A week in film – 2017, week 12

Tired of writing weekly film posts where I wasn’t actually talking about any films, I’ve tried my best to fix the situation and made a couple of trips to the cinema this week. Obviously I feel better for it, ’cause movies have that power. Watching films at their best, their most enjoyable, even their most irritating (allowing for a proper vent afterwards) has proper restorative powers. Why has it taken me so long to actually get around to doing it?

Starting with one of the DVDs I bought last week, I’ve rewatched Doctor Strange for the first time since seeing it when it came out in the cinema. I know full well that I need to see a film at least twice to get the most out of it, and while unintentionally watching the second act last (and on a completely different day…) isn’t the best way to view a film, it does really hammer home how enjoyable the central section of Doctor Strange is. There are so many good scenes packed into the middle  – the scene at the Sanctum (especially the astral form fight, which is a complete delight) and the battle between the Ancient One and Kaecilius are the major set-pieces. It is a bit of a shame, then, that the stuff at the opening of the film just isn’t as innovative. Unable to mess with time and space in the way that the rest of the film does (for obvious reasons), it all does just feel very Iron Man, but lacking the confidence of a Robert Downey Jr in the lead role. Iron Man was fantastic, but it did also come out eight years before Doctor Strange. We’ve come a long way since then. I like it, but I also want it to be a little fresher in areas other than visual effects.

Speaking of visual effects only being able to carry a film so far, Kong: Skull Island has all manner of crazy things for eyes to take in: mainly creatures of varying levels of familiarity (you don’t see many spiky prehistoric birds in nature documentaries), but all giant. They looked great – and Kong himself is surprisingly expressive for a massive ape – but that’s by no means enough to save an otherwise really boring movie. I fully get that spectacle is important in modern blockbuster cinema – and I’m normally a really big fan of that – but I want humans to root for as well, and I don’t think that should be too much to ask. Kong: Skull Island has characters in abundance, but none of them have any substance. Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad and Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver are the closest the film has to leads, but they’ve barely got any backstory between them – he’s a mercenary former Special Forces captain; she’s an anti-war photojournalist, but beyond that, there’s nothing (especially lacking when it comes to establishing why Weaver’s actually on the trip in the first place). As for everyone else, everyone seems thoroughly disposable, either adding nothing to the main narrative or given just enough backstory to fully establish that they’re going to be dead meat before the second act’s done. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s increasingly unstable military colonel, who’s clearly the human villain of the piece, feels like someone to whom they tried to give an arc, but instead is a very, very straightforward type of deranged evil. It’s frustrating, but not wholly surprising – I was more pissed off when Godzilla had the same problems. I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island more than that…but that isn’t really saying much.

Hidden Figures proved the more successful cinema trip of the week, perhaps surprising no-one. It seems obvious that I was going to really enjoy a film about female mathematicians, battling with racial and gender prejudice in ’60s Virginia and working at NASA, but I do think that it would be very easy for Hidden Figures to be a far more worthy picture than it actually is. Instead, the three central performances – from Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe and Taraji P. Henson – are wonderful, full of both depth and lightness, and they are almost certainly why the film is so winning. Monáe in particular is a revelation – completely charming from the moment she steps on screen, she seems set be another great example of musician-turned-actor. All three women get their own stories, but their shared experience and their friendship forms the backbone of the narrative – and it’s that relationship which makes it so enjoyable. The moments where they’re all on screen together are perhaps the film’s best, although Henson – the de-facto lead – does get some great moments of her own. The film does have the added benefit of being based on an interesting story, though – Katherine Johnson, Mary Spencer and Dorothy Vaughan were fascinating, very intelligent women, and the film’s made me very interested to learn more about them for myself. Still, without the power of those three performances, their amazing story could (somehow) have easily been dismissed as pure Oscar-bait, which would be a crying shame. Fortunately, then, Hidden Figures seems to have done brilliantly (especially in the States) – and as it’s such a warm, inspiring, crowd-pleasing story, I’m beyond glad it has.


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