Tag Archives: Octavia Spencer

Gifted (2017)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gifted</strong> (2017)

(On Cable TV, January 2018) Frankly, I expected the worst schmaltz from this family melodrama featuring a genius-level kid. Hollywood seldom deals well with genius, and the temptation to turn this into a syrupy rote “brain doesn’t matter at much as heart” Hollywood pap seemed irresistible from the plot synopsis. But Gifted actually works better than expected thanks to a few winning performances and generally well-executed conventions. Chris Evans is rather good as a smart-but-troubled ordinary guy trying to raise his genius niece despite significant challenges. McKenna Grace is fine as the genius kid, while Jenny Slate is immensely likable as a teacher trying to help. Octavia Spencer does her best with a limited role, while Lindsay Duncan is suitably hissable as the antagonist. Director Marc Webb returns to simpler drama after disappointingly overblown superhero films, and the genre suits him much better. Otherwise, Gifted is a straightforward family drama, not too syrupy and decently heart-warming when it needs to be. Some of the plot turns aren’t necessarily happy (and the conclusion is bittersweet enough). The details are interesting: there’s a cute Lego reference, and the look at mathematical academia is intriguing despite a bit of showboating with a celebrated “unsolvable” problem. Gifted doesn’t avoid the usual “heart> brain” stuff, but it does seem to come to its conclusion honestly. It could have been much worse, and the result is palatable enough.

Hidden Figures (2016)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hidden Figures</strong> (2016)

(On Cable TV, September 2017) While I’m convinced that revisionist works such as Hidden Figures are essential in making full sense of history (which doesn’t rely solely on the majority-status figureheads, but also the unnamed masses actually doing the work), I can’t get rid of a feeling of annoyance when the fiction proves to be more revolting than the reality. I am, of course, showing my white privilege when I point out that Hidden Figures manipulates historical facts to make life seem even more terrible for its black female protagonists. (The entire washroom subplot, as infuriating as it is, never happened in real life.)  Still, there is a lot to like in what Hidden Figures actually does. “Coloured computers” packs so much wrongness in two words that it’s almost a relief to see a movie sidestep the heroics of The Right Stuff to show who was behind much of the mathematical grunt work. It helps that Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe make great heroines, and that capable white actors such as Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst are (for once!) relegated to support roles. (Meanwhile, there’s Jim Parsons being Jim Parsons—for all of the acclaim that he’s gotten for Sheldon Cooper, the more I see him in other venues the more I’m seeing him in the same role.)  The historical recreation of NASA’s early days (dramatic inaccuracies aside) is also impressive, and Hidden Figures more than finds its way alongside The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 as essential movies for space program enthusiasts. Which makes the inaccuracies worse, in a way—I’d settled for a less dramatic film if it meant a more accurate one: it’s not as if the basic story wasn’t inspiring enough…

The Help (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Help</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, March 2013) There’s a small stroke of genius in the way The Help takes a big social issue such as culturally-ingrained racism and looks at it from a very domestic perspective.  Isn’t it a very real human tragedy to think that poor black mothers spent more time raising privileged white children than their own kids, helping perpetuate the established order?  Doesn’t it drive the point home more effectively than broad social demonstrations?  Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard simply repulsive as the evil-in-a-sundress homemaker who considers “the help” as nothing more than disposable property?  The Help is noteworthy in that it’s a female-driven film that managed to break the box-office: a welcome change of pace from the usual bang-bang entertainment that drives summer blockbuster crowds.  A large part of this success has to be attributed to the way the film genially approaches its subject: Nearly all of the lead cast is female, and makes no apologies in the way it presents itself as a southern dramatic comedy of manners.  While the film may earn a few knocks for presenting racism from a white perspective (as in: “Here’s the white girl to help those poor black people tell their story of woe”), there’s no doubt that outspoken matrons Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earn the spotlight away from southern belles Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain.  While younger male viewers may not appreciate the kind of storytelling that The Help is built on, it’s easy to see that the film is effective at what it does, and that the emotional weight of the film goes beyond its older and wiser target audience.  As a result, The Help manages some serious cross-over impact, charming even audiences outside its marketing category.  It’s sweet without being too cloying, and it’s got a few memorable stories in its bag of folk tales.  It’s surprisingly effective at discussing the emotional side of child-rearing, and wrings some real emotion from its premise.  The soundtrack is occasionally terrific, and the sense of southern culture (tempered by the real recognition of its racist enablement) is spectacular.  It’s well worth a look, even for viewers who may not feel as if they material calls to them.