Tag Archives: Octavia Spencer




I didn’t expect much from “Gifted,” a small little movie with a minimal ad campaign (you’ve probably never heard of it either) which appeared out of thin air. I also didn’t expect how quickly the film managed to gain my attention and earn my respect. This smaller scale story from director Marc Webb has such an intensely personal vibe that if in the hands of another filmmaker, it could’ve (and probably would’ve) gone horribly wrong. The reason why this astute heartstring-tugger succeeds is because it rings genuine and true.

Chris Evans gives a quietly understated, emotional, and effective performance as Frank, a single man raising sassy child prodigy mathematician Mary (Mckenna Grace). When Mary’s first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) takes action to ensure the child gets every opportunity to excel, a legal custody battle between Frank and his overbearing mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) ensues. That’s putting the plot in the most simple of terms, but the script here is smart, clever, and isn’t dumbed down in any way. It keeps you guessing yet also entertained with an unexpected revelation at the end and some really funny, breezy one-liners for laughs.

There’s not a slacker in the bunch when it comes to the dependable ensemble cast (which also includes Octavia Spencer in her trademark role as a strong, proud woman who cries a lot). Slate is terrific as a caring first grade teacher, and Duncan offers up plenty of harsh verbal cruelty with a sharp bite. The real star of the show is the extremely talented Grace, who reminds me very much of a young Dakota Fanning. You’ll love her character as soon as you meet her. She’s a child actor to watch.

While it’s predictable in premise, the film manages several surprise twists. Tom Flynn has written an intelligent, honest and wise screenplay that feels real and authentic, reminding me much of the insight laid out in Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” yet without the unspeakable woe. This isn’t a tragic story by any means, but it has the potential to make some folks sob (so bring your tissues). Educators will likely respond to the undertones of how society should deal with its super smart kids, feminists will admire the heavy-hitting elements of true “girl power,” and animal lovers will be fond of the positive attitude portrayed toward shelter pets.

This family-friendly drama is sweet, smart, funny, and charming, the cinematic equivalent of a snuggly, cozy sweater. It’s an emotional manipulator for sure, but I delighted in being manipulated every step of the way.

“The Shack”



As an atheist, I usually face the task of reviewing faith-based movies with a bit of dread. Most of the time they are condescending, preachy, and present a very negative view towards anyone who hasn’t been “saved” as a Christian. That’s why “The Shack,” based on William P. Young’s best selling novel, threw me for a loop. It’s a religious movie with a surprising anti-organized religion message.

The story centers around a normal family man named Mack (Sam Worthington), who lives with his devout wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and three kids. The movie starts out the way most faith-based films do: we watch as the perfect American family is getting ready for church (why do all religious themed movies begin with this very same scene)? When Mack takes the kids on a camping trip and his youngest daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) is abducted and murdered, he spirals into a deep depression. A mysterious note soon shows up in his mailbox inviting him to return to the shack where Missy’s body was found and when he arrives, he is greeted by Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara) and Papa (Octavia Spencer), a.k.a. God.

What follows is a long-winded spiritual journey towards inner peace and healing that’s crammed full of preachy, sermon-like moments that are supposed to be uplifting. It’s extremely heavy handed, melodramatic and corny, a two-hours-plus clichéd theological lecture that tries to explain why God lets bad things happen and why forgiveness is the only way to find insight and enlightenment. The film asks yet never really clearly answers the tough questions, but at least it has the balls to bring up these questions in the first place — even if they are glossed over and hastily dismissed.

Of course dealing with grief is tough, but you don’t need religion to come to terms with a personal tragedy. This is what I found so strange about the film: it seems to contradict itself. One character actually utters non-ironically early on that “if it’s in the Bible, then it must be true,” yet the physical multicultural manifestation of the Holy Trinity literally laughs off some suggestions that are pulled directly from the Scriptures. The film presents a non-denominational belief and multiple gods, but panders to those who feel emptiness in their lives and a need to believe in some sort of higher power.

Your own beliefs (or lack thereof) will obviously effect your outlook and take on this film, but it has this oddly universal appeal to it instead of just another divine Christian love fest that preaches to its choir of faithful followers. That’s what makes “The Shack” so damn interesting and downright bizarre. This is a curious and unconventional method of Biblical storytelling that manages to appease those of different faiths (including the “nones”) as well as piss off some die-hard evangelical Christians.

Movie lovers probably won’t take too kindly to the silly looking special effects (I’m sure that I wasn’t supposed to find the scene of Mack and Jesus running on water to be a laugh-out-loud moment) or Worthington’s struggles to keep up a convincing American accent (he repeatedly falls back into his native Australian speaking patterns for most of the movie), or the fact that he spends a great deal of his time onscreen crying a lot. There’s also a cheesy performance from Tim McGraw as the narrator and neighbor, a part that he has perfected after years of roles just like this one. Spencer is perfectly cast, as she has such a natural, calming presence that exudes warmth, charm and sincerity, and Alush plays the sort of Jesus that you’d want to grab a beer with after work. The actors do their best to reign in the material (there’s a lot of story here and it gets a little overwhelming), but the movie is overall surprisingly well made and decently directed by Stuart Hazeldine.

“The Shack” is a strange movie to be sure, a spiritual opus that promotes a belief in gods while also presenting a very atheistic viewpoint of living your life to the fullest, believing in the comfort of love, spreading kindness to everyone you encounter, and finding beauty in the joy of the human experience. Perhaps it’s my own lack of belief that makes me interpret the movie in this way, but it seems that the entire story was a fabrication and simply a dream encounter in Mack’s mind — but I suppose the ending is left open so you could view it another way too.

This film is far from profound or thought provoking, but it’s not as harmful or hurtful to outsiders as most doctrinally centered films tend to be. Take the religion and gods out of it and the end message that everyone should just stop being such a-holes to each other isn’t so bad after all.

“Hidden Figures”



If you think a movie about the U.S. space program in the early 1960s mixed with a history lesson about civil rights with a bit of high-level computational science thrown in for good measure sounds boring, think again. The unknown and overlooked history of three African-American women who worked at NASA on the Friendship 7 project is terrifically entertaining (even if it is the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy). The movie is fluff, but it’s good fluff with a great message and a noble purpose.

“Hidden Figures” tells the incredible true story of crackerjack mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black women who quietly played major roles in one of America’s most significant operations in the space race: launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. These heroines overcame great societal obstacles in their professions (and lives) and are an absolute inspiration to women (and men) everywhere. That I had never heard of them before this movie is pretty absurd; this is a part of American history that needs to be told, needs to be taught, and needs to be celebrated. Immediately after seeing this movie I began conducting research and reading more about these fascinating women and their considerable contributions to our country’s scientific and social advancement.

How fantastic it is to see a movie where one of the core messages is that society should highly value education and intelligence, making America a place where anyone can strive to rise above what they’ve been dealt instead of hurtling towards an idiocracy. These are strong, brainy, sassy women, and the three leads are perfectly cast in their roles. All three women are believable as resourceful ladies who faced so much segregation and sexism that they not only pushed back at the racism, they pushed up. The film’s greatest strength, with the exception of the true life subjects on which it’s based, is the charming cast. It’s hard not to instantly love this sharp trio.

Rounding out the cast are the forgettable Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as NASA bosses, and a nicely romantic turn from Mahershala Ali as a hunky love interest. It goes without saying that this movie belongs to Spencer, Henson, and especially Monáe.

As you’d expect, the movie touches on some pretty heavy racial themes, but it’s not done in a preachy way and is quite subtle considering the subject matter. Of course there are a couple of over-the-top scenes of forward thinking tolerance that most likely never really happened exactly as they are portrayed, but it doesn’t really matter because they still play as rousing crowd pleasers to adoring viewers.

It warmed my heart to see the sheer diversity of my audience in terms of race and age. It’s great when a movie like this can bring so many different people together, all of us cheering at the same moments of approval and acceptance that are shown in the movie. It gets slightly corny in parts, but this is an irresistible, uplifting movie with a positive (and important) message that’s still relevant today.

Note that this film is a very mild PG rating, making it suitable for most members of your family. It’s the sort of movie where you can happily and comfortably take grandma and your five year old with you to the theater.


“Divergent: Allegiant”

LOUISA:    1.5 STARS      MATT:    1.5 STARS


I mildly enjoyed the other two movies in the “Divergent” series (“Divergent” and “Insurgent“), but this addition to the filmed literary trilogy has all the joy completely sucked out of it. It feels like all involved would have rather been anywhere but working on this movie. It is obvious they are just showing up for the paycheck, and it’s sad.

Shailene Woodley, one of the most talented young actors working today, gives a performance so bad that I could tell she was simply phoning it in. She actually looks like she’s uncomfortable playing an action heroine, to the point where for the first time I didn’t find her believable as tough girl Tris. Theo James is capable as brawny hero Four, but let’s face it: the actor doesn’t have that much else going for him. The hugely talented Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort and Naomi Watts all give lazy performances that reek of desperation (the brief appearance from Octavia Spencer adds the only touch of class to the movie). But it’s Jeff Daniels who gets the worst actor award for this one; his delivery is borderline campy but he plays it with a very pitiful sincerity. I laughed out loud at some of his scenes — and they weren’t intended to be funny.

“Allegiant” is burdened with a convoluted plot that makes no sense and rambles on and on and on for two hours. The primary focus on animated gadgets and bloodless action sequences means there’s limited storytelling going on here. The cleverless action scenes are tediously dull, the dialogue is shallow, the acting is amateurish and the special effects are some of the worst I’ve seen in years. (No, really: a preteen kid with a laptop could’ve animated better CGI; the movie looks terrible)! Another big problem that these films have never been able to overcome is the fact that their characters are across the board unlikable. I’ve never rooted for nor cared for any of them, and their flaws are amplified even further since this latest installment is so tiresome.

If Hollywood doesn’t soon step in with better film adaptations (like “The Fifth Wave“), I fear for the future of the young adult genre.


Easily the most forgettable entry in the “Divergent” series, “Allegiant” picks up where “Insurgent” left off. Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is dead, the power structure in Chicago has crumbled and the new rebel group led by Evelyn (Naomi Watts) has taken power. The new regime appears to be just as brutal and ruthless as the old one, and Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), and their small group leave the city walls to explore what’s beyond.

Although I had seen both of the previous movies in this series, I found myself more than a little confused by “Allegiant.” The silly faction idea, with its on-the-nose message about the importance of individuality, was at least something to grab hold of and was an effective device for telling a story set in a dystopian future. Here, though, with the factions gone and Jeanine dead, the denizens of the “Divergent” world have divided themselves into multiple groups with divergent (see what I did there?) interests and it has become much more difficult to care about any of them. While both “Divergent” and “Insurgent” left me at least partially interested in seeing what happens next, I find myself not caring at all about where things go from here.

Worse yet, the movie pretty much wastes its cast. The strength of these movies has been its use of talented actors which were able to elevate the source material. In “Allegiant,” the star of the show has become the cheesy and unrealistic computer-generated effects. Maybe I was spoiled by the 2015 practical effects-laden feasts “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Mad Max Fury Road,” but this movie in particular should be exhibit A in any discussion about why too much CG is a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good effects-driven sci-fi movie as much as anyone. But this isn’t good sci-fi, and these aren’t good effects. The capable young stars are almost forced to sit on the sideline while we watch a giant floating silver thing fly, attach, or crash into other giant floating silver things or barren landscapes, over and over again. The actors are reduced to lots of green screen running, shouting, and shooting, and it’s all kind of dull. I like these actors, and I wanted to see more of them actually getting to act and interact with one another. If not for the cast and the little opportunity they are given to actually act, I would have rated this movie even lower.

If you’re looking for good science fiction, go see “Star Wars” again. It’s still in theaters. Skip this one.