Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.

Soul Men


Soul Men

The show must go on, even in THOSE suits.

(MGM) Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Hayes, Sharon Leal, Isaac Hayes, Jennifer Coolidge, John Legend, Affion Crockett, Adam Herschman, Fatso Fasano, Jackie Long. Directed by Malcolm Lee

Bernie Mac was one of those rare talents who was not only a great comedian but was widely praised for being one of the genuinely nice guys in the business. He’s the sort who would take his sister’s kids in and raise them as his own while she battled drug addiction. The world lost a great one when he passed away.

Marcus Hooks (Legend) was one of the great ones in soul music. Starting out with the Memphis R&B sensations Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, he moved on to solo super-stardom. His former backing singers, the Real Deal, went on to obscurity, with Floyd Henderson (Mac) moving on to success in the business world, while Louis Hinds (Jackson) went on to a life of crime. They haven’t seen each other in the twenty years since the band broke up amid great acrimony, having generated one charting single in the post-Marcus Hooks era.

Now Hooks has died and the music industry is falling all over itself to pay tribute to the man who generated so much cash. A tribute show has been set for the Apollo Theater, and the Real Deal has been invited. Floyd, who’s been forced into retirement by his son-in-law, wants to do the show not so much for the money but as a means of showing he’s not ready to be put out to pasture. Louis is much less inclined to do the show; he’s done his jail time and is working in obscurity at an auto repair shop; he’s finally talked into it but it’s clear that the issue that tore the band apart – a woman, as it turns out – is still on Louis’ mind.

Since Louis has a fear of flying (although he would never admit to it), the two must travel from the West Coast to the East in Floyd’s vintage Caddy. Along the way they’ll meet Cleo (Leal), the daughter of the woman who split them apart and a real talent in her own right and Phillip (Herschman), a hero-worshipping intern at the record company who yearns to manage the legendary pair, who bicker like an old married couple. Floyd wants the two to do some shows on the road by way of rehearsal for the big tribute, which could be their ticket back into the big time but given the incendiary nature of the two, it remains to be seen if they can get over being their own worst enemies and make it to the show on time.

The movie’s central crux is the relationship between Floyd and Louis, and fortunately, the chemistry is there. Mac and Jackson (who were friends before the movie) banter back and forth comfortably and you can sense the bond that’s there. The two also do a credible job of singing and dancing in the movie; they don’t have to be great, since they’re depicting two performers past their prime, but they have to be at least good and the two are that.

Those who love the Stax/Volt music of the mid-60s through the late-70s are going to love the soundtrack here. The filmmakers wisely don’t spoof the sound but rather pay tribute to it, and in a graceful move, employ many of the original Stax/Volt backing musicians of the era on the soundtrack. That lends an authenticity to the music that you just couldn’t duplicate or even approximate.

I do wish that the movie had been a bit less formula. Some of the comedy doesn’t work nearly as well as you’d expect with a giant like Bernie Mac in the equation and the plot is contrived with twists that are telegraphed a mile down the highway, even in a vintage Cadillac. I suppose that there is a certain comfort factor to that; while the movie felt a little familiar, I would have liked a little more edge to it but that’s just me.

This would be the last movie not only for Bernie Mac but for soul legend Isaac Hayes, who has an extended cameo as himself, as well – the two men died within a day of each other in August 2008. It’s hard to say if this is a fitting tribute to two giants of the entertainment industry but it will have to do.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Mac and Jackson is first rate. Musical numbers are credible old school Stax/Volt soul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The laughs can get a bit forced in places and talent of this caliber deserved a better script.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough for most children and there is a bit of nudity; it should be fine for mature teenagers however.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s narrator is Randy Jackson of “American Idol” fame.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some nice tribute features to Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, and a nice featurettes on the friendship between Mac and Jackson that existed before the movie did.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Best Friend’s Girl

New Releases for the Week of November 27, 2009


New Release Preview 11/27/09

It's hard to believe these guys are old dogs now.

OLD DOGS

(Disney) John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Seth Green, Ella Bleu Travolta, Conner Rayburn, Lori Loughlin, Matt Dillon, Bernie Mac. Directed by Walt Becker

From the director of Wild Hogs comes this new comedy that similarly involves older men in a younger man situation. In this case, two successful businessmen on the verge of closing the biggest deal of their careers are derailed by the revelation that one of them is in fact a father and at one of the most critical junctures in their negotiations, will be babysitting his newfound brood. As will happen around kids, chaos ensues.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

(Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flannery, Clifton Collins, Julie Benz. This is the sequel to the cult classic penned by Troy Duffy (the making of which was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Overnight). The brothers MacManus who have been taking it easy in Ireland since the events of the first film find themselves compelled to return to the mean streets of Boston when a priest is brutally gunned down.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for bloody violence, language and some nudity)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Fox Searchlight) Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray. From the minds of the late novelist Roald Dahl and director Wes Anderson (Rushmore) comes this animated feature that pits a clever, tricky fox against three brutal but not-so-bright farmers.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for action, smoking and slang humor)

Ninja Assassin

(Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune. Taken from the streets as a child by the legendary but lethal Ozunu Clan and trained as an assassin, Raizo becomes one of the deadliest killers on the planet. However he butts heads with the clan and is forced to vanish. Now, he finds an Interpol agent who has stumbled upon one of the secrets of the Ozunu Clan and is marked for death. He must protect her – and himself – from the world’s most skilled assassins and try to find a way to bring the clan down for good. This stylized anime/video game hybrid is from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language)

The Road

(Weinstein) Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Kody Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron. After a global catastrophe kills nearly all life on earth and ends civilization as we know it, a father and his son make their way across a barren, dangerous landscape trying to avoid predators of the natural and unnatural kind in an effort to make it to the coast and survival. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, this post-Apocalyptic thriller boasts an all-star cast.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for some violence, disturbing images and language)