“Gifted” movie review

A cute paint-by-the-numbers heartwarming drama. Although Gifted may be in the vein of a Hallmark Original, it doesn’t shy away from nor sanitize the real problems faced by adults and children. Fresh off the Spider-Man series, director Marc Webb switches gears from superhero action movie to family drama. However, this drama stands out from its counterparts due to the organic feel of the dialog and in how it follows a blockbuster formula. Webb is certainly not new to directing cinematic dramas; he directed the wildly popular 500 Days of Summer which has a cult following in and of itself. Diegetic contrast can easily be drawn between Gifted and 500 Days of Summer in the simple fact that the former is chronologically out of order–but it can easily be said that the movie would not have the artistic or emotional impact that it did if it were told in order–whereas the latter is traditional in linear storytelling. If it were not for Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer’s billing in the film, this one would likely go by the wayside. Over the course of a director or writer’s career (although not limited to those roles), there are occasionally films that provide audiences with a glimpse into a director getting in tough with his or her roots, and this is one of those. More polished and comprehensive than a typical Hallmark movie, Gifted is satisfying enough but does not leave a lasting impact.

Faced with raising his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) after the untimely death of his sister, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives a modest, hardworking life in a small coastal town in Florida. Mary is no ordinary child; she is a mathematics prodigy. Against the advice of friend and neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary in a typical elementary school. When Mary’s unparalleled, brilliant mathematical skills come  to the attention of Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and principal, her school encourages Frank to enroll her in an exclusive school for cognitively gifted children. With a deep desire for Mary to have a normal, fun childhood, Frank declines the full-scholarship. News of Mary’s ability and the scholarship soon reach Frank’s mom Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), a genius in her own right. After failing to reason with her son, Evelyn takes him to court in order to secure parental rights. Throughout the custody battle, skeletons come out of the closet and the reasons for Frank’s decisions become clear.

Paralleling the brilliance of Mary’s cognitive abilities, a trait that runs through the entire family, the most notable element that stands out in Gifted is the casting. Child actors playing characters who are atypically outstanding in a particular field can come across as precocious, if not just plain annoying. Whether a kid genius, musical savant, or prima ballerina, attributing adult-like qualities to a child can create a character that comes across as out of touch with the majority of the audience. Not so with McKenna Grace. With her wide eyes, missing front teeth, and refreshing spontaneity, she provides audiences with a relatable character who just happens to be brilliant. This relatablity can be attributed to her down-home charm and humble demeanor. When he’s not saving the world, Captain America is raising his niece in a non-discript small coastal town outside of the bustling Tampa-St. Pete metropolitan area. While many actors become type casted after bringing an iconic character to life, Evans is working to prevent this by appearing in lead roles that are in stark contrast to his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sporting a perpetual scruffy beard, love for the outdoors, and a boyish-fatherly charm, Evans demonstrates his ability to successfully transfer his acting prowess to other genres in cinema outside of his famous Captain America.

Supporting the two leads are Spencer’s Roberta and Duncan’s Evelyn who are interestingly mirror characters in that they are the antithesis of one another. Although her screen time is limited, Roberta’s appearances are strategic and greatly support the emotional pull of the movie. Wise beyond her likely formal education, Roberta cares nearly as much about Mary’s well-being as does her father-figure uncle. Spencer’s charisma is easily seen in this chief supporting role and I cannot think of another female actor who could have done this role justice as well as Spencer did. The character of Evelyn is an interesting one to evaluate. On one hand, she is a monster of a grandmother who wants to control her granddaughter and protect the family’s academic legacy; but for fear of smothering her like she did her own daughter, tries to be as loving and concerned as she can. Although at first I thought that this was a role better suited for Jessica Lange, I do not feel that Lange could have captured the vibrant love that Evelyn has for her family–tough love maybe–but sincere love for and desire for her children to be successful. Evelyn is both an enlightened academic and tough-loving mother and grandmother.

Gifted does its best to be a tear-jerker, but it never quite hits that emotional peak. There were times that I was close to tearing up, but there was just a little something extra missing that prevented the tears from rolling down my face. The plot of this film was as structured, precise, and predictable as a chalk equation on a blackboard, but it still has a charm that will assist it in beckoning patrons to watch it at the cinema when it hits select theaters this week with a wide release predicted in the near future.

Written by R.L. Terry

Written by J.M. Wead

“Hidden Figures” movie review

hiddenfiguresAn absolutely out-of-this-world biographical film! 20th Century Fox, PepsiCo, and TSG Entertainment present Theodore Melfi’s incredible film depicting the lives and careers of three African-American women whose work was extremely influential in the early days of NASA’s Mercury, Atlas, and Apollo missions. In all likelihood, there may not have been successful launches, orbits, and landings if it weren’t for these brave women who refused to back down and take the back seat to white men and women at a time that even government buildings still segregated restrooms, water fountains, and “community” coffee pots. Every once in a while, there is a biographical drama that packs a powerful socio-political message within a simple but brilliant story that is told incredibly successfully. Hidden Figures is a film that should have been released many years ago. How stories like this one go untold, is bewildering. Between the powerful performances, excellent writing, meticulous direction, and fantastic score, this is definitely a film to catch in theaters this weekend. Although Hidden Figures has been on a limited release since December, it receives its nationwide release this weekend and one to watch for when Oscar nominations are released.

Hidden Figures is the story of three absolutely brilliant African-American women who served as the problem-solving geniuses behind some of NASA’s greatest space operations in all of history including John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) first earth orbit and Alan Shepherd’s symbolic penetration of earth’s atmosphere into space. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) work as computers (the term used at the time before the conventional modern use) at NASA’s Langley facility near Washington D.C. Never assigned to a permanent position, these talented ladies work tirelessly to support NASA’s operations and aspirations of space exploration. At a time in which it was incredibly difficult for persons of color–much less women–to climb out of temporary and entry-level jobs, these women do not permit archaic societal norms to stop them from reaching their greatest potential as an engineer, programmer, and mathematician respectively. This untold story will move you as these three women, that society and NASA determined could not be more than computers, are significantly instrumental in launching the space program that indirectly united people from all over the world and cemented the U.S. as a then-leader in space exploration.

What a story! And the best part about it is that it is based on actual events and three real women who are responsible for the success of NASA’s early space programs and even help to launch some of the more contemporary missions. Unlike many biographical dramas, there is a comprehensive nature to this film as it contains two important stories. There is the foreground story featuring the women at the center of the movie, but there is also the story of the state of the U.S.’ domestic socio-political policies at a time of civil rights unrest–especially in places like Virginia. Both stories parallel one another and serve to pack a powerful punch. After watching this film, it is clear that this film wishes it had existed in the 1960s. Within the former story, the focus is primarily on the life and career of Katherine Goble followed by Dorothy Vaughn, and to a lesser extent, Mary Jackson. Each woman specializes in a different STEM (as it is now commonly referred) area. Katherine is a mathematical genius matched by none, Dorothy understands early computer language better than anyone at NASA, and Mary is an aspiring engineer with a brilliant mind for aerospace design. The latter story, underscoring the socio-political civil rights unrest, is certainly highlighted in the film but never takes the focus completely off the story in the foreground; however, is vitally important to this powerful story with a message that those who you least expect to rise to be leaders in their respective fields, can and will! Despite all the challenges coming from within the work place and the country itself, these three women prove that you should never be afraid to be the best. Being good, isn’t good enough. Be the best!

Although this is truly a powerful film with a beautiful message that is just as relevant today as it would have been 50 years ago, it never quite hits the mark that I had hoped it would and perhaps that is due to the PG rating. Suffice it to say, there are some remarkable scenes with powerful speeches, but the film is just shy of the level of intensely as it should have contained. I realize that some of what transpired in the Space Task room, wind tunnels, and courtroom may have been taken from transcripts for authenticity, as this is a movie, I feel that there should have been more of a dramatic license taken out to increase the emotional impact of the film. It certainly has a moderately high emotional impact, but there was definitely the potential to take it up several more degrees. Two scenes come to mind. (1) Katherine challenging the segregation policies at NASA as it relates to common comforts such as restrooms and coffee and (2) Mary petitioning the court to permit her enrollment for graduate level engineering classes held at an all-white school. Dorothy also has a couple of encounters with her superior (Kirsten Dunst) but they are more subtle–no less powerful and important to the film. In regards to the scene in which Katherine confronts Mr. Harrison, the scene feels a little cut short of where it should have ended and Mr. Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) response could have been more dramatic. When inside the courtroom as Mary was addressing the judge, this would have been the perfect time for a speech that would have brought a flood of tears to the eyes, but it stops short of where it could have gone too. Over all, the screenplay is excellently written. These are just two areas that I feel could have struck a more powerful emotional cord. As it is, these scenes are still some of the most brilliant in the film and leave an impact.

One of Mr. Harrison’s lines in the film contains a large degree of irony. The line was something to the effect of “How can the U.S. government justify NASA when it is consistently unable to get into and explore space?” The irony therein is seen in today’s defunding of NASA for, essentially, that very concept. NASA did not lose the bulk of its government funding due to any particular presidential administration but from remaining in the 80s and never launching into the 21st century. After the Space Shuttle program, NASA did very little to grow–its technology and engineering remained fairly stagnant. Sure, communication technologies greatly benefited from NASA engineers, but that is not what made NASA an exciting organization from the 60s thru the 90s. What made NASA great was the perception of being explorers–exploration excited a society! Once NASA no longer appeared to be focused on exploration and shifted its focus to communication technologies, it lost that public support that was such a part of what brought so many people together. In many ways, the perceptions and issues facing NASA prior to and during the early missions is plaguing it today. Instead of an inability to launch a man into space and orbit the earth (later to land on the moon), there is now the demonstrable evidence and perception that NASA has an inability to create manned vessels capable of exploring space. Satellites and camera are great, but nothing parallels the actual exploration of space by humans. If NASA could one again be seen as explorers, then perhaps a new generation would petition the government to once again proactively support the iconic organization.

Hidden Figures is definitely not to be missed while it is in theaters. It is a larger than life story that is best appreciated on the big screen. For those in the audience who remember the early days of NASA, there is plenty of vintage footage to accompany the modern cinematic storytelling in this film. Even Kennedy’s famous “we will go to the moon” speech is in this movie. More than a biography of the glory days of NASA, this is a story of three women who, against all odds, rose to the challenges they faced on a daily basis to prove that women are capable of anything that a man can do. Between breaking the sound barrier, gravitational pull, and paving the way for equal rights and treatment in the workplace, this film will hit close to home for many who know what it is like to feel oppressed for who they are.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“The Accountant” movie review

theaccountantA moderately good investment of your time. The Accountant is quite the interesting crime drama that shows that math can be exciting and lead to dangerous adventures. Directed by Gavin O’Connor and starring a phenomenal cast including Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, and John Lithgow, this film will keep your intrigue the entire runtime. What makes this film most interesting is the approach one might take when screening it. You can either approach it from a psychological/behavioral or a financial perspective. Although the plot is a little difficult to follow at times, the solid performances by the actors make the film one not to miss if you enjoy thrillers involving the government, covert ops, and savants. While some in the U.S. are shouting “make America great again,” Warner Bros. is shouting “make math sexy again.” From drop-dead shoot-out scenes to awkward comedic interactions, The Accountant will definitely have you thinking about it even after leaving the movie theatre. One the verge of being a non-linear film, the main plot does, at times, get lost in a few poorly integrated sub-plots. Definitely feels like one of those movies where important scenes that would have better supported or developed some of the sub-plots were left on the cutting room floor. The movie is not without its highlights. Affleck and Kendrick deliver outstanding performances that hold the film together. Whether it’s Affleck’s vacant expressions on his face or Kendrick’s WTF moments, the best part of the film is the talent on screen.

Talk about a double life. Accountant Christian Wolfe (Affleck) runs a small accounting agency in a nondescript strip plaza as a cover for his real work as an accountant and financial analyst for many organized crime groups. When the U.S. Treasury Dept begins to investigate him further, he takes on a seemingly normal client in an innovative robotics company. Forced to work with a beautiful and geeky in-house accountant (Kendrick), Wolfe is challenged with conducting a forensic analysis of the financial records in order to determine if there is embezzlement or money laundering occurring at the humanitarian robotics company. When he uncovers corruption, his life and the life of his counterpart is in jeopardy. Good thing Wolfe has an extensive background in martial arts and tactical armament.

Central to the plot of the film is the fact that our protagonist Christian Wolfe (Affleck) is on the autism spectrum. Although, he is on the high functioning end (often times diagnosed as Aspergers syndrome), Wolfe certainly displays classic signs of autism throughout the movie. More noticeable in his younger years, he still carries some of the psycho-social dysfunction into his adulthood. Wolfe’s father was a high-ranking official in the Army specializing in psychological warfare. He ran his home fairly, but with an iron fist. Both Wolfe and his brother were highly affected by the departure of their mother at Christmastime. The following years were hard on both of them. Coupled with–let’s be real here–daddy issues, Wolfe channels all his time and energy into military operations, martial arts, and psychological defenses. But, this intense training was forced on him by his father in order to combat the behavioral issues brought on by autism. After the death of his father, Wolfe decides to go from hero to anti-hero by making his living off organized crime but funneling his money into charitable causes. Although he may not have been racking up zeros in his bank account, he found other ways to be paid: valuable original artwork. The character of Christian Wolfe posts quite the dichotomy of attributes that create an interesting juxtaposition. One one hand, Wolfe is a ruthless criminal but not he other he is a humanitarian who appreciates fine art and loyalty.

There haven’t been many movies that fall into this sub-genre of drama. The Accountant is what you get when combining Batman with The Big Short. Because the film contains the classic elements and plot devices found in the aforementioned films, it has a little bit of an identity crisis. One of the flaws that besets this film is too much sub-plot. If the writer had spent more time developing the autism or concentrated on the daddy-issues sub-plot then perhaps the film would have flowed more smoothly. As it stands, the flashbacks introduce too much under-developed material into the high-concept plot. It’s almost as if the writer and director took a high-concept film and attempted to give it more emotional depth. The result is a fractured film that is interesting to watch and includes some dark comedy but suffers from coherent storytelling.

There aren’t too many choices at the cinema this weekend. If you are looking to laugh your ass off, then perhaps the Kevin Hart film will fit the bill; but if you are looking for an interesting film that highlights the potential and capabilities of those who are diagnosed as autistic and channel those abilities into a financial thriller, then The Accountant would be an excellent choice. Although there have been films featuring protagonists with physiological or psychological disabilities, this one is unique in that the main character harnesses the powers of the indirect affects of autism, and becomes an anti-hero who the audience roots for the whole time.