Guest Review: GIFTED (2017)

guestpost

Directed By: Marc Webb
Written By: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan
Runtime: 1 hr 41 minutes

I walked out of Gifted loudly bemoaning Chris Evans’ lack of acting skills when I heard a man behind me say something even more controversial: that Gifted suffers from a “simple plot”.

No, sweet idiot, it did not have a simple plot.

I mean, if you fell asleep for part of the movie, you could be forgiven for thinking such a thing. But if you were paying even a moderate amount of attention, you should know better. Superficially, Gifted is about a young man who is the sole custodian of his sister’s daughter until it becomes apparent that the little girl might be a genius and his mother sues for custody. That’s just the logline, though. The meat of the story is in the grandmother’s zeal for her daughter’s success and then her granddaughter’s promise. The story is partly a painful parable about living vicariously through one’s children and partly a nod to the long-lived, ever-changing battle women have fought for their place in STEM fields.

That said, I might be giving Tom Flynn too much credit. He makes a few stereotypically male slip ups in his storytelling: calling a strong female character “bossy”, making off-color comments about mistresses, and taking a mildly unsavory stance on consent. He also does everything that he can to make a story that is very obviously about two women and a girl instead about the one man they all share.
Of course, that one male character is a doozy. Frank Adler, played oh so stoically by Chris Evans, is hard-working, funny, intelligent, empathetic, and possesses an enviable moral compass. His character should have been left there, as the perfect single-father, but it is Chris Evans, so he’s also suave, gorgeous, and handily achieves a Love Interest. This was presumably to give the movie its PG-13 rating, which is one of the largest mistake that the movie makes.

I know it’s cute when kids swear and I get that Hollywood thinks that attractive people making out will always make them more money, but the consequential PG-13 rating was a poor trade off. Parents who probably would have otherwise brought their children to see the movie, which is an inspirational story featuring Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace) a relatable little girl who is the full package: she’s a genius, a hero, and obsessed with her cat. Why the studios didn’t fight for a PG rating is completely beyond me. Kids would love her.

Chris Evans was really the only weak member of the cast: he is a beautiful human, but he struggles to emote, and a lot of his dialogue felt wooden and unnatural. Luckily, he is always acting opposite incredibly gifted performers. Mckenna Grace can cry like nobody’s business, Jenny Slate (you might recognize her as “Mona Lisa” from Parks and Rec) is surprisingly good as the first grade teacher all of us wanted, Octavia Spencer is unsurprisingly flawless, and Lindsay Duncan wrangles a supporting role so handily that she makes the entire movie about her. In a good way.

There are some weird racial undertones throughout the film. The Adler’s neighbor Roberta Taylor (Octavia Spencer) is yet another iteration of the mammy trope, which needs to be retired. Taylor criticizes Adler for hiring a black lawyer, a comment that is jarring, super racist, and was a very successful laugh line in the theater where I saw the film. Out of any other character’s mouth it would have been unacceptable, but because no one had to think about how white the screenwriter was when Spencer spoke, the joke worked. I’m disappointed, but not entirely surprised, that the line made it past a first draft. Ditto to people laughing at it.

Despite having many flaws, I still think that Gifted is worth seeing. The cinematography is beautiful, if sometimes a little self-indulgent. One scene, in which Mary climbs her uncle’s body and peppers him with questions about God, is told completely in silhouette, set against an orange sunset. It’s a beautiful film, with a magnificent cast, and a mostly empowering storyline.

And it’s not simple if you’re paying attention.


hollyHolly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz.  She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times.  You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century.


Have you seen ‘Gifted’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: The Space Between Us (2017)

guestpostspacebetweenus

Directed By: Peter Chelsom
Written By: Allan Loeb (screenplay), Stewart Schill (story by)
Runtime: 2 hrs

The Space Between Us is a fun, sweet coming of age comedy that spoils its own success by trying to be a drama. The story follows Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), a boy born and raised on Mars on his first trip to Earth. Worried that he might not be allowed to stay on Earth, Gardner escapes the NASA compound and journeys across the country to find Tulsa (Britt Robertson) – a girl he met on the internet. Hijinks ensue. Teenage love is kindled. A road trip is had. It’s adorable. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It doesn’t work.

The Space Between Us suffers from dramatic shifts in tone from one scene to the next. The teenagers are in coming of age romantic comedy and the adults are in a family drama. The crossover between the two narratives falls flat constantly. Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), a wealthy Silicon Valley type, spends most of his time yelling unnecessarily and Kendra (Carla Gugino) was incessantly on the verge of tears or worrying in a motherly fashion. Obvious comedic moments were played detrimentally straight, like when the grownups think they’ve caught up with Tulsa and Gardner but it’s actually two completely different teenagers. That should be a funny moment, but girl (credited very accurately as “screaming girl”) is so terrified when Shepherd accosts her, that any humor is lost.

spacebetweenus_still1

The script itself was sloppy and full of contradictions with both itself and reality. For instance, we’re told multiple times that Tulsa cannot fly a plane but she can and does. Gardner, whose body is full of metal and magnets, makes it through an MRI unscathed. (I mean, technically this is at least sixteen years in the future, so suspension of disbelief or whatever, but it irked me because science fiction that ignores basic science is bad science fiction. Speaking of which, live-streaming video was viable from Mars to Earth from the moment the first mission touched down, which, yeah right.) There is a completely unnecessary reveal regarding Gardner’s father at the end of the movie. There is an explosion that only exists to use up leftover budget dollars. And so on.

Additionally, The Space Between Us does not deal with race or gender well. The cast leans very heavily in the white and male direction. The shaman character (played by Gil Birmingham) teeters on the edge of a racist stereotype. If the random, stoned white lady who introduces the kids to the shaman is any indication, that scene was probably even more problematic in a previous draft.

As far as gender goes, the movie had an annoying, if average, patriarchal lean. Women are mothers first and foremost. Gardner’s biological mother is only around long enough to give birth and die. Before she dies, though, the audience gets to hear a room of men talk amongst themselves about how “irresponsible” she was and then they decide, without ever looping her in on the conversation, what to do about her pregnancy. Kendra, an astronaut whose primary role is raising Gardner, winds up falling neatly into the stereotype of a woman who regrets putting career first. She and Gardner have a painfully bad conversation about motherhood and marriage.

spacebetweenus_still2

The strength of this movie is inarguably in the moments between Robertson and Butterfield. Robertson’s performance as a tenderhearted teenager who has learned to be guarded is emotionally charged, relatable, and funny. Butterfield struggles with a script that cannot quite decide if he has social skills or not. Ultimately he prevails as a charming, if kind of weird, kid. The flaws in his character (for example, a tendency to overreact to minor set-backs and an inconsistent level of social skills) are ultimately flaws with the script, not with Butterfield. Both actors breathe life into a below average script.

The movie is also redeemed in its cinematography. In many ways the movie can be seen as a love letter to the natural beauty of earth and the color with which humans surround themselves. Unfortunately, the editing did not live up to the cinematography, which sometimes minimized the visual impact of the movie.

The Space Between Us could have been great. It is beautifully shot, features lovely performances by Robertson and Butterfield, and is a ultimately a feel-good adventure story. It’s just too bad that not everyone who was signed onto the project got that memo.

hollyp


Have you seen ‘The Space Between Us’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: Patriots Day (2017)

guestpostpatriotsday

Directed By: Peter Berg
Written By: Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 minutes

Watching Patriots Day is a stressful experience, but not for the reasons I expected. I expected it to be hard to watch because it is a retelling of a violent moment in recent American history, but instead I was just horrified to find that the story of the Boston bombing had been turned into a thinly disguised propaganda piece.

Patriots Day targets two very specific groups of Americans and manipulates them from the beginning of the film to its end. These two groups are Bostonians and conservative white folks. In an effort to cater to Bostonians, the film has an early callout to Dunkin Donuts and there is a scene that features a delightfully brash police officer who verbally spars with the National Guard. There is also a running joke between a young husband and wife about how to pronounce words with a Boston accent. The film’s pandering to conservative white Americans is even more obvious, with moments like the one where Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) implies that Fox News might be more transparent than the US government and overlong scene at Sean Collier’s house when he drinks a beer, rough-houses with his roommates, and then sings a country song in the middle of his living room.

patriotsdaymarkwahlberg

Of course, just because a movie has a target audience, that doesn’t make it propaganda. What does make it propaganda is 1) it is historically inaccurate, 2) it has a clear agenda, and 3) it manipulates its audience.

Normally I am the first person to claim artists the right to creative license, but a historical piece that systematically populates its universe with real people is different. In Patriots Day, every bombing victim with a speaking part represents a real person and that person is interviewed in a sentimental mini-documentary at the end of the film. The filmmakers want the audience of Patriots Day to be impacted by the realness of the story they tell, even though there is misinformation littered throughout. One of the most notable instances of this is in Katherine Russell Tsarnaev (Melissa Benoist). The movie not only implies that she was aware and supportive of the bombing, but goes so far as to claim that she continues to be under investigation by the FBI, which, based on my research, is untrue.

patriotsday_melissabenoist

Patriots Day has a clear agenda: it aims to inspire fear. And, gosh darn it, it does that. It preys on ignorance about other cultures. One of the most dramatic examples of this was two scenes, played back to back. In the first, DesLauriers and Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), both white men and heroes of our story, deliver loving monologues to their wives. Immediately afterwards the film cuts to the Tsarnaev household, where Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Katherine get into a giant argument because Tamerlan purchased the wrong kind of milk for their child and does not want to fix his mistake. Patriots Day preys on very basic stereotypes about minorities in America as well. Whenever Dhokar’s friends are on screen, they are surrounded by drug paraphernalia and reciting a script that is over-inundated with swear words.

Finally, Patriots Day constantly manipulates its audience. Although there were many moments during the narrative film itself, the primary moment of manipulation was at the end. A mini-documentary featuring every victim portrayed in the film decries the violence of the day and describes Boston’s recovery as one that embraced the American ability to come together in solidarity and love. The speeches were beautiful, but the movie set them up in a way that felt too manipulative to be impactful. I left the theater feeling gross instead of inspired.

patriotsday_still

The obvious propaganda of Patriots Day is made all the worse because, from a technical stand point, this is a good movie. The special effects are great. The editing choices are marvelous. The writing – when it’s not moralizing or blatantly catering to its target demographic – is laugh out loud funny, emotionally charged, and keeps the story running at a good pace. Most of the performances were great, with my personal highlights being Kevin Bacon as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, Jake Pickling as Officer Sean Collier, and Jimmy Yang as Dun Meng. However, a lot of the artistic choices that contribute to this movie being “good” also make it downright offensive. Sometimes it almost felt okay, but ultimately I don’t think I want to laugh at an anti-smoking joke at the tail-end of a real shootout that ended in a gruesome death. It’s distasteful to ask an audience to laugh at action movie one-liners when the story is real and fresh.

As an aside, Dhokar Tsarnaev’s character doesn’t make sense. Because Dhokar was notoriously very “American”, they couldn’t pigeon-hole him like they had Tamerlan (and I have a whole rant about the latent xenophobia that went into the creation of that character). The resulting mess was a character that swung dramatically between a prejudiced caricature of a Muslim terrorist and a second prejudiced caricature of a troubled, urban teenager. Neither stereotype fit, and they were completely contradictory. The lack of cohesion in Dhokar’s character led to completely baffling moments like when Dhokar makes fun of Dun’s accent – even though half his school friends are foreign students.

I can give the movie one star, because it is a fun action movie, but I want that admission couched solidly in my horror that anyone thought that it would be a good idea to make a “fun action movie” about the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t think anyone should watch Patriots Day. It dishonors the victims, trivializes the serious, and despite its insistence to the contrary is, ultimately, un-American.


hollyHolly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz.  She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times.  You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century.


Have you seen ‘Patriots Day’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: The Dressmaker (2016)

guestpost

dressmakerbnr

The Dressmaker tells the story of an outwardly successful middle-aged woman named Tilly (Kate Winslet) who returns home to rural Australia, after having been ostracized from the town as a young girl. Most of the small town, including her own mother (Judy Davis), is not pleased to see her back. Regardless, she makes her entrance as colorful and fiery as possible and forges a place for herself despite the whispers and hostility of the townfolk.

The cinematography is completely gorgeous. The story is set in Dungatar, a part of Australia that evokes a sense of Oklahoma circa the dust bowl or the kind of Kansas that only exists in the Wizard of Oz. The barren dirtiness of the landscape is showcased in stark shots of decrepit buildings, dirty streets, and naked trees against empty skylines. This very deliberate setting eventually becomes the backdrop to characters wearing bold, colorful dresses in a way that seems to visually applaud fashion for being powerful and interesting while also admitting that high fashion might just be completely ridiculous.

dressmaker_still3

I hate to be cliché about it, but The Dressmaker is an emotional rollercoaster. The fulcrum of the story is the relationship between a mother and daughter, but there are competing sub-plots of a murder mystery and a romance which occasionally usurp the story of mother/daughter storyline entirely. The overall tone of a black comedy allows the film to push boundaries and upset audience expectations regularly. Moments that the audience expects to end happily wind up being the introduction to the next tragic theme and the darkest of moments are interrupted by well-placed moments of comedy.

The talent in this film is extraordinary. Every character is a little bit larger than life, caricatures that are just reasonable enough to make an audience feel in on the jokes without ever suspending their disbelief. The script lends itself to stand out performances by all, but especially by Winslet, Davis, and Hugo Weaving.


One of my favorite casting choices was Liam Hemsworth as Winslet’s love interest. Hemsworth is a solid fifteen years younger than Winslet, so the casting is an obvious response to Hollywood’s habit of usually casting love stories with large age differences in reverse. Much of this movie’s strength lies in similar subtle feminist moments: the film reverses the genders in many of Hollywood’s storytelling habits. For instance, it is a widely criticized reality that women exist almost exclusively as love interests or mothers in Hollywood. In The Dressmaker, the opposite is true. The primary characters of the story are women and most of the men exist only in relation to their partners. Despite this, The Dressmaker does not exist in a parallel universe where gender roles are reversed: women are still primarily homemakers and men have careers. It is merely the shifting of perspective that gives us a world made up of women with deep personal lives.

The Dressmaker also excels in its acknowledgement of women who suffer at the hands of men, often their own partners. One woman’s husband is a notorious cheater who drugs and rapes her regularly. Another woman’s husband is a wife-beater and refers to most of the women in the town in a derogatory way, which the script suggests is probably because of his own perversions. The lovely thing about all the dark stories about abuse is that even though they are gross, they are understated in a way that is very true to life.

dressmaker_still

There is a love story in the middle of the movie, which briefly disrupts the other narratives and might be the best tongue-in-cheek criticism of Hollywood romance that I have ever seen. Winslet’s character avoids her romance with Teddy (Hemsworth) for as long as possible, invoking every manifestation of the hard to get narrative that we have been fed for the last fifty years. Tilly runs barefoot down a dirt road, only to be swept of her feet by Teddy when he chases her down in his car. Tilly measures a half-naked Teddy for a suit, getting tantalizingly close while he explains that the woman he loves (her) does not want him. Teddy wakes up one night with Tilly standing at his bedside with a lantern. The couple sits atop a silo with a picnic dinner and they stare at the stars together. Every last overdone and gooey detail is there. Every romantic moment is just overplayed enough that the audience understands that everyone involved in the creation of this story understands exactly how syrupy it is. It’s still cute. We’re just finally getting the story from a group of writers who know that it’s a little too cute and have fun with that.

The value of a female-led narrative film like this one cannot be understated. Directed by Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse, this is a film to see in theaters and in groups. The gasps and groans and laughter of the people in the theater with me were literally of a different tenor than usual, which was a wonderful, surreal experience. If you want to see a film that completely understands (and really probably loves) Hollywood, but wants to approach it with a sense of humor and an inkling for progress, this film will not disappoint. The acting is superb, the story is full of surprises, and the jokes are both subtle and in your face. This is not a film to miss.

5Reels


hollyHolly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz.  She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times.  You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century.


Have you seen ‘The Dressmaker’? Well, what did you think?