Big Momma’s House


Big Momma's House

This sight will give a kid nightmares for years to come.

(2000) Urban Crime Comedy (20th Century Fox) Martin Lawrence, Nia Long, Paul Giamatti, Jascha Washington, Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Ella Mitchell, Carl Wright, Phyllis Applegate, Starletta DuPois. Directed by Raja Gosnell

One thing about Hollywood. If you like a concept, just wait around awhile. It will show up in some other movie, only with a different title.

I’m pretty fond of Martin Lawrence. He’s turning into a terrific comic actor, with impressive performances in Nothing to Lose and Bad Boys (among others) under his belt. Here, he plays Malcolm, a gung-ho FBI agent who’s watched Mission: Impossible perhaps a wee bit too often. He’s known for his latex disguises and kung fu moves, which qualifies him as a cross between Ethan Hunt, Jackie Chan and Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, the last for his smoooooooooth style with the ladies.

He’s working on a case in which a vicious bank robber (Howard) has escaped from prison (where he was doing time for murdering the bank guard in cold blood) and is going after his ex-girlfriend Sherie (Long), who worked at the bank he robbed. She’s thought to have been involved with the robbery, although nothing was ever proved. Since the money was never recovered, she is being watched as the cops think that her erstwhile beau will be paying her a visit to recover the loot.

She, of course, takes it immediately on the lam, so Malcolm and his partner John (Giamatti) stake out her estranged grandmother’s house in Georgia. The two were once close, but have since grown apart. When Big Momma (Ella Mitchell) is called out of town suddenly, Malcolm assumes her identity when her granddaughter phones to say she’s coming for a visit. Malcolm hopes she’ll confide in her grandmother, but instead winds up falling for the gal, as well as for her cute-as-a-button son Trent (Washington). Of course, we know that eventually the ex is going to make an appearance and Big Momma is gonna have to save the day.

Think Mrs. Doubtfire meets Kindergarten Cop, southern fried. There are some comic possibilities in the concept but unfortunately the execution here doesn’t work. For starters, the script is not terribly well-written, and Da Queen and I were predicting – accurately, I might add – what each next plot point would be well before it actually happened. There are no surprises  and the humor could charitably described as meant for unsophisticated minds. For a comedy, it rarely brings a smile, much less a chuckle. That’s inexcusable because Lawrence is one of the funniest comic minds working today.

Just putting a male actor in drag isn’t funny in and of itself. In Mrs. Doubtfire Robin Williams used it as a springboard to examine attitudes towards women and the aged, but then, he had a better script to work with. Lawrence is talented, but even he can’t overcome a cliche-ridden script that was as tired as a narcoleptic at an Al Gore lecture. While he has some nice byplay with Giamatti (who was at the time not terribly well-known in Hollywood) and Long is an attractive and competent actress, the sparks really fail to generate and most of the time these talented actors are just wasting their time – and ours.

If you’re going to make a comedy with Lawrence, give the man room to work his magic. Stuffing him in a fat suit and a dress is a gimmick but even that they don’t use effectively. The exception is a scene in which Lawrence as Big Momma schools some playground kids in the art of roundball. See, that’s funny.

Big Momma’s House made big box office, which is certain proof of impending apocalypse. Watching this is cinematic deja vu; you’ll get the feeling you’ve seen this one before. Unfortunately, it’ll be deja vu in a dentist’s chair … as the drill begins to whirr.

WHY RENT THIS: Martin Lawrence is one of the better comedians in Hollywood. Long is easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A script that’s as predictable as a Tea Party newsletter. Some fair talents are wasted and Lawrence’s considerable skills are largely unused.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a decent amount of foul language as well as some cruel, sexually-based humor. There’s also a smattering of violence, mostly of a comic variety.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name Big Momma came from screenwriter Darryl Quarles’ childhood; that was the name the neighborhood kids used to call his own mother.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos, a make-up test for Big Momma (during which Lawrence improvises some stuff that’s funnier than what’s in the movie) and an animated opening that was scrapped.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $174.0M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Help

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Think twice before hanging out with Shia LaBeouf; there are a lot of angry film critics out there.

(2011) Science Fiction (Paramount) Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Tyrese Gibson, Buzz Aldrin, Elya Baskin, Peter Cullen (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Robert Foxworth (voice), James Remar (voice). Directed by Michael Bay

Nothing exceeds like excess, and by that criterion Transformers: Dark of the Moon exceeds all expectations.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has saved the world – twice – and all he’s got to show for it is a lousy Ivy League education. He longs to make a difference once again but he can’t get any sort of job and has to settle for living on the largesse of his new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), a former British consulate employee now working as an assistant to billionaire Dylan (Dempsey).

To make matters worse, the unemployed Sam is being visited by his judgmental parents Ron (Dunn) and Judy (White). However, Sam manages to get a job in the mail room of a defense contractor run by the somewhat eccentric Bruce Brazos (Malkovich).

Sam would much rather be working with the Autobots in NEST, but the government wants him far away from Optimus Prime (Cullen) as he can be. Lennox (Duhamel) is nominally in charge of the Autobots who are helping the American government putting out small fires around the world; taking out an illegal Iranian nuclear plant and investigating a strange occurrence at Chernobyl, where Lennox discovers Autobot technology may have been responsible for the disaster there.

Optimus demands an explanation and finally supercilious CIA chief Mearing (McDormand) gives him one. Apparently, near the end of the civil war that drove the Autobots from Cybertron, an Autobot ship escaped from the planet carrying a secret weapon as well as its designer, Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots before Optimus. That ship crash landed on our moon, prompting the space race of the 1960s.

The Autobots rocket up to the moon and retrieve both Sentinel and the remains of the weapon. As they return, Megatron (Weaving), brooding in the desert after two defeats at the hands of Optimus and Sam Witwicky, puts into motion an evil plan that involves murder, betrayal and plenty of nasty robots coming after Sam and his new girlfriend. The stakes are high as the entire human race could end up as slave labor in the New World Order as envisioned by Megatron – and the Earth itself a desiccated, dried-out husk as her resources are used in the insane rebuilding of Cybertron. Once again, Sam and Optimus must lead the allied human-Autobot forces if both races are to survive.

My son has said that the reason you go to a Transformers movie is to watch robots beating each other up, and he has a point. If that’s why you’re plunking down ten bucks plus to see the movie, you won’t be disappointed. Once the battle starts in earnest, which is about halfway through the nearly two and a half hour movie, it doesn’t let up. The robots just about level Chicago and it is done realistically and spectacularly.

In fact, it’s done so well there seems to be no reason for human participation at all. The first half of the movie is somewhat slow and talky, and the humans are no match in the slightest to the giant robots of Cybertron. It is very much like watching a movie about, say, the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of an ant colony. All the humans really have to do is dodge falling debris and be blown up by robot plasma shots; when one of the lead characters looks like they’re about to buy it, an Autobot comes out of nowhere to save the day (usually Optimus).

In fact, once the battle starts, LaBeouf has very little to do other than look concerned for his girlfriend, and occasionally shout “OPTI-MUUUUUUUUUUS!!!!” and he does both pretty well. His twitchy persona fits right in with the Witwicky character and although he’s the focus for the first half of the movie, it does break down during the first hour or so as we watch Sam mostly feeling inadequate and sorry for himself. It gets old.

Other than that, Bay did upgrade the supporting cast some, adding McDormand and Malkovich, Oscar nominees both, to the cast and both of the veteran actors deliver, as does Turturro in the returning role of Simmons, the paranoid agent (who is now a bestselling author) as comedy relief. Alan Tudyk, who impressed so much on the “Firefly” series, gets a meaty role as a fey German assistant to Simmons with his own set of skills. He makes the best use of his limited screen time.

As far as adolescent chubby-inducement, Megan Fox is out and former Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is in, making her feature acting debut. Fox was never known for her acting skills but she at least has some; Huntington-Whiteley is there mainly to wear tight dresses, have the camera almost see up her skirt and be put in jeopardy so Sam can rescue her. At least Megan Fox’s character wasn’t nearly as useless.

Transformer fans can rejoice; this is easily the most spectacular movie of the series and for non-fans, this is the best of the lot. Check your brain at the door, get the extra-large tub of popcorn and soda, and bliss out in a dark theater for awhile. This is pure popcorn spectacle on a massive scale and the plot is merely window dressing to the special effects. That’s not always a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of robots battling for those who like that kind of thing. Easily the most spectacular film of the series.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning of the movie lags a bit. The human characters are stiffer than the robots. Humans no match for aliens whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of mayhem and a few bad words, but it’s the scenes of destruction and robot death that might be a bit much for tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonard Nimoy, voicing Sentinel Prime, utters the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in homage to a line spoken by Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

HOME OR THEATER: The spectacle demands the big movie theater screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

The Stepfather (2009)


The Stepfather

Dylan Walsh has a point to make.

(Screen Gems) Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Sherry Stringfield, Jon Tenney, Paige Turco, Amber Heard, Nancy Linehan Charles, Braeden Lemasters. Directed by Nelson McCormick

Family is at the core of our value system. Everything we do, all of our decisions are made for the benefit of our family, at least so goes the theory. Of course, there are families and then again there are families.

David Harris (Walsh) wants a family in the worst way. He seems a nice enough man and when vulnerable divorcee Susan Harding (Ward) wanders into the grocery store he’s shopping at, they strike up a conversation, which leads to romance. David is a widower whose wife and daughter died in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, something that gets Susan’s nurturing instincts going into overdrive. Everyone, from the neighbors to Susan’s kids, think David is a heck of a guy.

The only one who doesn’t is Michael (Badgley), the eldest Harding. He’s been away at military school for some unspecified troublemaking and has just returned home. Something about David just doesn’t ring true to Michael, whether it’s the fact that David can’t get his daughter’s name straight or that he seems to have a creepy unnatural fascination for Michael’s girlfriend Kelly (Heard). Either way, Michael’s got his eyes on David and it isn’t long before he figures out the terrible truth.

You see, David is actually a serial killer (not a spoiler kids – this is revealed in the movie’s opening moments) who insinuates himself into a family, then butchers them when they don’t live up to his high standards of what a family should be. He also has no problems offing anyone who gets in his way, whether it is a nosy neighbor or Susan’s boorish ex (Tenney). It isn’t long before David begins to think it’s time to take care of his new family and find himself another.

This is the remake of a 1987 movie that starred Terry O’Quinn (John Locke of “Lost”) in the title role. That movie attained cult status after a mediocre theatrical run due to word of mouth video rentals, enough to spawn two sequels (one with O’Quinn and the other without). Invariably, this is going to be compared to the original.

The makers of the remake also were responsible for the Prom Night remake, which bodes ill for this one. Part of the problem is that they’re going for an entirely different audience; rather than hitting hardcore horror aficionados, they’re going for more of a teen audience, which means that they have to go for a PG-13 rating. That makes for bloodless horror, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but this is the kind of story that becomes more effective when you are a little more visceral.

While the cast is made up of broadcast and cable TV veterans, some very good (Walsh is excellent in “Nip/Tuck” while Tenney is a standout in “The Closer”) and some less so (Badgley in “Gossip Girl,” Turco in “The Agency”), Ward excels as the mom who is blinded to her new man’s darker side. Walsh does his best, but in the end he isn’t able to carry the role of the evil stepfather as well as O’Quinn did 20 years ago; in defense of Walsh, he isn’t exactly handed a whole lot to work with.

The results here is a movie that doesn’t really have the kind of cachet to interest teens, nor does it have the scares and the gore to capture a horror film fan. It therefore becomes neither fish nor fowl, satisfying neither audience. If I had any advice to hand out to the filmmakers, I’d tell them that when handed a horror movie, don’t hide behind terms like “psychological thriller” to justify your decisions; just go for the gusto and you’ll not only make a better movie, you’ll get more butts in theater seats as a reward.

WHY RENT THIS: The young cast certainly looks good in bathing suits.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too bland and bloodless for its own good, it’s a psychological thriller with few thrills.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of sex, as well as a few naughty words here and there. Mostly, the problem here is thematic and the images which can be pretty rough on the sensitive or the immature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star of the original The Stepfather Terry O’Quinn was offered a cameo in the remake, but declined. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray comes equipped with the Sony movieIQ feature that periodically puts pop ups of trivia and factoids related to the scene you’re watching or the general movie overall.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World