Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
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Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ What Men Want

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman is boxed out by the male sports agents in her profession, but gains an unexpected edge over them when she develops the ability to hear men’s thoughts.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Josh Brener, Aldis Hodge, Tamala Jones, Tracy Morgan, Shane Paul McGhie, Erykah Badu, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Max Greenfield

Director: Adam Shankman

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Now that Hollywood seems to be ushering in a full reboot/remake renaissance, they’ve taken it a step further and tried their hand at gender-bending these properties. We’ve already seen the disappointing results of the flips of 2016’s Ghostbusters and 2018’s Overboard but then again Ocean’s Eight last year was a cool treat in early summer. With gender swapped remakes of Splash, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and even The Rocketeer (!!) either in production or in development, it’s nice to see filmmakers thinking outside of the box and beyond gender because when it works it can be fun. So while What Men Want isn’t the most wholly original or even the most well-constructed comedy you’ll see this year, it’s still an unusually entertaining piece that finds the funny in some unique places.

Updating the 2000 rom-com What Women Want from a male-led piece about a chauvinist that sees the error of his ways when he starts to hear the thoughts of women actually makes a lot of sense. There’s ample room for comedy in making the lead a female sports agent who can hear what men are thinking and using it to her advantage as she subverts a boys club that continues to keep her from a promotion she deserves. The three credited screenwriters jettisoned the majority of the material from the original film, keeping only the basic concept of one person being privy to the inner thoughts of the opposite sex.

Hotshot agent Ali (Taraji P. Henson, Ralph Breaks the Internet) is at the top of her game in the all-male sports agency she works for. Though she has signed a stable of highly decorated athletes, she hasn’t yet broken into the big leagues and, according to her boss, that’s what’s kept her from being promoted to partner. When she’s passed over yet again for the recognition she deserves, she puts everyone on notice that she’ll be the one to sign the firm’s most desired client: the hottest basketball star (Shane Paul McGhie) who comes with a difficult-to-please father (Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls).  Attending a bachelorette party that same night, she gets her tarot cards read by a psychic (Erykah Badu) who recognizes that she needs some help at work. Drinking a suspicious tea prepared by the psychic before going out for a night of partying, Ali gets too much into the spirit of the dance and hits her head, only to awake with a new gift/curse of being able to hear what men are thinking. As expected, much of the private thoughts reveal men to be disgusting pigs but they also show them to be just as self-deprecating, vulnerable, and sensitive as their female counterparts. At first, Ali wants to rid herself of this newfound power but after visiting the psychic again she realizes she can parlay this gift into getting the upper hand on the men in her life that have held her back.

At nearly two hours, What Men Want wants a better editor as the film is a good 20 minutes too long. Director Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages) can’t seem to shore up the action to give the film a satisfactory rhythm so the movie becomes funny only in first and spurts. The time in between the laughs can be rough going, rarely fully redeemed by the comedy no matter how strong it may be.   It seems to me there’s large gaps in the movie from scenes that either were removed or never written because there are threads that are left dangling or huge leaps of faith audience members need to take without much explanation.

It’s lucky, then, that the film has Henson in the driver’s seat at she’s a genuinely strong comedian that balances good comic timing with believably dramatic sincerity. She’s appropriately freaked out when the voices start to come on loud and strong and manages to sell a shoddy sequence near the end where she spills some very private secrets in a very public setting. There’s a side plot featuring a romance between her and a widowed dad (Aldis Hodge, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) that doesn’t quite work, mostly because it doesn’t generate any laughs and we are, after all, in a comedy.  I also appreciated that there’s a bit more holding Ali back than her gender or her race, the suggestion is that she doesn’t relate well to men and that seems to be confirmed by everyone in her life at one point during the film.  While the movie ultimately misses out on the opportunity to explore this opportunity for personal growth to the fullest, it’s an interesting piece to introduce, if not fully explore.

The movie has a secret weapon, though, and it’s Badu’s downright spectacular work as the kooky psychic. She’s a ninja in the art of scene stealing and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering where her character is when the movie starts to slow down as it approaches the 90 minute mark. Thankfully, she pops up again in the credits so make sure to stay and catch her act. As Ali’s long-suffering assistant, Josh Brener (The Internship) is fine in a stereotypical role the screenwriters try to be creative with but I wish he had better chemistry with Henson because they never seem to truly enjoy one another. Though Morgan is bewilderingly billed above the title with Henson and shares equal position on the poster, he’s barely in the movie.

What Women Want was already remade in 2011 in China but this is the first true re-imagining of the movie and, for the most part, it works. Would the film have been better if a little more attention had been paid to the script to fill in some plot holes and excised a bit more of the romance subplot? Sure. Would I have liked to see more of dependable character actress Wendi McLendon-Covey (Blended)? Of course. Does the film work in spite of all its ungainly faults as a rainy day harm-free matinee? Absolutely.

Movie Review ~ Ralph Breaks the Internet


The Facts
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Synopsis: Six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph”, Ralph and Vanellope, now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot

Director: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t a ride or die fan of Wreck-It-Ralph when it first was released.  It took me a while to find my way to the movie in theaters and though as a child of the ‘80s I appreciated the nostalgia its 8-bit arcade game lead character stirred within me it doesn’t sit high on my list of favorite Disney films.  Though the sequel was hotly anticipated I didn’t even take the time to re-watch the original before taking in this colorful follow-up that I wound up having fun at.  This one seemed to push the envelope more than its predecessor and was stuffed with enough rapid fire jokes to keep your head spinning.  There are a plethora of Easter eggs to be found, especially for those that remember the early days of the World Wide Web and recall the way you would hold your breath when AOL would attempt to connect.

John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) and Sarah Silverman (A Millon Ways to Die in the West) are back to voice our two lead characters with Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) joining the cast as an ally to Silverman’s character. I also got a huge kick out of two scenes featuring every Disney princess that has appeared on film, most voiced by the same women that originally brought them to life.  Slyly commenting on their storybook lives in this #TimesUp brave new world we’re living in, they were the highlight of the film.  While the animation is wonderfully eye-popping I don’t feel the movie sticks in your brain like the best of the Disney animated films do.

The Silver Bullet ~ Hidden Figures

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Synopsis: A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: Who’s ready for a history lesson? I certainly am after catching the trailer for Hidden Figures, a period drama which looks equal parts comedy and drama and represents a strong showcase for its trio of appealing leads.  Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Top Five) stars as a NASA employee during the space race fighting to combat the inherent racism and sexism she and her colleagues (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Zootopia, and Grammy winner Janelle Monáe) face. Joined by Kevin Costner (Draft Day), Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!), and Kirsten Dunst (Midnight Special), this one is sneaking it right at the end of the year before the Oscar deadline.  Could 20th Century Fox be counting on this becoming the sleeper hit it has the potential to be?