After the death of their parents Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) and his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) have to fend for themselves. Trying not to think about his pending high school graduation Rashad works as a janitor for his stingy uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and hangs out with his friends practicing for the Skate Wars competition at their local roller rink. Ant however approaches life differently after he hooks up with Marcus (Big Boi) a big-time drug dealer in the area. Marcus recruits Ant to do his dirty work and the kid gets himself tangled up in the harsh world of drugs money and violence. It’s up to his older brother to get him out of it and finally steer him in the right direction. ATL proves some rapper-turned-actors can indeed be in a movie not based on their real lives. Known as “The King of the South” in the rap world T.I. displays some notable acting skills. Born and raised in the ATL (that’s Atlanta to us lay folk) his southern slang and cool demeanor lend credibility. As well Big Boi (half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group OutKast) does a nice job giving his drug lord character multi-layers. He plays it smooth recruiting high school kids and promising them more money then they have ever seen. When they don’t pay up he then turns on a dime and becomes quite menacing. And watch out for Evan Ross the youngest son of the legendary Diana Ross. In his debut performance as Ant he tugs at your heart even when you’re hoping Rashad will smack him for the bad choices he makes. Music video director Chris Robinson makes his feature directing debut with ATL a story loosely based on ATL producers Dallas Austin and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ (of TLC fame) experiences growing up in Atlanta. With many of the hottest hip-hop artists coming out of Atlanta Robinson--along with first-time screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism--impressively incorporates the music without focusing on it. Sure the soundtrack crunks it up but this is not a film about a wannabe rapper trying to make it out of the ‘hood and into the spotlight. There aren’t any lengthy shootouts and no one dies. Instead ATL interweaves compelling themes of family dynamics rich vs. poor--and even a roller skating motif which seems to come out of left field but provides some fun moments. ATL is a breath of fresh air for a hip-hop movie that isn't about hip-hop.
Former NFL star quarterback Paul Crewe (Sandler) doesn't really like himself much these days. Unproven accusations of points shaving have sent Crewe into a downward spiral of drunkenness and self-destructive behavior. It all comes to a very bad end one night when he takes a wild joyride in his girlfriend's Bentley with cops in pursuit. Crewe is sent to a Texas penitentiary where he figures he'll just quietly ride out his time in hopes of leaving a changed man. The sadistic warden (James Cromwell) however has other plans for Crewe. He forces the quarterback to transform a diverse group of inmates into a football team so that they can play his elite semi-pro team of guards. You know to make the guards look good when they crush the convicts. What the warden doesn't expect is how far Crewe--with the help of fellow inmates Nate Scarborough (Burt Reynolds) and Caretaker (Rock)--takes his task. He recruits his unlikely but somewhat talented teammates with the promise that they'll get a chance to exact revenge on the guards during anything-goes bone-crushing showdown. This is Crewe's one chance to redeem himself. Can he do it? You can do it Paul!
Seems like when Adam Sandler puts his mind to it he really can't lose. And The Longest Yard proves to another perfect Sandler vehicle. As Paul Crewe the comedian returns to his sports roots (Happy Gilmore The Waterboy) and basically plays the same unassuming slightly sardonic straight man. Crewe though is perhaps a little less angry and more resigned about his circumstances. Sandler also displays a fairly convincing flair for quarterbacking. The thing is Sandler doesn't need to stretch to be successful. He tried it in Punch-Drunk Love--and actually pulled it off quite nicely I might add--but if he's making billions of dollars playing himself why mess with a good thing? It's who he surrounds himself with that counts. Reynolds who played Crewe in the 1974 original looks like he's just as pleased as punch to be there as he relive some glory days as the grizzled coach Scarborough. He even gets in a little playing time on the field. What fun for him. The always-hysterical Rock complements his longtime SNL pal to a tee and with his petite frame next to all these hulking men naturally delivers all the funniest lines ("I'll teach you anything just don't eat me!"). Hip-hopper Nelly in his acting debut brings a certain MTV quality to the proceedings (and has a few songs on the soundtrack). And as far as the rest of the cast of ex-football players and professional wrestlers well they are there for a reason.
The 1974 The Longest Yard is apparently one of Sandler's favorite films and it's easy to see why. First of all it has Burt Reynolds who is so cool as the beleaguered Crewe. Then there's the classic underdog theme in which the good guys are actually bad guys--they are all convicted felons--but who we see systematically beat down by the "Man." You want them to thrash the holy crap out of those mean and nasty guards. I mean cons are people too right? Plus there are some great football sequences. So Sandler along with his Happy Madison Productions decides to pay homage assembles another crack team--including director Peter Segal who worked with Sandler on 50 First Dates and Anger Management--and produces a very worthy remake. They stay close to the original material--comedy tinged with sentiment--but of course can't help but add the requisite Sandler-isms. Those over-the-top "isms"--the bathroom humor the lame prison-sex jokes Rob Schneider yelling "You can do it!" et al.--is what all die-hard Sandler fans want to see so I guess it's expected. It's just not my cup of tea.
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.