(On TV, February 2019) We should never underestimate the impact of a great movie poster, because the one for Love and Basketball stuck with me long enough to get me to record and watch the movie nineteen years later. Fortunately, it’s not a movie solely defined by its poster: As the title aptly summarizes, this is a romantic comedy focusing on a basketball-playing couple, each with professional ambitions that run against their obvious attraction to each other. Romantic comedies are often best distinguished by their setting, and the focus on basketball works equally well at creating kinetic excitement as it does as a literalized metaphor. Playing with a four-quarter structure, Love and Basketball follows our protagonists over a seventeen-year period, as they go from backyard hoops to professional play, always threatening to come together until the very end. It’s quite enjoyable purely on its own merits, but as the film ages it also becomes a pretty good time capsule for some great turn-of-the-century actors: After all, where else can you watch Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall and a quick glimpse at Tyra Banks? Love and Basketball is a clever movie from writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s not meant to be particularly surprising or challenging (it climaxes right where it should—on the basketball court), but it has quite a bit of heart, and an interesting frame over familiar, relatable material.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) While we cinephiles are all here talking about the death of original middle-budget movies (i.e.: non-sequels, non-comic book, non-franchise, non-superhero stuff), there are movies like Sleepless to remind us that even those movies can be underwhelming. It’s not that Sleepless is bad—it’s that it shows things that countless other crime thrillers have done better. Crooked cops, undercover heroes, internal affairs, large drug deals, threatened family members … and so on. Even set against the glitz of Las Vegas and with the combined appeal of Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan and Gabriel Union, Sleepless can’t really rouse itself out of complacency. It does get slightly better toward the end by resorting to semi-insane action movie tricks such as a car chase in a casino and a rather impressive car flip executed with ramping frame rates and a moving camera (no, seriously, it’s quite good and you even see it again later during the credits if you’ve missed it) but the vast majority of the film is as bland as it comes. Average dialogue, expected plot developments and middle-of-the-road direction don’t really help, even though Monaghan and Union are expected delights in their roles, and Foxx doesn’t do too badly either. Ultimately, Sleepless is the kind of crime thriller that works well enough as an evening’s distraction, but soon fades away as nothing more than an average genre title.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) I’m not necessarily adverse to slow-moving character-based dramas in isolated locations featuring a handful of actors, but I like it a bit better when the characters are sympathetic and when there’s at least a bit of a dramatic arc to the bickering. In Our Nature has the benefit of a neat self-constrained premise, as an estranged father and son accidentally end up with their girlfriends at the family’s nature retreat due to a scheduling mishap. Forced to spend some time together, they all end up arguing, making up, saying terrible things to each other, experiencing nature and maybe (just maybe) gain some understanding of each other. This kind of thing is a natural actor’s showcase, and so it is a treat to see John Slattery, Gabrielle Union, Jena Malone and Zach Gilford get to exert some thespian muscles. Slattery doesn’t get very far from his Mad Men character and Zach Gilford labour under the constraints of a spoiled, unlikable character, so it’s up to Union and Malone to deliver the most interesting performances despite smaller roles. The film has a slow and somewhat amiable pacing: despite the remarkable location, there isn’t much to be done here than take advantage of the setting and let the characters talk. A few good ideas about estrangement and life are to be found in the mix, and for moviegoers who usually specialize in genre fiction, there’s something refreshing about a film that takes place in (often awkward) conversations, where the big action highlights are falling from a kayak and seeing a cub bear rummage through a kitchen. But there’s a limit to how much plotlessness even indie dramas can sustain, and once In Our Nature is over, it’s hard to avoid thinking that the film has plenty of loose ends, ideas left unexplored and the changes in the relationships by the end of the film are so subtle as to be insignificant. Is it a change of pace from Hollywood’s usual spectacle of overblown emotions? Of course. Is it satisfying from a moviegoer’s perspective? Not entirely.