The Mannsfield 12
At first, Craig Ross Jr.'s film seems to be following the path tread by many a gritty prison film before it. A brutal, bloody stabbing opens the picture; freeze-frames with text cards detail the various convicts' charges; the audience learns of the warring factions along with the cell block's newest arrival, who happens to be the wing's only white face. However, that's just part of a grander, greater design cooked up by he and co-writer Alton Glass. The presence of the new inmate, the pampered son of a wealthy big wig, indeed intensifies already-existing tensions brewing in the east wing of Mannsfield State Penitentiary, not to mention being thrust into the midst of hardcore criminals takes its psychological toll on him--which leads to a shocking act of violence.
This may sound like the typical trajectory of such movies, but it is at this point that Ross turns expectations and formulas on its ear, and what initially appears to be another low-budget exploitation flick turns into something more substantial. As the twelve of the title (Aaron D. Spears, Tony Todd, Joe Torry, William L. Johnson, Sean Nelson, Carl Gilliard, Melvin Jackson Jr., Mike McCary, Mark Prince, Justice Smith, Michael Kimbrew, and Ray Stoney) are forced to unite to survive a situation far more deadly than any of their individual feuds, the somewhat formula trappings of the initial proceedings prove to be a rather canny move--more than it is to the audience, the humanity of the prisoners comes as a surprise to themselves. The crimes, the nicknames, and the typical convict personae have become their remaining senses of identity, and how increased adversity leads them to regain their true selves and purpose makes for the film's unexpectedly inspiring and poignant core. There are some melodramatic missteps, particularly a reveal and coda involving one of the female supporting players, but the conviction (no pun intended) of Ross and his ensemble, led by a commanding and charismatic turn by Spears.
#531 May 11, 2007
M O V I E S
The Salon (PG-13)
It's easy to forget that Vivica A. Fox can, when given the chance (which is, sadly, not often), be an effective actress, and as in Two Can Play That Game, her previous collaboration with writer-director Mark Brown, she proves to be a warm and appealing anchor for sometimes sitcom-level silliness. She and a solid ensemble--which also includes Darrin Henson, Kym Whitley, a barely seen Terrence Howard, and (the very talented but perpetually underemployed) Monica Calhoun--are easily the best reason to watch this loose adaptation of the play Beauty Shop, in which Fox plays the owner of the titular Baltimore neighborhood business, which is threatened by demolition in the name of civic development. That sliver of a plot thread actually takes a back seat to the various gabfests that go on among the customers and staff in the shop, and it's here that the film's two-year sit on the shelf is felt the most, as dated references further bog down the already-limp banter, however spiritedly delivered by the actors. While it is nice to see the likes of Fox, Calhoun, and Henson (who shows he has leading man potential in the right project) show their chops on the big screen, it isn't worth sitting through a project that is strictly tube-worthy on the page.
Dreamgirls (PG-13) Movie: ;
Given that screenwriter-director Bill Condon has gone on record about assembling a super-deluxe director's special edition DVD of Dreamgirls in time for Christmas 2007, it would have been unsurprising--even understandable--if DreamWorks Home Entertainment issued a mere barebones stopgap release for the Oscar-winning film's initial release into the home market. Happily, the studio has rewarded the film's many admirers with a two-disc special edition that, while not exactly the ultimate "showstopper edition" that its title states, will satisfy the fans' desire for substantial supplements and even have the film's detractors looking forward to any future release. (For the budget-minded, a stripped-down single-disc edition has also been released.)
Condon (or, for that matter, anyone involved in the production) does not supply a running commentary track, which he is presumably reserving for that future edition, but that doesn't mean this release is wanting in behind-the-scenes insight. In fact, the second disc's "Building the Dream" documentary is about as comprehensive a behind-the-scenes feature as one could hope for, covering everything from the original 1981 Broadway production to the film's New York premiere in its two-hour-plus (!) run time (make that "almost everything," as the film's lavish press set visit event--a rather seminal moment in the film's journey, I believe--is conspicuously skipped over). That would be enough to tide over fans anticipating the upcoming definitive release, but there are also shorter featurettes on costume design, theatrical lighting, and film editing; a selection of auditions and screen tests (though, it must be noted, not including Jennifer Hudson's--I guess some things had to be saved for later); an extensive still gallery; and, most intriguingly, pre-visualization sequences for the musical numbers shot with dancer stand-ins.
Condon is reportedly restoring a lot of the excised music and other scenes for an extended cut in the future DVD release, but thankfully he hasn't precluded their out-of-context inclusion here. While the alteration of most of these scenes for the theatrical cut were understandable, a couple stand out as particularly disappointing to be left on the cutting room floor: the original, dance-heavy version of "Steppin' to the Bad Side," which was perhaps too West Side Story for test audiences but was choreographer Fatima Robinson's one pull-out-the-stops showcase; and the Hudson/Keith Robinson duet "Effie, Sing My Song," which, contrary to the documented reasoning behind its deletion, would not have been exhausting or numbing coming so late into the film. That said, seeing scenes such as these in the deleted scenes section just make one more eager to see how they play in Condon's extended version.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)