Friday, January 26, 2007

Gigantic Disaster | Epic Movie

Earlier this week, the nominees for the Razzie Awards were announced, honoring the absolute worst films of the year. Co-directors and writers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have given us the first truly awful film of the year in Epic Movie, a movie so bad you have to question why it was made in the first place.

Back in the day, we had spoofs that were created around specific themes and were also hilarious. There was Airplane, which sent up films like Airport, Airport ’75, etc. Keenan Ivory Wayans created two that were right on the mark, spoofing Blaxploitation films in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and, later, Scary Movie. Those were the good old funny days!

Friedberg and Seltzer don’t really have a specific target they’re spoofing – and within five minutes it becomes painfully apparent. Using a shotgun approach, they fire off jokes everywhere and not one comes even close to being funny. The basic story is four orphans (The Chronicles of Narnia), individually receive “Golden Tickets” (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) inviting them to take an “epic adventure.” Once our fearsome foursome arrive in “Gnarnia,” they wage war with the evil “White Be-yatch" for control of the kingdom.

There are a plethora of films that the filmmakers attempt to spoof including The DaVinci Code, Nacho Libre, Snakes on a Plane, X-Men, Mission Impossible, Harry Potter, Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, not one of these lame, lazy, tired jokes work in this train-wreck of a film. The problem is not just that the jokes don’t work, but that the filmmakers lack a basic imagination to execute such a cumbersome plot.

Toward the end of the film, our four orphans are shown writing their names while urinating. That’s exactly what the filmmakers have done to anyone foolish enough to buy a ticket this “epic disaster.”

This review appeared on

All Smoke, No Fire | Smokin Aces'

Violence is as violence does in director Joe Carnahan’s new film, Smokin’ Aces, the extremely violent follow-up to his directorial debut, Narc.

The initial impression that one gets from watching the film’s trailer is that Carnahan is attempting to revive the “pulp” genre. You remember the films that were peppered with seedy people in remote places doing very bad deeds, double-crossing one another, living by their “criminal’s code.”

Director Quentin Tarantino re-introduced the long-forgotten genre first with, Reservoir Dogs and later Pulp Fiction as well as his Kill Bill series. The popularity of those films spawned other pulp tales that included 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. In Carnahan’s latest, he attempts to revive the genre with mixed results.

Initially we are introduced to Las Vegas magician, Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) who, according to his backstory, has been doing his thing “Sinatra-style.” Not content to live life in entertainment, he courts and develops mob connections that place him truly in harm’s way. Hiding out in a penthouse suite in Vegas Israel intends to rat out his mob brethren, but not before dying mob boss, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) places a $1 million bounty on his head. FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds), staking out the Don’s home, overhear his plans and are off to Sin City to protect their important witness.

Once the word gets out about the bounty, a group of seven of the most dangerous, highly trained, extremely-crazy motley crew of hitmen converge on Las Vegas (featuring Alicia Keys, Taraji Henson, Chris Pine, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan). Israel’s crew is led by his second-in-command, Sir Ivy (Common).

Then there’s a mysterious twist that shows FBI Field Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) in possession of some information that has to do with the plot, but what? As the hitmen close in, Ivy overhears Israel giving everyone up and preparing to run. His actions kick this ultra-violent film into overdrive. For a 30-minute period, the ensuing explicit and gratuitous bloodbath is one of the most intense ever in a major studio film.

Featuring one hitman who chews off his fingertips so that he can’t be printed, a neo-Nazi crew, an psychopath who kills his victims then makes facial mold masks of them to steal their identity.

There are several shining stars including the perfectly cast Keys, Henson and Common, as well as Reynolds and Piven. Making their film debuts, both Keys and Common make a seamlessly transition music to the big screen, at one point sharing a tender sexy scene together. One advantage that both have is that in addition to performing to large audiences, they both make countless mini-films (videos) frequently and have developed a comfort level performing in front of the camera.

This high-octane adventure is long on style but painfully short on substance. The film’s problem is that at times it appears that Carnahan is telling two separate stories, with scenes and subplots that don’t belong.

There’s a worthless subplot about a young wigga, dressed like ’07 karate kid who speaks fluid ebonics. His trailer-park grandmother finds his antics amusing, but they don’t belong in this or any other movie for that matter. By the time the plot is revealed, it will still require further examination. Ultimately, this film just never catches fire – just emits a lot of loud worthless smoke.

This review appeared on

Cruz Control | Volver

Also opening this week is the Oscar-nominated film, Volver. Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar's film explores the themes of loss, forgiveness, compassion and ultimately family unity.

For years, I wondered about the appeal of actress Penélope Cruz. Yeah, she dated Tom Cruz (who hasn't?) and co-starred with him in Vanilla Sky (a remake of her earlier film, Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes)) . I still didn't understand what was the big deal about her. Then along came Volver, where Cruz gives a dynamic performance and therefore elimating any doubt I have about this Spanish beauty.

The film tells the story of two sisters living in Madrid. Raimunda (Cruz) lives with her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), and her husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), who's always drunk. Her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), is separated and works clandestinely as a hairstylist for women. The two sisters lost their parents in a fire in La Mancha, their birth village, years ago. In the village remains only their aunt Paula that continue to speak about her sister Irene (Carmen Maura), mother of the two, as if she is still alive.

One day Raimunda comes home to find her husband dead in her kitchen. Seems he had the misfortune of making a sexual advance toward his step-daughter, Paula, and she took matters into her own hands. Instantly, Raimunda seeks to protect her by taking responsibility and disposing of the body. After a failed attempt, she hides it in a freezer in the store of a friend next door to her home.

Meanwhile, Sole has found out that their aunt Paula has died and invites Raimunda to attend the funeral with her. Too busy disposing her dead husband's body, Raimunda passes to tend to matters closer to home. Sole accepts her late aunt's condolences and makes her way home only to discover something that initially is shocking but later will bring their somewhat scattered family back together.

Raimunda has the good fortune of meeting a film crew member who is seeking a caterer to feed a film production crew making a movie. She opens up the closed store to cater meals for the cast -- while keeping a close eye on the frozen corpse in the freezer. Sole is dealing with her new discovery and beginning to understand the meaning of compassion and forgiveness.

The film takes a minute to get jump started but once it does it's rich layered texture grabs you and refuses to let go of your emotional heartstrings. Cruz is deliciously delightful in the lead role infusing her character with a tender vulnerability and humanity. Almodóvar magically weaves this somewhat humor story bringing out the best from not only Cruz, but the rest of this multi-talented cast of extraordinary women.

Almodóvar really succeeds in creating wonderful dialogue for his cast. As the entry from Mexico, Volver along with Germany's The Lives of Others and Spain's Pan's Labrynith, this trio of films were easily some of the best foreign films released last year.

By the conclusion of Volver, your spirit will soar and hopefully, you'll understand what Almodóvar does when he puts it in "Cruz Control."

Chocolate Mess | Blood and Chocolate

Young Vivian Gandillon (Agnes Bruckner) is carrying a heavy burden at the beginning of predictable horror film, Blood and Chocolate. Running through the streets of Romania, she has a lot on her mind. It seems ten years earlier, she was responsible for the death of her family when it was revealed that they were not necessarily human.

Now 19, she is living her life in isolation, content to make chocolates by day and hang in trendy secret clubs at night. Apparently Vivian is special – and a werewolf. According to their prophecy, a young woman will come along and usher in “the age of hope.” (Want to take a guess who that woman could be?) Just as she was resigned to her mundane existence she meets a mysterious American artist, Aidan (Hugh Dancy), who just happens to be working on graphic novel about what else – werewolves. What a coincidence!

Meanwhile, back at the Wolfpack headquarters, HWIC (Head Wolf in Charge) Gabriel (Oliver Martinez), is also restless. It seems that every 7 years, the leader of the pack takes a new wife. Currently, he is with Vivian’s aunt Astrid (Katja Riemann), who is disappointed that her time as the “first lady” is coming to an end. Word on the street says Gabriel is trying to keep it in the family and has his sights on Vivian to succeed her aunt. But, Vivian has eyes only for Aidan.

Featuring the obligatory “Falling In Love” montage, the two grow closer while she tries to hide her “secret” from him. Her young cousin and heir to the pack, Rafe (Bryan Dick), tries to divide this Romeo and Juliet. His insistence that Vivian is already “spoken for” only fuels their desires to be together.

Borrowing liberally from both Underworld and Lost Boys, Blood and Chocolate feels like an MTV-version of “Werewolf in Bucharest.” The sleek and buffed “catwalk werewolves” easily could be mistaken for Fashion Week models rather than actors.

You have to give the actors credit for trying to breath life into such corny dialogue. Witness Gabriel telling his son, “hunt as a pack or not at all.” In another scene, Vivian refuses to give Aidan her name when they first meet. I’ll give you one guess what he calls her the next time they meet – “Wolfgirl.” Her embarrassed look screamed, “Shh, not so loud; I don’t want everyone to know I’m in this hot mess!”

Later, Astrid tries to dissuade Vivian from running away with Aidan. “Tell me not to love him,” requests Vivian. With no comeback, Astrid simply tells Vivian to “run free.” I wanted to say, I wish you had told us earlier; I would have gotten a healthy head start out of the theatre. Talk about prophecy and “the age of hope.” My hope is that there’s no sequel to the chocolate mess.

This review also appeared on

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Snub You Very Much | 2007 Academy Awards

This year’s Oscar nominations were the best and worst of both worlds. The film Dreamgirls led the pack with eight nominations but did not receive nominations in two categories in which it was considered a shoo-in: Best Director and Best Picture.

It was also a fantastic year for African-American and African actors. A record five acting nominations were presented to this year’s class, which included Forest Whitaker and Will Smith for Best Actor, Jennifer Hudson for Best Supporting Actress and Djimon Hounsou and Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting Actor. Both Whitaker and Hudson are also considered the frontrunners to win in their respective categories.

In addition to its acting nominations, Dreamgirls received nominations for three songs (“Listen,” “Love You I Do,” and “Patience”), as well as for Costume Design and Sound Mixing. There is a precedent for directors to be passed over, but the snub for Best Picture is a truly puzzling. In addition, Prince, who won a Golden Globe for his song in Happy Feet, and Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige’s passionate anthem, “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” from Bobby was passed over as well.

With over a month until Oscar night, we examine the major categories.

Best Actor
Whitaker’s dazzling, three-dimensional performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin left a lasting impression with the Academy's voters. Smith gave an emotional and touching performance in The Pursuit of Happyness. Leonardo DiCaprio was great in Blood Diamond. Ryan Gosling’s quietly-effective turn as a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson was moving. And Peter O’Toole gives a heartbreaking performance in a May/December romance in Venus.

Love To Snub You Baby
Jamie Foxx will be invited to the party but will have to sit at the small table this year. Derek Luke did fine work in Catch A Fire but, unfortunately, he’ll have to wait until next year.

The Pretenders
O’Toole was touchingly funny in Venus; Ryan Gosling gave a touching turn as a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson.

The Contenders
DiCaprio was recognized for one of his two great performances this year; Smith also gave a career performance.

The Envelope Goes To...
Whitaker’s signature performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin should win the top prize.

Best Actress
In the most star-studded and predictable category of this year’s Oscar, the usual suspects are represented in all their splendor. British actors Helen Mirren (The Queen), Judi Dench (Notes On A Scandal) and Kate Winslet (Little Children) all were amazing in their respective films. Penelope Cruz reconnects with her family in Volver, while Meryl Streep receives another nod as the ghastly boss from Hell in The Devil Wears Prada.

Love To Snub You Baby
Beyoncé Knowles was passed over in Dreamgirls. Keke Palmer was overlooked for Akeelah and The Bee, while Sanaa Lathan received the same old treatment for Something New.

The Pretenders
Both Cruz (Volver) and Winslet (Little Children) will look lovely on Oscar night, but as Snoop Dogg would say, “That’s That!”

The Contenders
Streep and Dench are well-respected, but this is not their year.

The Envelope Goes To...
All of the momentum is with Mirren who has been recognized as both Queen Elizabeth I and II.

Best Supporting Actor
Eddie Murphy finally gets a nomination, 25 years after the beginning of his film career. Hounsou’s supercharged performance garners him a second nomination. Mark Wahlberg stole all of his scenes in The Departed. Arkin was deviously good in Little Miss Sunshine, while Jackie Earle Haley was huge in Little Children.

Love To Snub You Baby
Jaden Smith was ignored for his performance in The Pursuit of Happyness. Laurence Fishburne was not recognized for his great work in Akeelah and the Bee. Chiwetel Ejiofor was solid in two films (Kinky Boots and Children of Men) and overlooked.

The Pretenders
Wahlberg, Haley and Hounsou are gearing up for a serious night of networking, just don’t expect to see any of them onstage accepting a trophy.

The Contenders
This is a two-horse race between two sentimental choices. Arkin returns as a nominee after a long absence, but it feels like this could be Murphy’s year.

The Envelope Goes To...
Murphy. His first truly dramatic role brings him the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Hudson burst onstage like a supernova, dominating arguably the year’s best film with her powerful vocals in Dreamgirls. She’ll have to contend with twin nominees from Babel (Adrianna Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi). Don’t discount sweetheart Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and the formidable Cate Blanchett, who would be the frontrunner if Hudson were not in this category.

Love To Snub You Baby
Shareeka Epps was sensational in the little-seen Half Nelson. Kerry Washington was ignored for her performance in The Last King of Scotland. The mother of future humanity, Clare-Hope Ashitey, was not recognized in Children of Men.

The Pretenders
Kikuchi, Barraza and Breslin are all first-time nominees; maybe the second time will be a charm.

The Contenders
Blanchett proved that she makes wise choices and is able to execute many different characters.

The Envelope Goes To...
Hudson. This Dreamgirl will be an American Idol when her name is called on Oscar night.

Best Director
Will this finally be Martin Scorsese’s year? Unfortunately for him, his cinematic nemesis, Clint Eastwood, will stare him down again on Oscar night. Paul Greengrass was recognized for his deeply moving United 93. While both Stephen Frears (The Queen) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel) oversaw complex, yet effective, productions.

Love To Snub You Baby
What is going to take to get Spike Lee a nomination? Inside Man was Lee’s most accessible film to date, featuring a powerhouse cast and, once again, no nomination. Bill Condon, Dreamgirls' director, successfully adapted a successful Broadway play into an uber-successful film and was passed over. Ask Steven Spielberg about The Color Purple.

The Pretenders
Greengrass and Inarritu round out this competitive category.

The Contenders
Never discount Eastwood, even though it feels like he won a lot this decade. Also, Frears may prove formidable.

The Envelope Goes To...
Scorsese. He gets it, but not for his best film ever (think: Goodfellas or Raging Bull.)

Best Film
Hollywood kept it all-White again this year, ignoring the obvious choice in Dreamgirls. The best of the rest include a film about a mole infiltrating a group of Boston mobsters, an embattled family of royals dealing with the death of a princess, one really dysfunctional family traveling cross country to a beauty pageant, a Crash-esque drama that occurs in separate continents and the long-awaited Japanese side of the Iwo Jima story.

Love To Snub You Baby
In 1985, The Color Purple received 11 nominations and went home empty handed. Is it better to be shutout on Oscar night or not be invited to the party? It feels awfully strange that Dreamgirls was the equal of this category’s nominees, and receiving the most nominations, will not be acknowledged as one of the year’s best films.

The Pretenders
If Scorsese wins Best Director, The Departed will not win in this category.

The Contenders
An argument can be made for each of the remaining films. Each has won either major critics’ awards or Golden Globes nominations.

The Envelope Goes To...
The call here is either Babel or Little Miss Sunshine.

This article also appeared on

The Fab Five Make Black History

It's a good day for Black Hollywood. Dreamgirls dominated this year's Oscar nomination announcements with eight nods, and a record five Black actors were nominated in major acting categories for the first time.

Dreamgirls received Best Supporting Actress nominations for Jennifer Hudson, Best Supporting Actor for Eddie Murphy, but surprisingly, no nominations for Bill Condon or for Best Picture. Both Murphy and Hudson are first-time nominees.

Forest Whitaker followed his Golden Globe win last week with a Best Actor nomination for The Last King of Scotland.

Whitaker, the frontrunner and first-time nominee, hopes to be the fourth African-American actor to take home the coveted top prize, walking in the illustrious footsteps of Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx.

Will Smith received his second nomination for The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith previously received a Best Actor nomination for Ali. Djimon Hounsou, who was shut out for a Golden Globe nomination, received his second Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in Blood Diamond.

Historically, it was a watershed moment for African-American actors who received four nominations in 2004, although Jamie Foxx was a double nominee for Ray and Collateral. Along with Don Cheadle, both Foxx and Morgan Freeman took home statues that year.

This story also appeared on

Little Man, Big Loser | 2007 Razzie Awards Nominees

The foul smell coming from this year’s most nominated Razzie Awards film could have come from the diaper of Little Man.

The film which told the story of a mini-criminal, mistaken for a child and adopted by a family, received seven nominations including Worst Picture, Worst Director and duel Worst Actor nominations for both Shawn and Marlon Wayans.

The year’s other big loser was Basic Instinct 2, tying Little Man with seven nomination also including Worst Picture and Worst Actress for Sharon Stone. The film also received a nomination for worst screen couple for Stone's "lopsided breasts.

The other worst-picture nominees were the fantasies BloodRayne and Lady in the Water and the thriller The Wicker Man.

The losers will be announced on February 24, the day before the Academy Awards.

This story also appeared on

Friday, January 19, 2007

Cinematic Royalty | The Queen

Several years ago, Jamie Foxx donned a pair of dark shades and delivered one of the best performances ever captured in the biopic, Ray. Too paraphrase Snoop Dogg, Helen Mirren drops it like it’s hot as Elizabeth II in The Queen. Not only did she win the Best Actor Golden Globe for this performance, she also won the television equivalent playing Elizabeth I in the HBO mini-series.

The film covers one of the most turbulent weeks in her monarchy that began with the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. Meanwhile the Queen struggles presenting the proper tone to the people of England. Should she keep a stiff upper lip, with business as usual or should she take a more personal approach?

With the help of newly elected Prime Minister (Michael Sheen), he persuades the Queen that she must reconnect with the people and by doing so it could make the grieving process easier for the entire nation.

Every element of this film works fabulously which starts with Mirren’s extraordinary performance. For people who don’t have an opportunity to observe the inner workings of the monarchy, director Stephen Frears’ film possesses a documentary feel. He gets wonderful supporting performances from Sheen, James Cromwell (Prince Phillip), and Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair).

Mirren brings a quiet dignity and elegant restraint to her performance that is unmatched by any actress in film this year. That's quite an achievement considering both Dame Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal) and the incomparable Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada) were both equally brilliant on screen last year; still Mirren reigns supreme.

With a witty and introspective script, The Queen ultimately soars. One of the best scenes in the film is The Queen taking a ride on her property, only to experience trouble with her vehicle. While quietly surveying the view, she encounters a deer that holds her gaze and then, poof, he’s gone. We like that deer continue to be impressed with her consistent artistry. Besides, isn’t that what royalty is all about?

Disinterested Terror | The Hitcher

“Let me say for the record that I’m not a big fan of horror films. In fact they’re probably my least favorite genre to watch. I was never a fan of films that wanted to scare me just for the cheap thrill. I thought films were much scarier when they left a little to the imagination instead of showing all of the blood and gore. Based on the 1986 cult film with the same title, The Hitcher once again demonstrates the desperate and sad shape Hollywood is in that it continues to recycle bad movies for a new generation.

The film tells the story of a young couple Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) and Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton), on their way to meet friends during spring break. They are looking forward to a week of fun and friendship unaware of pending disaster. While driving down a rainy highway, they almost hit a mysterious hitchhiker John Ryder, a.k.a. The Hitcher (Sean Bean) standing in the road. Jim wants to get out to check if Ryder is alright and with wisdom seldom uttered in films, Grace screams, “People don’t pick up strangers.” With that, they burn wet rubber and are safe, momentarily.

Apparently, Ryder has read the script and knows he has plenty of time to terrorize this young couple and does he with a casual, twisted and almost indifferent gusto (we’ll get to that later). He talks his way into their car and before they can get comfortable he goes koo koo crazy. He threatens to kill them both before they can eject him from their moving car. Guess since Ryder destroyed one cellphone and took the other, they can’t contact the police either. Hell, why would they? Who would believe them anyway?

Just when it appears they have avoided our crazy friend, like Ray-J, he resurfaces once again to dispose of a poor family leaving our clueless couple to once again take the blame. Over and over, The Hitcher kills and Grace/Jim are charged. You would think eventually, like the audience, they would figure this out. One would have figured wrong.

Bean as The Hitcher seems to sleepwalk his way through the film, at times almost appearing bored. It was if he finally realized – too late -- that he’s cashed the studio’s check and now has to go through with some performance. Grace and Jim are just faceless victims, the message that they could be any random young white couple in danger.

If you have plans to catch a movie this weekend and you think this may be the one, save your time and your money and just go to your local video store – and rent the original!

This review also appeared on

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hollywood Dreamin' | King -- The Film!

Yesterday marked what would have been the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Once again as a nation we paused to reflect on his life, achievements and “his dream.” Although Dr. King has bestowed countless honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize and finally a national holiday, still one thing continues to elude him that will reintroduce him to this and coming generations – a major Hollywood motion picture.

The time is now to finalize a deal and begin pre-production. Next year will mark 40 years since “The Dreamer” was silenced.

For those who will ask, “what about the HBO film, Boycott with Jeffrey Wright and Carmen Ejogo or the 1978 miniseries, King with Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson?”

Each of those were television productions; I’m talking about giving Dr. King the big screen experience.

Here’s the concept for the King motion picture: It’s 1953 and a 24-year old minister has just been hired to take over The Dexter Street Baptist Church. Atlanta born and bred, young minister King would go from another small, little known southern preacher to national civil rights leader as he took over the leadership of the Montgomery Boycott and later the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

The film will continue to show his rise and the internal conflict that existed among younger African-Americans who found another rising leader, Malcolm X, and his more militant views more palatable.

In the final act, King has won the Nobel Peace Prize, but when he speaks out against the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson is furious and severs relations. The mainstream media that had supported him in the past also turn it’s back on King. While in Memphis, he gives the Mountaintop speech and is assassinated the following day.

I even have a dream cast in mind, led by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in the lead and Sanaa Lathan as Coretta Scott King. Foxx has shown his acting chops as Ray and I can visualize him giving the two speeches that highlight the film, I Have A Dream and The Mountain Top. Lathan brings a certain cinematic class and carriage that would be perfect for the quiet dignity that Scott King displayed. In addition Halle Berry as Rosa Parks; Don Cheadle as Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Mario Van Peebles as Andrew Young; Will Smith as Jesse Jackson; Terrence Howard as Bayard Rustin and Morgan Freeman as Martin Luther King, Sr. Spike Lee will direct.

Each of the abovementioned actors have a passing resemblance to each of the principals they will portray. Lee will bring his trademark cinematic intensity to the project along with haunting score from longtime collaborator Terrence Blanchard.

So there it is. Hollywood has given us biopics of JFK, RFK (Bobby), Malcolm X and Ali. Now is the time for King – The Motion Picture!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Love is Gonna Get You! | Stomp the Yard

Almost twenty years ago, Spike Lee introduced mainstream America to African-American life at a fictional historically black college. His film, School Daze, showed fraternities and sororities interacting coupled with an intelligent political message.

Fast-forward to the present and Lee’s vision of black college life gets a fresh makeover in the new film, Stomp the Yard. The film opens like the sequel to You Got Served with two groups of dancers battling each other in cramped warehouse. Wonderfully choreographed movements and slow motion cuts highlight the amazing dance routines. The aftermath turns violent and DJ’s (Columbus Short) brother and dance partner Duron (Chris Brown) is mortally wounded.

Still grieving and confused, DJ suddenly leaves Los Angeles to live with his aunt and uncle in Atlanta. DJ enrolls in Truth University and before he can register for his classes he takes an instant liking to fellow student, April (Meagan Good). During one of his forays to get her attention, he interrupts one of the fraternities and instantly makes an enemy of the frat’s best stepper Grant (Darrin Henson) who just so happens to be . . . April’s boyfriend.

Taking matters into his own hand, DJ shows up Grant at a local club and not only drawing the attention of April, but the two competing fraternities who both try to recruit the “Lebron James of dance” in hopes of winning the annual steppin’ championship.

In an earlier Lee film, Mo’ Better Blues, one issue that I had with the screenplay was that Denzel’s character was too nice in the first act. When he receives his comeuppance in the film’s final act it didn’t resonate because it was not properly set up in the film’s beginning. The exact same thing happens in Stomp the Yard. You never get a sense that DJ is a bad kid, just one in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The film's final act is predictable and contains a couple of subplots that never feel like they fit in the film but only serve to get you to the film’s finale. What makes the film succeed is it’s amazing dance sequences and sheer physicality. The final result feels like the filmmakers combined elements of School Daze, You Got Served and Drumline with a dash of Breakin’.

Ultimately what saves and redeems DJ is the love from a good woman, a second chance at life and just one stage. The only thing missing was DJ proudly proclaiming to Grant, "you just got served!"

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mom, Make It Stop! | Arthur and the Incredibles

Some years ago, I remember getting into a heated argument on a television show with a film colleague as we were discussing the merits of a film for young children. My argument to my him was that he didn't like the film because he was not the demographic that the film was targeting.

Well it turnabout is fair play. I feel his pain after sitting through Arthur and The Incredibles, a film that was incredibly confusing and
. . . real bad!

Young Archibald aka Arthur (I sat next to WJLA-TV's Arch Campbell and he couldn't understand either how Archibald morphed into Arthur; who knew!) lives alone with grandmother on a farm in the middle of nowhere (Mia Farrow) and is an adventurer at heart. Seems his grandfather, who was an explorer just up and disappeared some time ago. We see early that grandma Farrow misses him dearly and marks each day she misses him with another calendar page in the "Days I Miss You" box. Last time she saw him he was in search of rubies in Africa or something to that effect.

Young Arthur needs an adventure and the film accommodates him by interjecting a bad creditor who wants to confiscate grandma's land. Seems that if she can't produce a signature from her missing husband in two days, she is going to be evicted from her property. What's a 10-year old to do? C'mon, find the rubies and pay the debt -- in 48 hours!

Before you know it, Arthur discovers clues left by grandpa, African warriors show up and a convoluted story about a special opening created in the backyard every 10 moons (that's 10 months for the uninformed). Before you can say Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Arthur shrinks to miniture-size and finds himself in another world -- again, underground in his backyard. In this new world, Madonna is a princess, Snoop Dogg runs a club with his assistant Anthony Anderson (with both sporting fuzzy locks), while several of the Goodfellas (Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Chazz Palmenteri) round out the supporting cast. David Bowie is the evil overlord who seeks to take over lower backyard.

I wish I could say that I was able to concentrate totally on the film, but a wonderful mother had a screaming baby in the theatre and refused to take her out to the lobby. We're not mad at the baby, but the mother should have shown some mercy and not exposed a small child to such cruel and unusual punishment.

But the one good thing that this incredibly bad film accomplished is that it did eventually put that child to sleep. Sadly, I wish I too could have joined that lucky child!

Young, High and Stupid | Alpha Dog

Thirty years ago in Animal House, Dean Wormer once told a student that “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Never has a sentiment rang truer than in Nick Cassavetes’ latest film, Alpha Dog.

The film is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a young drug dealer who became one of the youngest men ever on the FBI Most Wanted List. Told in a semi-documentary style, the film examines the kidnapping of a rival’s brother over a three-day time period with close to 40 witnesses to the crime.

Young Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh) is running a mid-level drug dealing operation when a relationship with a high-strung employee, Jake (Ben Foster) goes violently wrong. Unafraid and not intimidated by Johnny, Jake (a stereotypical Hollywood white supremacist character) wages war. Robbing Johnny’s house and in a final act of defiance, he defecates on his living room floor.

Unsure of his next act and afraid, Johnny and his crew (featuring Justin Timberlake and boxer Fernando Vargas) stumble upon Jake’s restless younger brother, Zack (the engaging Anton Yelchin) and decide to kidnap him and hold for ransom.

Everything is going to plan except for one thing that his captors never counted on, Zack loves hanging with his “new friends.” In fact, you get the impression from watching him and begin to understand that he is having the best weekend of his young life. What’s not to like, he gets high, is the middle of a love sandwich and he’s suddenly the center of attention with his peers.

The only problem is that his parents (more to the point, his mother) is worried sick about his whereabouts and Jake is seething vowing vengeance when he gets his hands on Johnny.

The young and blunted will love this film and you have to give Cassavetes’ credit for this attempt. Featuring a less-than-desired screenplay (“men are not meant to be monopolis” or “my shirt is cool, Bob Marley is cool, but kidnapping a kid is not cool”), Alpha Dog marginally succeeds only because of the performances. Timberlake follows his hilarious SNL hosting duties with a likeable performance, while Sharon Stone turns in her second strong performance as the despondent mother. Bruce Willis is wasted in the role of Johnny’s father, Sonny. But the two key performances are the brothers. Yelchin accommodating personality is understating building toward a sad and unfortunate conclusion. Foster’s frenetically charged Jake sizzles while he’s onscreen. His absence toward end sucks the remaining energy from the film.

As I watched the film, I tried to picture a community with so many clueless and disrespected parents raising burnout children. The cinematic demise of the American family continues. The inmates are running the asylum and the film’s end definitely justified the means.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Trailer Park | Spring 2007

I wrote in an earlier post about the “evils” of movie trailers. Designed to pique the interest of moviegoers, the good one are designed to “shake” the $10 (or whatever the current price of a movie ticket) out of your pocket for a typical film experience while the bad ones give you far TOO MUCH information.

What I’ve discovered about current trailers is that they either a) extract the best from the film and dupe you because there’s nothing else there or b) tell you so much about the film that there’s no need to see it.

I’ve found several trailers of interest for upcoming spring releases that offer some glimpses of cinematic hope.

Pride – starring Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac and Kimberly Elise
Based on a true story about swim coach (Howard) who teaches a group of Philadelphia inner city kids to abandon basketball for the pool. It just goes to prove that there are TONS of fresh stories untold about the black experience. The trailer looks like this year’s Akeelah and the Bee . . . with swimming! (March 23)

Daddy’s Little Girl – starring Idris Elba and Gabrielle Union
Tyler Perry has many detractors and I count myself among them, but let me be the first to say that there aren’t many African-American stories being told and he consistently presents love in our community better than any other filmmaker. His latest centers on a blue-collar father (Elba) who lose custody of his three daughters and with the help of an attractive young lawyer (Union) regains his children and a new love. The trailer made my heart sing. (February 14)

Are We Done Yet? – starring Ice Cube and Nia Long
Ice Cube is a genius! Comedian Mike Epps once said about Cube,
“he’s the only cat I know that can release an album with parental advisory and a PG-13 film in the same year.” He’s back with a sequel to one of my least films, Are We There Yet? The genius in Cube’s plan is that he now makes family friendly comedies while maintaining his iconic hip-hop status – and that he’s perfectly accepted doing both. That’s gangsta! (April 6)

Wild Hogs – starring Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin H. Lawrence, William H. Macy and Marisa Tomei
Only in Hollywood could this Fantastic Four be assembled: Tim the Tool Man, Vinny Barberino, Marty Mar and The Cooler with that Oscar-chick from My Cousin Vinny through in. This eccentric quartet decides to spice up their hum-drum existence by taking a freewheeling motorcycle trip. I must admit it does look funny! (March 2)

Smokin’ Aces – starring Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven and Ryan Reynolds
This movie is included because it features some of my favorite actors and musicians together in a rollicking Tarentino-esque tale about a crew of assorted hitman all gunning for a single prey. Plus, how can you not be excited about the acting debuts of Keys and Common, as well as one of the best young character actors in the business in Entourage’s Piven? (January 26)

Norbit – starring Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy and Thandie Newton
Eddie and his brother Charlie team up to create a humorous tale of a docile man (Murphy) who marries an overweight and overbearing abusive wife (Murphy) while he befriends another beautiful woman (Newton). Murphy’s track record with this type of humor is legendary (The Nutty Professor, Coming To America and Bowfinger) and I expect that this film will be HUGE (figuratively as well as literally) for Ed. (February 9)

Big Willie Style | The Museum of Moving Image Salutes Will Smith

This Friday night on Bravo Network, The Museum of Moving Image will salute Will Smith (prior to this salute, Bravo will also show a repeat of Smith on “Inside The Actor’s Studio.”)

To say I’m proud of Smith would be an understatement. I’ve watched not only his meteoric rise, but also the incredible way that he handles himself and the choices that he makes with career. His career began with him as The Fresh Prince making songs as Parents Don’t Understand and I Can Beat Mike Tyson. Legend has it that after his first hit; he made $1 million and lost it only to regain it again.

Quincy Jones wanted Smith for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the series that made him a superstar. He transitioned nicely from TV cutup to Hollywood A-lister commanding $20 million per film. Smith is well worth his price tag with his films gross $1.9 billion at the box office, domestically and ten $100 million films. To put those numbers into context, Eddie Murphy’s career began over ten years before Smith’s and his films have grossed $2.9 billion and he has eleven $100 million films.

Smith has produced several other films including last year’s ATL and The Pursuit of Happyness that show his business acumen and the ability to provide opportunities for others. He currently has two films in production (Tonight, He Comes and I Am Legend) and an astounding ten films in development – each one he is either attached to as an executive producer or producer.

Congratulations to Smith who continues to show his peers how he continues to do it Big Willie Style!

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Week 2 | Coming Attractions

Two new movies come to DVD. Edward Norton stars as a mysterious stage magician, bends natures laws to his will and attempts to unlock the secrets of monarchy in The Illusionist. Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel co-star.

Also, Robin Williams is a late night talk show host who encounters a repeat caller with a dark secret in The Night Listener.

Meanwhile opening in theatres next week: Stepping, which has been a stable for African-Americans fraternities and sororities predominantly at HBCU’s, goes mainstream in the You Got Served-esque drama Stomp The Yard.

Justin Timberlake, fresh off of one of the funniest holiday skits EVER on SNL goes all wigga in the young kids misbehaving-badly film, Alpha Dog.

For the family, young Arthur attempts to save his Grandmother home from grubby real estate developers, finds a secret portal and partners with Madonna and Snoop Dogg in Arthur and the Invisibles. (Trust me, I don’t make this up!)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, young people in a remote place on earth encounter a bloodthirsty serial killer in Primeval. (I’m sure this will PROBABLY be the first cold opening of the year) Side note: Did anyone ever think that the reason in Hollywood that SO MANY serial killers exist is to rid the world of groups of people who show up in places they don’t belong and fall victim to natural selection?

Friday, January 5, 2007

Innervision | The Bible Experience

Several days before Christmas, I was introduced to a pending gift for someone else that was described as one of the hottest gifts of the holiday season. Little did I know that I also would be a recipient of the same gift. This one gift has probably meant more to me than almost every gift I have received before it and interestingly enough it was already in my possession and had been for years.

The gift – an audio bible.

But not just any run of the mill bible, this version is red-hot Inspired By . . . The Bible Experience: New Testament. This particular version of the bible features an all-star African-American cast of A-List talent including Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett, Shirley Caesar, Kirk Franklin, Blair Underwood and over 200 other actors and musicians. To say that this project is a tremendous inspiration to me would be an understatement.

As mentioned, this 18 disc (and one DVD, which also includes the making of) only covers the New Testament. The cast is currently working on the Old Testament, which will be out later this year.

Now a person’s faith is there own concern and I won’t elaborate about my own, but I felt compelled to share the impact that this project had has on my understanding of the bible. I’ve always kept one around and am the byproduct of a very religious and spiritual upbringing. I’ve attended church for years and listened to various preachers using the bible and individual verses to get across a number of very serious and light points. I’ve heard the parables and listened to scriptures and I have one confession to make. I really didn’t have any REAL understanding of “the greatest story ever told.”

From the first disc to now the fourth, the story of the New Testament has almost played like a mini-series as I listen to the real Passion of the Christ. Don’t think it’s just actors reading, there is an incredible music score by Grammy Award winning musicians and lots of background sound mixing to almost give you the impression that you could be listening to actors on stage. I have gained more understanding of the messages in full context in the past couple weeks than in all the years of my life combined.

The casting for the series is the key. Underwood is Jesus, Jackson is God, Gooding, Jr. is Judas and Bassett an angel. Many of the same actors who participated in the New Testament will also be heard in the Old. The making of DVD, which shows the actors recording their dialogue, is amazing. Watch for Underwood who is gives a mesmerizing audio performance.

The interesting thing is that the company behind the project, Zondervan, has several of other audio book bibles and they estimate that they sell 60,000 annually; they’ve been selling 80,000 Inspired By . . . series a month.

Guess I’m not the only one who has been enlightened!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Malodorous Intentions | Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Last month, I was in the middle of cinematic “agony and ecstasy.” As president of the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), November and December are my favorite months of the year to view movies because what you’re looking at usually are most of the best of the year. There is such a large amount of year-end inventory that some days you could easily watch a minimum of three.

Unfortunately, there is usually a stinker or two in the batch and no film left me and my colleagues more speechless than Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Side story, Jeanette Catsoulis, a good friend of mine and fellow critic LOVES this film and had it on her top ten list. With apologies to Jeanette, as that great American songwriter Larry Graham once sang, You’re One in A Million regarding this film!

This films introduces the main character by having his mother give birth to him while working an outdoor vending booth. She goes into labor, spits the baby out, takes a dirty knife severs the cord and unceremoniously kicks the baby under the table! One of the nastiest things I've seen on film (and I've seen a lot!). This young boy, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, has a very special talent – the gift of smell. You see he has a nose that with one whiff can detect and breakdown any smell and from long distance, no less. (One would wonder how a person with this gift could even survive smelling his disgusting 18th century French surroundings; that’s another story)

He befriends Baldini a master perfumer (a very disheveled looking Dustin Hoffman) and in no time, Jean-Baptiste is creating the White Diamonds, Chanel and any other popular fragrance of his day. But Jean-Baptiste just doesn’t have the gift; he’s got to use it to make the perfect perfume. See Baldini told him that every basic perfume has 12 basic ingredients, but Jean-Baptiste wants to take his smell game to next level and create perfection. In order to accomplish that he needs to find the secret ingredient.

That’s when the story turns all Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Beltway sniper. Turns out the missing ingredient is young, pretty WHITE women. ("No Sisters were killed during the making of this film!”)

In no time at all, Jean-Baptiste is a wanted man (but hey, he is creating some incredible fragrances) and on the run. Many of the scenes throughout as well as the bizarre ending of this film had a room full of critics laughing as if they were sitting at a Richard Pryor concert. I think the scene that sent everyone over the top occurred when our hero who is about to be beheaded puts some Love Potion #9 on a handkerchief and waves it around like an extra on Queer Eye and the entire crowd breaks into a Caligula-like orgy! (clearly, I would love to be on the set of a film, watch a ridiculous scene and wait for the director to tell me that is a part of the "film's vision." HA!)

Well the scene nor the movie work. With apologies to Jeanette, the book may have been great but every good book doesn’t translate to success on the big screen. Certainly this film proves the axiom, “the cinematic road to hell is paved with malodorous intentions.”

Mighty Whitey | Freedom Writers

When you begin watching Freedom Writers a certain sense of déjà vu washes over you. You know the subject matter; you’ve seen it all before. The narrative has been around since the introduction of film. So prevalent is the theme that years ago I created a moniker that I could drop all films with this shared lineage into one big barrel.

Mighty Whitey films.

Her students live in gang-infested neighborhoods with carefully marked our territories for each ethnic group. There are dire consequences if you are caught alone in the wrong area. These worries impede on the students’ ability to concentrate in class.

Looking for a way to reach her students, she stumbles on an idea for them to document their harrowing lives and stories into journals. Suddenly the students begin to understand that by telling their stories on paper, they release the anger, understand the confusion and regain their self-esteem and take control of their lives.

Initially, I was surprised that Swank signed on for this role, but she does a nice job of telling Grunwell’s multi-dimensional story. Swank provides just the right mix of awkward goofiness and heartfelt concern to give this film a passing grade.

My only question is if this is based on a true story, how is it possible for Grunwell to teach the same group of students for all four years of high school? In Hollywood, Mighty Whitey can surely do anything.

Haunting Beauty | Pan's Labyrinth

I watched the trailer for Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Pan's Labyrinth and I was excited but cautious. Time after time, trailers have sucked me in only to disappoint because they don’t deliver. I call that phenomenon Good Guys Wear Black, But the Film is Wack.

Many year’s ago as a young teen I went to see Chuck Norris in Good Guys Wear Black. The trailer had wonderful scenes of a car trying to run Chuck over, but he jumps up and through the windshield of a moving car. Cool as s**t, but when we paid to see the film, my favorite three scenes were in the movie . . . and nothing else. Since that time I’m always wary of trailers that are too good to be true, I don’t want to hurt again!

Fast forward to Pan’s Labyrinth, which was advertised as “an adult fairytale.” The adult fairytale I saw, M. Night Shyamalan was trying to pass off Lady in the Water and that was not sexy. The film came across as self serving and just plain dumb (for the record, I like the film initially, but the second viewing convinced me that sometimes first impressions aren’t lasting).

Thank goodness for me, my belief in film is momentarily restored. This story of a 12 year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother in 1944 postwar Spain sizzles with vibrant colors, haunting film score and terrific performances from Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the sadistic Captain Vidal (brilliant Sergi López) and Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). Heaven help you if you see López in a dark alley, that’s one scary, uncaring dude! The film is everything that Lady in the Water was not, creating a clever fantasy world fit for a princess.

At times the film has brutal scenes that are hard to watch, but the payoff is worth it for del Toro’s creatively powerful vision. This is the Spanish director’s sixth film and it’s clear that he has used his previous experiences to craft an incredibly fine film.

I know that this film won’t play in a multiplex near you and you’ll have to find it; just think of yourself on the same kind of journey that young Ofelia has and think of the wonderful payoff that awaits you for your trouble.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

An Inauspicious Beginning | Code Name: The Cleaner

Hello All, this will be the first of many entries as I document my life as a film critic and enthusiast. As a introduction this being January and now through the next three months, people like myself will have to sit through not just bad but damn near unwatchable movies.

Why you ask? Well simple, many of the film that will be released in the spring were movies that a) were not good enough to be dramatic fare in the fall, b) not marketable enough to be summer films, or c) films that were supposed be released during another times of the year and simply were moved to this time of the year for a slim chance of making some money back before they go to DVD and pay cable.

Another phenomenon that occurs frequently during this season is also the “cold opening.” The term represents the studios SERIOUS belief that many of these films are terrible and they hope that if they don’t show them to critics and just release them with no reviews they can take the first weekend grosses and run. . . the films right out of theatres and quickly to DVD. Last year’s cold opens were such cinematic “gems” such as Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, Snakes on Planes and many more. The irony of the cold open is that critics have to pay to see films that are so bad the studios won’t show them to us for free!

So I kick off 07 with Code Name: The Cleaner starring Cedric the Entertainer. Quick cinematic background on Ced, he’s had 18 movies since 1998, most them varying in degrees from bad to putrid. I’m sure he’s a nice guy who has to make a living, but critics who make a living know not to get too excited when his film are released.

And just as I suspected, I found myself smiling but not laughing at a mildly amusing story of a man whose lost his memory and thinks he’s a super spy when in reality he is janitor who assists in game designing. On the surface, that would make a good Wednesday night movie of the week on late, late night cable, but not a green lit Hollywood film.

My problem with Ced and Steve Harvey, his partner and sidekick, is that there is one thing to acknowledge the black experience, but these gentlemen wallow in it. I understand that you (Ced) are surprised to believe that you live in a mansion, but must you have copies of Jet, ask the butler to put plastic on your chairs and remark that you have a “white wife and a lot of money, so you must be Lionel Ritchie” pass as comedy?

Don’t forget his janitorial co-worker (DeRay Davis) who wants to be a rapper. One scene has him at gunpoint asking to be shot with the hope that “if he dies he’s Tupac and if he lives he’s 50 Cent.” I won’t even go into him asking to be shot in the ass, with just a little “too much enthusiasm!”

As a side note, the only thing that made this film watchable was the ultra-fine Lucy Liu. As I remarked to a friend, I could watch Liu reading the phone book and she can salvage most films, hell she did for this one.

By the time the film limps home (and I’m standing by the door ready to bolt), I hear someone say, “This is the worst s**t I’ve seen in a long time.” Sadly Ced, I agree – and it’s the first movie I’ve seen this year. Damn, if this one makes $20 million, next year I’ll have to sit through Code Name: Even Cleaner!