Actor-director-mogul Tyler Perry didn’t come to preside over a vast media empire by paying much heed to the tastes of critics. His 10 feature-film releases to date – churned out over an eight-year span – have drawn mostly jeers from reviewers with his Madea comedies starring Perry in drag as a tough-talking southern matriarch singled out for special scorn. His latest effort the romantic drama Good Deeds isn’t likely to change many minds but it’s not for lack of effort from co-star Thandie Newton whose performance a struggling single mother stands out amidst the film’s otherwise crudely wrought melodrama.
Trading his Madea getup for the less-familiar guise of a leading man Perry stars as Wesley Deeds the scion of a wealthy family and whose lofty expectations have begun to wear on him. Beneath his sheen of polished affluence exists a man who draws little satisfaction from running Deeds Inc. the software giant his father built and who tires of shouldering the demands of his overbearing mother (Phylicia Rashad) the burden of his bellicose and oft-intoxicated bother (Brian White) and the monotony of his loveless engagement to his similarly well-bred fiancé Natalie (Gabrielle Union).
Trapped in a stultifying routine seemingly mapped out for him at birth Wesley longs to escape his gilded prison and trek across Africa on a Harley digging wells with his college buddies. Seriously that’s his dream: digging wells on a Harley.
Situated firmly on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum is Lindsey (Newton). Left alone to provide for her daughter after the death of her soldier husband in Iraq she has little time for fanciful visions of Harley-riding and well-digging. She’s too busy trying in vain to make ends meet as a janitor at … you guessed it: Deeds Inc. Despite her lowly status Lindsey clings fiercely to her independence which places her in stark contrast to Wesley.
Fate all but demands that Wesley and Lindsey make a match but not before their respective plights are established – and re-established – over a prolonged and laborious set-up that drowns in tedious exposition. (The majority of the dialogue in Good Deeds is devoted to affirming the obvious.) The desperate nature of Lindsey’s situation in particular is driven home with wearisome repetition in scene after scene depicting her various indignities suffered at the hands of the System. Newton an actress of impressive range and dexterity brings dignity and pathos to a role that probably asks too much of her.
A more efficient filmmaker might have trimmed a half-hour from Good Deeds’ first half without compromising its story one iota but then again that would only hasten the descent into soap-opera hysterics that marks the film’s second half.
The potential exists in Good Deeds for a thoughtful examination of class divisions within the African-American community – a topic that Perry who rose from poverty to become Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer is uniquely equipped to explore – but what we get instead is an overwrought hybrid of aristocratic melodrama and How Wesley Got His Groove Back.
An artless aesthetic and narrative inconsistencies attest to the hastiness of the film’s assembly. In one scene Natalie’s flamboyantly effeminate male friend (played inexplicably by comedian Jamie Kennedy) complains that she’s never even mentioned her fiancé let alone introduced them. Yet when he encounters Wesley in quite literally the next scene they appear as if longtime acquaintances. It’s a problem that could have been easily fixed by a quick re-shoot or two but I suspect Perry was already too preoccupied with work on The Marriage Counselor – arriving in theaters less than six months from now – to bother with them if he worried about the issue at all. And if he doesn’t care then why should we?
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Although The Great Buck Howard is not the literal story of the once popular (in the '60s and '70s) entertainer known as the Amazing Kreskin the film makes it known this is a pretty thinly disguised tribute to the man who made 88 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show before fading into obscurity on the dinner theater circuit. Writer/director Sean McGinly who worked briefly as Kreskin’s assistant has reinvented him essentially as Buck Howard a “mentalist extraordinaire ” who once strode in the limelight with numerous TV and Vegas appearances but now plays faded community centers and hasn’t filled a theater in decades. As his new assistant law-school dropout Troy Gable quickly learns it isn’t easy working for Buck who still sees himself as a big star but when a quirk of fate intervenes and he really does get a second chance at the national spotlight neither one is quite prepared for what comes next.
WHO’S IN IT?
John Malkovich is a fine actor but he isn’t exactly known for comedy. As Buck Howard however he has the role of a lifetime and he’s simply amazing wryly funny as the has-been mentalist who would never admit he isn’t still every bit the top celebrity he used to be. Although Malkovich plays him somewhat pompously he’s ultimately quite touching as a celeb who once commanded great attention and still craves it on his own terms. As his new unwitting assistant Colin Hanks drolly underplays most of his scenes with Buck and effortlessly shows the quiet desperation of a wannabe writer who’s not exactly sure what he should be doing with his life. Emily Blunt is lovely as a publicist who helps engineer Buck’s surprising comeback; and there are also small but fun bits with Steve Zahn Griffin Dunne and even Colin’s real-life dad Tom Hanks whose company bankrolled the movie.
In the same sweet but low-key vein of My Favorite Year McGinly paints a portrait of the less glamorous aspect of showbiz when an outsized personality starts traveling on the downside of the entertainment world. Clearly his days with Kreskin gave him an entree into this life and his film is nicely observant and respectful. But still very funny.
The film plays it all a little too safe. It doesn’t seem to want to be anything more than a snapshot of life after huge success has faded; adding a little more complexity might have offered an even richer role for Malkovich. It’s pleasant but there’s not a whole lot of depth.
Buck hypnotizes a large crowd of volunteers but gets sidetracked and neglects to snap them out of it. It’s pricelessly funny and captures the ego of the guy perfectly in the expert hands of Malkovich.
Chronicling the rise of blues label Cadillac Records this rollicking musical charts the emergence of the blues musicians as popular hit makers and leads up to the birth of rock and roll. Focusing on several well-known early blues and rock legends Cadillac Records mixes issues of race infidelity payola violence and other things -- providing a turbulent backdrop for its portrait of an era full of great talent and great heartache. It starts in 1947 when bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) hires a young blues combo: guitar wizard Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and an edgy harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). This leads to a record deal and the formation of Chess label company. With other musicians such as Big Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) the label is rolling nicely down its own track when in 1955 Chuck Berry (Mos Def) walks through the door. Rock and roll is born taking Chess and his artists to the mainstream. Drug addiction drinking women tragedy and personal relationships -- including Chess’ own with a new discovery Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) -- form the core of this engrossing showcase paying tribute to those who paved the way. The ensemble cast that forms the heart of Cadillac Records is brilliant. Wright is powerful and surprisingly musical as the legendary Muddy Waters. Short (Stomp the Yard) is an impressive newcomer as the erratic but supremely talented Little Walter the Tupac of his time. Brit Walker (Prison Break) is particularly compelling to watch explosive and vibrant as Howlin Wolf Muddy Waters’ chief rival. Best of all is Mos Def alive and hilarious as the unpredictable Berry. His musical sequences are a highlight and his Berry impersonation really gives the man himself a run for his money. Also standing out is an amusing Cedric the Entertainer as the appropriately named Big Willie Dixon and Gabrielle Union fine as always as Muddy’s long-suffering wife. Brody as the head of the company is largely unsympathetic as the conniving Chess but the actor does manage to convey his drive and ultimate concern for the livelihood of his stable of musicians. Then there’s the sensational Dreamgirl Beyonce (who also co-produced) as the inimitable Etta James. She not only sings up a storm with such James standards as “At Last ” she proves she can really act in a couple of rousing dramatic moments. Writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) manages to bring an energy and informed musicality to Cadillac Records that sets it apart from other movies in the shopworn musical biopic genre. By focusing on a group of artists Martin manages to give each of her prodigious stars their own moment to shine. Wisely letting the cast do their own singing Martin manages to get an extra air of authenticity and electricity. Ultimately Cadillac Records is a stirring tribute to the artists who brought blues and rock into the mainstream and even through personal tragedy and financial problems manages to finally get their just rewards. This unheralded 2008 sleeper hit sneaking into theatres just before the holiday crunch is a gem.
Based on the bestselling novel by Karen Joy Fowler Jane Austen revolves around a group of friends who decide to start a Jane Austen book club aptly named “All-Austen-All-The-Time.” In the group we have: the book club’s instigator Bernadette (Kathy Baker) a free-spirited fifty-something who has been married six times; her good friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello) a dog breeder who has steered clear of marriage so far; Jocelyn’s childhood friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) whose husband of 23 years (Jimmy Smits) has just left her for another woman; Sylvia’s twenty-something daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) a proud lesbian who nevertheless falls too hard and too often for the wrong women; Prudie (Emily Blunt) an uptight high school French teacher Bernadette takes under her wing; and finally sci-fi geek Grigg (Hugh Dancy) the only male in the group brought in by Jocelyn as a potential suitor for the jilted Sylvia. He acquiesces even though he really has a thing for Jocelyn. But Jane Austen is the one who rules supreme in these monthly get-togethers and the book-club members soon find parallels between the author’s work and their own lives. The performances in Jane Austen are definitely one of the keys to the film’s allure. Maria Bello (A History of Violence) is particularly good as Jocelyn a woman who won’t open herself up to a meaningful relationship preferring to lavish affection on her canine best friends. Of course when Jocelyn finally realizes how idiotic she’s been passing up a tasty morsel like Grigg Bello turns it on like the pro she is. For his part Dancy (Evening) shares some mean chemistry with Bello and plays the Jane Austen novice with style; as his eyes are opened to Austen’s writing so are the audience’s. Blunt--the Brit who made such a stunning American film debut in The Devil Wears Prada--plays Prudie right on the edge evident in Blunt’s perpetually teary-eyed and quivering-voiced performance. She’s the snooty literary snob of the group but her personal life is in shambles--married to a kind man (Marc Blucas) who doesn’t really understand her which prompts Prudie to consider having a fling with a charismatic high school senior (Kevin Zegers). Natch. As the more veteran members of the cast Baker Brenneman and Smits are all a little more predictable in their roles but well-fitted for the story nonetheless. Jane Austen is one of those rare cases in which the movie is as good—if not maybe better—than the book. That’s a true testament to writer/director Swicord (who also wrote the Memoirs of a Geisha adaptation). While the book occasionally plods the movie mostly zings right along. Swicord cuts through Fowler’s long expository passages on the characters’ pasts and succinctly recaps each one's individual backstory without ever showing it. Instead Swicord focuses her attention on the intertwining relationships as they relate to Jane Austen’s nine novels. The only drawback could be that Jane Austen tends to be sappy—but it is its exuberance for Jane Austen and her work that gives the film its pulse. True this movie is for women by women but as far as a lesson on the late 18th century novelist Jane Austen is far more entertaining than taking an English college course on Victorian writers. Let’s just say if the movie doesn’t get you to read a Jane Austen novel nothing will.
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?