family life and the bizarre enormity of what they are doing in their careers. Proxima explores the pressures that are perhaps not wholly unique to a woman, but it does offer intriguing observations of what particulalrly effects a mother, and the drive that ensures a woman can succeed in her life aspirations in what might be assumed to be a male-dominated career. The film stumbles a little in places but on the whole it suceeds really surprisingly well.

Eva Green is absolutely terrific, as might be expected. She’s one of the best actresses working today, and its hard for me to think of a bad performance of hers in anything I’ve seen her in (even if her choice of roles sometimes does her few favours- 300: Rise of an Empire for one). I remember how brilliant she was in the short-lived (and rather oddly under-appreciated) series Penny Dreadful, which sets me thinking that there’s another few Blu-rays up on my shelf that I should be watching again sometime (that watchlist is endless, frankly). The chemistry between Eve and young Zélie, who plays her daughter, is really quite affecting and it absolutely lends the film some greater intensity and sense of reality. Their rapport feels natural and real and its something that can get quite overlooked sometimes: its one of those things that viewers can often take for granted but if the chemistry isn’t there, or if it feels forced, it can really undermine any drama.

I think its to be welcomed that film-makers suddenly seem interested in the human side of space travel (Proxima is wholly set on Earth with no sequences set in space other than stock footage), and films like First Man, Lucy in the Sky and this indicate that there is plenty to explore. Some TV shows have explored this too and oddly enough don’t appear to have been as successful as their film counterparts  (The First, starring Sean Penn was an interesting attempt that got cancelled after one season), wheras I would have thought an episodic format would have been a benefit. I would be fascinated to see a project with the emotonal/intellectual gravitas of First Man or Proxima combined with the scale and ambition of maybe a 2001: A Space Odyssey – well okay, thats maybe unfair, but then again, why? Why shouldn’t we be able to expect that of our current film-makers (what on Earth is James Cameron doing making sagas about blue Aliens when he should be tackling something with real importance, scale and ambition)? I suppose setting my sights more realistically, I’m thinking something with the reality of First Man or Proxima doubled with a film like The Martian or Mission to Mars: you know, get a sense of real drama and humanity in there with the hardware and spectacle. In space, you don’t need aliens or monsters to get viewers excited, the human story that got you there should be enough, and the impact of the experience on the human psyche and heart is a subject rich with possibilities. 

The Midnight Sky (2020)

midnightskyclooneyGeorge Clooney stars in and directs this $100 million film for Netflix, which also features Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo and Kyle Chandler. Clooney has described the film as Gravity meets The Revenant, and while that does sound rather enticing, The Midnight Sky utterly fails to reach the heights of either of those two films, and any comparison does this film no favours at all. Clooney acts in this film as if he can carry it by the sheer force of will in his performance alone (he’s really pretty good) but of course he can’t, which is a shame. The curious thing is that he’s not only acting like he’s in some other (better) movie, but he’s also directing it too. I often thought when watching the film, did George really read the script?

The Midnight Sky is a soft-focus Apocalypse, its an End of the World thats pleasantly cosy, without all the death or the misery or even any explanation of what the nature of The End of All Things was. It all happens off-screen, referred to in a piece of opening text as ‘Three weeks after the Event’ which has left George Clooney all alone in an Arctic Research Facility. Even when he is asked by astronauts travelling back to Earth  regards what happened, he replies “I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place while you were away” which is just so vague its doubly infuriating that the astronauts don’t press him on it. As if bad house-keeping is sufficient excuse for destroying the planet. Was it Nuclear War, or plague, or some environnmental disaster?

Clooney has decided upon a ‘Show Don’t Tell’ approach to this film, intending ‘The Event’ to be something vague and mysterious, and this approach runs throughout the film in all kinds of ways, such as his character’s illness that requires frequent transfusions and medication- unfortunately the source material isn’t strong enough to support that approach. Its a brave decision on Cooney’s part undermined by the material he has to work with. The film is actually based upon a novel, Good Morning, Midnight written by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted here by Mark L Smith: I have no idea how many of the films issues were down to the book or Smith’s screenplay.

I think the film would have been far better served had it been supported by narration, something along the lines of “It was three weeks after The Event, after everyone had left: they are probably all dead now. Up here we always felt isolated, like we were the last people alive in all the world. I guess that might be true now. The radios are dead, the silence total, there’s no-one out there. I’m all alone.” Perhaps thats too on-the-nose, but I only wrote that example just, on the fly, but it sort of sets things up better than the film does, and I think narration would have better served the plot than flash-backs that are so awkward, they only give away the films ‘twists’ too early.  Those twists themselves, by the way,  stretch credibility beyond breaking point, but by the time they get revealed there’s little doubt the audience is beyond caring.

The Midnight Sky is ultimately undermined by its lack of internal logic and cohesive thought: a pregnant astronaut is allowed to do a deep-space EVA, when her foetus would be at the mercy of cosmic radiation. We are expected to believe that when ‘The Event’ occured, no-one at NASA had sufficient duty of care to send a message to a deep-space mission returning to Earth to warn the crew of the disaster. We are expected to believe that a moon is discovered orbiting Jupiter that is fit for human colonization (take a look in books for how much space radiation is blasting around the Jovian system). We are expected to believe that not just five astronauts can fly a space mission to and from the Jovian system, but that two alone can do it just as fine too. That they might have sufficient supplies to return to that moon and survive on it.

Its really very disappointing – because maybe not all of those problems could have been addressed with a good script rewrite, but some of them could and moreover should have, and surely there’s little excuse for so many issues (and more I haven’t raised) to have slipped through the screenplay stage prior to photography. This is one of those films that on paper seems such a candidate for success, featuring a good cast and high production values (visual effects from ILM, no less) and yet has such a problematic, fundamentally broken script that it all feels a waste of time, effort and talent. I’m probably hopelessly naïve about how they make movies, but I cannot understand how anyone thought the script worked in any way at all, or how anyone could decide it was ready to go into production. Maybe they thought they could fix it in the edit, but no edit no matter how inspired or brilliant could fix such a broken script as this has.