Thursday, August 30, 2012

SPARKLE (2012)

Written by Mara Brock Akil

Directed by Salim Akil

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. August 21, 2012  4:45PM

One of Whitney Houston's favorite films as a young girl was "Sparkle". Released in 1976, it's the story about a trio of talented African-American sisters living in 1950's Harlem who are striving to achieve success as singers but their lives unravel when stardom, gangsters and drug addiction enters their lives. Years later, after Ms Houston herself found fame as a top-selling musical artist, she began working on trying to bring a new version of the film to the screen. The film first came close to being made around 2001 and was to star r&b singer, Aaliyah but was delayed after her tragic death in August of that year. The singer herself went through several years of struggling with personal issues and addiction but seemed to have recovered recently, ready to resume her career. The new "Sparkle" finally went before the cameras last year with Houston as the devout, overprotective mother of the girls and "American Idol" winner, Jordin Sparks playing the title character in her film debut. Unfortunately, tragedy once again struck this production as three months after filming was completed, Whitney Houston passed away in February. While "Sparkle" is far from a completely successful endeavor but still serves as a bittersweet reminder of the glorious talent of this beautiful and great artist.

Some changes to the plot have been made in this remake with this take being glossy with most of the rough edges smoothed out compared to the original which was much darker and gritty. Now set in Detroit during the 1960's as Motown was becoming the sound of young America, Tammy Anderson who goes by "Sister" (Carmen Ejogo) has snuck out of the house to perform a song written by her youngest sister, Sparkle (Jordin) at a nightclub. Sparkle is not confident enough to sing her own material but Sister dazzles the room with a sultry performance. This catches the attention of Stix (Derek Luke), an aspiring music promoter looking for an act. He's also impressed not only by Sparkle's songwriting talent but by her beauty.

Stix thinks a girl group is the best direction to take but has to convince Sister, Sparkle and their other sibling, Delores (Tika Sumpter) to form a musical act. They agree but must keep it a secret from their mother, Emma (Houston) who is strongly against any of her children entering show business as she almost died while trying to start a music career. Sister had to move back in with her mother after her own disastrous attempt to become a singer in New York.but she's determined to make it this time. After winning a talent contest, the group called, "Sister and Her Sisters" become a popular local act. Sister gets swept away by Satin Strothers (Mike Epps), a suave comedian who achieved success by making jokes feeding on African-American stereotypes. Satin showers her with gifts and proposes but her mother finds him a disgrace and beneath her daughter. Sister marries him anyway with Emma refusing to speak to her again.

Wedded bliss is short-lived for the couple as Satin introduces his new wife to cocaine and, apparently due to career frustrations, begins beating her. An executive from Columbia Records is interested in signing the girls but Sister's escalating problems stand in the way of the group's future. A shocking accident tears the family apart but will Sparkle be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a performer?

The husband and wife creative team of Salim and Mara Brock Akil have utilized the successful Tyler Perry formula for "Sparkle" which features melodramatic plotting, broad, overdrawn characters, sitcom-worthy dialogue and overall, rooted in delivering a spiritual lesson. While this well-worn tale of a singing act trying to survive through fame, drugs and egos is watchable but the filmmakers play it much too safe with the uninspired results feeling more artifical and predictable than they surely intended. Lacking any visual flair or innovative ideas, this film struggles to justify the need for bringing this musical back to the screen.

As an actress, the young Ms Sparks didn't leave a deep impression but she has plenty of natural charm as well as being a dynamic vocalist. Ms Houston is quite effective in a supporting role as a mother trying to shield her children from the pain and hardships of a career in music although it certainly didn't appear like it required her to have to dig too deep. The real standout here is the British actress, Ms Ejogo who holds your attention whenever she is on screen with a sensual and seductive performance.

The true magic of "Sparkle' are the vibrant musical numbers that are actually sung by the actors, which features some of the songs written by Curtis Mayfield for the original film (and recorded on the soundtrack by Aretha Franklin, name-checked in this) and new material by R. Kelly. The only song performed by Whitney Houston is the gospel standard, "His Eye Is On The Sparrow". It's clear that her amazing voice, now ragged and hoarse, is no longer what it used to be but she still provides a quite moving rendition that's the highlight of the film.

"Sparkle" suffers from the same problem as most of the other recent remakes of prominent films (although many not at the time of their initial release) that are now considered beloved classics which is that by trying to update and improve, everything that made these films so special is completely lost. It doesn't help that today's filmmakers feel that they can sacrifice character development and story as long as they compensate for the modern viewer's short attention spans with hyper-pacing and amping up the visual effects. Also like the majority of these remakes, not many are going to have a strong desire to watch this new version of "Sparkle" again; they will, and should, simply want to seek out the original.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Written by Tracy Letts

Directed by William Friedkin

Where & When: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena, CA.  August 12, 2012  11:10AM

Based on the first play written by the Pulitzer-Prize winner for "August: Osage County", Tracy Letts and directed by film veteran, William Friedkin, "Killer Joe" is an ugly, bloody and over-the-top black comedy that manages not to elicit much laughter but successfully creates enough brutally, repulsive images that will, unfortunately, stay burned in to your memory for quite awhile.

This story centers on a trashy, highly dysfunctional, Texan family with the first member we encounter is Chris (Emile Hirsch), a caustic young man with a short fuse, as he's banging on the door of his father's dumpy trailer in the middle of a rainy night. Sharla (Gina Gershon), the blowzy, second wife answers the door, not feeling it necessary to put on underwear since it's only her husband's kid.

Chris has been kicked out of his mother's house again for fighting with her but this time he had a very good reason; she stole his stash of drugs he needed to sell and now owes the supplier thousands of dollars he doesn't have. However, Chris has come up with a crazy plan to get the cash back after he's discovered that his mother has a life insurance policy with the only recipient being his teen-aged sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), who appears to be slightly damaged from some form of abuse. Chris runs his idea past his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and they decide to hire a hit man to murder his mother. The rest of the family happily agrees to share in the financial windfall that will come by the death of this miserable woman.

The contract killer is Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a slick charmer in his black stetson and ostrich-skin cowboy boots, who conveniently happens to be a local police detective, making his moonlighting work much easier. However, payment is required up front, creating a snag in the plan but Dottie has caught the eye of the assassin, with him willing to accept her as collateral. As to be expected, nothing goes according to plan which leads to the inevitable bombastic blood-bath of a conclusion.

Although Mr. Friedkin is an Oscar winner for Best Director for the 1971 film, "The French Connection" which also won Best Picture that year but it appears his glory days are far behind him as his film output following that achievement has been spotty at best. His last film was another adaption of one of Mr. Letts' plays, "Bug" back in 2006 which was not well received and "Killer Joe" suffers from not being able to successfully pull far enough away from it's theatrical origin. No cliche seems to be spared in this script (written by the playwright), dripping with Southern-fried hokum as Mr.Friedkin has difficulty finding the right balance between a chilling drama and campy noir. This is most apparent during the controversial scene involving Mr.McConaughey, Ms Gershon and a chicken wing which earned this film it's NC-17 rating. This ridiculous, disgusting act actually doesn't make much sense and serves no real purpose beyond grasping for an outrageous moment through the graphic sexual humiliation of this low-class character.

In order for "Killer Joe" to have been more compelling as a dark comedy, it needed to be much more clear that this film was supposed to be funny as all of the disturbing violence and sexuality tends to overshadow anything that might have been considered even remotely humorous. Women don't fare too well in this either as they are reduced down to objects that are either to be bartered or battered by the men. I guess Mr. Friedkin is from the generation that feels that misogyny can still be a pretty funny subject matter. Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino but he knows how to expertly handle this type of dark material, as he smoothly combines the bloody mayhem with the right amount of deranged laughs while also managing to include several strong, empowered female characters in his work.

The actors struggle to make this nonsense believable but the only one who manages to leave any type of impact is Mr. McConaughey, on an impressive roll this year, following his strong supporting turns in "Bernie" and "Magic Mike". This actor has never been better as he delivers a polished performance, seducing with his angelic face, good manners and his soft-spoken, honey-thick drawl but uses this to distract from noticing the sinister glint in his eye, making him quietly intimidating and dangerous.

Perhaps "Killer Joe" might have worked more effectively in a small, intimate theater but as transferred to the big screen, this dark and violent film fails to function much as a comedy because there isn't a considerable amount of humor to be found in the up close bickering of these irritating, grotesque characters.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Two of the most respected and long-running film festivals have announced their upcoming schedules:

The 69th annual Venice Film Festival has selected eighteen films to compete to win the coveted Golden Lion Award. They have honored a diverse collection of world cinema featuring recent work by Olivier Assayas ("Apres Mai"), Harmony Korine ("Spring Breakers"), Brian DePalma ("Passion") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("The Master").

Spike Lee will be honored with the Glory To The Filmmaker Award, a prize given to a person who has brought great innovation to contemporary cinema. Director, Michael Cimino will be presented with the Persol 2012 award, followed by a screening of his infamous 1980 film, "Heaven's Gate". The latest film by Mira Nair, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" will open the festival on August 29th with the Italian event concluding on September 8th.

For a complete list of films, please go to:

The Toronto International Film Festival, now in it's thirty-sixth year, begins on September 6th through September 16th. The opening film is the sci-fi thriller, "Looper' by director, Rian Johnson and stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The TIFF is most famous for being the kick-off for some of the fall films that will most likely shape the upcoming awards season. Some of the world premieres include new films by David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Terrence Malick ("To The Wonder"), The Wachowski's ("Cloud Atlas") as well as filmmakers better known for acting such as Ben Affleck ("Argo"), Robert Redford ("The Company You Keep"), Billy Bob Thornton ("Jayne Mansfield's Car") and the directorial debut by Dustin Hoffman ("Quartet").

There will be sixty feature films and over seventy documentaries that will be screened over the Canadian festival's run.

For more information and a complete listing of films, go to:
TIFF 2012

Monday, August 6, 2012


Written & Directed by Sarah Polley

Where & When: Laemmle's  NoHo 7, North Hollywood, CA. July 31, 2012  1:15PM

Actress, Sarah Polley is becoming better known as a gifted filmmaker as her last film was the acclaimed, "Away From Her" which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and star, Julie Christie a nomination for Best Actress in 2006. "Take This Waltz", the writer/director's latest, is the story of a married woman (highlighted with another fine performance by Michelle Williams) whose life is turned upside down by a chance encounter with a man and the strong connection she has with him that could possibly cause the demise of her marriage. Ms Polley's skill is on full display here but this film doesn't burn nearly as bright as her previous work.

Williams plays Margot, a writer on assignment out of town, meets the cute, Daniel (Luke Kirby) on the plane ride back home to Toronto. As the two chat, they share an easy rapport, flirting and teasing each other like a couple who have been together longer than a few hours. On the cab ride home, Margot finally confesses that she's married but there is a slight complication as Daniel lives right across the street.

Margot's husband, Lou (Seth Rogan) who is working on a cook book containing the many ways to prepare chicken, is sweet, funny and completely devoted to his wife. As they approach their fifth wedding anniversary, Margot is feeling somewhat unsatisfied and frustrated with her life and marriage despite her husband being a genuinely nice guy as she's well aware of how fortunate she is to have him. However, this knowledge doesn't prevent her from looking next door for opportunities to spend fleeting moments with her neighbor. She is able to see him regularly as Daniel makes his living as a rickshaw operator but he's a talented artist who is reluctant to show his work publicly. Their complicated relationship remains chaste, although with great difficulty, but for every deliriously wondrous occasion Margot spends with Daniel, the more tortured and confused she becomes.

The plot for "Take This Waltz" is fairly standard but Ms Polley tries to juice things up by using creative camera tricks (which is beautifully shot by Luc Montpellier who worked with the director on "Away With Her") and inserting some quirky images like one involving a strange effect caused by peeing in a swimming pool and a non-sexual scene involving full-frontal nudity featuring women of various shapes and ages but none of this can make up for a surprising lack of any type of real emotional connection to this familiar tale. Ms Williams, who was Oscar-nominated last year for her breathtaking turn as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn", dazzles once again with a fine performance however, you still don't feel much sympathy as her character comes across as selfish and insensitive to both men's feelings. We are never given any clear explanation for her deep conflict, beyond possible boredom, as her husband and the neighbor are nearly indistinguishable, as these understanding, perfectly behaved gentlemen barely raise their voices. Perhaps a real bad boy will fulfill her uncertain desires or maybe she should just spend some quality time single to sort out what exactly she's searching for.

Comedians, Rogan and Sarah Silverman, (who plays his alcoholic sister fresh out of rehab, struggling to remain sober) are brought on board to, apparently, lighten the mood but their trademark humor is used minimally and while they expertly flex their dramatic muscles, ultimately the performers feel wasted.

"Take This Waltz" explores one woman's anguish as she grapples with the electrifying passion of new love with the difficulties of trying to hang on to a solid, long-term relationship. While the film certainly has moments of intriguing drama and visual delights but it never gains enough momentum to become fully engaging to actually be concerned with which man she finally ends up with.