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.

The Karate Kid

June 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson
Directed by: Harald Zwart (“The Pink Panther 2”)
Written by: Christopher Murphey (debut)
 
Honestly, there was absolutely no reason to remake “The Karate Kid.” As timeless as the characters Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi have remained since the original film debuted in 1984, a reimagining of the crowd pleaser starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita would turn out to be a trivial tribute to one of the most admired sports movies of the past 30 years no matter which way you karate chopped it.
 
With that said, the modernized version of “The Karate Kid” – while it lacks much of the humor and 80s charm of its predecessor – is surprisingly well made. Insignificant, yes, if compared to the classic that features crane kicks, bullies in skeleton costumes, and Bananarama songs, but on its own, there’s still a little something special left to the familiar story. For those who were born in that era, don’t worry. Your childhood has not been ruined.

In the remake, which follows the original narrative fairly closely, Macchio’s role is taken by Jaden Smith, son of megastar Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who both serve as producers on the film. The pint-sized Smith, who gave a wonderful performance opposite his father in 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” stars as Dre Parker, a 12-year-old kid from Detroit who moves to Shanghai with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) after she is relocated for her job.

As in the original, a girl is the reason our young protagonist is faced with a major problem in his new city. Dre begins to develop a schoolboy crush on Meiyang (Wenwen Han), a girl he meets at the neighborhood park (Don’t worry, Elizabeth Shue. We’ll always love your baby fatness more). Dre’s innocent first interaction with her doesn’t sit well with a bully named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his group of friends, who quickly take a disliking to the new kid in town.

When the situation gets out of hand, Dre finds support from Mr. Han (Jackie Chan in his best live-action, American film since the first “Rush Hour” over a decade ago), the handyman at his apartment complex whose kung fu skills save Dre during an attack and trigger a friendship.

After negotiating a temporary truce with Cheng’s unmerciful kung fu instructor Master Li (Rongguang Yu), Mr. Han tells Dre he will train him for a major kung fu tournament. But like Mr. Miyagi’s unconventional training techniques like painting fences and waxing cars, Mr. Han isn’t getting through to his pupil with his unique, but repetitive methods.

“The Karate Kid” reboot builds more of its foundation on Chinese philosophy that the original. While Mr. Miyagi offered up profound gems like “First learn stand, then learn fly,” Chan’s Mr. Han focuses on the human spirit and what it takes to face your fears and believe you can accomplish anything. It might make for a cliché lesson in the dojo at times, but Chan and Smith keep their friendship appealing enough although not nearly as affectionate as Mr. Miyagi and Daniel.

While there’s a lot to be desired from the remake, there is a genuineness to the story that is not lost. And in an industry where these types of movies are usually agonizing experiences, “The Karate Kid” still comes out on top as a memorable champion.

I Can Do Bad All By Myself

September 18, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Adam Rodriguez, Tyler Perry
Directed by: Tyler Perry (“Madea Goes to Jail”)
Written by: Tyler Perry (“Madea Goes to Jail”)

We’ll give filmmaker Tyler Perry credit for creating some empowering female characters in his movies, especially in his newest “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.” Academy Award-nominee Tarjai P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) delivers a good performance. Her work, however, is overshadowed by Perry’s determination to keep all his films immersed in conventional drama and clichés.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

December 16, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson
Directed by: David Fincher (“Fight Club”)
Written by: Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”)

David Fincher’s new fantasy drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” doesn’t exactly mirror 1994’s “Forrest Gump” word for word, but screenwriter Eric Roth, who penned both scripts, uses so many elements from the story that won him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, don’t be caught off guard if during “Button” you start seeing images of Bubba flashing on screen.

The similarities between the two, however, aren’t Fincher’s biggest problem. “Benjamin Button” is a story about death, and a beautiful one to behold from a technical point of view. But with a topic so poignant, Fincher fails to expand on the inner workings of his characters. In a story dealing with so much loss, there is very little life.

“Benjamin Button” begins with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an old woman dying in a hospital bed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina who asks her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read to her the diary she has secretly kept her entire life. (Think “Big Fish” but without the tall tales and less enchanting moments).

As the story gradually unfolds, we learn of a baby born on the night WWI ended, who’s father abandons it on the porch of a stranger’s house after its mother dies during childbirth. The baby, of course, is Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a peculiar child who seems to be aging backwards. He stars as an elderly infant and slowly becomes younger as his body develops stronger and then younger itself. He’s adopted by Queeny (Taraji P. Henson), the caretaker of a senior’s home who can’t have children of her own and raises Benjamin as her son.

Soon, we see how Benjamin and our storyteller, Daisy, meet each other and form an unusual friendship. Daisy is a seven-year-old little girl while Benjamin is a little boy who looks 67 but has the complexity of a child her age. It gets less creepy as Daisy gets older and Benjamin gets younger and the two go their separate ways. Still, they never really never let go of their special bond.

But characters come in and out of each others lives and Daisy’s flashbacks continue in an uninteresting catalog reminiscent of “This is Your Life” glints. It’s not nearly as memorable or entertaining as Gump’s brush with history and celebrity. “Benjamin Button” may have done some wildly inventive things in the graphics department (molding Pitt’s head on a small body looks amazing especially when compared to things like “Little Man”), but there’s nothing here that makes the film as deeply moving as it should have been.