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Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Costner’

‘Someone,’ whispered the minion behind the counter at Oxford’s most prestigious coffeeshop-stroke-cinema, his voice trembling with incredulity, ‘has used his free ticket card to see The Greatest Showman eight times.’ I’m not entirely sure why he felt the need to share this with me, although it is surely quite a noteworthy occurrence; personally I suspect I could quite happily get to the other end of my life without watching The Greatest Showman even once. But there you go, it’s a Holiday Season movie, and these are almost by definition undemanding fare unlikely to provoke any sort of strong reaction, unless of course you’re an adherent of Jediism.

Now, of course, we’re into January and the sudden switch to serious and challenging awards-season movies is almost enough to give a person whiplash. Seizing the New Year pole position for 2018, in the UK at least, is Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, which may well do very well when the shiny things are handed out. With the exception of Battle of the Sexes, it’s hard to think of a movie which is better positioned to benefit from the fact that Hollywood is currently in post-Weinstein mea culpa mode.

This is the true story (for the usual movie value of ‘true’, anyway) of Molly Bloom, a one-time top skiing prospect who found herself forced to a retire following a catastrophic wipe-out during qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Through the wonders of cinema, Jessica Chastain plays Bloom from her early twenties to her her mid-thirties.) Having endured pushy parenting from her father (Kevin Costner) all her life, Molly rebels a bit and goes off to Los Angeles for a year before law school.

Of course, she never makes it to law school (somewhat ironically, as things turn out) – in true over-achiever style, she ends up responsible for administering a celebrity poker game where she picks up thousands of dollars in tips every week. Underappreciated and mistreated by some of the men involved, she relocates to New York and sets up her own game, and is soon earning millions as an ‘events manager’. But how long can she hang onto her integrity and keep out of the clutches of organised criminals?

The answer to this may be suggested by the fact that the story of Molly’s party-planning career is intercut with her attempts to avoid going to jail a couple of years later, after she is arrested as part of an FBI swoop against the Russian mafia. Idris Elba plays her defence lawyer and gets to look exasperated a lot as she refuses to compromise on her principles by dishing the dirt on her players in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s first film as director, but there’s a good chance you will know him from his work as a scriptwriter over the last couple of decades: he wrote A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, amongst other films, as well as creating the TV series The West Wing. He writes and directs here in very much the way you might expect, which is to say no concessions are made to anyone who isn’t especially quick on the uptake: the movie opens with a sequence depicting a key moment from Molly Bloom’s life, in the course of which we are also bombarded with information about medical conditions of the spine, interesting trivia about skiing, the architecture of the Pyramids, and much else besides. Information overload does seem a distinct possibility for a while.

After a while, though, you get kind of habituated to it and Sorkin does his usual trick of giving you a bit of a lesson without it being very obvious – the chewy bits of actual new knowledge being obscured by his trademark razor-sharp dialogue, well put across by Chastain and Elba, who are both very good (so is Costner, in what’s not much more than a cameo). It’s undoubtedly a fascinating story, and Sorkin has deftly shaped it into a satisfying narrative: this movie is redolent of talent and class in every department – significant, but also very entertaining.

That said, I can’t help but suspect that Sorkin is trying to pull a little bit of a fast one, or at least being rather selective. No-one’s going to get criticised for making a film about a strong, confident woman, and especially not at the moment, but it seems to me that he perhaps overdoes it a very tiny bit in depicting Molly Bloom as such an aspirational figure of impeccable integrity – the fact she genuinely was a drug-addicted racketeer, at least towards the end of her time in poker, is gently but diligently finessed away. It seems to me that much of the appeal of this film comes from the insights it gives into a world of conspicuous opulence and luxury, to the point of actual decadence, and the lives of celebrities who can cheerfully gamble away hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening. The success of the LA game is largely derived from the presence of ‘Player X’, a famous movie star and apparently not a very nice person. Michael Cera is in the role of X, and publicity for the film stresses he is a composite of several other very well-known actors (all of whom were clearly uncharacteristically reticent about appearing in this high-profile movie), but you can’t help but wonder.

You also can’t help but notice that, for all that this is supposedly a film about a woman’s ability to fight her own corner and make her own way in the world, despite the attempts of various repellent men to control and belittle her, it still has no reservations about – what the hell, I’m going to use the word – exploiting the fact that Jessica Chastain is an extremely attractive woman. The only other place I have seen such systematic deployment of the image of a beautiful woman in horn-rimmed specs displaying eye-popping decolletage is on certain fairly specialist websites. No doubt the film-makers would say they are simply reflecting how Bloom was required to present herself in her milieu, but there’s presenting it and then there’s enjoying the view, and Molly’s Game seems to be doing the latter.

One could even take exception to the fact that – and I have to tread carefully here, for fear of revealing major spoilers – even though here we have a film with a powerful central female character, and a generally feminist outlook, the dramatic arc of the piece is resolved in terms of the lead’s relationship with one of the men in her life: it is he who has ultimately had the greatest influence upon her.

Or it may just be that I am focusing too much on the gender politics of a film which is primarily intended to be just a classy, slick, smart piece of entertainment. I doubt it, though, for Molly’s Game‘s array of repugnant men, by turns grasping, needy, and contemptible, and smart, competent, beautiful women seems just a bit too measured for this to be wholly accidental. It is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an extremely well-made and very entertaining film, and an impressive debut for Sorkin as a director, and in the current climate I expect it will do well when the awards are handed out. But if you view it as a serious film about important issues in the world today, then I think it rings just a little bit hollow.

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When I was considerably younger I was lucky enough to live in Hull, which was blessed with a range of cinema-going options: there were a couple of multiplexes, plus a sort-of art house cinema, and also a rather nice old three-screener which specialised in showing films that had finished their initial release but weren’t out on VHS yet (yes, it was that long ago). I remember going along the day I finished my final university exams and seeing Leon, Interview with the Vampire, and Stargate back-to-back, all for under £5. Bliss it was in that dawn, and so on.

These days a broadly comparable service is provided by the Silver Screen strand at the sweetshop, which likewise shows films from a couple of months ago that people may have missed. The prices have gone up a bit, but at least there are free biscuits available now. The films on offer are generally only ones which are judged to be of interest to your senior citizen (just another chance to patronise older people, if you ask me), but it’s better than nothing, and this week’s offering was Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.

This is another one of those fairly timely films dealing with the thorny subject of race relations in the USA, but with this being the divisive issue that it is, the film-makers have decided to take a more historical perspective. The angle adopted on this occasion is the role of African-American women in the space programme in the early 1960s.

One of those facts that often gets reiterated is that NASA put a man on the Moon using less computing power than you could find in most digital watches (a tiny fraction of that in a modern smartphone, I expect). The film indicates that NASA didn’t acquire its first computing machine until 1962 (an engaging historical revelation is that when the van-sized unit arrived, it was too big to fit through the doors of the room allocated to it) – prior to this point, the only ‘computers’ employed by the agency were mathematicians tasked with working out any calculations required. A sizeable contingent of the human computers at NASA’s Langley, Virginia facility were women of colour, and the film tells the story of three of them.

Most prominent is the tale of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), played by Taraji P Henson. Johnson is a widowed single mother and former mathematical prodigy (Beautiful Mind-esque geometric figures jump out of the wallpaper at her as a child) who ends up attached to the Space Task Group at NASA under the director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Here she has to contend not just with some fairly tricky sums (converting a parabolic orbit to an elliptic one – hmm, that’d be shoes and socks off time for most people, I expect), but also with the entrenched institutional racism and sexism of the culture in which she works. Subplots deal with two of her friends – Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer who has to get a court order in order to be able to study at an all-white high school (Virginia was still a segregated state at this point), while Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, forced to do a supervisor’s job without the accompanying title or salary and ceaselessly patronised by a white superior (Kirsten Dunst).

All this is going on against the backdrop of the early years of the Space Race, with the USA in danger of slipping behind their Soviet rivals. Can everybody put aside their various issues and grievances in order to make John Glenn’s groundbreaking orbital spaceflight a reality?

I have to confess to not being especially excited about the prospect of seeing Hidden Figures when it initially came out a couple of months ago: I seem to recall I had the choice of seeing either this film or The Founder, and eventually opted for the latter on the grounds that it had the same period Americana setting, untold-story theme, and well-received performances, but also promised to be surprising and challenging in a way that Hidden Figures probably wouldn’t.

And, what can I say, but ‘nice one, me’: Hidden Figures is by no means a bad movie, being well-acted and decently put together, but there is very little about it that you wouldn’t be able to predict from seeing the trailer. There are some engaging historical details, to be sure, and parts of it are certainly shocking to a right-thinking modern viewer, but surprising? Not really.

From the opening scenes it’s fairly obvious that this is going to be about the parallel, life-affirming stories of women who refuse to be ground down, and use their natural talent and determination to overcome the dreadful obstacles history and society have conspired to place in their way. And there’s nothing wrong with telling that story, of course, nothing at all. But you can’t realistically be subversive or too challenging when you’re making a mainstream film about either the civil rights movement or the US space programme,  both significant elements of the American national mythology, and so Melfi is obliged to fall back on a sort of all-purpose sentimentality to engage the audience’s attention. I am afraid that I am highly resistant to this sort of thing, which may be explain why much of the film made little impact on me.

I mean, the early space programme itself is a fascinating topic, too little known these days, and the civil rights movement is likewise an important piece of recent history. However, this is presumably a film aimed at a female audience, and so in addition to both these things there’s quite a lot of slightly soapy material about the personal lives of the principle characters (Henson gets a chocolate-box romance subplot with a character played by Mahershala Ali, who at least gets to survive past the middle of the story for once).

People who worry about these things have raised the point that, for a historical movie, Hidden Figures takes some pretty spectacular liberties with what actually happened – the movie is set in 1961 and 1962, but some of the events it features actually took place in 1940s and 1950s, always assuming they aren’t completely fictional – the bit you may have seen in the trailer with Costner’s character (himself a complete fiction) smashing the segregated bathroom signs never happened, nor did all the preceding material with someone having to run half a mile every time they want to use the bathroom. Does it matter? Not really, if you accept that the message of the film is more important than the actual facts of history – I think my problem is that this willingness to amend events just makes it more clear that the audience is essentially there to either be preached at or complimented for having properly progressive attitudes: the historical story is just a delivery mechanism.

Given that this is the case, the climax of the film is really an shift of emphasis, as it concerns the problems that befell Glenn’s Freedom Seven flight. None of these concerned maths, or indeed civil rights, and so the moments of tension thus created do feel a bit contrived and arbitrary following everything that has gone before. On the other hand, they are based on historical fact: the film really does seem to take a sort of cafeteria approach to this.

You honestly can’t fault Hidden Figures for its intentions or its principles, but being beyond criticism on moral grounds doesn’t necessarily make a perfect or even particularly great movie. The performances are the best thing about it, although I must confess I was more pleased to see Costner and Dunst back on the screen than anything else. There are a plethora of great movies to be made about NASA in the 50s and 60s, I’m sure: this felt a little bit bogged down by the need to make its points slowly, carefully, and obviously. Crediting the audience with a bit more wit and intelligence would probably have resulted in a better film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 25th 2004:

[Originally following a review of Touching the Void.]

From one film with a cold mountain in it, to another which is a bit like Cold Mountain. You can tell a lot about a film from the audience it attracts – Touching The Void had a lot of rough-hewn, imposing types in waxy jackets in the theatre, clearly people more used to abseiling down the Cairngorms than checking out Affleck’s latest. And the audience for Kevin Costner’s Open Range had a lot of older people in it, people who I suspect only normally go to the multiplex on senior citizen’s afternoon (free tea and biscuits).

The only reason I can think for Open Range‘s appeal to the elder generation is simply that it’s a Western – The Genre That Refuses To Die. It’s a fairly old-fashioned Western, too, a bit of a throwback to the genre’s pre-Kurosawa-and-Leone heyday, when the films were about more than just cynicism and death.

This is the story of Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charlie (Costner himself), two itinerant cowboys who wander those rolling prairies driving their livestock wherever they choose, assisted by a couple of sidekicks who you just know are in for a rough time. And so it proves, as a chance sortie into the nearest town lands one of the sidekicks in jail and draws our heroes to the attention of evil Oirish cattle-baron Baxter (Michael Gambon, who’s actually not in the film very much at all). It’s soon obvious that Baxter wants to put Boss and Charlie permanently out of business – but being the kind of men they are, he’s going to have a fight on his hands…

This is a very Kevin Costner kind of film in all sorts of ways. For one thing, the Western is a genre he’s returned to over and over again thoughout his career, and for another – well, put it this way, I’m prepared to bet that no-one’s ever come out of a Costner-directed movie and said ‘You know, that was pretty good, but it was too short’. Open Range has an extremely thin story to sustain a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie, especially considering there’s very little action, but Costner pulls it off rather impressively.

This he manages to do by concentrating on character and mood, with rather enjoyable results. Admittedly the only beneficiaries of this are Boss, Charlie, and Sue (Annette Bening), a townswoman they befriend – Gambon and his lackeys remain cardboard cutouts – but the two men at least are in every scene, making it a worthwhile concentration. The film treats them rather equivocally – they’re not above pistol-whipping, back-shooting and glassing anyone who gets in their way, but on the other hand when their dog gets shot they are both nearly reduced to tears (an unintended moment of bathos). To be honest, they’re both examples of the kind of idealised rugged individualist that NRA members across the midwest have posters of pinned to their fallout-shelter walls, and as such should be at least alarming and at worst openly offensive to anyone else. But Duvall and Costner are both quietly charismatic performers and raise the characters well beyond the level of stereotype.

It’s clear that Costner laments the loss of the Western as a mainstay of Hollywood cinema, and Open Range does its best to remind the audience of what it’s missing – the broad canvas, the elegantly simple morality, the iconography and the imagery. The film looks beautiful, but unfortunately it’s such an archetypal story that it comes across as rather old-fashioned. There’s a Josey Wales-ish subplot about Charlie trying to come to terms with his past as a killer, and the bizarre accent of one of the cattlehands may be a stab at historical realism (either that or a homage to Horst Bucholz’s German-accented Mexican in The Magnificent Seven) but apart from that this could have been made in 1954. The action is quite well staged and not nastily graphic, but like everything else it does drag on a little bit longer than it needs to.

In the end how much you’ll like Open Range probably depends on how much you like old-school pre-Eastwood Westerns. It’s a film about manhood, and friendship, and sticking to your principles and doing the right thing by those around you. It should be incredibly hokey and embarrassing, and it is a bit, but performances, direction, and cinematography combine to make it very satisfyingly reminiscent of the cinema of a less cynical age. I liked it a lot.

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