A massive hit never ends at its own conclusion for better or worse. Lost Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland The Blair Witch Project and other pop culture milestones spawned plenty of imitators of wavering quality that trickled on to screens until the phenomena tapered off. Joyful Noise the new film starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton is one these auxiliary creative endeavors a direct descendant of the cheeky drama/comedy/musical hybrid Glee. But instead of teenage issues and pop covers Joyful Noise swaps in familial struggles gospel tunes and a sizable serving of Christian faith. The combination results in a movie that lacks the jazz hand energy of Glee but packs good-natured laughs to keep someone awake for its two hour duration. More "noise" than "joyful."
Mere minutes after the passing away of choir leader Bernie Vi Rose (Latifah) inherits the position—along with a serving of negative vibes from Bernie's wife G.G. (Parton) who was hoping to take the job herself. The new responsibility is only the beginning of Vi Rose's troubles as she attempts to balance her rebellious daughter Olivia's (Keke Palmer) raging hormones her son Walter's (Dexter Darden) Asperger's syndrome her husband's absence during a military stint and her own old school God-faring ways. Hardships are whipped into further chaos upon the arrival of Randy G.G.'s rambunctious horny grandson who shows up at rehearsal with an eye on Olivia and undeniable vocal skills. Randy's rock and roll edge is readily embraced by the group but even with the national gospel championship on the line Vi Rose isn't ready to toss tradition aside.
Joyful Noise is a mixed bag sporadically entertaining when director Todd Graff (Camp Bandslam) lets his two commanding stars flex their comedic muscles or belt soulful tunes. Latifah and Parton can do both with ease—Latifah has a natural charm while Parton essentially fills the "kooky Betty White" here—but instead of letting the two fly Graff breaks up the action with overwrought drama and bizarre side character stories. The script injects a lot of ideas into the picture—loss of faith modernizing ideologies coping with tragedy sexuality under the eye of God—but every tender moment is fumbled. A gut-wrenching conversation between Vi Rose and her autistic son should have weight and the actors do their best but the material doesn't service the emotional complexity of the scenario. Instead it opts to cut to a musical number. Another sequence involving the overnight demise of another character is even played for comedy even when it causes one woman to question her beliefs.
Thank God for the musical numbers which have enough energy to brush the flimsier moments under the rug. The Glee-inspired pop tune covers (Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror " Usher's "Yeah"—both tailored with religious modifications) aren't nearly as interesting or powerful as the straight-up gospel songs. But unlike the tunes Joyful Noise doesn't have rhyme or reason. A mishmash of played out character stereotypes narrative cliches and enjoyable but erratic music the movie feels more like a cash-in than it should. Latifah and Parton are a sizzling duo but the vehicle built for them is a clunker. As Vi Rose might say the only way to have a great time at Joyful Noise is to believe. Really really hard.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.
The Medallion sort of reads like a recipe of other film genres: a heavy helping of buddy cop mixed with a dollop of the supernatural and a dash of the protect-the-mystical-child-with-special-powers scenario (i.e. The Golden Child). The plot isn't the reason you're sitting in the theater but you go along with it for appearances' sake. Eddie Yang (Jackie Chan) a skilled Hong Kong detective is teamed up with Interpol agent Arthur Watson (Lee Evans) a snippy control freak to catch an evil crime lord known as Snakehead (Julian Sands) who has done some nefarious deeds. Their investigation takes them to a sacred temple where Eddie ends up saving a Dalai Lama-like kid named Jai (Alex Bao) from Snakehead's clutches. The ruthless criminal wants the boy because he possesses a mystical medallion that has powers of immortality only he can control. Snakehead evenutally nabs the boy and takes him to Ireland. Det. Eddie follows the villain to Ireland where he reunites with the insecure Watson and his former flame Nicole (Claire Forlani) also an Interpol agent. Soon though Eddie gets a firsthand account the medallion's awesome force when after dying while rescuing Jai once again the boy and his pendant bring Eddie back to life transforming him into an immortal warrior with superhuman abilities. Unfortunately for him the same thing happens to Snakehead. In typical fashion Eddie and company must battle many of the bad guy's minions and then Eddie takes on Snakehead in a final otherworldly confrontation. It doesn't take the mental strength of a superhero to figure how things will turn out.
No matter how derivative The Medallion is Jackie Chan's in it so you know it's got to work on some level. This Chinese marvel who excels in acrobatics stunts and martial arts truly has the uncanny ability to take the most tired of plots and make them more palatable just by karate-chopping onto the screen with a giant smile on his face. Although the visibly aging Chan is more serious here than in recent efforts such as Shanghai Knights he still can't hide the fun factor he brings to his films. Luckily he has found a worthy comic foil in Evans (There's Something About Mary) whose bumbling antics smack of Rowan Atkinson's as Mr. Bean and who brightens up the film on more than one occasion. The only real drawback to Medallion is giving Chan a love interest. Yep our favorite martial arts boy gets to kiss the girl but almost makes us cry; unfortunately Forlani (Meet Joe Black) who holds her own with the stunts has zero chemistry with the actor as hard as she tries to make us believe Nicole really loves Eddie. When a love scene comes up you clench your teeth hoping it'll pass soon enough and get back to the action. Thankfully it does. Sorry Jackie but you should just stick to kickboxing the enemy instead of kissing the girls.
What if Chan could use his uncanny skills on a supernatural level? Just imagine the possibilities. The same thought surely must have crossed the minds of those bringing Medallion to life. The thing is does Jackie really need all those special effects to pull off what he already does so well naturally? Not really. Hong Kong director Gordon Chan (no relation) is known for his slick filmmaking style that stays true to the art of a kung-fu movie; Medallion has this spirit running through it and when Chan is fighting hand-to-hand the film is exciting. Yet once Eddie and Snakehead gain their mystical powers it suddenly lapses into Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon mode as the two foes fly through the air chase each other on top of trees and fight while dangling above ground. Ultimately these effects really don't do anything to elevate the film. In fact the camera is rather shaky the images gritty and at times it's hard to distinguish who is who. Gordon Chan should have just realized he didn't need all the highfalutin' gimmicks to make an enjoyable martial arts flick with the ever-nimble Jackie doing his stuff.