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My thought on today

Queen Latifah rules supreme in humdrum “Just Wright”

Queen Latifah dominates every scene in "Just Wright" (sorry, Common).

There’s not one woman — or man, for that matter — that I know who would not benefit enormously from taking just one class at the Queen Latifah School of Self-Confidence. Try to remember one time she’s been onscreen and the camera didn’t fall buttocks-over-teacups in love with her. I can’t. In every film, Queen Latifah’s the strong, self-possessed woman who holds her head high. Her energy and charisma fill up each frame. There’s an almost regal grace about her that proves irresistible.

The downside of this radiance is that her costars pale by comparison and the movies she stars in aren’t half as good as she is. Look to Sanaa Hamri’s dullish, recycled romantic comedy “Just Wright” as a shining example of this problem, known henceforth as the Queen Latifah Syndrome. “Just Wright” feels like a cobbling together of genre cliches, from the Meet-Cute (at a gas station!) to the Initial Spark and headlong into the Dramatic Turn of Events (i.e., the Competition/Other Woman). All the necessary parts are there — kind of like the game “Operation” the minute it’s opened — so “Just Wright” is perfectly serviceable. There’s a formula, time-tested and general audience-approved, and Hamri follows it to the letter.  That said, there’s nothing inventive or even particularly interesting about “Just Wright.” There are a handful of few scenes where it’s a wonder someone with a poster reading “laugh here” doesn’t pop in front of the camera. Reinvention of tiramisu isn’t required, but is a smattering of ingenuity too much to hope for?

Enter Queen Latifah, stage right. With a by-the-numbers film like this, you have to wonder what the conversation between director and casting director was like. My calculated guess is that both saw “Last Holiday” and knew an actress with a Midas touch when they saw one. That’s why she dominates the movie poster. Hamri hitches all hopes to Latifah’s talent, and “Just Wright” is better for that. Latifah is Leslie Wright, a physical therapist and New York Nets fanatic. When the film opens, she’s anticipating a blind date. (Don’t worry — the one cliche Hamri does not pounce on is the Bad Blind Date Montage.) Looking stunning, she’s a 10+: witty, smart, easygoing, the kind of dinner date that puts you at ease … which translates to she’s about to get The “F-word” Speech. Latifah handles the moment with the elegance of a woman who goes into every date expecting “the man who gets you will be lucky.” Leslie has learned not to let the hurt register, but not show on her face. It doesn’t help that her mother (Pam Grier) tries to convince Leslie she’ll only bag a man by dolling up the way Leslie’s godsister, Morgan (Paula Patton), does. “You catch more flies with mini-skirts and FMPs” and all that.

Readers, provided you’ve seen romantic comedies before you already know where “Just Wright” is headed. Morgan aspires to be an NBA trophy wife, and once she gets NBA All-star player Scott McKnight (Common, wooden but not unredeemably awful) in her crosshairs he’s a goner. Even though Leslie saw him first and really connected with him, Morgan ends up with the skating rink on her finger. Then comes a knee injury severe enough to end Scott’s NBA career unless Leslie can work him back to his A game. This isn’t Queen Latifah’s first rodeo, either, and she understands that it takes a lot of charm to hold up a movie. She generates any sizzle her scenes with Common have — though the pair has a modicum of chemistry — and does her best to make Leslie a three-dimensional character, a warm, kind person who is, above all else, real. None of her costars manage quite as well, though Scott is written as a Joni Mitchell-loving pianist and Patton’s Morgan has a few scattered moments of humanity. James Pickens Jr. continues to be a very subtle actor deserving of deeper parts than this.

No wild twists here: “Just Wright” ends up exactly where we expected and took exactly the route we predicted — didn’t stray from the sidewalk once. But because of the unstoppable Latifah, it almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

Grade: C

No. 38: “Office Space” (1999)

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.” ~~Peter Gibbons

The phrase “going postal” has been around since the 1980s, but it took “Office Space” to show everyone what those words meant. Just 10 minutes spent in the bleak 9-to-5 wasteland of Initech, jammed with babbling bosses and zombies posing as functional humans, is enough to make any loaded gun look mighty friendly. The hopelessness is clear, but it takes an artist like Mike Judge, with his eye for minutiae, to spin despair into a comic yarn about one man’s rage against the machine.

Indeed, in some important ways, worker bee Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) has the makings of a quintessential rebel, an emblem of La Résistance. He’s the unwitting Cool Hand Luke of cubicle culture. And much like Luke Jackson, Peter Gibbons doesn’t believe he serves any grand purpose. He wants to be the boss of his life and realize his ultimate dream: doing nothing. But instead of Luke’s prison camp, Peter is trapped in his cube at Initech, a software company. He updates bank software for the Y2K switch — in theory. In reality he would accomplish much more if he wasn’t spacing out as his desk (“but it looks like I’m working”), avoiding his droning, evil boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, who deserved an Oscar) or getting hassled by other bosses (“It’s just we’re putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now”). While Peter rants to his coworkers Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael “No, I’m Not Related to That No-Talent Ass-Clown” Bolton (David Herman) and fantasizes about Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a bored waitress at Chotchkie’s, he never finds the courage to mutiny. Samir, Michael and fellow drone Milton (Stephen Root), fuming about his stolen red Swingline stapler*, don’t either.

Enter deus ex machina in the form of a hypnotherapist (Michael McShane), who puts Peter under and has a heart attack before he can bring him out. Do-Nothing Peter is born, and what a happy soul he is. Judge has quite a bit of fun with New Peter, who starts dating Joanna; guts the catch on those TPS report covers; spends his working hours playing Tetris; and unscrews his cubicle wall so he can get a window seat. Peter’s complete disinterest catches the attention of “efficiency experts” Bob (John C. McGinley) and Bob (Paul Willson). To them, Peter is a “straight shooter with upper middle management written all over him.” It makes perfect sense because it makes no sense.

Peter and The Bobs are just a sampling of the characters that make “Office Space” so incredibly entertaining (the satire sneaks up on you later). “Office Space” is a collective of kooks and corporate fiends. Near the top is Tom (Richard Riehle), a nutter who thinks his Jump to Conclusions mat** will make him rich. There’s Drew (Greg Pitts), able to take the ladies for sweet rides on the bone rollercoaster. Cole, as Bill Lumbergh, is deadpan villainy at its best, starting every line with a lumbering (ha!) “Yeeeeaaaahhhh.” Naidu and Herman play the straight men, but they play them with enough edge — Samir’s misuse of American swear words is side-splitting, while Michael spits fire when people mention “When A Man Loves a Woman” — to make them outstanding. Last is odd little Milton, whose glasses give him big round lemur eyes. He vows to set Initech on fire. Trifle with the quiet ones at your own risk.

In the character interactions Judge buries the humor (much of it dry) that pegs “Office Space” as a fiendishly clever satire. When the Bobs discover Milton was laid off but still receives a paycheck, they “fix the glitch” by taking away the check. Bill subjects the lower-level employees to his every whim, which includes moving Milton’s desk to Storage Room B. Most damning of all is Peter’s assessment of the flair Joanna’s boss forces her to don: “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair they made the Jews wear.” Mike Judge, he doesn’t miss when he goes for the jugular.

*I own this.
**This too.

Groovers and Mobsters Present: Gangster Movies

This review of “Miller’s Crossing” is part of a new monthly blog series created by Fandango Groovers and Movie Mobsters. Each entry will focus on top-notch films in different genres. For a complete list of this month’s entries, click on the graphic above or click here.

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

“Runnin’ things — It ain’t all gravy.”
~~Johnny Caspar

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen subscribe to the Just Enough Rope Theory — that is, they give their first-time viewers just enough rope to hang themselves and their seasoned-pro viewers just enough rope to get creative with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Miller’s Crossing,” the brothers’ stylish foray into the world of gangster films. This classic sometimes ends up lumped with the Coens’ noir canon — no shabby place to be, but not exactly accurate in this case. With its focus on mob mores and gang hierarchy, “Miller’s Crossing” is more a gangster film than anything else.  

Gangs are about two things: power and control. Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) believes he’s lousy with* both; Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suspects otherwise. He knows Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with Bernie (John Turturro), the crooked bookie giving Johnny trouble, and he knows Johnny will start a gang war just to kill “the schmatte.” Tom also knows that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s dame, may be using his boss to keep Bernie — her brother — safe. So Tom, not about to let all this intel go to waste, sets about weaving a twisted web of deception that threatens to overtake “The Maltese Falcon” in complexity.

People tend to peg “Miller’s Crossing” as noir, and that is warranted — the film has characters molded from those in Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.” But the movie should be recognized as a doozer of a gangster film. Most obvious is the hierarchical structure we observe in gangster films. When Johnny shows up to jaw about Bernie, Leo assumes his competition’s shown up as a courtesy. Wrong. Boss Johnny absorbs that as an insult to his status; so begins the battle. Then there’s the matter of “heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” suggested by Johnny’s remark about “runnin’ things.” This is an undercurrent in gangster films, and “Miller’s Crossing” thrusts it out like a credo. Helming a gangland empire is dirty business because no man can know another’s real motivations (or, as Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well”). “Miller’s Crossing” also shines a spotlight on the father/son dynamic within this world (like “Goodfellas”), with Leo acting as Tom’s father figure. Yes, “Miller’s Crossing” is firmly rooted in gangster movie traditions. The only difference is that it classes them up with symbolism and irresistible ’30s slang. Dig?

 *To learn how to talk like these birds, skirts and yeggs, click here.

 

No. 37: “Chinatown” (1974)

Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would have us believe that he’s unflappable, as arch as the one-liners he slings at his she-done-me-wrong clients and the cops who snub their noses at him. “You’re dumber than you think I think you are,” he cracks to Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Comments like this might peg him as a real hardnose if not for his pesky moral code. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t, and it’s the reason he gets swept up in too many tangled stories that don’t end happily.

Truth be told, it is Gittes’ nagging conscience that makes “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s gorgeously shot, densely plotted love letter to film noir, more than just a rigorous exercise in mental gymnastics. The fact that this investigator, with his steely, seen-it-all eyes, can’t pull back emotionally from his cases separates him from the pack. That gets him in trouble often enough, and if not the curiosity shows up to finish the job. Since Gittes can’t leave a hunch unexamined, he’s intrigued when a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office convinced her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, is having an affair. Gittes decides to tail Mulwray and sees fresh water being dumped into the Pacific. Peculiar, since there’s a serious drought. Gittes snaps some money shots of Mulwray and his mistress, and when they wind up front-page news the second bomb drops. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) barges into his office, and she’s understandably enraged that Gittes took the case under false pretenses. Gittes, in turn, is none too happy that he’s become someone’s puppet, and he’s hell-bent on finding out who’s pulling the strings.

There is more, much, much more, to “Chinatown” than this. Polanski’s twisty plot continues to uncoil itself slowly, almost languidly. From this point, we, like Gittes, sense that Evelyn is hiding something, possibly something sinister or shameful, and that this Mulwray scandal goes far deeper than the ocean the water’s been dumped into. When Mulwray’s body turns up, lungs filled with salt water even though he was pulled from a freshwater reservoir, that much is clear. Now there’s a scandal and a murder, and the cast of POIs expands to include Evelyn’s millionaire father Noah Cross (John Huston), a man who serves Gittes a head-on fish for lunch and reveals himself to be a man as menacing as he is rich. The pieces start to come together toward the end of Gittes’ topsy-turvy investigation. Or do they? Scriptwriter Robert Towne unloads not one but two shockers, both of which force us to double back and scrounge around for clues we missed. And that’s when we realize Gittes wasn’t the only one trapped in an unpredictable cat-and-mouse game.

Not many scripts can draw in viewers the way Towne’s does. This is complex, captivating writing that manages to keep us guessing until the final moments, and even when the answers are provided, they aren’t necessarily easy or satisfying. Every revelation here is hard-won. Somehow Towne also manages to capture the spirit of 1930s film noir, with its femme fatales (Dunaway in this case), terrible misdeeds of the past and how they infect the present, the detective who’s in over his head but won’t back down. It’s all there, and it’s all executed flawlessly.

“Chinatown,” however, isn’t just a masterpiece because of the script — Polanski’s direction, his keen eye for the shadows-and-fog atmosphere, that sense of weariness, is impressive in the way it recreates 1930s-era L.A. and does so in color, not black-and-white. Mastery exists in the performances of Huston, Dunaway and Nicholson. Huston, with his towering presence, exudes the effortless menace of a man unaccustomed to having his whims questioned; he dictates and it becomes so. Dunaway’s Evelyn is equal parts fragility and untapped rage; she is exactly as mysterious as she needs to be, and not a drop more. Nicholson’s Gittes is a character for the books. The actor hits a career best here, demonstrating cracks in the armor. He makes Gittes the moral compass and the heart of “Chinatown,” the kind of man who not only can’t forget what he’s seen but doesn’t want to.

No. 36: “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

“Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” ~~Luke Jackson

Everybody wants to talk about how cool Paul Newman’s Luke Jackson is in “Cool Hand Luke.” And why not? Whether he’s meeting the business end of prison clan boss Dragline’s (George Kennedy) fist or crammed in The Box sweating off a sarcastic remark to Captain (Strother Martin), he scarcely blinks an eye. If it weren’t for the Georgia heat, Luke might not even sweat. He’s the picture of unflappability, a regular nonconformist. People think this makes him a hero. However, it’s the moments he loses that cool that tattle on his nature — Luke doesn’t want to be a hero, and he silently hates the prisoners who see him that way. He is nobody’s personal Jesus.

This is the key to why Luke Jackson holds the no. 30 spot in AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains list: He is a true loner; he abides his own moral code and no one else’s. He does what he wants when he wants. He does not believe anyone has the right to make him do anything. He keeps to himself and never lets anyone closer than arm’s length, not even his mother (Jo Van Fleet). The way Newman plays him, Luke Jackson is a rebel not only because his will can’t be broken but because he doesn’t care what others think of him. Such is the mark of real-deal renegades, for these are the types who refuse to give in to society’s demands for reasons (we assume they’re noble) that they don’t tell us. His individuality is remarkable; it also means that Luke, on some level, is unknowable. He’s serene because no one gets past the surface level. But does that make him enviable or pitiable?

This is the dilemma that Stuart Rosenberg’s “Cool Hand Luke” poses, and Newman’s performance doesn’t acknowledge the question or answer it. Jackson, after a drunken run-in with some parking meters, wins a stint in a Georgia prison camp. The monstrous Captain (played by Strother Martin, all poison and wit) notes the new prisoner’s war-hero status — that becomes his pre-“Cool Hand Luke” nickname — and dislikes his smirking attitude. Luke’s fellow inmates, particularly ringleader Dragline (Kennedy finds vulnerability in this tough guy), don’t cotton to him either, as he couldn’t care less about the prison’s hierarchy. He keeps to himself, though eventuall Luke starts to let his inmates know about him what he wants them to know and becomes their symbol of hope.

There are two scenes that demonstrate this best: his fight with Dragline and the oft-discussed egg eating scene, famous for Newman’s Christ-like pose on the barracks table. Luke doesn’t stand a chance against Dragline, yet he gets up every time the man hits him — to the dismay of the inmates, who implore him: “Just stay down!” Luke wordlessly refuses and in the process wins their respect. Later, he vows he can eat 50 eggs in an hour and manages, to everyone’s amazement, to do it. This time around, Luke wins the prisoners’ awe and elevates himself to the level of messianic figure and a martyr of sorts (Dragline alternately calls him “a natural-born world-shaker” and a “crazy handful of nothin'”). The “wild, beautiful thing” also escapes twice and is recaptured no worse for the wear. For most of his time onscreen, Newman looks so effortlessly cool that we almost worship him even if we don’t like him. Maybe we shouldn’t, and here’s why: Recall Luke’s visit with his dying mother Arletta. She understands he’s never “belonged” to anyone. When she begins coughing, observe Newman pick up the glass of water and start to hand it to her, then pull back, then go in again. He does what convention calls for, but he’s shaky, uncertain, almost like he’s opening himself up too much. In those impossibly blue eyes, the fear of such a risk is plain.

In retrospect, this scene is where the film’s infamous line (“failure to communicate”) takes on new meaning. Luke is a cool customer, no doubt, but he’s so self-possessed and removed it’s as if he speaks a language only he understands. Thus, he’s as much a tragic figure as he is a hero.

One to Watch: “You Again”

Call me a marshmallow, but I develop an automatic soft spot for a movie about a late bloomer (Kristen Bell) who gets the chance to square off against the girl (Odette Yustman) who made her high school years hell on Earth. Especially if that movie also pits Jamie Lee Curtis against Sigourney Weaver. And invites Betty White and Kristen Chenoweth to the party. So many funny ladies in one movie can’t be that bad.

I’m just a little sorry they didn’t ask me to write it. Actually, Jessica Bryant is probably happy about that. Jessica Foster too.

Not that I hold grudges.

 

Leave gun, take cannoli, read reviews

Blogeratti Andy at Fandango Groovers and Heather at Movie Mobsters have knocked their noggins together (in a “let’s brainstorm” way, not a “we’re getting whacked” way) and come up with yet another brill idea for a multi-blog posting event. It’s coming your way on May 15, and M. Carter has been invited to participate. Tune in on Saturday to see which gangster classics get made and which ones don’t. You, discerning readers, don’t have to do a thing.

Because we’ve taken care of that thing for ya.

My thought on today

Downey, Rourke power second “Iron Man” installment

Only a true friend (Don Cheadle) would stick around for an army drone smackdown.

Self-effacing superheroes are so 20th century, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man who belongs firmly to the 21st. The “just doing my job” routine isn’t in his repertoire. Tony’s a megalomaniac who rockets onto the Stark Expo stage with fireworks, blaring arena rock and scantily clad dancers. There’s a dire shortage of superheroes who stare up the skirts of their own cheerleaders, if you ask me. 

The Downey we love does not do humble. He does do cocky, self-destructive and sarcastic. Because he does them better than any actor working today, “Iron Man 2” soars when it should falter. Downey’s rakish charm has carried smaller ventures than this, but the fact that they can prop up a gigantic comic book franchise movie like this is astounding. Two years after Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” the more fully-rounded film, “Iron Man 2” falls into the same trap “Spider-Man 3” did. Think of it as the Lure of Too Muchness: too much plot, too many explosions and villains (note: both are unassailably cool). Any actor could be forgiven for getting lost in the smoke. Downey knows what he’s doing, though, and he’s mostly all the fuel “Iron Man 2” needs.

Where “Iron Man” ended in 2008 is where “Iron Man 2” begins. The opening credits belong to Mickey Rourke (terrifying in his “Russian villain suit”) as Ivan Vanko, an ex-con physicist who watches Tony Stark strut like a peacock at the expo. Grief over his father’s death turns to rage as Ivan watches Tony don the suit Ivan believes his father helped create. But Ivan isn’t the only foe Iron Man faces. On his case are the head of a congressional committee (Gary Shandling, funny as ever), who’s pressuring Tony — and confidante Lt. Col. Rhodes 2.0 (Don Cheadle) — to relinquish his Iron Man suit to the government, and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), keen to design a suit to “make Iron Man look like an antique.” There’s a new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), too mysterious to be legit. And there’s something else: The electromagnet in Tony’s chest is poisoning his blood. He tells no one, not even colleague-or-lover? Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), convinced he has to keep up what Rhodey calls his “lone gunslinger act.” It may be this act, not his blood toxicity, that really gets him.

Speaking of “getting,” let’s declare Mickey Rourke’s comeback a flaming success. True, in “Iron Man 2” Ivan sometimes comes across as a caricature. The Russian accent (it makes Cate Blanchett’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” brogue seem tame), the 44-karat smile, the hair — it all hollers supervillain in Big Capital Letters, the opposite of what Jeff Bridges did with Obadiah Stane. Still, that was another movie, and Rourke puts his own menacing stamp on Ivan (that sinister chuckle was made for supervillainy). His showdown with Iron Man at the Grand Prix in Monaco is thrilling, a superb combination of great CGI and great acting. Another reason this scene resonates is because the parts are tailored for the actors; both have lived the histories, to some extent, that their characters have: beaten down by circumstance or bad choices, then resurrected through sheer force of will. Rourke and Downey bring a raw, bruised humanity to their parts few other actors could. Who better to rise from the ashes than these two?

Remaining cast members are all over the map. Despite Sam Rockwell’s inherent coolness, Hammer is less interesting. He feels thrown in for comic relief. Johansson fills out that zippered bodysuit fetchingly … and that’s all. Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, is suave personified; only a pirate could wear the eye patch better. Paltrow’s part is whittled down to nothing, though her chemistry with Downey doesn’t suffer for it. I was unsure of Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but a rewatch of “Iron Man” sold me. Never showy, the new Rhodey brings a quieter energy to the part that makes the character more nuanced, so some might mistake his performance as bland. And while “Iron Man 2” as a film has the opposite problem, it’s still the kind of ride you want to take more than once.

Grade: B+