(Video on Demand, March 2014) There is absolutely nothing new in Baggage Claim, a good-natured but familiar romantic comedy in which a flight attendant frantically sets out to find a husband in thirty days by re-examining her past boyfriends. The conclusion is obvious barely thirty minutes in the film (to the point where the remaining plot elements either feel forced or obvious) and all that remains is enjoying the actors’ performances. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing: Paula Patton finally gets a good starring comic role (after what felt like a long series of supporting roles in action movies) and she plays the comedy as broadly as she can, with infectiously charming results. There is also a lot to like in the series of would-be suitors jostling for screen time, from Derek Luke’s boy-next-door charm to Taye Diggs’ power-broker strength to Djimon Hounsou’s effortless smoothness. (Seriously; is that guy even capable of being anything less than totally suave?) While the film’s romantic messages (“Be yourself”, etc.) and airport-set climax were old decades ago, this familiarity works at lowering expectations to the point where the film feels likable even despite having nothing new to say. Romantic Comedies have the built-in advantage of innocuous failure modes: even at their blandest, they’re more forgettable than actively irritating. So it is that Baggage Claim may have flaws, but it’s competently-executed enough to settle for mild entertainment. The actors get to show what they can do, no one will be offended by the results and I can name plenty of films that don’t even meet those two criteria.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) There’s something extremely comfortable in Sparkle’s story about three female singers trying to make it in late-sixties Detroit. It doesn’t take a detailed history of The Supremes to know the place, understand the challenges and guess the dangers they face from boyfriends, drugs, fame and familial disapproval. The music is familiar to the point of being curiously forgettable, the period detail easily mirrors countless other similar films and the stage cinematography feels like an old comfortable sequin dress. The plot, more episodic than tightly-wrapped, can be followed along with some narrative pleasure even it’s a blend of conventional elements. The only real question is whether the actors can do something with this material, and whether the music is worth it. Sparkle doesn’t exactly sparks when it comes to its songs: they all skew toward the sultry rather than the rhythmic side of Motown –viewer’s appreciation will vary according to their own tastes. Fortunately, the film does quite a bit better when it comes to performances: Mike Epps is deliciously evil as the antagonist, while Carmen Ejogo does fine as his main victim. Jordin Sparks is comparatively duller as the title character (it’s not a challenging role, especially compared to Ejogo’s harsher dramatic arc) but relative newcomer Tika Sumpter gets a little bit more substance as the third sister of the ensemble. Elsewhere in the cast, Whitney Houston gets one last role as the matriarch-who-learns-better, while Derek Luke is unexpectedly charming as the good guy. While Sparkle won’t have much of a legacy, it is an acceptable film for those who want just a little bit more of that Motownish magic.