A Kid Like Jake

July 13, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Silas Howard (TV’s “Transparent”)
Written by: Daniel Pearle (debut)

Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) are like any other parents of a four-year-old child. They want their son Jake (Leo James Davis) to get a good education, have friends, be happy and express himself creatively in any way he sees fit.

They come to a defining moment in their lives when they receive advice from Jake’s preschool principal (Octavia Spencer): when applying for private schools for the following year, they should include in their admissions essay a few anecdotes about their son’s vast imagination and interest in “gender-expansive play.” That might help him land a spot in the competitive New York City school system.

The fact that Jake likes to play with dolls, watch Disney princess movies and has his heart set on dressing up as Rapunzel for Halloween never struck the Wheelers as a trait they should call attention to. But they realize it’s something they have to confront now that he’s older. The Wheelers (Greg is a therapist and Alex is a stay-at-home mom and former lawyer) want to protect him from the cruel world. And they don’t “want to send him to kindergarten labeled.”

Adapted from his own stage play of the same name, playwright and first-time screenwriter Daniel Pearle and director Silas Howard (TV’s “Transparent”), who is a transgender man himself, find a way to let the compassionate narrative triumph by the film’s end.

However, they miss sharing a perspective that would’ve allowed the story to resonate even more – the viewpoint of the title character is missing.

As Pearle and Howard tell the story, “A Kid Like Jake” should have instead been called “Parents with a Kid Like Jake” since it’s the adults who are always deliberating, arguing and worrying without giving Jake time to project any actual emotion himself. It’s obviously a purposeful decision (in the play, Jake is an unseen character), but it’s flawed, especially for the screen. Instead of allowing Jake to question things like any inquisitive boy would, the Wheelers talk about what it’s like for them to hear him question things. Instead of getting to the root of who Jake actually is, we’re spoon-fed information about his personality.

Luckily, Danes, Parsons, Spencer and Anne Dowd, who plays Alex’s slightly overbearing mother, give strong performances in a handful of scenes where adult discussions about Jake’s well-being feel genuine. The most realistic scene takes place when Alex and Greg go out to dinner with friends and the banter between them shifts from cordial to uncomfortable when the subject of Jake’s “creative roleplaying” comes up. Watching adults complicate an already complicated situation is good theater, but what “A Kid Like Jake” needed more of childlike wonderment. With it, it could have been a film with deeper impact, not just a conversation starter.

Hidden Figures

January 6, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Directed by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”)
Written by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and Allison Schroeder (debut)

Films based on historical events have a tendency to feel like well-crafted museum exhibits, in that they politely lead you from beginning to end, illuminating certain events along the way without affecting your emotional state too much one way or the other. It’s a perfectly pleasant experience and you learn some stuff, sure, but you can feel yourself being ushered through all points along the way, the velvet ropes mentally brushing up against you as it unfurls. “Hidden Figures,” the true to life tale of three African-American women instrumental in the success of NASA’s early space flight, is a pleasant, heartwarming, and effective enough. These women are inspirational, no doubt, but by the time the film ends, it lacks a resonance strong enough to differentiate itself from the well-trodden genre.

Set in the early days of the space race at NASA’s Langley campus in the 1960s, “Hidden Figures” follows a trio of genius-level black women at a time when two of those three traits were detrimental to a career in literal rocket science. Math savant Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) as “computers” in the colored-only wing at a NASA. When a position opens up to work on the trajectory calculations that will put Americans in space, Goble ends up working under mathematicians Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The men are initially reluctant to trust Goble’s work (her being a black woman and all), but begin to warm to her after charming, pioneering astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) gives Goble’s work his complete and total trust.

Meanwhile, Vaughan verbally spars with by-the-book supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) about advancing her position while secretly learning to work with the mysterious new IBM computer. Also, Jackson is eager to become an engineer, but NASA regulations require engineers to take extension courses at a local school—a school that remains segregated even after federal order. So in order to attend, Jackson must seek a court injunction to even begin to advance her career.

Fine performances abound in “Hidden Figures,” but nothing stands out, except that Spencer and Monae seem to have been shorted in the story department—they feel like footnotes to Henson’s character. Noticeably, however, all of the likable actors—Costner, Parsons and Dunst—in parts that are traditionally more villainous in Civil Rights-era historical films are given relatively bland, inert roles. Maybe it’s all true, sure, but it all feels a little too safe, right down to the climax cribbed from “Apollo 13,” one of the safest movies ever made. There’s never a doubt where “Hidden Figures” is going to splash down.

Fruitvale Station

July 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Ryan Coogler (debut)
Written by: Ryan Coogler (debut)

Whether you know the story behind the death of Oscar Grant or not, first-time director Ryan Coogler lays it all on the line for you at the very beginning of “Fruitvale Station,” a stunning and emotionally rich film that paints a uniquely authentic and compelling picture of a 22-year-old young man who lost his life on January 1, 2009. Oscar might just be a name to you now or a headline you remember reading in the newspaper a few years ago, but in “Fruitvale Station” Coogler turns him into so much more – a three-dimensional person whose fears, flaws, dreams, and character create a reason to agonize over the tragedy that occurs and hope it never happens to anyone again.

In “Fruitvale Station,” which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May (not to mention a well-deserved two-minute standing ovation), Coogler starts the film off with the real-life footage of the night Oscar is killed; footage that is recorded on cell phones by onlookers who witnessed the events unfold. After spending the evening with his girlfriend and friends in San Francisco to celebrate New Year’s Eve, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is detained by transit police in the subway station during their trip back home to Oakland when a fight breaks out. During the commotion, one of the officers attempts to subdue Oscar on the ground and then fires a single bullet into his back allegedly thinking he is firing his taser. Oscar is pronounced dead at the hospital later that morning.

While the death of Oscar is one of the most surreal things you’re likely to see online, “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t allow it to become the sole purpose of the story. This is about Oscar’s life, in fact, and Coogler is steadfast in showing us who the lead character of this narrative is from as many vantage points as possible. As truthful as it is, the raw look at Oscar is sometimes not flattering, but Jordan gives his character the human qualities it takes for an audience to stand behind someone that has made his fair share of mistakes. As Sophina, Oscar’s supportive girlfriend and mother of his only child, actress Melonie Diaz (“Raising Victor Vargas”) gives a touching performance and sets up a strong familial network between Oscar and the most important women in his life, which include his sweet daughter (Ariana Neal) and his loving mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

As Coogler’s first feature film of his career, “Fruitvale Station” is a cinematic anomaly. First-time directors shouldn’t be making movies as poignant as this. It’s a testament that the industry needs to find more room for intimate independent projects that examine social issues and deserve more attention. Who cares about the politics? Coogler’s focus is on the people.

The Help

August 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by: Tate Taylor (“Pretty Ugly People”)
Written by: Tate Taylor (“Pretty Ugly People”)

Not since the late Isabel Sanford put a shirtless Sidney Poitier in his place in the 1967 Academy Award-winning film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” has a maid had so much to say than the domesticated ladies of “The Help,” a moving and somewhat frustrating dramedy set in the midst of the simmering ’60s Civil Rights Era.

Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling and controversial novel of the same name, “The Help” is set in Jackson, Miss., at the height of segregation during which many African-American women would make their living working as maids for the well-to-do white families of the town by cleaning their homes, cooking their meals, and raising their babies. It’s a bold, but short-sighted perspective given to director/screenwriter Tate Taylor by Stockett, who herself was raised by her family’s black housekeeper as a child during the same era.

As personal of a narrative as it may be for Stockett, Taylor doesn’t let any of the deep-seated emotion become unmanageable on screen. Like the novel, Taylor frames the film into three distinct perspectives and allows each of these characters to define themselves as their own strong-spirited women. It is these multidimensional personalities, emphasized with audaciousness and a much-needed sense of humor, that elevate “The Help” beyond the standard race-relations story.

Emma Stone (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an independent college graduate with aspirations to become a journalist who writes about real issues. She finds her muse in her friend’s kindhearted maid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who she chooses to feature in an in-depth piece about the lives of “the help” in Jackson. Although initially scared about the ramifications of the anonymous writing project if anyone were to find out, other maids, including Aibileen’s outspoken best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), join in during storytime as Skeeter anthologizes their personal experiences working for employers who won’t even allow them to use the indoor bathroom. Cruelty is personified in town socialite Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a devil in a sundress whose position as President of the Junior League gives her a podium to spout off hate speech and peddle racist policies.

With very little insight given about the changing social structure outside ofJackson, it’s difficult to get the full dynamic of the injustices taking place. At times, the gap between social classes seems like it will cave in at any moment. But there are also scenes in the film that share the same type of tension amongst the queen bees as in “Mean Girls.” Taylor also dodges issues that would’ve served him better to take head on with more self-confidence. Why is Skeeter’s exploitation of these maids only skimmed over? It almost feels like she is doing them a favor by putting them in harm’s way.

Still, the performances prevail in “The Help” as Stone shows her range as a serious actress and Davis epitomizes courage through her somber eyes. Who needs delicate Southern charm when you have this much passion surging through your veins?