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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

Review: “Dead Presidents” (1995)

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
~~Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

Years after its end, the Vietnam War continues to be an endless source of fascination, perhaps because it created an entire culture of traumatized and neglected soldiers. The decades-long conflict led to the creation of unnerving films like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Taxi Driver,” among others, all of which tackled the subject of the war and the way it sneaks into men’s souls like a parasite, to be discovered only when the damage becomes too extensive to contain any longer. Albert and Allen Hughes’ gritty and realistic “Dead Presidents” deserves billing with these films for the way it depicts the disenfranchisement of a whole other culture: the African-American men who fought what everyone told them was “the white man’s war.”

Despite the trailers touting “Dead Presidents” as a heist film, the Hughes brothers’ second production is without question a film about the Vietnam War and its effect on the three childhood friends who end up fighting it. Anthony (Larenz Tate), who does occasional runs for Bronx dealer Kirby (Keith David) but generally plays it straight, sees the service as a way to “do something different” and avoid college. The people in Anthony’s life, from his mother (Jenifer Lewis) to his girlfriend Juanita (Rose Jackson) to Cowboy (Terrence Howard), a short-tempered thug, aren’t sure how to react, though Cowboy isn’t shy about telling Anthony he has “no business” joining up. But he ends up in Vietnam with his friends Skip (pre-“Rush Hour” Chris Tucker, when he could act a little and not just make funnies) and Jose (Freddy Rodríguez), who loses his hand and gets an early trip home. All three see hideous things, like bodies blown in half, disembowelment and numerous beheadings by a nightmarish fellow soldier named Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), who keeps the gruesome treasures as “souvenirs.” Albert and Allen Hughes don’t blink or back away from the wartime violence, and they don’t try to censor the brutality. These scenes make “Dead Presidents” a legitimate war film. They take up little running time, but they feel epic.

The blossoming directors also display a talent for capturing war’s aftermath, evident in the deterioration of Anthony, Skip and Jose when they return to the Bronx and in Kirby, a Korean War veteran forced to turn to crime for money. Again, contrary to promos, this part of “Dead Presidents” is more than a build-up to the promised heist. (The heist, though action-heavy enough to satisfy fans, is the least interesting part of the film.) Tate does admirable work in letting Anthony unravel slowly, turning more to alcohol to quiet his mind and finds himself unable to do what he promised he would during his days at war: engage in the world he left behind. The stress of finding a good job to provide for Juanita and their daughter — born while Anthony was in service — forces him perilously close to the edge. Rodríguez’s Jose didn’t come back right in the head and passes the time doing speed and fantasizing about putting his knowledge of explosives to good use. The motor-mouthed Tucker is effective as Skip, who started a love affair with heroin in Vietnam he can’t stop. And why would he want to? Overseas he saw things that burned into his brain. Shooting up is as close as he gets to unseeing. All three aren’t merely close to the breaking point, they’re on top of it.

In following these characters’ lives, we come to grasp their motivations for deciding to rob an armored car. “Dead Presidents,” like the Hughes brothers’ debut film “Menace II Society,” is something of a character study, not another film where a heist happens because a heist happens. This stellar second outing also functions as a study of how war changes people. War creates men that poet Wilfred Owen, in “Greater Love,” describes as lost to the world outside the battlefield: “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.” Anthony, Skip and Jose came back from the war, but they came back unreachable.

Grade: A-