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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: “Set It Off” (1996)

“We need something to set it off with.”
~~Cleo Sims

Not too long ago, a friend who’s been searching fruitlessly for a job had something to say about his troubles: “Class, man. Can’t escape it.” What a whallop five words can have. Back in 1996, the word “recession” wasn’t terribly high on anyone’s list of worries. But class? High, middle or low, class tends to stick around … unless you make it go away. F. Gary Gray’s “Set It Off” is a vivid illustration of this cruel truth. The story of four friends struggling to pull themselves out of the L.A. projects, “Set It Off” is an intense, heartbreaking examination of how class restrictions drive people to drastic action.

Scriptwriter Takashi Bufford — who hammers a bit hard on the heroes/villains angle — provides background about these women, a rarity in most bank heist films since they tend to focus on the action. “Set It Off” has plenty of action and violence, including several tense standoffs and shootouts, but the film is deeper than that. Stony Newsom (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cleo Sims (Queen Latifah), Frankie Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) and T.T. Williams (Kimberly Elise) grew up in the same neighborhood and now face the same problems: not enough money, jobs or respect and too many obstacles. Frankie had a job at a local bank that she lost after reacting improperly to a hold-up. Cleo’s sick of working for her crude boss (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and living in a garage. In a horrendous misunderstanding, Stony’s innocent brother (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) is gunned down outside his apartment by LAPD Detective Strode (John C. McGinley). T.T., unable to afford sitters, takes her toddler son along on a house cleaning job and he accidentally swallows household cleaner. When Child Services takes him, it rips her in half. To this point, “Set It Off” plays like a study of breaking points. At the bottom, each woman finds hers.

And so the group starts to take Cleo’s idea to rob a bank seriously. This idea even looks to be a smart one, since Frankie has the intel and Cleo has the guts and the weapons hookup. Rushed and unplanned as their first heist is, they succeed. Then “Set It Off” abruptly transitions from a layered character study into a bloody action film that follows few conventions except the truest ones: success makes the robbers reckless; outsiders get involved and people get hurt; the cops are watching (McGinley strikes a nice balance between obstinance and humanity) even though the women don’t realize it. Heists have this tendency to unspool when cool is lost and desperation takes over. Given these women’s economic circumstances, though, is there any way to keep desperation out of the equation?

Perhaps not, but “Set It Off” stumbles upon a few ways to make an old story feel new and resonant and exhilarating. The script includes some very honest conversations among these four women about their economic realities and why the risk might be worthwhile. Stony doesn’t believe in stealing, but Cleo (this is considered Latifah’s breakout role for good reason) has a franker take. The way she sees it, they’re just taking back what they system has taken from them. She’s not wrong. There is a conviviality among Frankie, Stony, Cleo and T.T. that feels true; gone is the fake, B.S. Hollywood formality. Watch for a brief scene where the women play “Godfather” to discuss their robbery plans. It’s excellent comic relief; more than that, it speaks to how deep their connection runs. Each actress gives a fine performance, but Pinkett Smith and Latifah are marvelous. Pinkett Smith shows us how the raw pain of loss changes people, and Latifah lights up every scene with Cleo’s intensity. She’s on fire.

Certain failings threaten to hamper this refreshing friendship. Gray’s direction in the action scenes is subtle as an Uzi; he tries to make these women into unstoppable action heroes, not the human beings we’ve empathized with. There’s also a romance (Blair Underwood plays Stony’s well-to-do suitor) that is completely useless. Both are mistakes, but they aren’t unforgivable ones, mainly because “Set It Off” is one of the best movies about class division and female friendships made in a long, long time.

Grade: B+

Perfect for every part (part deux)

DISCLAIMER: Pay no attention to the voices in your head that may have told you this was going to be a definitive — or even vaguely highbrow — list of actresses who seem right for every role. These voices, which may have some really good ideas sometimes, will steer you wrong here in a blog where the author ranks both “Young Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” in the Greatest Movies Ever Made category.

Yeesh. Glad we got that out of the way. Now I’ll forge ahead to part two of my list, a tribute to the actresses who seem to make every character their own. Frances McDormand, of course, is our starter — and not just because Ebert said so. She’s a Coen brothers staple (she’s, uh, married to Joel), but she’s had an outstanding career outside Coenland that includes Oscar nods for drama parts (“North Country,” “Mississippi Burning”) and coming-of-age tales (“Almost Famous”). Whatever she does, she does well, and that makes her seem like a great new discovery every time I see her.

And the remaining nine actresses are:

  • Amy Adams — Amy, Amy, Amy. My love for Amy dates back to “Junebug,” when she proved a bubbly chatterbox could have depth. Then again, she gives depth to all her distinctive characters, from the serious bit parts (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) to fairy tale musicals (“Enchanted”) to smart-dumb comedies (“Talladega Nights”). She just can’t keep her darn light hidden.
  • Penélope Cruz — When Almodovar introduced Cruz in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” the world fell in love, and so did I. Inevitably she got thrust into numerous romantic comedies, but then she dared to go off the grid, take serious roles (i.e., “Elegy”) and, in “Blow” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” shred the notion that she was just some Spanish Sandra Bullock. 
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal — There’s just something about Gyllenhaal. It’s not that she oozes sexuality (she does) or that she’s possessed of a strange otherworldly kind of beauty (she is). No, I think it’s that she’s willing to get naked, physically and emotionally, to find her characters. From mainstream parts (“World Trade Center,” “Dark Knight”) to the really bold stuff (“Secretary,” “Sherrybaby”), she goes all in every time.
  • Milla Jovovich — I’ll catch hell for including a supermodel here, and I know it. So Jovovich started off as a hot action starlet and not an Oscar contender — what of it? She’s got real acting chops (she lit up the screen in “Dummy” and “You Stupid Man”) and she’s not afraid to take on parts that are fun and funny and action-oriented. Laugh if you must, but Milla’s more than a pretty face.
  • Queen Latifah — Enter controversial choice No. 2. You may be tempted to think I chose her to fill some sort of racial quota. As if. Dana Owens ended up here because she deserves to be. Here is an actress who has spent too long making terrible movies bearable (“Bringing Down the House”) and too long playing sidekicks (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Give her a lead in something like “Last Holiday,” “Chicago” or “Set It Off” and she’ll surprise you. She’s got versatility, and it’s about time Hollywood gave her more opportunities to show it.
  • Laura Linney — Linney’s the best actress who will never win an Oscar. Why? She’s too good at being plain people, and plain people rarely get gold statues. Still, that hardly means this versatile actress plays one character over and over. She does something a little different every time, sometimes stepping out of the indie box (“Breach,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). She’s one to watch.
  • Kate Winslet — Kate Winslet’s the silver screen equivalent of a extreme athlete. She’s totally unafraid to take chances, consistently picking parts that involve emotional or physical nudity. As a result, she’s done erotica, fantasy (“Heavenly Creatures,” her big break), literary adaptations (the best was “Little Children”) and everything in-between. She’s just astounding, pure and simple.
  • Renee Zellwegger — This cherubic Texan has picked some doozies in her career (re: “New in Town”), but she always rises above the most derivative scripts. Bonus: She’s fearless in the face of the unknown, be it musicals or Civil War-era fare, and she attacks every part with enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm when it’s backed by real talent.

As always, bloggers, I await your suggestions…