Lifetime Christmas Movie Review: Jingle Belle (dir by Peter Sullivan)


As our longtime readers know, I’ve never been one for false modesty.  I know that there are things that I do well and I don’t see any reason not to brag about my natural talents.  On occasion, I’ve been told that it can be a little off-putting but so what?  As long as its justified, what’s wrong with a little arrogance?

That said, part of knowing what I can do means being honest about what I can’t do.  And if there’s any job that I would absolutely suck at, it would be writing advertising jingles.  I mean, there’s a reason why none of my poems ever rhyme.  Coming up with pithy one-liners that will make you want to “buy!  buy!  buy!,” just isn’t my specialty.  Fortunately, jingles themselves are no longer as important as they were back in the Mad Men era.  In fact, off the top of my head, I can only think of one current jingle and that’s the “Liberty Liberty Liberty Lib-er-ty!” song.

(And everyone hates that!)

Fortunately, Belle Williams (Tatyana Ali), the main protagonist of Jingle Belle, doesn’t have that problem.  Long ago, she abandoned New York for Ohio and she’s established herself as one of the best jingle writers around.  Unfortunately, it appears that she might be losing that magic touch.  As this film begins, she’s suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block.  In fact, when the mayor of her hometown calls and asks her to return home and help write the annual Christmas pageant, her initial reaction is to say no.  However, her boss (Loretta Devine) insists that Belle take the assignment.  Perhaps a trip back home is just what Belle needs to break through her writer’s block.

Belle returns home, planning on helping the town out.  What she doesn’t know is that the Christmas pageant is being directed by her ex-boyfriend and former performing partner, Michael Hill (Cornelius Smith, Jr).  Can Belle and Michael set aside their differences and their complicated personal history long enough to put on a successful Christmas pageant?  And how will Michael the purist react when Belle’s boss tries to turn one of their songs into an advertising jingle?

Of course, you already know the answer to all those questions.  Jingle Belle is predictable even by the standards of a Lifetime Christmas movie.  As I’ve said quite a bit this month, how much you enjoy this film will depend on how much tolerance you have for Lifetime and Hallmark Christmas films in general.  (That’s kind of become my mantra this month.)  Anyway, there’s no surprises to be found in this one but Cornelius Smith, Jr. is appropriately charismatic as Michael and the great Loretta Devine mines a lot of humor out of the role of the demanding boss.

The film’s final message is that small towns are better than big cities and you can write jingles anywhere.  It’s a nice little message but, then again, it does seem like, if you work in advertising, it would be a good idea to live near the hub of the advertising industry.  That said, I’ve never written a jingle in my life so I could be wrong.  All I know is that, wherever Belle lives, she’ll come up with something better than the Liberty Mutual jingle and really, that’s the most important thing of all.

A Movie A Day #265: Hoodlum (1997, directed by Bill Duke)


1930s.  New York City.  For years, Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) has been the benevolent queen of the Harlem underworld, running a successful numbers game and protecting her community from outsiders.  However, psychotic crime boss Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) is determined to move into Harlem and take over the rackets for himself.  With the weary support of Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Schultz thinks that he is unstoppable but he did not count on the intervention of Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne).  Just paroled from Sing Sing, Bumpy is determined to do whatever has to be done to keep Schultz out of Harlem.

When I reviewed The Cotton Club yesterday, I knew that I would have to do Hoodlum today.  Hoodlum and The Cotton Club are based on the same historic events and both of them feature Laurence Fishburne in the role of Bumpy Johnson.  Of the two, Hoodlum is the more straightforward film, without any of the operatic flourishes that Coppola brought to The Cotton Club.  Fisburne is surprisingly dull as Bumpy Johnson but Tim Roth goes all in as Dutch Schultz and Andy Garcia is memorably oily as the Machiavellian Luciano.  Hoodlum is about forty minutes too long but the gangster action scenes are staged well.  Bumpy Johnson lived a fascinating life and it is unfortunate that no film has yet to really do him justice, though Clarence Williams III came close with his brief cameo in American Gangster.  (Interestingly enough, Williams is also in Hoodlum, playing one of Shultz’s lieutenants.)

One final note: Hoodlum features William Atherton in the role of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey.  Atherton plays Dewey as being a corrupt and sleazy politician on Luciano’s payroll.  In real life, Dewey was known for being so honest that Dutch Schultz actually put a contract out on his life after he discovered that Dewey could not be bribed.  I am not sure why Hoodlum decided to slander the subject of one of America’s most famous headlines but it seems unnecessary.

Cleaning Out the DVR Yet Again #37: The Sound and the Fury (dir by James Franco)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Thursday, December 8th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

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James Franco’s 2015 adaptation of William Faulkner’s classic novel, The Sound and The Fury, aired on Starz on November 2nd.

You know what?  Haters are going to hate but James Franco does more in an hour than most people do in a month.  Not only is James one of the most consistently interesting actors working today but he’s also a writer, a painter, a teacher, an activist, and a film director.

Indeed, it’s his work as a director that might be the most overlooked part of James’s prolific career.  Since making his directorial debut in 2006, with The Ape, James Franco has directed over 30 movies, television episodes, and short films.  As a director, James Franco has shown a talent for strong visuals and a willingness to take on difficult material.

For instance, can you imagine any other director who would have the guts to try to make a film out of The Sound and The Fury, the classic novel that may be the most unfilmable literary work this side of Finnegan’s Wake?

Told through the perspective of four related but very different characters, The Sound and The Fury details the fall of both the once mighty Compson family and the old South that the Compsons represent.  Benjy Compson is developmentally disabled and sees the world in a disjointed, nonlinear style.  Quinton Compson is fragile and sensitive and, while his section of the book starts in a fairly straight-forward enough manner, it quickly becomes nearly incoherent as Quinton’s mental state starts to deteriorate.  Jason Compson is cruel and evil but, because of his ruthless and self-centered personality, his section is the most straight-forward and the easiest to follow.  And finally, there’s Dilsey, the Compson family servant who is the only person to understand why the Compsons are in decline.  Faulkner utilized stream-of-consciousness throughout the entire novel, to such an extent that readers and critics are still debating just what exactly is happening and what Faulkner is actually saying.

In short, it takes courage to adapt a novel like The Sound and The Fury.  It takes even more courage when you’re an actor-turned-director who has his share of jealous haters.

Now, I should admit that James Franco was not the first director to attempt to make a film out of The Sound and The Fury.  In 1959, Martin Ritt made a version of the film, which reportedly did away with the nonlinear structure and centered the film around the straight-forward Jason.  (I haven’t seen the 1959 version.)  James Franco, on the other hand, not only adapts The Sound and The Fury but also adapts Faulkner’s style.

James Franco replicates the novel’s nonlinear structure and even takes on the role of Benjy himself.  It makes for a film that is occasionally frustrating and difficult to follow but which is also undeniably fascinating.  Filled with haunting images, James Franco’s The Sound and The Fury is a visual feast, one that perfectly captures the atmosphere of a decaying society.  The South, in this film, is trapped between the possibly imagined glories of the past and the harsh reality of the future.  There’s a dream-like intensity to the film.  It sticks with you.

As well, James Franco does an excellent job casting his film.  Tim Blake Nelson brings an enigmatic combination of grandeur and threat to the role of Mr. Compson and Jacob Loeb is haunting as the fragile Quentin.  Scott Haze dominates the film as the cruel Jason.  Though you never sympathize with Jason, you can understand how he became the man that he is.  Jason may not be a good man but, unlike the rest of the Compsons, you never doubt that he’s going to survive in one way or another.

James Franco took a big chance directing The Sound and The Fury and he succeeded.

 

What Lisa Watched Last Night #113: Back to School Mom (dir by Christopher Erskin)


Last night, I watched the latest Lifetime original film, Back to School Mom.Back To School Mom

Why Was I Watching It?

Well, first off, it was the latest Lifetime film and I’m making it a point to see all of 2015’s Lifetime films.  However, I also watched it because the title — Back to School Mom — made the film sound like it would be something that would totally bring out my snarky side.

(Amazingly enough, it turned out I was wrong…)

What Was It About?

This is the type of movie that, had it been made in the 1950s, probably would have starred Lana Turner and Tab Hunter.  Mary Thomas (Kimberly Elise) is a singer who has performed all over the world but she’s haunted by the fact that, 21 years ago, she dropped out of college and abandoned her newborn son.  When Mary returns to school to finish up her degree, she is shocked to discover that her tutor, aspiring lawyer Noah (Denzel Whitaker), is also her son.  Without revealing the truth about how they’re related, Mary befriends Noah and is soon encouraging him to defy his father (Harry Lennix) and pursue a career in music.

What Worked?

To be honest, I was surprised by how well this movie worked.  Snarkable name aside, Back To School Mom turned out to be a very nice and very sweet movie.  Kimberly Elise was very sympathetic in the lead role and she had a lot of chemistry with the entire cast.  Denzel Whitaker’s multi-layered performance shows that he deserves to be a huge star.

What Did Not Work?

They probably could have come up with a better title but otherwise, the entire film worked.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

None, but that’s okay.  Not every movie has to be about me.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes, you can’t judge a movie by its title.

Embracing the Melodrama #53: Crash (dir by Paul Haggis)


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For the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, some of the most and least memorable melodramas ever filmed.   We started way back in 1916 and now, after 52 reviews, we’ve finally reached the year 2004.  And that can only mean that it is time to review the worst film to ever win an Oscar for best picture of the year.  I am, of course, talking about Crash.

Crash is an ensemble piece that follows a multi-racial cast of characters as they deal with issues of race, crime, and — well, that’s about it.  In Crash, everyone’s life revolves around race and crime.  Well, I take that back,  There is at least one character whose life revolves around being a good maid to the white woman who employs her.  But otherwise, it’s all about race and crime.  The film is set in Los Angeles which, from what I’ve read, is actually a pretty big city but you really wouldn’t know that from watching Crash.  All of the characters in Crash are constantly and randomly running into each other.  I think director/screenwriter Paul Haggis is trying to make a statement about the power that coincidence plays in the world but, often times, it just feels like lazy plotting.

Anyway, here are the characters who are meant to bring Los Angeles to vivid cinematic life:

Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock play rich white people Rick and Jean Cabot.  Rick Cabot has just been elected District Attorney of Los Angeles County.  (Because when I think of a successful urban politician, I automatically think of Brendan Fraser…)  Jean is his materialistic wife.  At the start of the film, they’re carjacked by two young black men, which leads to Jean suspecting that every non-white she sees is secretly a gang member.  Later, Jean falls down a flight of stairs but she’s helped by her maid, who happens to be — surprise, surprise — not white!  Apparently, this teaches Jean an important lesson about tolerance.  The message, I guess, is that white people can be redeemed by interacting with their minority servants.

And then there’s Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) who are upper class and black.  Cameron directs sitcoms for a living and, at work, he has to deal with Fred (Tony Danza) constantly double guessing him and demanding that he reshoot scenes.  One night, as they leave an awards ceremony, Cameron and Christine are pulled over by two white cops — the racist Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his idealistic partner Hansen (Ryan Phillippe).  Ryan proceeds to molest Christine while giving her a pat down.  The next day, Christine is involved in a car accident on the freeway and is pulled from the burning car by none other than Officer Ryan.  The point here, I suppose, is that the same pervert who finger rapes you one night is just as likely to be the same guy who comes across your overturned car on the freeway.  For that scene alone, Crash deserves the title of worst best picture winner ever.

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But that’s not all!

There’s also Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle), who has been assigned to investigate a police corruption case that would not be out of place in an episode of … well, just insert your own generic cop show title here.  Graham also visits his mentally unstable mother who demands that Graham find his younger brother.  Now, of course, as soon as we hear this, we know that Graham’s brother is going to have to turn out to be one of the other characters in the film.  Since there are only three other black males in this film (and since Cameron appears to be the same age as Graham), it’s not difficult to figure out who it’s going to be.

It’s either going to be Anthony (Ludacris) or Peter (Larenz Tate), who also happen to be the same two men who carjacked the Cabots’ car at the start of the film.  Larenz Tate probably gives the best performance in this whole sorry mess of a film, even if his role is ultimately a thankless one.

There’s also a locksmith named Daniel (Michael Pena), who finds himself being stalked by an angry Middle Eastern man.  Daniel’s story contains a hint of magic realism, presumably because Paul Haggis was reading something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez while writing the script.

Crash

You can fault Crash for many things but you also can’t deny that it’s far more ambitious than the typical bad film.  In the space of 112 minutes, Paul Haggis attempts to say everything that needs to be said about race and class in America.  Unfortunately, while watching the film, it quickly becomes obvious that Haggis really doesn’t know much about race and class in America.  Hence, the film becomes a collection of scenes that think they mean something while actually meaning nothing.  Crash is less about race in America and more about how other movies have traditionally portrayed race in America.  Unfortunately, director Haggis does not have the self-awareness to truly bring the subtext of screenwriter Haggis’s script to life.

The main theme of Crash seems to be that everyone has a good side and a bad side and that you can the hero of one story while being the villain of another.  That’s not a bad theme, it’s just an incredibly mundane one.  The film illustrates this theme by continually having a character say something racially offensive just to then have him do something heroic in the very next scene.  As a result, the characters don’t come across as being so much complex as just incredibly inconsistent.  Crash is never as deep as it thinks it is.

Reportedly, Crash was inspired by Paul Haggis’s own experience of getting carjacked.  Haggis has said that being a victim of crime led to some intense soul searching on his part.  Hopefully, Haggis got something better than just Crash out of the whole experience.

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