Tag Archives: C-

ANNAPOLIS

Some snide, nasty people will probably allege that “Annapolis” is an unacknowledged remake of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, it’s set on a completely different coast–the eastern seaboard rather than near Puget Sound in Washington state. What could be more different than that? For another, the gal for whom the working-class hero struggling to get through the program falls isn’t a local worker searching for a husband, she’s one of the instructors presiding over his training. There’s also no counterpoint romance between another local girl and one of the guy’s classmates; here the other plebes are just there for contrast–the ultra-perfect Asian-American, the overweight but needy African-American, the lackadaisical, fast-talking Latino. And perhaps most important, the protagonist’s chief tormentor, the company commander, isn’t just a by-the-book drill instructor, he’s a boxer–a perfect (though inadequately explained–what’s a Marine doing at Annapolis?) foil for the young hero, also an amateur pugilist–which allows scripter Dave Collard to graft a rah-rah “Rocky” story onto the larger one of a journey to success in the Navy against all odds.

But of course, there are some minor similarities–like the entire narrative about the driven young man, here called Jake Huard (James Franco), whose dead mother wanted him to go to Annapolis (which they could see from their house), but whose doubtful father would prefer him to stay home and work alongside him at the shipyard. Brought into the first-year class at the last minute by Lt. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg), Jake quickly makes more than eye contact with sweet Ali (Jordana Brewster), with whom he’d just had an encounter in a local bar. She just happens to be one of his superiors, and a much nicer one than either sternly demanding Company Commander Cole (Tyrese Gibson) or his malevolent right-hand enforcer Whitaker (McCaleb Burnett). Initially Jake insists on trying to make it in the demanding environment entirely on his own, though in doing so he upsets his straight-arrow roommate Loo (Roger Fan). It also doesn’t help his other roomies, helplessly chubby Twins (Vicellous Shannon), whom Whitaker especially delights in tormenting, and Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), who’s a little too easygoing to survive the rigorous course. Luckily the big Brigade Boxing Championships give him a chance to recoup, with the help of his friends and the sufferance of gym director McNally (Chi McBride). The upshot is a series of rounds, similar to the sort of thing one may recall from countless kung-fu flicks, which bring our boy up against both the super-confident Loo, the vicious Whitaker and the apparently invincible Cole. And when the big match comes, even Jake’s estranged father has the opportunity to show up and make things right.

The message in all this of course, is never to give up, but also that no man is an island: Huard succeeds only when he’s willing to set aside his pride and accept other peoples’ support. That’s all well and good, but as the plot plays out it not only follows formula but italicizes every element of it. So Jake’s battle to succeed can’t merely be personal or academic, it has to be transformed into a ring contest, too. Need a contrast to him? Estrada will do. Require obstacles for him to overcome? How about not just Loo but Whitaker and Cole, too? Need comic belief and blubbery sentiment? Twins will certainly provide both. And of course you must have romance–and the immediate attraction between Ali and Huard will give you that, however implausibly. There simply isn’t anything in “Annapolis” that isn’t either predictable or contrived (and usually both). And neither the slick but perfunctory direction of Justin Lin (a typical first-time comedown after his edgy, engaging “Better Luck Tomorrow”) nor the acting improves things. As in “Tristan & Isolde,” Franco is handsome but vacuous–indeed, here he’s even less winning, since he’s shorn of the long hair which did much of the thespian work for him in the medieval movie. Brewster isn’t credible for an instant as a tough-cookie midshipman (or is it midship-person?), while the impassive, brooding Gibson doesn’t have the chops to make the combination of Louis Gossett Jr. and Mr. T that Collard has cobbled together work. Fan (a carry-over from “Tomorrow”), Shannon and Calderon do what’s expected of them, as do McBride and Wahlberg–they’re not at all subtle, but they make the exaggerations tolerable–but Burnett goes way overboard, chewing the scenery like a piranha. There is a feeling of authenticity that eludes the drama, however, in the background, thanks to the production design of Patti Podesta, who turns Philadelphia’s Girard College campus into a reasonable facsimile of the Naval Academy; and though the cinematography of Phil Abraham is too glossy for comfort, it gives the movie a professional sheen. One can’t be nearly as kind, though, about Brian Tyler’s score, which traffics in formula even more than the script, and is both loud and shameless about it.

The message of “Annapolis,” that everybody needs help in life, is a good one. Too bad the filmmakers hadn’t absorbed it well enough to seek outside assistance with their own effort; perhaps some advice from elsewhere could have made for a better script. But Collard’s dialogue does include one line that seems dead on. At one point Huard is informed that “A company is only as strong as its weakest link.” It might have benefitted Lin and his associates to remember that a movie is only as strong as its weakest cliche. This one is a string of cliches, all of very weak indeed. And more than anything else, they’re what sink this leaky cinematic vessel.

BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2

One could make a strong argument that the most pernicious trend in today’s comic movies is the use–or more properly, overuse–of the fat suit. The result has been consistently less than triumphant. From Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard to Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick, from “Shallow Hal” to “Just Friends,” the device–crutch, really–has given rise to more groans than laughs, and sometimes even revulsion. Now Martin Lawrence, who resorted to the gimmick in a really big way, so to speak, in “Big Momma’s House” (2000–four years after Eddie Murphy, in whose footsteps he often follows, donned one in “The Nutty Professor”), returns to it in this sequel. He once again plays FBI agent Malcolm Turner, this time going undercover as the obese Big Momma to infiltrate the home of Tom Fuller (Mark Moses), a computer designer who’s suspected of having crafted a worm that would enable bad guys to hack into government files. Turner does so by posing as a nanny for Fuller’s three kids. What follows is a succession of vaudeville sketches that allow Lawrence ample scope for his usual mugging. Of course his presence ultimately resolves the computer-related MacGuffin, and, needless to say, has a beneficial effect on the dysfunctional Fuller clan, too.

The makeup is fine, if rather grotesque, in “Big Momma’s House 2.” What’s lacking in the movie is any real sense of style, wit or even coherence. Though generally inoffensive, the picture just sets up its unimaginative premise and then coasts along through a chain of forced, mostly unfunny episodes to a thoroughly predictable conclusion, relying on one’s tolerance of Lawrence’s supposedly engaging personality to go the distance. But one’s patience with the movie is likely to run out long before the celluloid in the projector does. As it ambles through the set-pieces–Big Momma’s visit to a spa, a contretemps at a Bingo parlor, her involvement with a high-school cheerleading contest, her eye-popping visit to a beach (complete with chase), a jet-ski interlude, and of course a big comedy-action finale–a sense of deja vu sets in. Maybe something genuinely amusing could be contrived for this character, but scripter Don Rhymer doesn’t even seem to have bothered thinking about what that might be. He’s content to go with the obvious. He doesn’t so much construct a plot as throw bits and pieces of one together; nothing that happens here makes the remotest sense, and the transitions are at best tenuous. He’s particularly lax in dealing with a subplot about Turner’s pregnant wife Sherri (Nia Long), who thinks that he’s off with a girlfriend while he’s actually engaged in his (unauthorized) imposture; it’s just dropped whenever it becomes inconvenient. And the lackadaisical helming of John Whitesell, whose resume includes such sterling specimens as “See Spot Run” and “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” can’t conceal the structural sags. He seems simply to have shouted “Action!” and invited Lawrence to do whatever the spirit moved him to. And the way some of the material plods on, one has to wonder whether the word “Cut!” is in his vocabulary.

No one in the supporting cast manages to escape Lawrence’s large shadow. Long and Emily Procter (of “C.S.I. Miami”), who plays the uptight Mrs. Fuller, are both attractive presences but just go through the motions, and the other FBI agents and all the villains are complete ciphers. The only supporting players that stand out are the ones Rhymer and Whitesell rely on most often: a dog called Pancho, which has scads of reaction shots (and a drunk scene!), and the youngest Fuller kid, Andrew–played by twins Preston and Trevor Shores–who has even more. When in doubt, cinematographer Mark Irwin was apparently instructed just to turn the camera on one or another of them. Otherwise his work is okay, as is the movie’s technical side generally, though Priscilla Nedo Friendly’s editing comes across as more than a mite choppy (probably due to the raggedness of the script). George S. Clinton’s music, as is his wont, is too bouncy and formulaic.

In sum, “Big Momma’s House 2” proves a ramshackle cinematic residence, though it’s fairly clean by today’s standards and is actually better than its predecessor, if only slightly so. But if one feels the need of a movie nanny this weekend, there’s a much better one out there. Her name is McPhee.