Last we heard in last year’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea (Tyler Perry) was solving social cultural and familial problems. What a busy lady! Well she’s done gone and done it again after a whole new crop of problems pop up that need fixing. This time the conflicts revolve primarily around two sisters Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) both of whom are wary of their financial-minded mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield). Vanessa is deathly afraid to love again after her husband left her and two kids and fears she might’ve met Mr. Right in the form of a bus driver (Boris Kodjoe). Meanwhile Lisa is in a physically abusive relationship with Carlos (Blair Underwood) “Atlanta’s most eligible bachelor ” but is afraid to leave him. Madea the antithesis of gold-digging Victoria solves these and many more problems as the family reunion nears. After Mad Black Woman’s surprise box office take last year bigger names were less reluctant to sign on. Accordingly the new actors in Reunion are very solid—borderline stellar collectively. The lone exception is Perry as Madea (as well as a few other characters) whose over-the-topness although expected reduces the air of professionalism from the rest. Underwood is so damn good at being so damn bad as the abusive fiancée Carlos while Whitfield matches him chill for chill in a very icy performance. The relative unknowns/newcomers are the most pleasant surprises however. Aytes has breathtaking beauty that would normally overshadow acting but not here. Anderson whose last film was ‘95’s Clockers is equally beautiful and evocative as a single mother torn. And for the female eyes there’s Kodjoe whom girls will likely fall for even more when they learn he can actually act. Perry wears many hats in Family Reunion: writer director producer star--and oh yeah he also wrote the popular stage production from which the film is adapted. Perhaps Perry’s workaholic attitude contributes to the film’s thematic overkill. There are a number of kinks in the film’s completely uneven story and the way it is told but perhaps the biggest problem stems from the fact that it still feels like a stage play. Sometimes that’s a plus for a film but it’s hard to think it was intended. This feeling is elicited by the sum of the story’s parts. Perry will be in one scene telling the tale of a beleaguered battered woman amid a linear and conventional storyline and in the next scene become Madea in her cartoonish and campy getup dishing out her tough love techniques. No doubt Reunion is an enjoyable play--only if you agree with Perry’s comedic remedies for serious issues.
Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) thought she had the perfect life with lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris): a big house lots of creature comforts and a stable--albeit staid--marriage. But Helen's world shatters when Charles tells her on the eve of their 18th wedding anniversary that he wants a divorce and literally kicks her out of their spacious mansion to make room for another woman. Devastated she runs to her beloved pot-smokin' gun-totin' grandmother Madea (Tyler Perry) who lets Helen know she's a proud beautiful black woman who nonetheless should whoop the bastard's ass. As hurt as she is Helen really just wants to pick up the pieces and move on if she can. She finds guidance and empowerment from her family and friends including new friend Orlando (Shemar Moore) a drop-dead gorgeous construction worker whose sweet and sincere ways more than help Helen get through her pain. And he cooks too. Really there's no contest.
The main cast members aptly portray their roles formulaic as they are. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) as the grievously wronged wife has the toughest job trying to convey all the crazy mixed-up feelings Helen has for the ex-husband while trying to jumpstart her life. Steve Harris (TV's The Practice) as the callous husband and Shemar Moore (TV's The Young and the Restless) as the too-good-to-be-true suitor represent the two opposites sides of the coin. Even Cicely Tyson makes an appearance as Helen's invalid mother who seems just a little too healthy to be in a nursing home. But it's Tyler Perry who turns out to be the true mad black woman. The film comes alive when he's onscreen either playing the outrageous Madea--complete with wig makeup and padding--or Madea's brother Joe a lecherous old coot. Perry even gets to play it straight as Helen's kindly cousin Brian who has a junkie for a wife (played by Tamara Taylor with the usual vacant twitchy neediness). It would have been a long hour and a half without him.
Perry obviously writes from the heart having struggled through his younger years to become a well-known playwright. And with music video director Darren R. Grant at the helm Diary of a Mad Black Woman has all the best intentions. It's certainly a buoyant portrait of African-American life and culture that also speaks to anyone who has had to grapple with betrayal and hurt at the hands of those they love. But the stage-trained Perry somehow misses the subtleties of writing for film. Diary doesn't know what kind of genre it wants to be jumping from raucous comedy á la Big Momma's House to mind-numbing drama á la Waiting to Exhale. The characters don't have any complexities and are drawn very black or white. It also takes an awfully long time for our heroine to figure out what direction she's going to take when we could tell her in the first 30 minutes as to whom she should end up with. In the meantime we must endure several melodramatic set pieces filled with elaborate speeches about revenge love relationships redemption religion and all that which are meant to hit us hard with their poignancy. Perry might consider keeping the highfalutin writing for the stage and think about an acting career in film.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.
January 31, 2003 5:02am EST
Described as "a contemporary Western on wheels " Biker Boyz tells the tale of underground motorcycle clubs in California one specifically called the Black Knights. The group's leader is a tough undefeated racer named Smoke (Laurence Fishburne) also known as the "King of Cali." Kid (Derek Luke) meanwhile is a young rider trying to work his way up the Black Knight ladder. But when his father (Eriq La Salle) Smoke's mechanic gets killed in a race Kid's ambition is to start a rival gang and become the new King of Cali. One "burn rubber not your soul" tattoo later Kid and his pals Stuntman (Brendan Fehr) and Primo (Rick Gonzalez) start the Biker Boyz gang and the world better look out because they make their own rules. Good grief--this story couldn't be less gripping if it tried. Despite throwing in a paternal plot twist Biker Boyz fails to engage because its protagonists Smoke and Kid are so damn unlikeable. Moviegoers expecting great crotch-rocket action sequences will instead be bombarded with lots of T&A.
The most staggering thing about Biker Boyz is how they managed to get so many stars to sign on. We're talking Fishburne Luke Orlando Jones and Djimon Hounsou all of whom seem to have gorged themselves at the all-you-can-eat testosterone buffet prior to filming. Fishburne (The Matrix) plays his character Smoke so stiffly his more tender scenes come off as absurd. A post-coital cuddle with onscreen lover Queenie (former Cosby Show kid Lisa Bonet) for example plays out coldly rather than passionately. Luke (Antwone Fisher) doesn't fare any better as Kid who is so angry and venomous that his tear-shedding scenes lose all their effect. Orlando Jones manages to churn out a good performance as Black Knight member Soul Train. A lawyer by day Jones' character is the only one that doesn't seem to have a massive chip on his shoulder--or a bone to pick with the rest of the universe.
Biker Boyz is based on an article written by freelance journalist Michael Gougis for the now-defunct Los Angeles New Times. While Gougis' factual feature probably made for a riveting read director/writer Reggie Rock Bythewood (Dancing in September) fails to transform it into an engaging fictionalized screenplay. In fact not even the film's eye candy--all those Japanese sport bikes and chromed-out American cruisers--make this film entertaining. For the triple-digit-speed street racing sequences Bythewood uses special effects straight out of the Japanese animated cartoon Speed Racer including blurry tunnel vision scenes and tons of speedometer shots. There are a couple of really flashy stunt scenes but there aren't enough of them to carry the flick forcing moviegoers to focus on the lame story and its sad sack of disconnected characters. In fact the story and its characters' plights are so insubstantial that the audience at the screening I attended laughed out loud at what were supposed to be some of the film's more poignant moments.
November 15, 2001 1:15pm EST
Levelheaded Sean (Dr. Dre) and free-spirited Dee Loc (Snoop Dogg) are roommates. After getting fired from Footlocker and waking up to find his car booted Sean decides to take Dee Loc's suggestion and apply for a job at his workplace a full-service hand car wash. When the owner Mr. Washington (George Wallace) hires Sean to manage The Wash tensions flare between the two roommates. Dee Loc thinks Sean is on a power trip while Sean must deal with Dee Loc's side hustles in the car wash parking lot. But petty bickering turns out to be the least of their worries when local gang-banger Slim (DJ Pooh) kidnaps Mr. Washington for a $50 000 ransom. The plot thickens when disgruntled ex-employee Chris (Eminem) comes back to The Wash looking for revenge.
Dr. Dre portrays his character Sean fittingly well. In fact Sean's character is probably the only empathetic one; he's not as power hungry as he is depicted and comes across as someone who is trying to deal with a crappy situation as best he can. Snoop Dogg is also perfectly cast as Dee Loc a pot-dealing car washer who's always looking for something for nothing. Though both men have been typecast based on their personalities it works to the movie's advantage here: the two have great chemistry on screen. Wallace is hilarious as Mr. Washington as is DJ Pooh the not-too-bright kidnapper. There are a couple of great cameo appearances including Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) as a weed supplier and Pauly Shore as some guy tied up in the trunk of a car. Also look for appearance by hip-hoppers Ludacris Kurupt and Snoop Dogg's Eastsidaz partners Tray Dee and Goldie Loc. But don't expect too much screen time from Eminem; he appears for maybe all of four minutes.
Writer/director DJ Pooh (Friday) came up with the concept for this homage to the 1976 comedy Car Wash during last year's Up In Smoke rap and hip-hop tour featuring both Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. (Perhaps The Wash is what happens when you write a script through a haze of bong smoke!) The film has some really funny moments like when Slim calls to give the ransom demands but forgets to block his name from appearing on the caller ID. But the overall pacing is off and the focus is a little um fuzzy. Only after Mr. Washington gets kidnapped (about half way through the film) does some sort of story start to develop. Up to that point the movie lacks momentum and a sense of focus. And with a background radio conspicuously announcing new songs by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg it feels a bit like a marketing vehicle for their music. Though The Wash doesn't compare to Friday it still generates some good laughs and showcases considerable talent.