Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Quick and Dirties: Made for TV

Here we are, at another edition of The Quick and Dirties. These are posts where I give short reviews to several films rather than one full length review. Lately, I've been trying to bunch these by some sort of theme. Today, that theme is made-for-TV movies. Ugh, I know. Let's drive on, anyway. We might get lucky, and find a hidden gem.

This film masquerades as a biopic about the late, great, but troubled songstress Whitney Houston, here played by Yaya DaCosta. It focuses on a chunk of time starting with the day she met husband Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta) and ends seemingly a short while after her movie The Bodyguard hit it big, well before her death. It's a wise decision to zero in on a specific period rather than trying to retell her entire life story. Unfortunately, that's about the only smart thing this movie does. The most glaring flaw is that this is so clearly Bobby Brown's version of events its nauseating. Whitney is always at fault while Bobby's flaws and indiscretions are excused as what happens when he feels overshadowed and/or dominated by her. It's like she's a runaway train and he is just swept along for the tumultuous ride. Her predilection for drugs is shown as already fully formed where the movie picks things up, so there's no insight there. There is no legitimate addressing of it at all, other than from Bobby. Of course, he is never shown touching anything stronger than alcohol and occasionally warns her about "that stuff." Whitney herself is a dragon lady who breathes fire, snorts coke, and gets horny, not necessarily in that order. Hampered with this, the normally good Yaya DaCosta delivers a performance devoid of nuance, steeped in histrionics, and topped off with bad lip-syncing. During the first musical number, my daughter remarked "She can lip-sync pretty good." I told her that if you can tell she's doing it, she's not doing it well. I think DaCosta is capable of giving us a pretty good Houston, given better material. With nothing to work with, she gives us nothing. Whitney's family is reduced to a one-note 'Bobby Haters Club.' Again, Bobby Brown gets to be the victim. The film then has the nerve to end as if it showed us some major triumph by the star and gives the "Whitney Houston's music inspired millions..." epilogue before mercifully coming to a complete stop. I was never really a big Whitney Houston fan. I recognized she had arguably the most perfect voice known to humankind, but I wasn't rushing out buying her albums. Even so, this was such a one-sided look at things I felt bad for her. Granted, any story of her life with any semblance of truth is not going to be a pretty one, but it should be fair. This is not. I'm also saddened because the director is one of favorite actresses, Angela Bassett. I hope this production is a result of limitations placed upon her and not indicative of her true capabilities at the helm.

The Real Whitney Houston on the left, Yaya DaCosta on the right.

Drumline: A New Beat
Way back in 2002, Drumline was a pleasant surprise and box-office success, raking in close to $60 million against its modest $20 million budget. It took the underdog sports movie template and applied it to a drummer in the marching band at a historically black college, the fictional Atlanta A&T. It's very fun, features Zoe Saldana in one of her earliest roles, and inspired a terrible, but also financially successful clone, Stomp the Yard. What it's most known for is introducing the world to its star, Nick Cannon, for better or worse. The film's most ardent fans clamored for a sequel for a few years. Given that it took in nearly triple what it cost to make, it's a bit of a shock that one wasn't rushed out. When it seem like it would never happen, fans gave up on it. Then suddenly, they got one. It's not the one they were hoping for, but it's not all bad. Nick Cannon's character has moved on, showing up late in a cameo. The bandmate he butted heads with, Sean (Leonard Roberts), is now Dr. Taylor and the band's director. Our protagonist is Dani (Alexandra Shipp), a freshman drummer in the band. Things go along pleasantly enough, even if the movie doesn't have an original bone in its body. It essentially retells the story of the first film, feeling more like a remake than a sequel. Though I will admit that having it told using a female is a nice wrinkle. Dani, and Shipp by extension, is likable enough, if not entirely memorable. This is a problem for the movie as a whole. The rest of the cast is made up of prettier faces than the original. Unfortunately, that comes with a lesser talent level and results in a couple cringe-worthy performances. Most noticeable is the work of Jasmine Burke who plays Dani's best friend Tasha. Truthfully, it's not all terrible except in the context of who she's playing. She tells us immediately how much of a country girl she is, using an exaggerated Southern accent to do so. This actually isn't that bad, by itself. The problem is that this accent comes and goes for a while until it shortly disappears all together. Strangely, Ms. Burke is from the south (Atlanta) so I'm sure she knows what it sounds like. Another issue is that the villain, DeRay Davis as Dr. Taylor's brother and rival band director, is miscast. He makes the mistake a number of comedic actors make in dramatic roles and gives everyone a psuedo-super intense death glare as he's saying his lines. Dude, we get it. You're supposed to be the bad guy. Scenes of the band performing are still fun, but not quite up to the same standard of showmanship as its predecessor either in front of or behind the camera. When the credits roll, we've watched a movie that hits the exact same notes the first movie does, but invariably to lesser effect. This is understandable given the original was a feature film with a decent sized budget and this is a made-for-TV flick. That said, it's at least watchable.

The Gabby Douglas Story
For those of you who have forgotten, Gabby Douglas became the first African-American gymnast to win gold at the Olympics in the Individual All-Around competition. As her feat unfolded live on television, we learned of her inspiring story. Her family went through some financial hardships while still managing to keep her enrolled in gymnastics classes. At the age of 14, she went to live with a family in Iowa to train full-time with renowned coach Liang Chow. By 16, she was Olympic champion. It's a movie that wrote itself. Unfortunately, that's exactly how the actual film plays out. That Gabby herself had a hand in its production is telling. She served as one of the executive producers and performed the stunts. She doesn't actually play herself, though. The acting is handled by Imani Hakim. A few of may remember her as a little girl when she played the younger sister on the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. In any event, this one suffers from doing the exact opposite of Whitney. The Gabby Douglas Story loves its protagonist too much. She is wiser and more mature than all of the adults, barely seems to ever have an unsure moment, and is just about perfect. There is no tension, it's just a boulder rolling downhill toward its inevitable conclusion. The one saving grace is Regina King, who plays Gabby's mom. She gives an earnest performance. Unfortunately, everything around her falls flat.

Okaaaaaaaaayyyyyy, no hidden gem.

This time.

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  1. Oh man, I used to love Drumline when I was a teenager. I played the drums in school, so I thought it was pretty cool having a film centered around them. Then I watched it as an adult a few years ago and realized how bad it was. No idea there was a sequel ever made. Lifetime soured me this year when I watched Stockholm, Pennsylvania so I haven't watched anything on there since.

    1. It's not the greatest movie in the world, but I still like Drumline. You can skip.the sequel and not miss anything.

  2. I haven't seen any of these, I think from reading the descriptions I can add happily to that.

    The TV biography has fallen on hard times what with this and that trainwreck Liz & Dick from a few years back. They're all about sensationalism with no context nor nuance attempted. The last good one I can recall is Life with Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows which didn't shy away from her problems but tried to balance it out by showing the causes and that there were many, many positive aspects to her life. It helped that it was done as a mini-series which allowed time to be taken, that one of the producers was Judy's daughter Lorna Luft whose biography of growing up with a legend this was based on and was a clear-eyed account of the singer's life, both the good and the bad, and lastly having the titanic talent of Judy Davis as Garland along with equally strong work by Tammy Blanchard as the young Judy.

    I chuckled when you said if you notice the lip syncing the performer isn't doing a good job. So true and it pulls you right out of the film. The best I've ever seen was Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart where she portrays singer Jane Froman's battle back from a disastrous plane crash where her leg was nearly amputated. According to Froman when she recorded the songs for the film Hayward sat in the studio and watched her intently, later when Jane saw the film she was so struck by the precision she went home and sang in front of a mirror and saw that Hayward not only had her movements down but her breathing technique during performance.

    1. Yeah, none of these are worth making a point to see. My excuse for watching: teenage daughters. I think the TV biopic definitely works better as a mini-series. That time is much needed. Great story about Hayward lip syncing.