(On Cable TV, November 2019) Not every movie has to be great to be successful, but it certainly helps if it’s consistent. Little does have quite a few good moments, but almost as many bad ones, accompanied with a side order of several disconnected self-indulgent sequences that don’t do much but let the actors mess around and pad the running time of this comedy to nearly two hours. A somewhat clever take on the body-swap premise, it features a hard-driving tech business executive magically transformed into her own 13-year-old body, and being forced back into school as nobody quite knows how to deal with the sudden appearance of a kid in her own apartment and job. Practically nothing is explained about the transformation except for narrative logic in how to ensure the protagonist’s redemption arc. Unfortunately, there’s a difference between not explaining the premise and cheating reality along the way—Little can be savvy and cutting in one scene, then lazy and cheap in the next. Of course, it’s no use wondering about the outcome of the film—that’s baked in from the start and the best thing to do along the way is to appreciate the performances. Here, at least, we’re on more familiar territory: Regina Hall makes a brief bookend impression as the adult protagonist, while Marsai Martin is a bit of a revelation in a role begging to be described as precocious, embodying the actions and dialogue of an older woman. Meanwhile, Issa Rae also does well in expanding the limits of the traditional “beleaguered personal assistant” role. The performances do much to compensate from some weak plot choices along the way, as the emotional growth of the lead character is wobbly and doesn’t quite reach the satisfaction level that could be expected.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) The R-rated women-behaving-badly subgenre is now well defined: It may have started its latest streak with Bridesmaids, but there’s been one or two of them per year since then (Bachelorette, Bad Moms, Rough Night, etc.) and the sub-genre is becoming less and less remarkable with every new example. And yet, properly handled, they can allow female comedians to show what they can do once they’re unleashed. So it is that the single best reason to watch Girls Trip is Tiffany Haddish, taking a big character and making her feel even bigger. (Documentary accounts of Haddish’s personality suggest that she was a perfect fit for the role.) Compared to her, even seasoned performers such as Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith feel ordinary. Still, Girls Trip is decently entertaining—while it’s easy to quibble about its most outrageous moments, its wall-to-wall bad language, its occasionally repellent attitude, it does feel free to try anything and everything, getting a few chuckles along the way. It’s also difficult to appreciate, from my privileged white-guy perspective, how vital such a film must feel to a particular audience. It’s interesting to note a few moments here that would not attempted had the movie featured a cast of a different ethnicity—I’m specifically thinking about a prayer scene that feels organic even to the outrageous characters. So carry on, Girls Trip, for bringing something less frequently seen to the big screen, becoming a surprise box office hit and making Haddish an Oscar-presenting comedy superstar along the way. When everybody gets their own big-screen wish-fulfillment comedy, everybody wins.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) It’s not that much of a surprise nor a contradiction if Barbershop: The Next Cut, fourth movie in the Barbershop universe, ends up tackling issues of community and gang violence. While the series’ best moments have almost always been the comic banter between the characters, its most satisfying entries (I’m not looking at you, Beauty Shop) have also highlighted the central place of the barber shop as a community hub, a forum to air out and resolve differences peacefully and a voluntary haven distinct from the outside world. To see this fourth film tackle gang violence in South Chicago and the choice between taking a stand or walking away feels appropriate. More entertainingly, the integrated barbershop is a step forward for the series, showing and profiting from the male and female perspective. Even the belated nature of this instalment, coming ten years after its predecessor, works to its advantage as things have or have not changed in the interim for both the characters and their world. Writer/star Ice Cube knows how to blend the inconsequential with the meaningful, and Barbershop: The Next Cut is as good as any pop-culture indicator of the state of the black community at the end of the Obama administration. (Guess who shows up after the credits roll?) As far as acting is concerned, there is a lot to like here: Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer and Regina Hall are up to their usual standards, while Eve, Common and Nicki Minaj both impress with natural performances. The result is an enjoyable blend of comedy, drama and social criticism, carefully calculated to balance each other. Sometimes, the most interesting commentary doesn’t come from loudspeakers, and Barbershop: The Next Cut is able to deliver some good material while looking as if it’s talking about nothing particularly important.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-profile romantic comedy (a remake of a 1986 film based on a 1974 David Mamet play), but I should have suspected otherwise given that it stars the enormously likable Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant. Set in downtown Los Angeles, About Last Time details a year in the life of four young people, during which they meet, fall in love, break up, reconcile and change careers. Almost immediately charming, it’s a film built on dialogues and performances, and all four main actors truly knock it out of the park, with particular mentions for Hart and Hall, both of whom play the uninhibited comic relief couple to the more conventional Ealy and Bryant. (Elsewhere in the film, Paula Patton has another great but too-short turn as a romantic antagonist.) While About Last Night isn’t particularly original, it’s slickly-made, modern, almost constantly funny and features intensely likable actors. It’s hard to ask for much more from a romantic comedy
(In theaters, April 2006) Roughly similar in tone to the previous Scary Movie 3, this one is a comedy grab-bag that chiefly goes after (in decreasing order of importance) War Of The Worlds, The Grudge and The Village, with other assorted pokes and tweaks at other films (Saw, Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain) and pop-culture icons. Scary Movie 4‘s biggest problem is that it’s quite happy to pastiche other films, but seldom goes for the jugular: Movie critics had funnier jabs at War Of The Worlds during the summer of 2005 than the parody ever manages to put together. (The constantly-screaming little girl shtick isn’t even mocked.) Scary Movie 4, alas, is almost completely bloodless in its parodies: it recreates the original with some goofiness but seldom more. (This being said, the production values are often impressive, especially considering the short shooting schedule) Even the rare political gags only make us wish for much more. It’s no surprise, then, if some of the film’s cleverest moments stand completely apart from previous films. As for the actors, well Anna Faris is still cute in an increasingly irritating clueless shtick, while Craig Bierko does well with the thankless task of parodying Tom Cruise. Still, it’s Regina Hall who steals the show as the insatiable Brenda: her arrival in the movie kicks it up another notch (plus, doesn’t she look unbelievably cute in founder’s-era clothing?) Yes, Scary Movie 4 will make you laugh. Dumb, cheap, easy laughs but still; consider it your reward for slogging through endless mainstream horror films.