Tag Archives: Octavia Spencer

Ma (2019) Movie Review By Philip Henry

Ma Review

Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Stars: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers

I went into this film only knowing it was a Blumhouse production, and if you want to enjoy it, I suggest you do the same. I’ve since seen other reviews online which say the trailer practically gives the whole film away.

I had a very different experience, but even going in ‘cold’ it didn’t take me long to see this wasn’t typical Blumhouse fare. Juliette Lewis and her daughter arrive in a new town. Lewis has got a job at a casino so her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) ends up spending a lot of time alone, until some cool kids befriend her and introduce her to the fun world of underage drinking. Only one problem: getting an adult to buy the booze for them. After several failed attempts, kindly Octavia Spencer agrees to buy them what they need, and then she suggests they hang out in her basement to drink if they need a safe place where the cops won’t stumble upon them.

OK, it’s a slightly odd offer, and Ma (as Spencer becomes known to the kids) has a very strange sense of humour, which should be a huge red flag no matter how intoxicated you are. But the kids think they’re in control of the situation so continue to use Ma’s basement, and pretty soon it becomes party-central for the school. But what are Ma’s real motives for having these kids in her house?

I think there’s an interesting point to be made here about gender politics, which seems to be influencing a lot of movies – for better or worse – currently. If the roles in this movie were reversed and some middle-aged man bought a bunch of kids alcohol and then invited them to his house he would probably be reported and in jail by suppertime, but a female character is somehow more trustworthy and less threatening… or at least that’s what we assume. Is suggesting women can be dangerous too another step towards equality?

This film wears its influences on its sleeve, with a very direct nod to Misery in the film as well as an ending that has echoes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Both are films about the emotional fallout after someone important to a main character is taken from them (even if one is fictional), and that’s the dominant theme in Ma too. But it’s Annie Wilkes not Mrs Danvers who is probably the best comparison to Ma. They both have a sweet personality that they show to the world, but if angered their claws can come out in a second.

Something this film gets right and lots of other films of its ilk get wrong is sympathy for the ‘monster’. This is a trait that goes right back to the 1933 King Kong. Even though he was ‘the baddie’ of the story, who didn’t get a lump in their throat when they saw the big ape plummet from the Empire State Building? Sometimes it’s more effective when the ‘monster’ of the film can be shown as just as much of a victim as those it preys upon. Ma is a very damaged character and I did feel for her, partly due to Octavia’s Spencer’s brilliant portrayal. Her past might not excuse her actions, but it does explain them to some extent.

Overall Ma is a solid little thriller. It ends very abruptly and I would’ve preferred a little epilogue to tie a few things up, but that aside it’s very watchable. There’s no supernatural element so I hesitate to call it a horror, despite its stable. It could’ve been much more brutal and raw, but Blumhouse have made no apologies about aiming their films at the teen demographic, and with this film’s message about bullying and its effects they’re probably right on target. So don’t expect anything like Misery’s hobbling scene, which will stick in your mind for days (or years?) after. It’s scary with a small ‘s’ but for a teen date-movie it’ll do the trick.

Small Town Crime (2017) Movie Review By Darrin Gauthier 

Small Town Crime Review, An alcoholic ex-cop (Hawkes) finds the body of a young woman and, through an act of self-redemption, becomes hell-bent on finding the killer but unwittingly puts his family in danger and gets caught up with several dark characters along the way.

Directors: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Writers: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Stars: John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer 

Plot:  An alcoholic ex-cop (Hawkes) finds the body of a young woman and, through an act of self-redemption, becomes hell-bent on finding the killer.

Running Time: 91 Minutes

IMDB Score: 6.6

Why I Watched It: Mostly the cast, the trailer looked promising.

Random Thoughts: First off Small Town Crime is a bad title, alright not bad but boring and very generic honestly a 100 movies could be called that.

Octavia Spencer was one of the producers on this and what’s interesting about that is the film isn’t a star vehicle for her, she’s in it but a supporting role.

What I Liked: I didn’t know much about this film, I knew just what the trailer told me so I went in kind of blind or trailer blind and as it started I was wondering if this was going to be a straight drama or more of a crime thriller.  The film very much starts out as an indie character piece, Hawkes plays an ex-cop who is an alcoholic, and we follow him around and at this point I wasn’t sure where the film was going but at one point he finds a girl’s body and then the plot kicks in and we enter film noir/detective territory and for me this is when the film begins to get good, this is pretty much a noir, Hawkes pretty much begins investigating what happened to the girl and he and we meet a lot of quirky characters.  

Let me throw in that I love film noir, detective stories and sadly we don’t get many anymore but this one sucked me in for two main reasons the cast and the script,both are very good and for the most part understated, John Hawkes is a very good character actor and he’s perfect here cause he’s perfect at playing grey, he doesn’t come off good or bad, he’s kind of likeable but you’re not real sure, he has a very brutal backstory and that is done well, done in flashbacks and wants different is Hawkes character doesn’t really talk about it, it’s clear he’s carrying it but it’s not what this story is about.  The main plot is very layered and it tool me awhile to get the vibe that this is almost a private detective origin story.

The film is more straight forward than I thought it would be, this is a tight little thriller, it doesn’t have a lot of action but the violence is very gritty and it’s played straight and at times brutal.  The direction real is subtle, the Nelms brothers to their credit show re-straight and they don’t go big they keep this character based and they build slowly to the plot.  The cast here is very good now a thing of note Octavia Spencer plays John Hawkes sister, now in most films that would require an explanation or a big backstory not here, Anthony Anderson is married to Spencer’s character and for over half the movie we don’t know he’s Hawkes brother-in-law.  I can’t say how much a like a film not over explaining it’s characters and not bogging down a story with melodrama and back story. The mystery is done well I want to give a shout out to Michael Vartan who has the stock role of the helpful cop and Vartan not only underplays but does show he likes Hawkes character without having to say it.

What I Didn’t Like: Now the film is brisk at 91 minutes and it moves well but I do fell the beginning dragged, we see Hawkes character but we don’t learn anything about him, it takes the plot for us to get a clue about him.  I fell they could have used the first 15-20 minutes better, set him up a little more. I liked the cast but a couple of actors are very underused,  I love Robert Forster he has one good scene and that’s it, same as Clifton Collins Jr, he’s good here and he has a good little arc but he could have been drawn out better and defined more with more screen time. I will say for the most part the film does try very hard to be different but they do go to the huge cliche of someone getting kidnapped and we have to make an exchange finale, and yes a big shoot out, it works but it’s very very stock.

Final Thoughts: I enjoyed it, it is a little left of centre, not Hollywood or popcorn at all, it does a nice job of telling a well crafted but small scale film noir.

Rating: 8/10

The Shape of Water (2017) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin


Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay by)
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins

As I write this this review it has just been announced that “The Shape of Water” has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Director (Guillermo Del Toro), Best Original Screenplay (Written by Vanessa Taylor), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design and the Best Film Editing. All of the above by the way are very difficult to argue with for consideration at this years Academy Awards.

“The Shape of Water” in my opinion can only be described as a brilliantly weird story set in a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that is being held in captivity. Going back a few months ago I described the trailer like a ‘Monster of the Week’ episode of ‘The X-Files’. Now having seen the movie I still feel that way. The story is a very simple but strange tale of Elisa falling in love with this creature and the amphibian having the same feelings for her. Everything around the storyline is what makes the film so special. Yes the story is uniquely weird and I enjoyed that element of it. It’s classic Guillermo del Toro here we are talking about, who else can make a story like that work and be accepted. But going back to what I was saying, everything else around the story is what will make this movie stand out against the rest.

The cast and in particular Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins are amazing. Hawkins is an absolute joy to watch as the lonely janitor who works closely with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in the facility and although lives on her own spends most of her time with Giles (Richard Jenkins) and I will speak about both these characters shortly. Elisa to me is a strong woman in the sense that she understands what is happening in the facility towards the creature is wrong and knows that something has to be done to save it. Watching Hawkins interactions with the amphibian is interesting and sweet and you can see the challenges for the actress who because of the character being a mute and having to interact with a actor in a lizard suit is using her expressions and emotions more in a physically way than normal, you can be excused for thinking…this is weird. But honestly once you have watched this movie and every scene Hawkins is in you will understand why she has been nominated for Best Actress. The character has an inbuilt confidence about her towards the authorities and not in an obnoxious way, but a quiet confidence that although they see her as an inferior, which is probably due to her inability to speak and more prejudicially because of her occupation, she regards herself if not an equal, superior in a moral sense. Elisa is such a likeable character and Sally Hawkins portrays the role brilliantly.

Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller is somewhat the moral compass of the film. Riding high on the back of her amazing portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures the Academy Award Winning Actress (Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in The Help) again performs brilliantly and I was interested to see what kind of a character Zelda would be. She is probably Elisa’s best friend and work colleague. Both of them stick together in what is predominantly a male environment and have each other’s back. Zelda sees the good in Elisa and even when Elisa’s plan is in full flow and Zelda’s conscious flits back and forth between what is right and what is illegal, you know she is a good person and Spencer does well to portray that weight on her shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, Octavia Spencer is limited in her screen time and although I would have enjoyed a fuller role you just have to accept and enjoy her presence while you can.

Michael Shannon as the antagonistic Richard Strickland and leading the operation for the military is such a deep and intense character. Shannon continues to surprise me in his investment in his role and even though you are suppose to despise this character you can’t help wanting more when he isn’t on screen. Strickland is so invested in his career that his family life just appears to go through the motions with little interaction between him and his wife and kids. Bizarrely after a struggle with the amphibian, Strickland loses a couple of fingers, luckily found on the floor by Elisa but unfortunately not in time and although his digits are attached back onto his hand as the film progresses you can see (and thankfully not smell) his fingers becoming more bent out of shape and darkening. This to me illustrates the maniacal side of Shannon’s character, which I actually found rather amusing.

I know Richard Jenkins as more of a comedy actor and amazingly didn’t recognise at first playing the lonely Giles. As I previously mentioned, Giles and Elisa spend quite a bit of time together and chat about their days, although obviously Giles is the one doing the talking. Both of them although aren’t romantically connected share a common bond and companionship and spend most of their time together after work hours. Jenkins transformation physically is what through me off and his unique speech patterns for the character manage to mask the actor even further. He is brilliant in this role and really matches the benchmark of acting alongside Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon.

If there is one thing you are guaranteed with Director / Writer Guillermo Del Toro, that is a unique storyline. 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a great example of an excellent storyline that invests in the emotion and it’s characters. Del Toro is one of the best at this, regardless of how strange the plot may be he manages to draw you into his fantasy film and you can’t help but enjoy it. I am so glad he is on board to write and direct Pinocchio project as I think will be amazing and right down his street. Vanessa Taylor worked on the screenplay with Del Toro on “The Shape of Water” and looks like the perfect collaborator on this film. Taylor’s talents cannot be ignored here as although Del Toro’s name is more familiar, she is already in the process of working on next years (2019) Aladdin with Guy Ritchie and screenplay writer John August. Taylor’s previous work writing is mostly in television and most noticeably on HBO’s Game of Thrones and an excellent choice for this movie.

One of the most noticeable factors in “The Shape of Water” is the visuals. Sometimes the performances and direction can overshadow this and not deliberately but it is one of the first things the audience will intake and appreciate. The look of this film is both stunning and luscious in ever little detail. I can’t help but appreciate that the larger percentage of the look of this movie is practical effects and the Cinematography captures the look and feel to this perfectly, especially in the top secret facility that is enclosed with restrictive light and colours of green and rusty yellow are a common theme in this movie. Alexandre Desplat’s score also compliments the film in it’s eeriness and Desplat totally absorbs and understands what is required to give this unique film a unique sound. In his own words he said mentioned that melody he wrote for the opening scene is actually made of waves. Desplat admitted that he did not do that on purpose, but by being completely immersed in the love and the water elements, he wrote a melody that plays arpeggios like waves. Wow that is just amazing.

Overall “The Shape of Water” is a stunning piece of film and will dominate the Academy Awards. On a personal level though, it took me by surprise on how I felt going into the movie and what I got out of it in the end. The performances from the cast are breathtaking, the direction and story are what we now expect from Guillermo Del Toro but that doesn’t mean there are a few surprises on the journey. This is a film that is a must see and I can’t recommend this enough.

Fruitvale Station (2013) Movie Retro Review by John Walsh


Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer

A powerful and emotionally wrenching story that four years on from its release is still sadly revelant in today’s climate of ongoing, racially charged hatred. Much of the emotional content of this film stems from it being based on the real life murder of Oscar Grant. A young, 22 year old, African-American man who was shot in the back by police officer Johannes Mehserle after New Years celebrations at the titular Oakland rail station.

Mehserle, claimed to be reaching for his taser when he inexplicably pulled his gun instead and fired. What came next was the usual ghoulish media attention and riots from rightly outraged people. When word of the killing reached the attention of then film graduate Ryan Coogler, he was immediately inspired to tell the story of Oscar’s final 24 hours. He developed the script and with the financial backing from Forest Whitaker and his production company, soon set about making this a reality. And it’s in that inspiration where this film finds its real soul. The media almost always fails to convey the human story in these situations. Coogler rights that particular wrong here, shirks going down the usual route of overly politicising the story and instead delves into the real tragedy. I.e. Oscar and his loved ones. It focuses on who he was as a person and manages to breath a new, more intimate, personal perspective into both the atrocity.

There was accusatory criticism levelled at Fruitvale after it’s release for over romanticising the life of Oscar, portrayed by the immensely talented Michael B. Jordan. If it is guilty of this then it’s a forgivable use of artistic licence, especially in the early part of the film, when the viewer is still forming an emotional connection to the character. It does have a few unlikely soppy scenes in there. The chief of which being his epiphany like moment when he throws a zipper full of marijuana into the sea to denote a new found sense of maturity. You’ve also got the fairly ridiculous, foreshadowing meeting with the dog at the gas station, which is then the victim of an unlikely hit and run, ultimately dying in his hands and even the semi-flirtatious brush with a young lady at the supermarket in desperate need of some cooking advice, which Oscar selflessly provides via his old grandma.

Ok, maybe I’m being harsh with the last one, I mean that may well have happened, he did work at a supermarket, but the marijuana incident is an embellished truth at best and the dog scene is the pure figment of Coogler’s imagination for sure.

In Coogler’s defence though, he does counterbalance these couple of holier than thou traits with the more human like faults (for want of a better word) you’d expect in a young man of that age, growing up within that difficult environment. For instance, it’s established early on that Oscar has been guilty of cheating on his wife, potentially endangering his marriage and relationship with his four year old daughter. He’s been guilty of dealing drugs (admittedly to keep a roof over his family’s head), and at the point we join him, has just lost his job for repeatedly poor timekeeping. He’s also seen serving time in prison via a nicely worked flashback with his mother Wanda, played by the wonderful Octavia Spencer. A flashback, which incidentally, continues the ongoing psyche balancing act by showcasing his potential for hot headedness and quickness to anger.

I could understand this criticism more if the man is put forward as a messiah like figure, but he isn’t. If anything, Fruitvale paints an impressively complicated figure of Oscar. It does project the kind, thoughtful and family man aspects, but the aforementioned deliberate counterbalancing of his character means the criticism is ultimately misplaced and more than a little harsh. It really stems back to what I mentioned earlier. This film is a brilliant portrait of Oscar, taking a good, reflective look at his side of the story, and by all accounts, the facts are pretty much bang on. He was indeed married with a young daughter and had recently lost his job, and even the darker sides of his life, like the time spent in prison and drug dealing are accurately depicted.

In the end, Ryan Coogler did exactly what he aspired to do in telling Oscar’s story and putting his final day on film. In doing so, he also delivered a pretty damning indictment on the modern issues that seem to be afflicting many young African-Americans. Most notably, the incarceration many disenfranchised, young men face for repeat offending, a problem only exacerbated by the complete lack of opportunity given to them, and last but by no means least, the systematic racism still ingrained in many police forces to this day. A problem that causes killings like Oscar’s to be repeated again and again on an almost yearly basis. If films like this, by portraying the human story in the frenzied media reporting of such incidents, can change attitudes in even a small proportion of people then that can’t be a bad thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film from pretty much the start to finish. It possessed a moving, engrossing and excellent story. This was definitely enhanced by the mere presence of Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer. Both delivered exceptional performances alongside Melonie Diaz, who was also excellent as Sophina. It’s a surprisingly short film, but it’s brilliant and definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 4/5

Hidden Figures (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh


Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Allison Schroeder (screenplay), Theodore Melfi (screenplay) 
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

Hidden Figures is the highly enjoyable, heartwarming and at times humorous biopic from Theodore Melfi. It’s takes us back to 1961, a time of racial segregation and widespread sexism, at the beginning of the space race between the two Cold War superpowers. Based on the fairly unknown stories of three NASA scientists whose calculations, coding and engineering feats were integral to John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth and many later historical missions.

The film follows the lives of Katherine Goble (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) part of the female dominated, human computers group tasked with performing calculations before the advent of their digital successors. We meet an irritated Al Harrison (Kevin Costner); a NASA director, frustrated by the slow progress in the fitting of a new IBM mainframe and in urgent need of someone capable of performing advanced analytical calculations. The organisation is forced to broaden its workforce and become a meritocracy of sorts in its urgency to catch the Soviet Union; giving Katherine, a mathematical prodigy; Mary, an aspiring engineer and later Dorothy, the opportunity to finally show their talents and further their careers, which had been denied any recognition and faced stagnation prior to the films events.

Katherine initially struggles to adapt to her new work environment and the intense demands placed upon her. The cold, racist intolerance that greets her from the white male dominated, space task group and the half mile dashes to the sole ‘colored only’ toilet in the West area section of the Langley Research Centre, not helping matters. Mary and Dorothy face their own trying set of circumstances too. The former having to overcome draconian state laws, despite having an encouraging engineering mentor in Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), just to be able to attend night classes at a non-segregated college. The latter being denied a deserved promotion to the role of supervisor, whilst pretty much doing the job already, by the condescending, racist in denial Vivian (Kirsten Dunst). “That’s NASA for you. Quick with rockets and slow with advancement” Vivian tells Dorothy, a quote which represents the wider story in microcosm.

The trio of Tatraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe deliver stellar performances in this film. Their three characters lives are tightly woven together into the main story and you get a real sense of bond and camaraderie between them from their first moments on screen together in Dorothy’s stalled car all the way through to the end. Schroeder and Melfi do a truly fantastic job of developing each of them, effectively splitting their screen time to really focus on each characters individual story arc. Katherine is the clear lead, of course, with much of the films main action focusing around her attempts to help both successfully and safely send Glenn into space then bring him back home in one piece. She delivers an explosive, powerful speech after getting soaked through during one of her numerous runs to the toilet across the complex and being questioned on her frequent absences after returning. Mary’s journey and fight against institutional racism to become NASA’s first black female engineer is also beautifully portrayed, her reactions both inside and outside the court to being allowed lessons at a white only college was particularly memorable. Dorothy too has her moments. Fighting tooth and nail for both her and her ‘computers’ careers, by learning to code the new IBM machine that threatens to end them. She also has a particularly poignant moment after being removed from a public library for venturing out of the ‘colored only’ section, taking the book which ultimately aids her in the above process.

The supporting cast are also excellent for the most part, providing a decent platform for the leading trio to build from. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst play Paul Stafford; the passive racist, rather annoying, openly sexist head engineer of the task group and Vivian Mitchell; the equally ignorant head of the computers group very effectively. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison and he quietly delivers a quality performance as the often moody, goal driven director of the task group. He does have a few cringe moments, I’m not going to lie, especially when removing the ‘colored bathroom’ sign with a hammer. His “At NASA we all pee the same colour” quote directly afterwards, although bordering on cringeworthy, was quite humorous and reflected the organisations growing realisation that in order to catch the Soviets, everyone would have to pull together. That leaves just a couple of honourable mentions for Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson; who added a bit of romanticism to the story as his relationship with Katherine developed throughout and finally Glenn Powell as John Glenn; the charismatic astronaut who is the only non person of colour outwith Al Harrison perhaps to not come across as at least a little racist.

That’s not to suggest the other characters, such as Paul and Vivian, remained utterly ignorant, racist cretins, because they absolutely didn’t. Both showed signs of development and changes in their attitudes as the film progressed. Vivian approving Dorothy and her groups transfer to working with the IBM machine with the warmth and humility lacking earlier. Whilst Paul, who was visibly disgusted at Katherine’s drinking at the shared coffee station early in the film, hands her a cup in one of the very last shots.

Visually, the film was beautifully shot with excellent costume and hair design. Mandy Walker blended archive footage from around the time almost seamlessly with shots from the films.

Musically, the film was scored by Hans Zimmler with Pharrell helping in the producing of several tracks, including a few of his own. The music fit in well with the period and ‘Runnin’ from Pharrell worked well in the comedic scenes featuring Katherine’s dashes across the complex.