USA

Ash Wednesday (2002)

I decided to dig deep for this review, settling on a movie I watched as a broke grad student while cat-sitting for my professor. For someone who wrote expertly on Julia Kristeva and casually brought up Jacques Derrida, she had a pretty shit DVD collection, one I burned through instead of sweating over my thesis. Hence, this is me, ten years later.

Maybe it’s appropriate then that I’m writing about Ash Wednesday. I feel like I’m resurrecting something that should be left for dead, much like the main character in this movie. The film apparently screened in just two theaters, limping on to a lonely DVD afterlife in places as far-flung as Hong Kong. Similarly, Sean Sullivan (Elijah Wood) is resigned to a wayfarer’s existence after killing three men in a bar on Ash Wednesday in 1980. He does this to protect his older brother, Francis Xavier (Edward Burns), who is involved with the Irish American gangs of Hell’s Kitchen. Everyone assumes that Sean met a bloody end, but he was instead ferried away by Francis with help from the parish priest. Exactly three years later, word gets around that Sean is back from the dead, and the news doesn’t sit well with anyone.

You might think there’s more to the story, but this is really the entirety of the plot. Most of the movie is either people telling Francis his brother is in town or Francis telling them the opposite. Even when Sean finally emerges, the two continue to argue about his unexpected appearance. Since it takes so damn long for everyone to figure out what’s going on, the movie is stuck in limbo until Sean and Francis’s enemies decide to seek revenge. That’s when the brothers also realize that Sean needs to hightail it out of town if he wants to live another day. But this time he’s not going without his girl, Grace (Rosario Dawson). It’s going to be tricky to convince her though because no one bothered to let her in on the truth all these years. Not only did she believe she was a widow, but she also raised her son thinking his father was dead.

I’d hoped for something more gripping from Burns, doing quadruple duty as writer-director-producer-star. He had a much lauded indie hit, The Brothers McMullen, back in the mid-1990s and seems to have been trying to replicate that success ever since. This movie is another one of his contributions to the Irish American Catholic mythology, though more along the lines of Coppola or Scorsese. Unfortunately, the story never feels rooted in a real community. There’s plenty of religious imagery and the tone is one of perpetual Lent. You also have your Maggies and Murphys and even a bar called the Blarney Stone. But all this is window dressing to hide the fact that there’s not much there, not a deep meditation on Lenten sacrifice or a intimate portrait of Irish American identity. The casting is wildly off mark too. I’m sure there’s a good movie waiting to be made in which Burns, Wood, and Dawson star as a family unit, but this is not the one.

Released: 2002
Prod: Edward Burns, Margot Bridger
Dir: Edward Burns
Writer: Edward Burns
Cast: Edward Burns, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Oliver Platt, James Handy
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers is a everything you’d expect from a movie directed by John Singleton, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund, and set in Detroit. It has lots of guns, a good deal of punching, and more than my daily recommended dose of alpha male machismo. But it also has Chiwetel Ejiofor, so we’ll call it even. A tale of brotherhood and justice, the movie starts with a murder, a particularly cruel one. A grandmother is gunned down at a convenience store, seemingly a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but as her adult sons gather, little is what it seems.

The deceased is Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), a neighborhood guardian who’s fostered a number of children over the years. The only ones who couldn’t find permanent homes were Bobby (Wahlberg), Angel (Gibson), Jeremiah (Benjamin), and baby Jack (Hedlund), so she adopted them herself. The four – two of whom are black and two of whom are white – have drifted apart over the years, but they put their lives and differences on pause to come together and honor their mother, and to find the killers. That’s when things start to get crazy.

They deduce that her death wasn’t just the result of a robbery gone wrong but a calculated hit. Who wants to kill a sweet old grandma though? As the brothers get closer to the truth, they also find themselves tangling with the city’s criminal elements, which may involve the police. Two detectives (Terence Howard and Josh Charles) warn them off the case, and fur coat-wearing gangster Victor Sweet (Ejiofor) possibly has ties to one of the brothers.

There are a lot of characters running around, but somehow they manage to keep their distinct personalities, even if that is reduced to a few key character traits. Amongst the brothers, for example, Bobby’s the oldest and the natural leader, Angel’s the playboy, Jeremiah’s the good boy, and Jack’s the mama’s boy. These archetypes are meant to explore ideas of brotherhood, family, and identity, but they don’t amount to much more than broad overtures to a deeper social portrait. Neither the script nor the actors push the characters beyond their limited purpose within the plot, so any closer examination of race and class in this troubled part of Detroit simply fades. At the core, Four Brothers remains very much a police procedural, tense and action-packed to be sure, but not a film whose importance extends beyond whatever is happening on the screen.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Dir: John Singleton
Writer: David Elliot, Paul Lovett
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fionnula Flanagan, Terence Howard, Josh Charles, Sofia Vergara, Taraji P. Henson
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Maid in Manhattan (2002)

Sometimes you come across a bad movie at the right time and, despite knowing better, still find it enjoyable. It’s happened to all of us, and Maid in Manhattan is one that caught me unawares on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A lifeless, predictable romance, if we’re being honest, this movie nevertheless wormed its way into the edges of my heart. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though it does have its stock of absurd characters and situations, but I liked Wayne Wang’s quiet direction, which was content to let the story hum steadily along.

The movie still depends on wacky, blown-up moments that pivot the action from one point to the next. Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a maid in the rich people’s floor in a fancy Manhattan hotel, is a devoted single mother with aspirations of joining management. When her friend convinces her to try on a guest’s discarded Dolce and Gabbana, she catches the eye of Chris Marshall, a state assemblyman with aspirations of joining the U.S. Senate. He mistakes Marisa for Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), whose room she is cleaning, and they go out for a walk. Unable to stop this train, she continues the deception, much to Chris’s confusion when the real Caroline shows up at a private lunch.

Anyone who’s seen a romance knows where this is heading and how it will work itself out. The movie doesn’t get its fuel from its original storytelling but in part from the charisma of its supporting characters. The actors ham it up, exaggerating the drama just so. Richardson has the most fun with her role and teases the clueless, British Caroline. Stanley Tucci also makes an impression as Chris’s dry chief of staff, ever on guard for media stories that may threaten the Senate campaign. Others have roles that aren’t as juicy, a young Tyler Posey as Marisa’s politically obsessed son and Bob Hoskins as the avuncular head butler, for example, but they stand out for their sincerity.

The real weak link is the lead characters. It isn’t so much that Lopez and Fiennes are bad but that they have no chemistry. In fact, I easily fell for Marisa’s flinty personality and Chris’s wayward Republican attempt to see past himself. But the two act at each other, both characters earnestly in love with someone, just not the someone in front of them. Marisa makes a dynamic first impression on Chris because of the way she looks, but his continued devotion to her is puzzling, predicated on the fact that she will tell it like it is while his staff are all too eager to shield him from any hint of controversy. Likewise, she’s smitten, but since she always ends up lecturing him about the working class, what’s the attraction?

Besides making for a frustrating romance, this lack of clarity also raises questions of how race, class, and gender are portrayed. That the Latino girl moves up thanks to the generosity of the dashing white guy is just one of the concerns. Marisa is never really more than the maid who makes good, something that is emphasized most clearly in the closing scene when her name and photo are splashed across magazines and newspapers. Even after she strikes out on her own, she is always presented in relation to her former job or her partner. Once a maid in Manhattan, always a maid in Manhattan.

Released: 2002
Prod: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Dir: Wayne Wang
Writer: Kevin Wade
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Amy Sedaris, Bob Hoskins
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Made in America (1993)

Made in America, a film about surprising discoveries, manages one of its own. The first half plays like a manic comedy, something along the lines of star Whoopi Goldberg’s performances in Ghost and Sister Act, but the second half dials back the energy and settles into a thoughtful romance, one that takes advantage of Goldberg and Ted Danson’s considerable and real-life chemistry.

But it takes awhile to see that, and the first hour of the movie is wasted on establishing the lead characters as opposing stereotypes. Goldberg plays Sarah Matthews, the fiery owner of a black bookstore, The African Queen, and mother to Zora (Nia Long), a star science student. Danson’s character, Hal Jackson, has an equally loud personality but is a used car salesman with a penchant for cowboy get-ups and acrobatic sex partners. The two come together when Zora finds out, via a blood typing assignment, that Sarah’s deceased husband is not her father and that she was conceived via mystery sperm. After asking her friend Tea Cake (Will Smith) to help break into the sperm bank, she learns that her biological father is none other than Hal.

What follows is endless hysterics, granted much of it justified, from all three characters. Zora can’t get over her mother’s deception and the fact that she is half white, Sarah is aghast that her requested donor, an intelligent black man, ended up being a hee-haw showboat, and Hal doesn’t know how to handle the sudden intrusion of two black women into his life. The scandal is dominated by race and ensuing questions of identity, but any nuanced examination of this is overshadowed by a misguided attempt at physical comedy. This newfound reality creates its own fireworks, but the movie decides it needs to throw in a circus to draw out the humor. There are literally a bunch of circus animals parading around, all in the service of Hal’s daffy television ads, and I wish they’d traded the dancing elephant and monkey for some tamer conversation scenes.

It’s apparent how unnecessary this noisy clash of personalities is when the story finally quiets down, and that’s when the movie starts to do something special. Once Sarah and Hal shed their comic exteriors, you suddenly see two very real people inhabiting these roles, two deliberating adults trying to make sense of this confusion. It’s delightful watching Goldberg and Danson together. Rather than broad, showy gestures, they allow their relationship to reveal itself in details, like the way Sarah holds her gaze at Hal after a first date and the way he kisses her. It leaves you longing for more, both from the couple and from movie relationships in general.

Long contributes a great deal to this chemistry too. She gives Zora a tenacious spirit worthy of an MIT-bound student but also a vulnerability of a young woman who wants and needs her parents in her life. I also liked Smith’s performance, which didn’t carry as much emotional weight as the others but still proved to be inspired comic relief. It’s no wonder things worked out for the young star.

The strong cast allows you to make an investment with a good payoff in the end, but I can’t help but think about how this movie plays out in 2017, some twenty-five years after its release. The electricity and honesty of Goldberg and Danson’s middle-aged, interracial relationship is still a rarity, and as surprised as I was to see it in this time capsule of a film, I was reminded at how surprised I would be to see that portrayed in any movie today. There are other more questionable eyebrow-raising moments though. Despite Hal’s connection to Sarah, he is bold enough to use their brief and tenuous history to suggest taking certain liberties with her on their first night out. It’s presumptuous and offensive. A pair of elderly white ladies who visit Sarah’s shop also make an impression, though not a good one. In what’s supposed to be a jab at their ignorance on the history of white racism – they claim to have “had no idea we’d done so many awful things,” the humor and mockery doesn’t register. Instead, it amplifies the shocking sense of privilege that contributes to the racism we continue to experience.

Released: 1993
Prod: Arnon Milchan, Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber
Dir: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Marcia Brandwynne, Nadine Schiff, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Nia Long, Will Smith, Jennifer Tilly
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

That’s My Boy (2012)

The movie begins with an affair between a junior high math teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) and her student. They are discovered bonking at a school assembly, she gets pregnant and a thirty year prison sentence, and he cashes in on his fame as the kid who lived out “the ultimate teenage boy’s fantasy.”

It’s at this point you should really just stop and turn your attention towards something more cultivated, Planet Earth perhaps or Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Both are on Netflix but, as the streaming service recently announced, subscribers have spent half a billion hours watching Adam Sandler movies. That’s eleven zeroes. There are real problems in this world. Donald Trump is president. Why are we doing this to ourselves? I confess I’ve contributed to that total, though in an attempt to understand this part of the cultural zeitgeist. It’s an effort that evolved into ritual hate watching, and I haven’t been able to stop. But I may have to take my own advice and forgo future screenings, especially after latest this assault on my good senses.

By now I’ve lost track of which Sandler film is most offensive. Each one feels like a worthy titleholder. That’s My Kid makes a pretty good case for the top honor since it is premised on child abuse. Besides that, it just wades in juvenile muck. The “lucky” teen – he gets a hero’s welcome from friends and strangers alike – grows up to be a whiny-voiced Donny Berger (Sandler), a man with nothing to show for except a $43,000 tax bill and fifteen expired minutes of fame. In order to avoid jail time, he strikes up a deal with a tabloid TV producer who agrees to give Donny the money if he can finagle a reunion between him, his son, and his still-jailed lover (Susan Sarandon, Amurri Martino’s mother and veteran Motherlover).

Donny immediately sets off to find his lost offspring, Han Solo Berger (Andy Samberg), only to discover that he’s changed his name to Todd Peterson in order to shed any connection to his embarrassing past. The high flying hedge fund manager has also concocted a story about his parents’ death, making any reunion an awkward affair, like the one that happens when Donny crashes Todd’s wedding weekend. A crass, drunken father is the last thing Todd needs as he’s about to marry Jamie (Leighton Meester) and finally get a family of his own. But rather than reject this intruder, everyone from Todd’s boss (Tony Orlando) to his fiancée’s intense Marine brother (Milo Ventimiglia) embraces Donny’s vulgarity, much to Todd’s surprise since he still hasn’t been able to win many of them over.

The jokes, if we’re going to call them that, come at you rapid fire. It’s a good technique if you don’t trust your humor to make much of an impact. So the film tries to distract you by lobbing one bit of crazy after another, lest you pause and consider how lewd and unnecessary it all is. One running gag is Donny’s sexual attraction to the boss’s octogenarian mother. There’s also an extended bachelor party sequence that starts with some harassment at a spa, spills into a strip club that Donny frequents, continues with public urination and other hooligan behavior, and ends with Todd making love to Jamie’s dress. Some gags about the Asian help get thrown in too because why the hell not?

Buried beneath all of this is a story about a broken father and son. If you find room in your heart, you may find Donny’s overtures of reconciliation genuine and even touching. Of course you will also have to accept that his paternal instincts are all about toughening up his son into an alpha male and mocking Todd when he doesn’t live up to those expectations. I’m not buying any of it though, and as much as I like Samberg slightly goofy demeanor, Sandler’s shtick is just too overpowering.

Released: 2012
Prod: Adam Sandler, Allen Covert, Jack Giarraputo
Dir: Sean Anders
Writer: David Caspe
Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester, Vanilla Ice, Milo Ventimiglia, Peggy Stewart, Tony Orlando, Will Forte, Susan Sarandon, Eva Amurri Martino, Justin Weaver, Ciara, Luenell, James Caan, Rachel Dratch
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017