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The Movie Report
Archive
August 2012
Volume 1

#679 - 681
August 3, 2012 - August 17, 2012


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

S U B S C R I B E

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#681 August 17, 2012

M O V I E S

Sparkle poster Beloved poster Sparkle (PG-13) ***
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Beloved (Les Bien-aimés) ***
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While Sam O'Steen's 1976 musical drama Sparkle understandably has a devoted following to this day, it has more to do with certain effective elements--the charm of its cast, led by a pre-fame (in more ways than one) Irene Cara as the title character; the enduring original tunes penned by Curtis Mayfield--than Joel Schumacher's script, which while boasting a clear cut plot hook (three sisters form a girl group in the 1950s) and memorable characters (such as eldest sister/frontwoman Sister, indelibly portrayed by Lonette McKee) was a bit of a structural mess with a number plot lapses if not outright holes. And so it is an ideal property to polish anew and remake--and director Salim Akil and writer Mara Brock Akil have made more or less an ideal example of how a remake should be: faithful to the story beats and essence of the original yet adding enough of its own personality that it can stand as something distinctly its own, not necessarily supplanting the original film but nicely complementing it.

The premise and general outline remains the same: timid Sparkle (Jordin Sparks, in her film debut), sensible Dolores (Tika Sumpter), and vivacious Sister (Carmen Ejogo), daughters of single mom Emma Anderson (Whitney Houston), rise to music fame as a group, and with the rewards come the pitfalls (the latter most especially experienced by Sister) that set the young women off individually on their journeys to become their own fully formed adult selves. Similar to the girls' arc, the Akils make smart and sensitive adjustments that enables their film to grow gradually and definitively apart from O'Steen's. Most obviously, the time and place are shifted from '50s Harlem to '60s Detroit, and with that comes new issues both sociopolitically and in the musical landscape; but less immediately evident but more importantly, they more clearly flesh out just about all the characters and, hence, emotional motivations in the film. If key character shifts at the core add a more conventional air--this Sparkle, also a songwriter, wants to be a star from the jump, disposing of one of the more effective touches of Schumacher's original script, where she, right along with the audience, only over time realize and recognize the superstar she can be; her love interest Stix (Derek Luke), now strictly a business manager, is thus even more of a thankless part--elsewhere the Akils delve into richer, more complicated territory. Dolores's headstrong personality is now more rooted in the Afrocentrism of the Civil Rights era; the smooth Satin Struthers, who falls into tumultuous romance with Sister, is no longer a one-dimensional monster of a crime boss but an established entertainer whose frustrations with his declining comedy career are vented in violent fashion--both clearly playing to new portrayer Mike Epps's established persona and strengths while giving him a chance to effectively show different, darker shades. But the strongest refinement comes in Sister and Emma. The mother character has been completely reconceived (and renamed, from "Effie"--presumably to sidestep any further Dreamgirls associations) from a supportive and fairly passive (and barely seen) bystander to a world-weary woman who herself once pursued a musical career only to have those glamorous dreams quickly crash down to harsh reality. The line "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" is sure to be (over-)quoted due to the tragic real-life fate of the late Houston, but it also reflects how savvily and effectively the Akils have paralleled and mirrored Emma and Sister's trajectories.

But the beefed-up material would not have come to proper life without the right actors, and the whole cast brings their A game, whether in covering ground familiar to them and viewers of them but also in unexpected ways: Epps peeling away the layers of the happy-go-lucky funnyman fašade; Houston, in by far her best work as an actress, being more approachably earthy and piercingly gritty than the immaculately polished pop diva of her prime; and Sparks using her inexperience as an actress and her American Idol winner insta-fame baggage to her advantage, growing steadily, confidently from the young innocent of her image to someone more mature and strong. But even with solid work all around, including sure-to-be under-recognized utility players (Omari Hardwick lends genuine warmth and palpable heartbreak to another heavily retooled role from the original, that of Sister's first paramour Levi; Sumpter's stalwart presence being the steady rock for her two screen sisters much like her character), there is still a clear breakout: Ejogo. For once, this talented, generally underutilized actress really gets to show the depth of her range with such a dramatic arc to play, bewitching and alluring in the early stages and then completely devastating as the hope and life drains out of her. But beyond her technically solid performance, this film announces her as foremost a capital-S Star--look no further than her slinky, silky, show-stopping rendition of the Mayfield-penned classic (another smart choice--retaining the original film's songs) "(Giving Him) Something He Can Feel," so smoldering, sizzling, seductive that both McKee and En Vogue's takes on the tune are quickly, blissfully cast into distant memory.

The tragic real life loss of Houston may ultimately have cemented an enduring legacy for this version of Sparkle, but hopefully with time the Akils' film will be best remembered as being a tribute to the talent of everyone involved, for their collective efforts come together to craft a genuinely stirring song.

Another emotionally stirring song-driven, mother-daughter relationship film hits selected screens this weekend--the French import Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés). The effect isn't so immediately felt, however, for the decades-spanning timeline of writer-director Christophe Honoré's romantic musical often has an equally sprawling pace and run time (135 minutes) to match. But the main reason why one remains interested and invested even as the pacing goes slack are a trio of terrifically precise performances playing the two central characters, mother Madeleine and daughter Véra. The film opens in the 1960s with young Paris shoe shop clerk Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) very much on a whim taking up prostitution on the side, a most impulsive decision that proves to have lasting repercussions--not in the more movie-expected dark and lurid sense, but it is through that career move that she meets Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), an on-again, off-again love that will endure well into the '90s (and then played by Catherine Deneuve and Milos Forman), where their adult daughter Véra (Chiara Mastroianni) suffers through her own romantic complications caused by her ever-devoted ex Clément (Louis Garrel) and her own unshakable, inexplicable attraction and mutual connection to Henderson (Paul Schneider), an American musician who is gay. Honoré has stated his main point with the film was to contrast the eras of free love and that of fear in the age of AIDS, and while that idea does come across, it doesn't quite as strongly and powerfully in one more general, immediate, and primal: that of the irrational yet inescapably consuming bonds of love, so poignantly, simply, and beautifully summed up in a lyric of Deneuve's closing song that I dare not spoil. As in Honoré's previous musical film, 2007's even more blatant Jacques Demy homage Love Songs (Les Chansons d'Amour), the songs by Alex Beaupain are context-driven and situational, more sung dialogue/monologues than numbers per se, and as such they may not be particularly memorable; however, they serve their purpose in bolstering the story, performances, characters, and, most importantly, the emotional drive of the piece, and the film's effect would be neither as unique nor as lasting had they not been there.


In Brief

Englewood poster Englewood: The Growing Pains in Chicago ***
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Like many a youth-focused urban drama released over theplast two decades, the spirit of John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood looms large over writer/director/actor William L. Cochran's debut feature. Indeed, the film does follow the coming-of-age struggles of a trio of young men--hoops hopeful Josh (David Cowan); idealistic Calvin (Rodney Harvey); and Dennis (Cochran), a hard-ass hustler with the soul of a poet and smarts that extend deeper than that of the streets--growing up in a rough inner city neighborhood, here the Englewood area of Chicago. But to simply dismiss the film as derivative is to discount the distinctive perspective and personality of Cochran's work, which goes beyond mere geographical difference. The sincere work of the three leads and their natural camaraderie make for a likable, rootable trio; and Cochran fleshes out their individual family situations in realistically complex fashion, as outward airs of stability don't necessarily convey the true life behind closed doors. While upbringing--or lack thereof--is vividly, if expectedly, illustrated as a contributor to the "growing pains" of the title, Cochran also sheds harsh light on the damage of media images--and not merely of those perpetuated by negativity-exploiting news organizations (an issue covered in one rather broadly played scene), but also in what all media stereotypically, wrongly reinforces as the only available options for escape, which is perhaps even more insidious. (When one character comes to the cold conclusion that he honestly doesn't know how to "be" a man, it's all the more chilling because of the greater, recognizable truth it reflects.) It is that genuine insight, and the passion and heart with which Cochran expresses it, that compensates for what the film lacks in some technical polish or originality in plotting. What ultimately matters is not only does one come away believing Cochran's characters and their circumstances, but believing in the substantive messages that lie within them.


The Odd Life of Timothy Green poster The Odd Life of Timothy Green (PG) **
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The lingering thought after sitting through Peter Hedges's fanciful drama was and still is: just whom exactly is this movie for? The Disney marketing machine has been grinding overtime for months, beating the drum for a purported new instant classic for the whole family, but in trying to cover all the bases Hedges and writing collaborator Ahmet Zappa fail to satisfy anyone. The proof is right in the basic plot synopsis: an infertile married couple's (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) dream to have a child miraculously comes true when young Timothy of the title (CJ Adams) magically and most literally emerges from their garden. The film is understandably focused on the parents, but issues of fertility and a slow pace do not exactly spell all-ages kid appeal; and the whimsical fantasy conception of Timothy--he has leaves sprouting from his ankles (no surprises as to what this ultimately means) and apparently harnesses power from sunlight--is too slight and juvenile for adults, not to mention the attendant lessons of not being afraid to be different are a bit half-hearted given how the eccentric youngster is less his own character than a plot device serving the main adult-centered concern. The effortlessly versatile and ever-game Garner is an ideal fit to handle material that ranges from high drama to light comedy, but there's only so much she can do when none of the varied tones are executed particularly well--though at least she is given something to do, unlike the horribly wasted talent on board here such as Dianne Wiest, Common, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.


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#680 August 10, 2012

M O V I E S
In Brief

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#679 August 3, 2012

M O V I E S
In Brief

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