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The Movie Report
Archive
January 2010

#600 - 601
January 15, 2010 - January 29, 2010


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#601 January 29, 2010

M O V I E S

Preacher's Kid poster Preacher's Kid (PG-13) ***
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With a title like Preacher's Kid, it's not entirely unfair to walk into the film expecting a "standard" faith-centered/gospel play-style drama. A plot summary makes expectations fall further in that line: sheltered 20-something choir girl Angie King (LeToya Luckett) leaves the home of her strict bishop father (GregAlan Williams) to join charming R&B star Devlin Mitchell (Durrell "Tank" Babbs) on a touring gospel play company. The story is another variation on the prodigal son tale, used many times over in entertainments both religious and secular.

But the film's writer-director is Stan Foster, whose most recent screen credit was for the screenplay for one of the best, most affecting entries in the genre, 2004's Michael Schultz-directed, Independent Spirit Award-nominated adaptation of his play Woman Thou Art Loosed (based on the novel by Bishop T.D. Jakes), and accordingly there's a bit more edge and heft than just the expected faith-affirming messages and lessons. Most striking of all Foster's self-referential, meta-commentary approach with the film's play-within-a-film conceit. While this angle allows Foster to poke some good-natured fun at the well-worn tropes of genre, both in on-stage action (e.g. broad character types in both old age and Madea-style cross-gender drag; the obligatory moment of gratuitous beefcake by the heartthrob lead) and more inside issues (such as the types of stars generally cast in such productions and the general day-to-day working conditions of such touring plays), it also reinforces how he employs those familiar genre conventions far more effectively than the norm. Indeed, at the core of the film is a well-meaning female lead caught between a Very Bad Guy in Devlin and a Very Good Guy (choir director Wynton, a bit of a thin role played by Sharif Atkins), but there's a fair amount of grey shading that makes the proceedings all the more believable. While his behavior comes to explicitly live up to his similarly-sounding namesake, Devlin's effortlessly charismatic manner is convincingly, understandably alluring--and hence all the more insidious as he preys upon Angie's naivete and attendant insecurities. Those qualities in Angie are nicely drawn from the start, and as such her more questionable decisions are understandable, coming from that place of honest unworldliness and a pure need to be accepted and belong in the "real" world outside of her father's orbit; accordingly, she is also is shown to not be beyond displaying some unpleasant behavior herself. The added complexity is also present in the smaller parts, from the play's pragmatic director Ike (Clifton Powell), who does his part in advising caution but knows better than to not say or do anything to upset the rather delicate production in any way; to Angie's father, who may be wise to warn about the evils of the world but must also learn himself--not only to let go but also, in an effective (if somewhat underserviced, due to run time constraints) secondary plot, to start living life for himself a bit.

That sense of balance and subverting expectations extends to the casting. While veterans such as Powell, Williams, and Ella Joyce (as an old friend of the bishop's) reliably do the job in their supporting parts, carrying the film--as is often the case in many of its stage-based ilk--are two familiar figures in the R&B world who are relative newcomers to acting, Luckett and Babbs. Luckett proves to a natural beyond her established vocal abilities, comfortably navigating the emotional demands of the role and holding the screen with effortless, relatable likability. Any outward signs of Luckett's screen inexperience actually serve the part well, for Angie would be a bit ill at ease in many of the situations in which she suddenly finds herself and especially when confronted with as overwhelming a presence as Babbs's Devlin. Babbs doesn't seem to be stretching much at all in the early stages, clearly having fun riffing off of his well-known loverman music persona, but what really makes Devlin's eventual manipulations and abuses all the more startling is just how convincing Babbs proves to be in depicting the dark side. Likely to be underrated in a less showy but no less important part is Tammy Townsend, who shines both vocally and dramatically as Desiree, Angie's rival for Devlin's leading lady position both on and off the stage. She, like the rest of the cast, benefits from Foster's generosity in his script, taking what in another film could be a cardboard adversary into a character that develops unexpected layers as the film progresses.

While that sense of added dimension strengthens Preacher's Kid throughout, the ultimate reason for its success lies in something simpler, which is actually addressed in one rather observant line from the film: "Our audience may not be the most sophisticated, but they can spot a lie." In terms of broad narrative and thematic strokes, the film may not venture too far past what is plainly obvious from the outset. So it all comes down to how the formula is executed and how the message is expressed during its two hours, and Foster's film confirms the unique, undeniable power this genre can achieve on both stage and film--best exemplified by a scene climactic to both the movie and the play-within-a-movie, where Angie's song soars with such sincere, soul-baring passion that the audience, religious or otherwise, is uplifted beyond the screen and to a place that is genuinely transcendent.


In Brief

Edge of Darkness poster Edge of Darkness (R) ** 1/2
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Warner Bros.' relentless aping of the Taken ad campaign, from the trailers on down to the very color scheme of the one sheet design, for Martin Campbell's big screen adaptation of his own 1980s BBC television miniseries, initially strikes as comical, but after seeing this version of Edge of Darkness, it comes off a bit desperate. While there are surface similarities in basic plot line (police detective Mel Gibson wants revenge after the brutal murder of his daughter) it's ultimately a different animal almost entirely, not concerned so much with kick-ass crowdpleasing payback than murky conspiracy with big business and government--rendered even more murky with the run time compression from small screen to big, and some obviously grafted-on action beats distract rather than add urgency to the main concerns. Gibson, in his first lead role in nearly a decade, is appropriately intense and well-cast (if making a dodgy attempt at a Boston accent), as are Ray Winstone as a mysterious cleaner and Danny Huston as a shady business exec, but the whole fails to really satisfy as either an action or mystery thriller.


Extraordinary Measures poster Extraordinary Measures (PG) **
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It's a bit trippy to see the big CBS eye logo assemble before a big screen film, but then the television network's inaugural foray into theatrical features is exactly what one would've feared: a garden variety disease-of-the-week TV movie dressed up with cinema marquee names. In the latter respect, Harrison Ford (who also executive produced) has a bit of fun as an eccentric but brilliant doctor whose theoretical new treatment for a genetic disease could be the key to saving many children's lives. Whenever Ford's on screen, whether cracking wise or doing his patented yell-and-point, the energy level--and, hence, interest--perks up a bit. Unfortunately, the focus is largely on a disconcertingly bloated-looking Brendan Fraser as a businessman who partners with Ford to develop the cure--not so much for the greater good than to treat his two kids stricken with said ailment, and so we get the usual maudlin, handwringing tropes with he and his wife (Keri Russell, still waiting for another great showcase la Waitress) and dealing with various bureaucratic roadblocks to get work done. Director Tom Vaughan puts together all the ingredients competently enough, but the caliber of talent here could have been put to far more effective and memorable use.


Tooth Fairy poster Tooth Fairy (PG) **
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There is a major implausibility to be swallowed in Tooth Fairy--and I'm not talking about the fantasy element that the title implies: it's that a tough, cocky, image-conscious hockey pro (Dwayne Johnson) known for his hard, dirty, penalty box-prone play would willingly adopt as his nickname the decidedly unintimidating "Tooth Fairy." But that's director Michael Lembeck's hamhandedly "ironic" way of setting up the selling point of the film, which is to put the erstwhile Rock into dainty pixie duds and wings as an actual kids' tooth collector--a sight whose novelty wears off very quickly for those above third grade age level, not surprisingly. Similarly unsurprising is just about everything else about this by-the-numbers effort, from how his sentence to tooth fairy duty--brought on by a fairy godmother (Julie Andrews) after Johnson tells his girlfriend's (Ashley Judd in a nothing role) young daughter tooth fairies don't exist--revives his child-like sense of imagination to how it makes him a much better person as a whole. In short, this is ho-hum filmic comfort food for parents looking to quiet their young kids for 90 minutes, with any signs of possible inspiration (such as Billy Crystal's cameo as the fairies' maestro of magic--which is shown in its virtual entirety in the trailers) ultimately flattened out by forgettable formula.


When in Rome poster When in Rome (PG-13) * 1/2
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If chemistry were the only necessary ingredient in a romantic comedy, then Mark Steven Johnson's featherweight film would be a resounding success. As, respectively, an unlucky-in-love museum curator and a somewhat klutzy sports writer, Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel strike infectiously combustible sparks from the moment the two meet at her kid sister's wedding in the title location. So for about twenty or so minutes, this appealing, fun pairing gives the film some promise--that is just as immediately shot to hell once the big plot hook/gimmick kicks in. Following what will be the first of many misunderstandings driving the film, Bell drunkenly steals coins from a romantic wishing fountain, and then suddenly, "magically" finds herself aggressively chased by the coins' amorous original owners. And so the cuteness of the byplay between Bell and Duhamel takes a back seat to the likes of Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, and Danny DeVito mugging and flailing about in painfully unfunny efforts to win the affections of Bell, who (like the audience) would rather she just get to hang with Duhamel--a simpler but far more preferable alternative than the lame, labored "creativity" that follows from the central, strained plot contrivance. Johnson's sole bit of inspiration comes during the end credit roll, but by then it's too little too late, not to mention it further confirms how much more enjoyable the film would have been had it truly been centered on the natural charm of its top-billed pair.


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#600 January 15, 2010

M O V I E S
In Brief

The Book of Eli poster The Book of Eli (R) ***
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The Book of Eli's marketing campaign does prepare viewers for a mix of various genres and elements: post-apocalyptic sci-fi neo-western action drama. But another quality that comes off just as strongly, perhaps surprisingly so, is actually spelled out right there in big letters on the advertising along with the image of a ready-to-kick-ass Denzel Washington: "Believe." Yes, there is a strong faith element to this film, but this is no cheesy, heavy-handed, preachy enterprise like previous faith-driven genre efforts such as The Omega Code or the Left Behind series. After all, with one of the producers being Joel Silver, this is first and foremost an action film, and directors Allen and Albert Hughes (back at the helm after much too long a hiatus following 2001's From Hell) definitely deliver the goods in that respect, crafting an evocative atmosphere of desolation and staging some cool set pieces, chief among them a bravura gunfight-and-explosion sequence made to look like one single handheld shot as it fluidly moves between indoors and outdoors, through windows and bullet holes. But between the moments of gunplay and Washington doing all sorts of damage with arrows and blades there i actually a compelling story: Washington's Eli is a lone traveler following a calling to venture west; in his possession is the titular book, which is coveted by a town leader (Gary Oldman, unexpectedly and effectively restrained) who wants to use it for his own self-serving purposes. From this thread the Hughes Brothers and writer Gary Whitta address some serious and smart ideas about religion, namely the conflict between it as a pure expression of faith versus its exploitation as a tool for power, not to mention give their whole cast (which also includes Mila Kunis as sidekick to a reluctant Eli, and Jennifer Beals as her mother) some meaty material to work with. The generally somber tone (briefly lightened up by an amusing Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old married couple encountered on their journey) may be an issue for a number of viewers and some key late developments and revelations do indeed require (yes) a leap of moviegoers' faith, but the Hughes Brothers have rather smartly packed in some subtle details along the way that in retrospect add up. This film won't be what a lot of people are expecting or wanting, but its unusual ambition and thoughtfulness make it resonate a bit more than most slick studio action fare.


Daybreakers poster Daybreakers (R) ** 1/2
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In this era of Twilight, Daybreakers would already feel somewhat refreshing in that it features real vampires with huge, insatiable bloodlusts and that actually, you know, burn in sunlight, but writers-directors the Speirig Brothers also frame their bloodsuckers in an interesting concept. Nearly the entire population has been turned undead, with humans being farmed for their blood--and the supply has been exhausted to about nil, leading to unrest and literally monstrous transformations; looking for a possible cure for vampirism rather than a blood substitute is an undead hematologist (Ethan Hawke), who may find the key in a human resistance leader (Willem Dafoe). The set-up is solid, and the Speirigs have done a great job in creating a visually striking, vividly imagined alternate universe, not to mention are far from shy with the bloodletting. But once the world is set up, the follow-through comes up short, with a badass Dafoe not nearly getting enough opportunity to kick as much ass as he obviously is game for, and as such the lack of thrills make the film sputter to its (sequel-friendly, natch) conclusion.


The Spy Next Door poster The Spy Next Door (PG) **
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Brian Levant's latest family comedy opens with a huge miscalulation: a montage of scenes, shots, and stunts from Jackie Chan's previous films in both Hong Kong and America. Not such a wise move to remind audiences of the living action legend's heyday (and, curiously, some of his lowlights--footage from The Tuxedo is prominently featured) right before a starring vehicle that already appears dubious going in--and, indeed, this is the broad, silly kiddie exercise it appears to be. Chan does get to engage in some amusing, characteristically slapsticky fight scenes as the title character, but most of the run time is devoted to the would-be comic mishaps as he naively offers to take care of his neighbor/girlfriend's (Amber Valletta, continuing to carve out a unique niche having decent chemistry with unexpected leading men) bratty kids while she's away. As is too often the case in films such as these, the child actors try really hard to be cute but end up being just that much more annoying. But such an expected negative would be forgivable if the action side of the film delivered, but aside from some scattered moments in the fights, it really doesn't, largely due to some obnoxiously cartoony villains. For the target family audience, this offers nothing beyond the expected, which will likely be enough for that demographic but not the longtime Chan fans all too familiar with the glory days briefly covered in that opening segment.


Youth in Revolt poster Youth in Revolt (R) ***
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Although he's only had major film roles for a relatively short time, there is already an easily identifiable "Michael Cera role," and Miguel Arteta's adaptation of C.D. Payne's novel finds the ubiquitous actor again playing a shy, awkward, geeky type pining for an object of affection. This time it's a French-loving free spirit (Portia Doubleday), who, after various forces keep them apart, encourages Cera's character to break loose and be "bad"--and it's at that point this film deviates from the teen comedy norm and becomes something darker, edgier, and more unexpectedly funny. The story also allows Cera to break a bit free of his usual persona, as his character has visions of himself as a colder, more confident, delinquent alter ego. Whether Cera can really stretch beyond his well-trodden ground for an entire film remains to be seen, but it works comfortably for the amusingly off-kilter world of this film, which also features good work from the likes of Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, and Fred Willard, as well as some animated sequences that fit well with the quirky proceedings.


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