What Men Want (2019)
★ / ★★★★
The problem with “What Men Want,” written by Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck, is that it takes a fantastical premise—waking up the next morning and having the ability to read men’s thoughts following a head injury—and does nothing inspired, surprising, or funny with it. The film suffers from a typical modern comedy malady: actors having to yell their lines as if that could mask the listlessness and boredom of the material. Halfway through, I wished the writers had the ability to recognize that what they were working on was dead on arrival.
This isn’t to suggest that the performers on screen are equally egregious as the script. On the contrary, the lead is enjoyable—as expected given her caliber and charisma. Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a sports agent so desperate to get a promotion that she is willing to bulldoze through anyone who gets in the way of her goal. As a black woman in a white- and male-dominated workplace, she feels the need to constantly prove herself in order to be considered as an equal. Henson is so enthusiastic in portraying a bossy character—a euphemism—that we can feel the joy behind the portrayal of a mean and extremely uptight persona.
It misses one opportunity to make a genuine or convincing statement right after another. We live in a time when the importance of diversity has made it into the mainstream consciousness. Whether it be of sex, race, sexual orientation, creed, or gender identity, we, as a western society, are aware of the issues broached upon the background of white male dominance. And so why is it that this film is so afraid to tackle real and pressing issues? While it does offer two or three instances where Ali’s gender and race are brought up as a negative within their workplace environment, they are used simply as props; the conflict is never explored in a thoughtful of meaningful way. Yes, the genre is a comedy. But the best comedies are never one-trick ponies. In this case, it is all about the initial shock but no follow through.
I grew weary of the incessant noise. And I do not mean only the constant screaming and yelling. Notice that when Ali is listening to would-be shocking thoughts, the soundtrack is booming in the background. This results in an unpleasant experience; we wish to listen to the thoughts, no matter how random they are, and yet there is wall that gets in the way of us fully appreciating the material. One cannot help but suspect that the use of music is but a mere tool to disguise or hide the more ineffective line of dialogue or entire scenes. The script could have used significant rewrites.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, “What Men Want,” directed by Adam Shankman, is not only devoid of intelligence or insight regarding prejudice, it is also poorly paced. Observe closely at how long it feels for everything to wrap up and it is done in the most ordinary fashion—just so the audience can feel good about themselves. On top of being forced and hyperbolic, the film is a humorless turkey.
Think Like a Man Too (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Candace (Regina Hall) and Michael (Terrence Jenkins) are getting married in Las Vegas which means that the night before the big day is a bachelor and a bachelorette party. The best man (Kevin Hart) and the main of honor (Taraji P. Henson) take control of the parties, respectively, which means a wild night is in store for their friends—until it is not because the screenplay by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman fails to inject anything new, fresh, or exciting into this limp sequel.
With such a talented roster of performers, I was at a loss why I didn’t laugh more. Looking closely, part of the problem is the jokes not lacking punchline but lacking build-up. For instance, although Hart, who plays Cedric with pure energy, is able to hit our funny bones from time to time, his motormouth approach to the character never changes gears. It isn’t that he is wrong for the character or he is front and center too often. The fault it is the writers not coming up with ways for us to care about the character. As a result, Cedric is reduced to a caricature and caricatures cannot sustain a whole picture.
There is a subplot involving Michael and Candace’s friends being anxious to commit. For a while, I was entertained by Zeke (Romany Malco) being recognized by so many of his former girlfriends—many of them still very upset with him—while his current girlfriend, Mya (Meagan Good), is shocked by her beau’s… popularity. While Zeke’s womanizing past is a good enough template to launch the couple questioning whether or not they ought to get to know each other more before getting serious, we get only a scene at the end where Zeke tells her how committed he is to Mya. Why not show it instead? Because it would have required the writers to put in a little effort.
Another subplot—although “afterthought” is a more accurate term—is Kristen (Gabrielle Union) and Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) trying to conceive a child. Although they both are beautiful together, they are reduced to a one-note joke: Jeremy complaining that he is having too much sex because Kristen really wants to get pregnant. Are these two ready to have a child? Such an elementary question is never answered. Have they ever considered alternative options if they could not conceive? However, they do have one hilarious scene which involves a nudge to “Game of Thrones.”
The all-night party for both camps should have been more fun. Naturally, there is dancing, alcohol, and getting into trouble with the cops but none of it comes across as effortless. As the film goes on, I got the impression that it is merely scratching items off a checklist. There is a stereotype of a Vegas experience and the material rests on reflecting that. Some of my visits to Vegas are much more fun than what this picture offers—and I do not consider myself to be that wild.
Directed by Tim Story, “Think Like a Man Too” is as bland as poorly baked tofu. This is most surprising because its characters are mostly people of color. As a person of color myself, I really wanted to see a culture represented accurately on screen—even if it is from a comedy that you can forget ten minutes after it is over. Because being shown on screen accurately in a bad movie is still better than being showcased as bland wallpaper in a bad movie.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The most refreshing element in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” based on the screenplay by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, is its lack of villain, especially for a film targeted toward young children. Having a big bad is the easier path to traverse because if there is someone else to root against, then taking some of the focus away from the central protagonists is not as noticeable. The most cathartic moment relies on defeating the enemy. So, in a way, an argument can be made that the sequel is more ambitious than its predecessor. Here, the “villain” is change—specifically, how changes in one’s goals or dreams may threaten to derail a friendship. While I enjoyed its more mature theme, it is far from consistently entertaining.
There is a wealth of detail in this colorful and lively animated picture. The plot revolves around Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) discovering the wonders of the internet. It is filled to the brim with visual jokes, from intense bidding experiences on eBay (even though the items to be “won” are so silly) to annoying pop-up advertisements that plague websites with heavy traffic. The online world is beautiful and vibrant; there is almost always something to appreciate in the background should one bother to look.
Especially amusing is the effort put into the design and voices of the more memorable supporting characters like the search engine Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) who can speak faster than you can think (or type). Another welcome addition is the fashionable Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm that specializes in trending videos on BuzzTube, who decides to help Ralph and Vanellope find ways to earn enough money so they can purchase a replacement for the broken Sugar Rush wheel. Failing to do so would result in Ralph’s best friend no longer having a home since the game would be shut down permanently. (The wheel replacement costs more than how much the game makes in a year, according to the arcade owner.) These characters command distinct looks that match the voice performers’ level of enthusiasm.
Despite the details, however, the more interesting avenues are touched upon but never explored. When Ralph stumbles upon the comments section—specifically comments about how he looks, acts, and comes across—the material introduces the darker, more toxic side of the internet. This may be new to kids because, in reality, the internet offers more than playing the latest trendy games or watching cute cat videos. People can be mean—often for no reason—and they use the anonymity of the internet to say things they would never dare to express should their faces and actual names were exposed for the world to see. While this is on the more serious side, I believe that should the screenwriters made the topic more kid-friendly, the film would have commanded more urgency. Cyberbullying and toxic online environments are certainly more relevant now than ever. And the film’s main target audiences are going to grow up and deal with it.
The picture also suffers when it showcases characters from wildly popular franchises—especially when classic and modern Disney princesses take up the screen. The jokes are so specific, so amusing, and so clever that the original characters in this series fade into the background by comparison. At one point, I caught myself wishing that there was a movie of just the Disney princesses hanging out and saving the world. Sometimes less is more. Vanellope may be spunky, but she does not hold a candle against any one of the Disney princesses that makes a cameo. Speaking of less being more, I would have preferred not to have heard Vanellope’s awful song.
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is overlong, running out of steam about halfway through. While the more emotional moments may tug at the heartstrings for some, those who have grown impatient, like myself, are likely to see through the manipulation. Still, there are some chuckles to be had here.
★★ / ★★★★
Despite the melodrama that unfolds for the majority of the picture, “Acrimony,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, is almost effective because it is tethered so tightly around Taraji P. Henson’s performance. Henson plays a woman so filled with unconsolable rage that those closest to her are afraid she will hurt those who she feels did her wrong. Told in flashback, beginning when Melinda (Henson) meets Robert (Lyriq Bent) in college (the younger couple played by Ajiona Alexus and Antonio Madison), the material is able to generate a slow but powerful forward momentum only to fall apart during the final thirty minutes.
Dramatic thrillers rest so much on the payoff, the catharsis the audience must feel in their bones or the reward for having the patience to try and understand the perspective of the key characters, even though some of them are not written as sharply as should be so that they come across as living, breathing people rather than mere pawns to be moved in and around the plot. Melinda’s madness is not as interesting as her suffering as a girlfriend and eventual wife who invests everything she has—money, time, energy, emotional and physical support—on her husband’s dream of inventing a battery capable of recharging itself. (Because many of Perry screenplays are notorious for being heavy-handed, this work not being an exception, yes, the battery is a metaphor for the state of the couple’s marriage.)
The first half is strong because we are made to understand why Melinda feels betrayed. I enjoyed that the screenplay shows she is capable of empathy, making huge sacrifices, and having the patience when it is extremely difficult to remain in control of a situation. At the same time, the material is willing to show us her flaws apart from her disturbing anger issues. For instance, she has a habit of taking certain actions or words so personally when there really is no malicious intent. Those who look beyond the anger will be able to recognize a person who feels so much that she ends up latching onto those who make her feel important or valued—even to the point when she is no longer treated as important or valued.
There are some fresh choices in photography. Although Perry employs a darker lighting in order to pummel viewers over the head that what they are seeing is, in fact, a thriller, particularly surprising are instances when the writer-director subjects Henson under particularly harsh lighting to the point where it is unflattering. And I admire Henson for being willing to look so unappealing because the material demands that her character be as ugly or as monstrous as possible at a given time. While some may consider this as a misstep, I applaud it because, unless a movie is supposed to be a contender for major awards toward the end of the year, directors usually do not wish to show their actors in unfavorable frames.
It does not dispel the fact that the last act requires major revisions, perhaps even reshoots. The violence is cartoonish, the slow motions command no effect, and the dialogue sounds as though it were written by a teenager who has seen one too many reality shows and not read enough books (or at least seen a good number of quality movies). During this time, I could not help but feel robbed because I know the filmmakers and actors involved are so much better than the cheesy and ridiculous confrontation on a boat—proven by the solid ninety minutes that just came before.
Proud Mary (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
There comes a point in the film when the protagonists’ situation turns so desperate that the assassin (Taraji P. Henson) feels the need to instruct the boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) she welcomed into her home what he must do when the possibility of her ending up dead becomes reality. It is in moments like this that the action-thriller shines because it shows that it is capable of disarming the viewers at a drop of a hat. Far too many pictures under the genre are only concerned about constructing elaborate shootouts; making the biggest, baddest explosions; and amplifying the volume as to bombard the eardrums. From this perspective, “Proud Mary” is refreshing because at times it is not afraid to show the characters as humans with flaws and fears, sense of humor, goals outside of what they do.
I notice performances in horror films when an actor chooses to play the role as if she were in a completely different genre. Here, Henson is an action movie but she portrays the character as if Mary were in a dramatic piece. She wears it in the hooded eyes and the wounded, seen-it-all expressions on her face, even through her strong but tired body language. We wonder if Mary is tired of killing, that perhaps she has recognized that a part of herself dies every time she puts a bullet in someone else’s skull.
This creates an interesting contrast because although the screenplay by John S. Newman and Christian Swegal does not bother to detail or explore our heroine’s past, we wonder about it anyway. In order for the viewer to be invested in a character completely, it is crucial that we recognize her existence, her history, outside of the film’s scope or running time. Henson choosing to play Mary as having a past in a genre that usually does not require it is a true sign of experience. I wished the writing were up to her level of ambition and dedication, possessing that willingness to put in extra just because.
The picture suffers from its lack of restraint when it comes to employing score during thrilling or dramatic moments. Particularly painful is its usage in the latter situation because it drowns out not only the varying cadences in voices or how certain lines are delivered but also the important pauses and silences. In other words, the inappropriate addition of sound takes away from what should be raw confessions that are painful or scary for a character to admit or embrace. As for the former, there are occasions when all that we need to hear are gunshots, hot bullets hitting the ground, boots scraping the wooden floor from desperate attempts at escape. Sometimes less really is more.
The only highly effective use of music is when Tina Turner’s titular song explodes during the jolt of electricity that is the climax. It is such a joyous three-minute sequence that even the editing and sound design adapt to the rhythm of the soundtrack and images. It highlights how effective Mary can be as a hired killer with a newfound purpose. But it never goes so far that we get the impression she is invincible. In fact, we are challenged to hold our breath till the end because as shootouts wind down, tighter shots from the chest up are utilized in an alarming rate. Usually, this technique heralds a shocking twist.
Directed by Babak Najafi, “Proud Mary” may not be as loud or action-packed compared to other hitman movies, but I enjoyed its elliptical approach in tracing the expected three-arc structure. And with the highly watchable lead making sure that the character is believable at every narrative turn, what results is a solid entertainment for the open-minded.
Think Like a Man (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on the book “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” by Steve Harvey, “Think Like a Man,” directed by Tim Story, featured a group of six friends who embodied a specific stage in a romantic life and their relationship with women who wanted more than what was typical or expected from a man. Although each of the guys were funny in their own right and they shared good chemistry as a group, only two of the six captured my interest. Dominic (Michael Ealy), The Dreamer, decided to change careers so abruptly, his girlfriend decided to leave because instability was the opposite of what she wanted from him. While working as a part-time chef, Dominic met the highly successful Lauren (Taraji P. Henson), chief operating officer of a company, by pretending to own one of the posh cars he was supposed to park due to a shortage of staff. Impressed by Dominic’s good looks, what he owned, and chic taste in wine, Lauren was ecstatic that she had finally found her “equal.” Unlike most of the romantic angles in the film, Dominic and Lauren’s relationship had meat we could sink our teeth into not only because the two came from different socioeconomic backgrounds but also in that there was an undercurrent of superiority that emanated from Lauren. I took pleasure in noticing the way her eyes evaluated, for example, Dominic’s real car, a poor man’s damaged mode of transport, something that belonged in a junkyard, not in front of a thriving company where her co-workers could see and associate her with it. She being uncomfortable, almost disgusted, said a lot about her but it did not necessarily reveal what she was entirely about. Lauren being a strong, independent woman, Henson did a nice job in not making her completely unlikable through moments of genuine vulnerability. Why shouldn’t a woman be allowed to wait for what she believed was right for her? In a lot of ways, I was able to relate to her high level of expectations. Although mine is less about material possessions and status, I sympathized with her growing anxiety of perhaps being too rigid and feeling disappointment when things didn’t go exactly as she had anticipated. She was a woman with a defined plan and I understood how difficult it was for her step out of it. We are alike in that once we set our minds on something, there are very few things that can derail what we set out to accomplish. The other relationship that was a cut above the rest involved Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara), The Non-Committer, and Kristen (Gabrielle Union). Kristen wanted to settle down and be committed in an adult relationship, but it seemed impossible because Jeremy seemed stuck in living like a frat boy with nerdy tendencies, like collecting anime posters and playing Call of Duty until two o’clock in the morning. Kristen wanted a change so badly, she redecorated the house and took down all of Jeremy’s collectibles without asking. Jeremy, a genuinely good and chill guy, took it all because he cared for her. Unlike Dominic and Lauren’s hot and (mostly) cold relationship, Jeremy and Kristen’s had a certain effortless tenderness even though they did not share a lot of scenes together. I was convinced that they had known each other since college because there was a calm in each of them, at least in front of one another, as tectonic plates in their relationship underwent critical changes. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, since the writing in “Think Like a Man” was mostly weak and inefficient, its other potentially interesting characters were wasted, oftentimes reduced to delivering punchlines of jokes that weren’t especially amusing. Like a lot of the seemingly wise advice offered in the book, as a whole, the problems it tackled felt superficial.
Peep World (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
It was Henry Meyerwitz’ (Ron Rifkin) 70th birthday and his children were less than happy to celebrate over dinner. Nathan (Ben Schwartz), the youngest of the clan, wrote a book called “Peep World,” an extremely accurate portrayal of his dysfunctional family. Cheri (Sarah Silverman), his only sister, hated him for exposing her idiosyncrasies and self-loathing. On the other hand, Jack (Michael C. Hall), the eldest, was the responsible one. His architectural business was about to collapse because he was easy with money. When Joel (Rainn Wilson), the least ambitious sibling, called to ask for help in terms of pecuniary matters, Jack was always willing to lend a hand. Written by Peter Himmelstein, “Peep World” had the ingredients to construct a truly scathing film about family members who just did not mesh well. Unfortunately, the writing was limited. I noticed that it consistently went for easy laughs when it didn’t need to. For instance, Nathan, concerned about his tendency to prematurely ejaculate, turned to a dubious-looking doctor for a solution. Naturally, the drug didn’t work and it left his penis erect for several hours. There was a painful scene in which Nathan had to deliver a public reading and he desperately tried to hide the bulge in his pants. As the scene unfolded, I couldn’t help but think that the material was better than it was. Why lean on slapstick instead of further observing the seething rage within the family? All of Henry’s children were messed up in some way and they blamed him for how they turned out. But I found it odd that there was not a single scene of Henry prior to the uncomfortable, to say the least, dinner sequence. When Henry was on that table ready to celebrate his birthday and ecstatic to see his children, I just felt sorry for him because no one was really there to celebrate the father’s life. Perhaps we weren’t supposed to take Henry’s side despite not knowing much about him, but when he went around that table and pointed out to his children what he had done for them, I just saw the four as ungrateful brats. None of them would have gotten away with so much in my family. I do have to single out Taraji P. Henson as Joel’s supportive girlfriend. Out of everyone, her character was the one I identified with the most. She was a strong and honest person without having to be cruel, so unlike everyone else in the film. I wanted to know more about her. Henson was fantastic; when she shared a shot with all the other actors as they screamed at each other’s faces, I found my eyes being drawn to her. Since I related to her most, I wanted to see her facial expressions and how she processed the many spilled secrets of the broken family she was about to be a part of. Directed by Barry W. Blaustein, “Peep World” was occasionally brilliant yet filled with critical missteps which significantly weighed down the project. Although capable, the material didn’t soar.
Date Night (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as a married couple who decided to go to the city on their date night to get away from the ennui of their busy schedules which mostly revolved around work and their kids. To spice things up a bit, they decided to go to an exclusive fancy restaurant which required reservations months in advance. Since they didn’t make one, Carell and Fey decided to pretend to be another couple–a couple involved in theft and currently being pursued by corrupt cops (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who seemed to work for the mob of some sort. When I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I had to watch it because casting arguably the funniest people in Hollywood right now is genius. What I loved about this movie most was not because of the story–mistaken identities, a couple feeling like their marriage lacked spark; I’ve seen it all before–but because of the chemistry between Fey and Carell. They matched each other’s awkwardness and both had great comedic timing. The two actors managed to pull off genuinely tender moments between them where I couldn’t help but feel touched. They were a believable couple and that’s why I cared about their characters. Written by Josh Klausner and directed by Shawn Levy, the script and the filmmakers allowed the two leads to play on their strengths and let the awkwardness linger to the point of saturation. But “Date Night” was as funny as it was exciting. The scene when the two cars (one owned by constantly shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a conceit I was glad that the actor embraced) couldn’t uncouple from one another was a definite standout. It was so much fun to watch, I wished that I was in that car with them. However, I did wish that the side characters had more screen time. For instance, Leighton Meester as the babysitter, Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as the couple about to get a divorce, Taraji P. Henson (who I love in those “Tyler Perry” movies) as the honest detective, and James Franco (doing his “sparkly eyes” thing that I’m always impressed with) and Mila Kunis as the weird but hilarious couple involved in blackmail. Nevertheless, the movie was so much fun and the adventures all over New York City reminded me of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Those who are in the mood for good-natured comedy with a spice of action will definitely enjoy this movie, while fans of Fey and Carell will undoubtedly be happy with it.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” stars Taraji P. Henson as a nightclub singer who had to take care of her nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Frederick Siglar) and niece (Hope Olaide Wilson) when Madea (Perry) brought them to her doorstep after catching them trying to steal home appliances. Henson did not take kindly to the idea because she was so used to only thinking about herself and the current man (Brian J. White) in her life. But when a kind-hearted man (Adam Rodriguez) from Colombia arrived in her life, all her resentment and defenses slowly faded away. Upon watching the first half of this film, I was so convinced I was going to give it a recommendation because not only was it hilarious because of Madea, it had a real dramatic gravity because of the kids who were dealing with serious issues of abandonment. I didn’t mind the melodrama and the clichés because the story kept moving forward. However, the second half had a very noticable change of momentum to the point where I felt like I was attending church (I haven’t been to church in years but it’s fresh in my mind how tedious and hypocritical it is) because of all the sermons and singing. I mean, I understand that music and religion were important to the characters but I constantly took into consideration the possibility that Perry was taking the easy way out both as a writer and director. There were more subtle ways for his characters to realize the errors of their ways; in reality, it’s mostly about the little things we notice, such as the silences while we’re doing something important, that eventually force us to wake up. It’s not necessarily about the big musical numbers and dropping in at the perfect moments of a sermon. So I found that a bit disturbing because of its very contrived nature. I do have to credit Wilson as the sister who was so used to having to put up an angry front because she essentially had to be a mother. The way she delivered her lines broke my heart because I’ve known people like her growing up. And, to be honest, many people like her character end up in terrible situations. Unlike this picture, Wilson knows how to be subtle yet still go for the jugular when necessary. I’m interested with what project she’s going to tackle next. “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is not a bad film. It just needed to take more risks and not get too caught up on the message it wanted to get across to the point where it becomes heavy-handed. Still, it’s worth watching because of Madea’s incredibly hilarious grab bag of biblical stories alone.
Family That Preys, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“You can’t make yourself happy [by] bringing misery into other people’s lives.” I think that quote sums up the central thesis of this film. Even though it may be a bit soap opera at times because of the multiple storylines and their big revelations, I can’t help but really like this film. There’s something about the characters that are very true to life, especially in a society where everyone wants to climb up on the economic ladder. While most may initially watch this just to see the drama unfold between and within each family, I think it’s worthy to notice the dynamics between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between the man and the woman, and between the whites and the blacks. I admired that this film didn’t have any African-Americans that live in the ghetto. To be honest, I want to see more African-Americans living the “normal” life because they do exist and they should be represented. I love Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as the two mothers of the family. The way they interacted with one another reminded me of times when I was with my best friend, just laughing our lungs off and not caring about what people think of us in public. I also loved Taraji P. Henson and Sanaa Lathan as the two completely opposite sisters, one sensible and supportive and the other is disrespectful and vindictive, respectively. But I have to admit that Lathan reminded me of myself at times because I can be quite insidious and sometimes I forget where I come from. I don’t like that about myself and I’ve been trying to get rid of those qualities over the past three years (which, I think, has been successful so far). I wanted to hate her but at the end of the day, I just felt really sorry for her because of the way she treats the ones that love her most. There are a lot of memorable and insightful quotes that could be found all over the film; they made me think where I am in life, where I was, and where I will be. This is the kind of movie that made me so happy that I choose to surround myself with people that I can love and will love me no matter what happens. Upon watching the characters figure each others’ intentions, it goes to show that you can have all the money in the world but if you’re not happy with yourself and you forget where you come from, your life is truly not worth much.