Month: November 2013

Film Review- ‘The Best Man Holiday’ (****)

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Lance (Morris Chestnut), Harper (Taye Diggs), Murch (Harold Perrineau), and Quentin (Terrence Howard) are all smiles after their amazing 'air band' moment.

Lance (Morris Chestnut), Harper (Taye Diggs), Murch (Harold Perrineau), and Quentin (Terrence Howard) are all smiles after their amazing ‘air band’ moment.

 

 

 

The Best Man Holiday’   **** (out of 5)

Starring: Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Monica Calhoun, Regina Hall, and Melissa DeSousa

Written and Directed by:  Malcolm D. Lee

“Ain’t nobody deserve misery. It’s just your turn”- Quentin (Terrence Howard)

A harsh pinch of my arm as the lights dimmed reminded me that I was, indeed, awake.  1999’s “The Best Man”, one of the more underappreciated and well-made films about friendships and relationships I’ve ever seen, got a sequel.  More than anything, it intrigues me that a modern-day studio would greenlight this film and designate it for wide release.  Perhaps since the popularity of the leads has reasonably increased over the years, they felt comfortable enough.  I shouldn’t worry either way about why this exists, and simply be thankful that it does.  This is a well-made, humorous, emotional, logical, and sensual film, succeeding on every level.  The filmmakers care so much about the characters that we can’t help but care for them as well.  If not for a slight misstep towards the end, I’d consider “The Best Man Holiday” to be one of the best films of the year.

In a lesser film, the plot would seem forced and typical- Harper (Taye Diggs), the ‘best man’ from the original, is a struggling novelist now, having found little success since his page-turning debut that spawned the problems in the first film.  He and his pregnant chef of a wife (Sanaa Lathan) receive an invite to spend the holidays at the not-so-humble abode of Lance & Mia Sullivan (Morris Chestnut & Monica Calhoun), along with all of the friends we remember from the first film.  Harper gets advice from career-driven Jordan (Nia Long), his confidant and former almost lover, in the form of a book suggestion- Lance is retiring from the NFL soon, and his best man Harper should pen the biography of the football legend.  Keeping that in mind, along with his financial troubles, Harper begrudgingly accepts the invite.  After all, the events of the last film left him and his best friend estranged for years, with only occasional contact- not the ideal close friendship.

The old group does reunite, but it doesn’t always feel so good- the bachelor Quentin (Terrence Howard) has finally found his niche as a ‘brand manager’, capitalizing on others’ dull minds with his sharp wit.  Murch (Harold Perrineau) is doing exactly what you might think he’d do- running a school for underprivileged children, married to Candace (Regina Hall), the stripper with a brain who blew his mind in the last film.  Shelby, Murch’s former girl, has blown up in a big way, starring on a reality show about single housewives or whatever it is that wealthy, shallow people do for fame.  That doesn’t mean she’s happy.  Mia? She’s been busy raising four children and doing exactly what Lance predicted of her; being happy and content as a homemaker (or so we’re led to believe).

There is an inevitable tension as this group, 15 years older, tries to manage their emotions around the holiday season.  For those not aware of the original, Harper had concealed a secret that he once slept with his best friend’s girl.  Once the truth sees daylight, emotions get the best of everyone, and revised understandings must be established in a short time to see the wedding through.  Clearly, those involved with the events of the first film still carry the associated feelings with them.  Things aren’t quite ‘the same’ as everyone reconnects, and the film does a fine job taking us to the logical next step in the character’s emotional journeys.

This is all standard fare, and if it weren’t for the care given to the script and the love the actors put into their performances, it would be forgettable.  I felt, as other critics have, that the film was similar to a ‘reunion’ TV episode- everything here feels familiar and established, evident in the involuntary grin appeared on my face multiple times as a result.  A particular scene halfway through the film is an example, as the four main guys serenade the ladies in ‘airband’ style to the tune of New Edition’s classic “Can You Stand the Rain”.  At the very least, it harkens back to the best moment of “The Cosby Show” when the Huxtables ‘airband’ Ray Charles.  At best, it’s one of the coolest, sweetest moments you’ll ever see in movies.  For me, the scene encapsulates the reason for loving these two films- the heart displayed on-screen, coupled with the charisma of the actors, is uncommon and welcome.

The aforementioned misstep comes from the unfortunately perfunctory and inaccurate way Malcolm D. Lee handles the football scenes toward the end.  Lance is nearing the all-time rushing record, and attempts to break it in a Christmas Day game.  The announcers (Greg Gumbel and Eddie George of all people) reference his ascension toward that goal right after Lance catches a pass out of the backfield.  Call me crazy, but those aren’t rushing yards.  Also, the film handles a pivotal character arc mostly with grace and dignity, but the surrounding football events don’t match up well, creating an awkward, corny moment in a film devoid of them in all other scenes.  I won’t give away the arc I’m referencing; suffice to say it’s another thing the film generally handles well.

There is a clear hint that a third film will follow.  If Malcolm D. Lee treats that material with the same respect and love as he has with the first two films, it will be a welcome treat.  After all, these are wonderfully written characters.  They aren’t swinging magical hammers, shooting flaming arrows, traveling back in time, or anything of the like that’s catching the theater by storm lately, but they offer a welcome, adult respite.  I only wish more films had the gall to give us funny, complicated, sexy, cool, and flawed characters like these.

*Note- “The Best Man Holiday” took in over $30 million at the box office, finishing second to “Thor: The Dark World”.  $30 MILLION.  That’s fantastic.  There’s hope for audiences yet.

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Classic (?) Film Review- ‘The Best Man (1999)’ (****)

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"See that right there?  That's Don Cheadle in my Iron Patriot costume"
“See that right there? That’s Don Cheadle in my War Machine costume.”

This review is dedicated to my English 201 instructor from college, the women I’ve loved and love who’ve remind me with their grace to try and be the ‘best man I can be’, and the men I consider brothers that make the emotional investment in this film possible.

‘The Best Man’  **** (out of 5)

Starring: Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Melissa DeSousa, Monica Calhoun

Written and Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee

In the summer of 1999, I had an English literature class at the local community college that had a major effect on my tastes.  Up to that point, I was unaware of the works of prominent African-American authors like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale-Hurston, and for me, most importantly, Raymond Carver (not an African-American author, but introduced to me during the same unit).

My instructor, an African-American woman young enough to relate to, was also wise enough to expose her class to something different- and I’ll be forever grateful for it.  In particular, I took to Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a brilliant amalgamation of conversations among real characters that helped illuminate me to the world of adult conversations, love, and honesty.

How does this relate to 1999’s “The Best Man”, a moderately successful, relatively obscure film geared towards African-American audiences?  Quite simply, it’s the closest thing to Raymond Carver’s work that I’ve seen on film, and that’s a great compliment to pay.  Coincidence or not, the main character of Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) is a writer as well, and references to Hughes and Wright are in the film.  Harper has just had his first novel published, has a beautiful girlfriend (Saana Lathan), and seems to have it all together.  He’s nervous about commitment and the reaction to his book, which serves as a fictional interpretation of his young adult life.  Harper is certainly justified in his worry, as he doesn’t pull any punches, and once the real versions of his characters read what he’s written about them, he has to face his mistakes and be, literally, the best man he can be.

The film centers around one whirlwind weekend that has the four main characters reminiscing in advance of Lance Sullivan’s (Morris Chestnut) wedding.  Lance is a pro footballer, engaged to Mia (Monica Calhoun), who has stood by him despite his egregious lack of fidelity.  My guess is that Mia doesn’t even know the half of it.  Lance is a classic alpha male- he’s so strong in body and belief, but cannot make the connection between his steadfast conviction and keeping it in his pants.  So, like many men, he’s a ‘dog’.  Harper is a ‘dog’ in a different way- he’s sneaky in his selfishness, and takes those that love him for granted.  Quentin (Terrence Howard) is a knowing, world-weary ‘dog’- he’s been around the block, has known his share of disappointments, and brings balance to this group of friends.  Howard’s turn here (the first I was exposed to him) lends gravity to the film- he’s the one who knows what’s going to go down once the dirty laundry is aired, because he’s already gone through the maturation process that the other three haven’t.  Murch (Harold Perrineau from ‘Lost’) is the spineless ‘dog’.  He clearly lacks the confidence to stand up for himself, and therefore doesn’t have what he really wants.

If it sounds like a traditional setup, it is.  However, it’s not lazy.  As I mentioned before, Carver’s influence is present, intentional or not.  It’s never more evident than the poker game our main group shares, and the way the characters interact.  What is said during this particular scene provides deep insights into gender roles, relationships, sex, religion, honesty, and loyalty- all within a 10 minute scene.  The men may talk crudely, but the truths are clear.  These men are good, caring people, but have done selfish things.  No amount of aggression can keep the powerful truths from coming out, truths that Harper’s book give away.  It says something for a film that might be seen as a traditional rom-com that instead says something about really becoming a man.

Without giving away everything, let’s just say that eventually the shit hits the fan.  By then, we’re so invested in the characters that the reactions from all involved seem justified.  Lance must face the music in the most powerful way- in the moment that should be his greatest, he’s finally humbled for his indiscretions.  Perhaps it’s Morris Chesnut’s performance, or maybe the script is that good, but in that moment I felt both a satisfaction and a sadness for his character’s punishment.  Quentin is finally rewarded by the film for being the ‘cool, level-headed’ one that leads the characters towards the truth, Murch grows a pair and gracefully moves on from his overbearing, confidence-sucking girl, and Harper?  He’s forced to be self-reflective, to recognize the good in his life, the need versus the want, and to not take things for granted.  All of the character arcs, including the females, make sense in their conclusions.  It’s something that can only happen when a filmmaker cares enough about the characters.  Most adults have been through similar life events and the emotions that go with them; this movie respects its audience enough to challenge them with specific thoughts about manhood, relationships, change, and the like.  It’s rare for that to happen, but it’s what Carver’s book did, and what this film does as well.

Sure, there are some problems with the film.  For whatever reason, the script requires these characters to have the most bombastic and presidential names, insisting that they say those full names over and over for the first quarter of the film.  It’s overtly obvious that Malcolm Lee thought it necessary to establish these people as successful, professional, driven individuals to distance this film from others released in the same vein.  Unfortunately it comes across as awkward; they’re the kind of names little girls give to tea party guests.  Harper Stewart.  Jordan Armstrong.  Lance Sullivan.  Julian Murch. Shelby.  Robyn.  Mia Morgan.  Candace.  There’s something…off about that.  As well, the perfunctory and impromptu proposal by our lead seems oddly misplaced, especially considering his apparent understanding of the situation; I’m not sure that a humbled character like Harper should be leaping back into the fire he just escaped.

Obviously I forgive the film that minor slip.  It’s important to note that this cost 9 million to make in 1999.  Considering that many of the cast members have continued working since then, many successfully, and considering this film’s appeal why not revisit the characters?  It’s a good opportunity when it normally wouldn’t exist for a romantic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these characters have progressed 15 years later when “The Best Man Holiday” comes out.

Film Review- ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (**1/2)

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"Soon, all of this apparently abandoned world will be yours to rule, son."
“Soon, all of this apparently abandoned world will be yours to rule, son.”

‘Thor: The Dark World’  ** 1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Anthony Hopkins

Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, & Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Alan Taylor

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

It wasn’t that long ago that I remember the deep feeling of appreciation for Marvel as they delivered on their promise.  After all, “The Avengers” was the Hollywood rarity- a film that audiences were asked to be patient for, and for all intents and purposes, the hype was well-justified.  Going forward, we know “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is coming in 2015, and “The Avengers 3” in 2018.  These immense upcoming films will follow the same pattern as the first, in that a series of individual films will set up the events to culminate in the team-up.  I’m fine with that, but I do require Marvel to maintain their focus with these solo efforts.  “Thor: The Dark World” is a very good looking movie that doesn’t pay off in the most disappointing way- it doesn’t respect its own audience, and thus becomes a huge missed opportunity for Marvel.

If you’ve seen “Thor” and “The Avengers”, you know that the ‘Bifrost’ and ‘rainbow bridge’ were destroyed, Loki (Hiddleston) is going back to Asgard and prison, and that Thor (Hemsworth) returned to Earth, but without visiting Jane Foster (Portman).  These issues will need to be addressed in this film, and they are (mostly).  After “Thor” made a big deal about the destruction of the Bifrost and its implications, nothing is said about how it was repaired in such short time (2 years).  I suppose that is of little consequence in the big scheme of events.  Loki still plots away in his Asgardian prison cell, apparently not humbled by his convincing defeat.  He still feels entitled to a throne (any throne will do).  The astrophysicist Jane Foster, as Heimdall (Elba) tells us in the first film, still searches for a way to reach Thor through the path of science.  For as little time as they had together in the first film, clearly the Prince of Asgard and the Earth-bound, mortal scientist formed a strong connection- something this film doesn’t spend enough time extrapolating.  These characters will do anything for each other, but I’ve struggled to buy into their bond; after all, they haven’t been on a single date, haven’t shared their feelings or intentions to each other, and haven’t shared a bed (that we’re aware of).  Other than a few longing glances, what is it about these two characters that make their actions believable or justified?

Dr. Foster is working out of London in this film- luckily for her, that happens to be the EXACT location (Tanzania was apparently too remote) of a magnificent quantum space event is taking place.  The ‘Nine Realms’ of the universe are all aligning at once, and this ‘convergence’ apparently allows for easy travel amongst the many branches of existence.  As the movie tells us, an artifact of a sinister nature (of course) was hidden a long time ago during the last convergence, and wouldn’t you know it- our favorite senator from Naboo (oops, wrong film) stumbles upon it.  Literally.

This artifact, designed by Malekith (Eccleston) of the ancient race of beings known as Dark Elves, looks exactly like angry Dimetapp to me.  According to the movie, it’s darkness…as a weapon.  So, Dr. Foster gets ‘infected’ by this substance, and becomes slightly dangerous to others. Except Thor.  On top of that, the dormant Dark Elves are reawakened across the universe by Jane’s interaction with the gooey Robitussin.  I’m still confused by these things, but this film isn’t interested in explaining away that kind of logic.

Thor, who has been busy restoring the chaos caused by Loki’s misdeeds in “The Avengers”, does return to Earth once he can tell that Jane is in danger, and whisks her off to Asgard once he realizes that Earth doctors can’t help her.  Odin (Hopkins) doesn’t like her there, Sif (Alexander) still yearns for Thor and doesn’t like her there, and no one, Dr. Foster included, stops to talk about or revel in, the fact that Asgard has its first human visitor, and that she’s the first human to travel past the Moon (unless you count Tony Stark’s brief burst through a wormhole in “The Avengers”).  On top of that, Jane doesn’t appear to have any great side effects from having the Cough Syrup of Darkness coarsing through her veins.  She isn’t quarantined, and then, unsurprisingly, the Dark Elves come to Asgard looking for their ancient weapon.

Doesn’t it seem like a grave misstep by the all-powerful Odin and the mighty Thor to have this weapon in the heart of their kingdom?  Granted, Thor does have a plan to save her, but by then the Dark Elves have come a calling on Asgard, with technology that is at least 9,000 years old but makes the modern Asgardian defense seem obsolete.  That perfectly encapsulates the problems with this movie; we’ve established a feasible, grounded-in-reality ‘Thor-verse’ to work with, and this film just craps all over those very rules.  I also wondered where the entire population of Asgard was…the first film gave us a bustling, populated kingdom, but when Dark Elves attacked, I only remember seeing soldiers and royalty.  Did I miss something, or did the filmmakers get lazy?

I should counter by saying that this isn’t a bad film- it is earnest, and funny at times.  It simply seems to have forgotten its audience as well as what made the other films in the ‘Avengers’ pantheon work, which is what bothers me.  After sitting through five set-up films before “The Avengers”, producer and Marvel film chief Kevin Feige should know better than to allow a film like this to go through- one that treats the established audience like amateurs.  It’s a rushed, heavily edited (it appears), logic-defying action spectacle that lacks the emotional resonance of the first film and defies the established logic we were used to.  Is it possible that there is a better edition of this film out there, or that director Alan Taylor (of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame) had a grittier, longer version in mind?  With the film clocking in at 111 minutes, and with rumors about studio-directed reshoots earlier this past year, I can’t help but wonder if those interested in dollar signs saw a bleaker, longer film at first and got scared enough to ask for changes (or mandate changes).  I’m clearly speculating, but if that’s the case, shame on them.  Shame on them anyways for giving us an inferior film.

*Note: the mid-credits scene we’re used to seeing now in Marvel films looks ahead to next August’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”.  Benicio Del Toro, nearly unrecognizable as 80’s pop star Eric Carmen, gets “Hungry Eyes” for the infinity stone that Sif and Volstagg (Stevenson) have delivered to him for protection.  

*Another note: Benicio Del Toro is playing The Collector, an alien who collects extraterrestrial objects and creatures.  He is not playing Eric Carmen, but looks remarkably similar to him. 😉

Film Review- ‘Free Birds’ (**)

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"I'm agape because I just let the turkey version of Woody Harrelson slap me"

“I’m agape because I just let the turkey version of Woody Harrelson slap me”

“Free Birds”  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, Dan Fogler, George Takei

Written by: David I. Stern & John Strauss (story), Jimmy Hayward & Scott Mosier (screenplay)

Directed by: Jimmy Hayward

It’s important to preface this review with two things.  First, I gave my child the choice of which movie he wanted to see between this and “Ender’s Game”.  Without skipping a beat, he said “FREE BIRDS!”.  Also, it bears mentioning that I’m not a fan of vocal leads Owen Wilson OR Woody Harrelson, and I actively try to avoid seeing movies they’re in.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like seeing “Wag the Dog” and having Woody surprise me with his presence.  Keeping these things in mind, I didn’t think there would be much to whet my appetite; truth be told, there isn’t a great deal here to enjoy for kids or adults, but at least I can say that I didn’t abhor the experience, and it’s family friendly.  If that does anything for you.

The idea is that turkeys are people, too.  Yep.  One turkey (Owen Wilson), who is ‘different than all the others’ (hence his purple visage), manages to become the one turkey the president pardons.  The first daughter keeps him as a pet, and in the process, he orders pizza, watches telenovelas, and all while the humans are cool with the apparent personification of the turkey.  The powerful turkey does not raise any red flags with humans of the present day, an interesting fact when contrasted with the humans from the past in the SAME MOVIE.

Did I say humans of the past?  I did!  That’s right, our hero turkey meets another powerful turkey (Harrelson), who has one goal in mind- travel back in time to get turkeys off the thanksgiving menu.  This other powerful turkey has been able to (without opposable thumbs): infiltrate top-secret government plans on time-travel research, get past the secret service, defy physics and get into the time-travel ‘egg’, etc, and SUCCEEDS.  Adding to the silliness is the fact that the film shows us that humans can’t understand the gobbles of turkeys (obviously), but the time capsule (with a navigation system voiced by George Takei) understands the turkeys perfectly (of course).  I’m willing to suspend disbelief for most animated films, but this film takes complicated subjects and plays with them so lazily I couldn’t help but get perturbed.

Once our ‘hero turkeys’ reach the past and the Plymouth settlement, the film makes the most sense, and has the most fun.  The interaction among the film’s main characters, while standard fare, makes the most sense, and provides a couple of laughs.  Again, it’s nothing new, though.  The most damning  representation of the value of this film was in the reaction of my child, though, who seemed disinterested, and in fact, ready to nap about an hour into the film during the colonial scenes.

The film’s co-writer and producer, Scott Mosier, is a frequent collaborator of Kevin Smith.  My problem with all of Smith’s movies has been the laziness of the script to not expound on a good original idea.  While it’s not ultimately his responsibility, I sense the same thing with this film from Mosier and crew.  It’s not terrible, but the original, silly idea of altering the future of turkeys is unfortunately extrapolated over 90 minutes of typical character development, confounding science, and nonsensical decision-making by the humans in the film, who supposedly have much larger brains/brain capacity.  I certainly didn’t feel compelled to think, laugh, or enjoy myself for most of the film.