Pan African Film & Arts Festival
2012 Reviews
by Michael Dequina

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

96 Minutes poster 96 Minutes (R) *** 1/2
The title may be painfully generic, and the basic genre--crime thriller inspired by true events--is just as nondescript. But writer-director Aimee Lagos's execution is far from it; while the nonlinear structure, with a frenzied drive with four young people in the immediate aftermath of a deadly shooting framing flashbacks to what brought each of the individuals to this crisis point, sounds gimmicky on the face of it, she uses the device to her advantage, gradually revealing layers to the characters and thus often shifting the audience perceptions of them. Such effort would be all for naught if Lagos didn't have a capable cast, and she strikes gold with the core four of Brittany Snow and Christian Serratos as two college students in the wrong place at the wrong time and Evan Ross and J. Michael Trautmann as two youths from the other side of town. Trautmann excels in perhaps the most difficult role, understanding that his character is not really a thug but a wannabe thug, his demeanor that much more desperately extreme to hide the pain and neediness that fuels him (which Lagos takes great, notable care in fleshing out); and Snow and Ross affirm their statuses as two of the more gifted young actors on screen today, with their climactic scene all the more powerful, chilling, angering, and heartbreaking in its realistic lack of extreme hysterics. That Lagos also shows generosity to those in smaller parts, such as David Oyelowo, who gets a choice moment or two as a reformed gang member turned business owner, further marks her as a name to watch.

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Think Like a Man poster Think Like a Man (PG-13) *** 1/2
The idea of a film based on Steve Harvey's bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man sounds more than a bit dubious; after all, a narrative feature based on what is essentially a self-help book? But with Think Like a Man, director Tim Story and screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman have unlocked the material in as cinematic a way as ideally possible. They go beyond merely using the title as a springboard for a premise (like, for instance, He's Just Not That into You) and consistently calling back to the source in a way that made sense to the plot lines, fashioning it into basically another character--and Harvey's book is the troublemaker of the ensemble that shakes up the romantic status quo for most of the rest of the canvas: The Player (Romany Malco), The Mama's Boy (Terrence J), The Dreamer (Michael Ealy), The Non-Committer (Jerry Ferrara); and their respective matches, The 90-Day Rule Girl (Meagan Good), The Single Mom (Regina Hall), The Woman Who Is Her Own Man (Taraji P. Henson), and The Ring Girl (Gabrielle Union). Acting as bemused bystanders most of the way are The Happily Married Guy (Gary Owen) and, most notably, The Even Happier Divorced Guy (Kevin Hart), who narrates and comments on all the intergender byplay and--perhaps more accurately--warfare.

Those assigned labels are not my own snarky, reductive invention. While this is another of the wave of large ensemble rom-coms where everyone generally falls into an identifiable character type, making for a conveniently, if not always realistically, varied canvas to follow, Story and the writers not only acknowledge but rather proudly own such a contrivance/convention from the jump, from Hart's introductory voiceover identifying the guys to even title cards identifying each pairing. This also nicely serves to solidify the connection with the source material, taking types from the book and thus having certain scenarios from it play out in storylines in the film proper. Of course, mere self-awareness of the types and formulae don't make compelling viewing alone. There needs to be the right actors to bring them life and personality, and across the board everyone fits their part like a glove, both in ways that fit their established wheelhouses (such as the jovially wisecracking Hart) or show sides they had not yet had the opportunity to do so on screen (such the gifted Henson, finally getting an opportunity to fulfill her Glamorous Romantic Leading Lady destiny; relative big screen newcomer Terrence, who is a bit of a revelation; Chris Brown, in an amusingly goofy turn).

Even more crucial, however, is the chemistry between the actors, and in terms of both the romantic couples and the camaraderie between the guys and girls, and on both counts the film gets it right, having both the agreeable, infectious sense of humor and genuine, welcoming likability and therefore investment. Also helping immeasurably is that the flavor of each duet, much like the character types, have their distinctive flavor and appeal. Union and Ferrara have the believable, warmly "lived-in" energy of a pair that's been together for what feels like forever (a nice costuming touch is having her often wear clothes that are clearly his). On the opposite end are Henson and Ealy, bringing the intense erotic heat of immediate, impetuous passion while also forging a palpable connection that could serve as a foundation for something deeper. Lying between those two are the very cute Terrence/Hall coupling, who easily convince that there would be a genuine and substantial rapport despite their differences in age and circumstance; and the sexual suppression and resulting tension of the Malco/Good pairing makes for choice comic moments and a satisfying, cathartic release as their relationship blooms into something neither of them planned nor expected.

Bringing it all together is Story, and as he showed in the original Barbershop, he not only knows how to bring balance to such an expansive multi-character and -story piece but also make every thread feel part of a cohesive whole. No one story nor character dominates (though, naturally, there are scene/movie stealers--and the timing could not be more perfect for Hart, coming off of the box office success of Laugh at My Pain, and more than likely this will be the big springboard for a proper, major starring vehicle for his considerable comic talents), and everyone gets a chance to shine, whether comically or dramatically or both. Story's able, indispensable guidance is almost certain to be underrated, given how this is of the most notoriously formula of genres and hence is more notably personality/actor-driven. But one need only look at Garry Marshall's recent twin fiascoes of holiday-themed ensemble rom-coms, Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, to see just how such a film requires a strong, careful directorial hand--which, ultimately, is how and why Think Like a Man ends up being one of the best mainstream date movies to come out in recent memory.

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Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day poster Woman, Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day (PG-13) **
The dramatic film productions of Bishop T.D. Jakes have historically been generous with strong parts for their very capable leading ladies--Kimberly Elise in Woman, Thou Art Loosed; Taraji P. Henson in Not Easily Broken--and On the 7th Day is no exception, giving Sharon Leal an overdue film showcase as a well-off wife and mom whose secret past appears to catch up with her when her daughter goes missing. Leal proves more than able and willing to delve into the darker, rougher edges of her character and the more provocative issues of faith that are touched on, namely if an unseemly past somehow led to "earning" misfortune despite whatever changes she's made for and within herself. Unfortunately, such ideas have to take a backseat to the more conventional thriller aspects of the film, which director Neema Barnette doesn't seem as interested in given the less than perfunctory treatment. The term "mystery" is a stretch when the culprit is more than obvious from the jump, not to mention is a particularly sloppy example of the Law of Casting (that is, when a known face is in an inexplicably nothing role for most of a mystery film's run time, odds are that's whodunit), as hard as the cast (which also includes Blair Underwood as Leal's professor husband, Nicole Beharie as his teaching assistant, and Nicoye Banks as an FBI agent with history with Leal) works in turning in solid performances, they fight a losing battle against the largely uninspired story (or, in the case of Pam Grier, a rather embarrassingly broad role, as a tough Native American cop).

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Pan African Film & Arts Festival 2012 Reviews/© Michael Dequina

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