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

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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

Death at a Funeral (2010)


Death at a Funeral (2010)

Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence wonder if they should have remade Four Weddings and a Funeral instead.

(2010) Urban Comedy (Screen Gems) Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, Peter Dinklage, James Marsden, Luke Wilson, Zoe Saldana, Ron Glass, Columbus Short, Regina Hall, Keith David, Kevin Hart. Directed by Neil LaBute

A funeral is a time for somber reflection, to celebrate the life of someone who’s passed on. It is not a time for hi-jinks, which is why a movie about such tomfoolery is ripe to be funny – and was, in a 2007 British movie on which this was based.

The patriarch of an African-American family has passed away and his son Aaron (Rock) is organizing the funeral at the family home per daddy’s instructions. Aaron has dreams of being a writer, like his successful brother Ryan (Lawrence). Aaron’s mother (Devine) wants a grandchild, the lack of which she attributes for her husband’s death. His wife Michelle (Hall) is with mom, but she also wants to see Aaron give up on his dream and get to reality.

There are others coming to the funeral. Cantankerous Uncle Russell (Glover), Norman (Morgan) the hypochondriac, Elaine (Saldana) who has accidentally slipped her nervous white boyfriend Oscar (Marsden) a powerful hallucinogenic, and Derek (Wilson), Elaine’s ex who would love to get her back.

Throw in Frank (Dinklage), who had a homoerotic affair with the deceased and now wants to get paid (which astonishes Aaron that his brother is upset about it – not that Daddy’s butt buddy is short but that he’s white) and a mix-up regarding who’s in the coffin and you’ve got hi-jinks at a funeral, which is pretty much what a good comedy pitch would be.

Director LaBute has some of the most accomplished comics of our generation working in this movie; in all honesty, this should have been way funnier than it was. The problem here is not with the talent but with the energy – it seems to be more shtick than inspired. There are plenty of bits and some of them are rather funny – Marsden nearly steals the movie with his spaced out yuppie. Mostly the problem is that the characters are just so one –dimensional; they seem to exist to fill spots in the shtick, rather than to be living, breathing people for the viewer to relate to.

Rock, who is one of the funniest men on the planet when he is doing his own material, seems curiously subdued and even bored. He goes through the motions to my mind, and in many ways that’s the most egregious disappointment here. I really like Rock as a comedian and a comic actor but this seemed to lack energy and focus. I suspect he found the role to be so underwritten that he kind of just decided to phone things in.

Lawrence fares a little better but only a little bit. He has a bit more manic energy than the others, which helps him stand out. At the end of the day, however, his character is a bundle of clichés that never really gels into a cohesive whole. He does his best with it but by the end of the movie you can scarcely remember who he was playing or what motivated him.

Other than Dinklage and Marsden, most of the supporting cast is equally as forgettable and that’s a bloody shame. There is enormous talent here and it’s almost criminal that it was squandered so miserably. The movie that this was based on (and re-written by the original scribe) had some issues as well – that movie went for stuffy a little bit more than it needed to. Somewhere in between that movie and this one there is a comedy classic, but sadly it never really manifested itself in either movie. There are moments here that underscore the potential, but not enough to make you wish that the movie was the one in the coffin.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some great comedians in this movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: They don’t really have a lot to work with.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug use as well as a fair bit of foul language and a bit of sexually based humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Dinklage is the only actor to appear in both the 2007 movie and the remake in the same role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and on the opposite end of the spectrum, a featurette in which the cast gives their thoughts on death and grieving. Huh?

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.1M on a $24M production budget; the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Jane Eyre (2011)

New Releases For the Week of February 18, 2011


February 18, 2011

Tell 'em Liam Neeson's coming...and a Cold Day in Hell's coming with him!

UNKNOWN

(Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A trip to a conference in Berlin for a doctor and his wife turns into something far more sinister when the two are involved in a car accident. When the doctor wakes from a four-day coma, his wife doesn’t recognize him and there appears to be a different person in his identity. Is he suffering from brain damage and doesn’t realize his true identity, which is what the authorities believe? Or is there something different going on, something with terrible ramifications?

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content)

Barney’s Version 

(Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver. A seemingly ordinary man writes a book about his life, which is far from ordinary. His story spans three decades, three wives, two continents, one wacky dad and a bizarre best friend. This is based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, best known for his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Yeah, I know – that’s like counting the rings on trees to determine how old they are.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips and an online review here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

(20th Century Fox) Martin Lawrence, Brandon T. Jackson, Jessica Lucas, Faizon Love. FBI Agent Malcolm Turner returns as his undercover alter ego, this time as a house mother in an all-girls school – where he is taking his son with him to learn the family business. Oy vey.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Crime Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual humor and brief violence)

I Am Number Four

(DreamWorks) Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron. A young teenager in a typical small American town is anything but typical. In reality, he’s one of the last survivors of an alien race who is being hunted into extinction by powerful alien assassins, who are trying to wipe him out before his powers begin to manifest. That can make finding a date for prom problematic.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action and for language)

New Releases for the Week of April 16, 2010


April 16, 2010

A little girl with a BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG gun!!!!

KICK-ASS

(Lionsgate) Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Lyndsy Fonseca, Elizabeth McGovern, Craig Ferguson. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

A young suburban high school student and comic book geek decides that he, too, can be a superhero. The lack of super powers is no deterrent; he just wants to do good, fight crime and maybe get some respect. However, when he becomes famous and inspires others to take up cowl and cape, he finds himself drawn into a war between a local Mafioso and a real-life crime-fighting duo. This is not your standard superhero movie!

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use – some involving children)

Death at a Funeral

(Screen Gems) Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover. An African-American family is just trying to lay their patriarch to rest. However, nothing goes according to plan in this remake of a 2007 British comedy with a misplaced corpse, a case of a hallucinogenic mistaken for a tranquilizer, a little person with a taste for blackmail, a cranky old uncle and a libidinous son all conspiring to make this a funeral to remember.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language, drug content and some sexual humor)

The Jonses

(Roadside Attractions) David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Glenne Headly. They appear to be the perfect family, living in a nice home in a gated community with possessions that are all the envy of their neighbors. But the truth is that they’re not a family at all; they’re all employees of a marketing firm whose aim is to get people to want what they’ve got.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language, some sexual content, teen drinking and drug use)

The Perfect Game

(Slowhand Releasing) Clifton Collins Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Cheech Marin, Emilie de Ravin. The true story of the first non-American team to win the Little League World Series, a team from Monterrey, Mexico that battle poverty and prejudice to eventually triumph.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

The Runaways

(Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Scout Taylor-Compton. The Runaways took the music world by storm back in the late 1970s with their fusion of punk and hard rock, all with a taste of girl power attitude. There had never been an all-girl band like this before – or since. While their career was brief, it influenced rock and roll to this day, and while internal pressures tore them part, their union with impresario Kim Fowley made them legends. This is their story.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language, drug use and sexual content – all involving teens)