Movie Madness

My movie reviews and rants at your fingertips.

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Tyler Perry, the Superstar You Need to Know

Last weekend I ventured to the theaters to see Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds with my parents. Watching it got me thinking about the empire Perry has erected over these past 6 years since Madea first exploding on the big screen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Despite regularly being dismissed by the critics, his films regularly open as either first or second place at the box office and end up turning a tidy profit before home video release. With a track record where all his films end up in the black, why is he not a bigger force in Hollywood?

2012 will test his starring power with him taking over for Morgan Freeman in Alex Cross, the first lead role in a film he hasn’t written. But regardless of how this goes, Perry has a tried and true business to fall back on. I, for one, am rooting for him.

I was first recommended Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman from my commander over a holiday break while I was in the Air Force. I fell in love with Madea and the world Perry had created. After recommending it to my parents and sister, I found a fellow fan in my friend Tori. From there, I became hooked.

With all of Perry’s films, they follow a simple course. In a world where films are budget close to $100 million, Perry creates smaller, more intimate fare. Like fellow director Christopher Guest, Perry usually uses the same actors over multiple films. This troupe feel, helps carve the name into a brand all its own. When you see a film from Guest or Perry, you know the film will fit distinctly in that mode. In the case of Perry, the film will combine elements of drama, comedy, faith, and a splash of melodrama to give you a two-hour experience you won’t find with anyone else.

As the name Tyler Perry becomes more synonymous with successful films, Hollywood needs to pay close attention. So far, Perry’s imitators borrow too heavily from the surface story of his films. Perry has introduced a rise in African-American and minority films billed as box office viable. The problem this introduces is why Spike Lee was so against Perry’s films. Yes, the casts of Perry’s films are predominately black, but the film isn’t about the skin tone. His copycats miss this. Perry has a universal appeal that is ignored by many who believe that his films are all about race.

With all of Perry’s films, love and community are central themes. I can count many examples in which white actors anchor a film that ignores this, alienating the audience. I know skin color, gender, and sexual identity are issues that far from reaching equality they so rightly deserve, but love can wash all this inequality away. Perry has flawed protagonists who are struggling with the flawed love of their lives. He tells stories of revelation and redemption. They may not be for everyone, but his films deserve a larger audience than the loyal fans who flock to his films everytime one opens.

I know I’m known for being critical of films, and that is what a majority of these other entries consist of. Perry’s films, from a critical standpoint, aren’t masterpieces; but that is beside the point. His films are family-friendly tales that are as enriching as they are profitable. Of all the directors in cinema today, he knows his audience the best. His film ideas may start to wear thin as he continues to milk the sources he’s used so far, but I honestly believe he is capable of becoming Oscar nominated someday if he is willing to push himself creatively. A few years ago, he put his name on Precious as producer. Precious was a tale that was a more graphic and real take on many of the same themes Perry tackles in his films. Hopefully, one day we’ll see his star rise even higher than where he is now. For my family (diehard Perry fans), we hope so.

If Good Deeds is any indication, Perry doesn’t need Madea to make an engaging film. In fact, I think he really opens things up creatively when his signature character isn’t in the picture. Of all his non-Madea roles, this is my favorite (though Michael Jai White made the Why Did I Get Married? movies pretty comical). He hones the story into a concise and interesting story that takes a look into the chasm between the have and have-nots, which is especially poignant given the constant reminders we experience in the news today about the 1%. I highly recommend Good Deeds to anyone who is willing to give Perry’s films a shot (3 out of 5 stars). Of all the movies that have come out this year, this is the first release to give me something to think about. And in the January/February movie schedule, that is something incredibly lacking. A solid film that only deepened my appreciation and passion for his films. If I were to work in film, I’d send my résumé in a heartbeat. Edward Burns would be the next place I’d apply. Filmmaking is evolving, and these men know where it is going.

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Time for a Sequel

Snake Plissken. Criminal. Veteran. Eyepatch.

A few nights ago, I finally sat down and revisited one of John Carpenter’s classic early films, Escape from New York. But it wasn’t just enough to see Snake Plissken in just one film, I had to see the sequel too, Escape from L.A. A fan of Carpenter’s early films, I found myself accepting the first film because of the great chemistry Carpenter had with Kurt Russell (the year following Escape from New York’s release, the two released the masterpiece The Thing). I loved Russell’s character; Plissken was not a hero sent in to a dangerous place to save the day, he is blackmailed. With no other choice, Plissken overcomes the odds and saves the President before all the hoodlums of Manhattan Island, now a prison, kill him.

After a satisfying foray into B-movie glory, I decided to see it’s equally B-movie follow-up. Boy, was I disappointed. The first film had a lot of low-budget appeal and developed a cult following. The sequel, set in Los Angeles, seems to do nothing more than insult California at every turn. When Los Angeles suffers an earthquake that turns it into an island, the United States makes it the anti-Ellis Island. Illegal aliens, criminals, and religious heretics, all quarantined on the island indefinitely.

The problem with Escape from L.A. is how to so closely tries to duplicate what worked in the first film. The film tries to strike lightning twice with every gag or gimmick that made the original so beloved. The sport scene (Boxing in NY, Basketball in LA), the older actor acting as a sidekick (Ernest Borgnine, who reminded me so much of Charlie Cheswick from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Peter Fonda as a washed-up surfer), even the way of injecting him with a virus that will kill him in so many hours to force him to complete the mission, everything was the same.

The attempts to make the story leap forward failed miserably. Steve Buscemi had no business being in this film. And the idea of making Plissken wear dominatrix style leather just put me off. The tacky CGI that looked so fake that I almost turned it off (I hate CGI).

What I realized watching the two films back to back was the importance of moving forward when it comes time for the sequel. Unfortunately, Last summer’s The Hangover Part II didn’t get the memo. Though it has its moments, the film, like the Snake Plissken films, falls dangerously close to copying the original. The major elements of what happened to Stu, Phil, and Alan aren’t different. They blackout, lose a member of their party, and figure out at the last second where he is. The second of these franchises aren’t sequels; they are blatant rip-offs that more closely resemble half-baked remakes. But not all sequels are so profit driven like the greed monster that was Cars 2.

Sequels have always had a spotty record. When Batman gets nipples, something gets lost in translation. For every epic sequel, there are at least five inferior films. In my Breakdown- Best Sequels post, I talk about great sequels that actually improved on the original film. I still stand with those films. And for good reason, they not only continued the story of its predecessor, but it also treaded new ground.

The Terminator is a classic. It gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his big break and helped James Cameron start leaving behind smaller horror fare like Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. But when T2: Judgment Day came out, all hell broke loose. Here was a sequel that took the first film’s story and exploded it to create an epic science fiction/action film.

"Get away from her you bitch!" - Ripley

James Cameron had done the same thing to the Alien franchise years earlier. Cameron took Ridley Scott’s moody monster in space film and made a sequel that could stand apart from its original. The action and story were expanded, not that the first didn’t have a solid script. Aliens merely went further down the road for a movie that turned its survival girl Ripley into the heroine of the film.

Cameron isn’t the only name associated with making a great sequels, Christopher Nolan single-handed revitalized a dead franchise when he made Batman Begins. He started from scratch, leaving a lot of the problems of the pervious films behind. Gone was the camp. Here was a Batman rooted in reality. When Nolan returned to the world of Bruce Wayne’s alternate identity, he managed to top even himself. The Dark Knight became a colossal success. The film took what Begins had set up and continued the evolution of a hero coming to grips with what must be done to protect his city.

These sequels not only justified more sequels, but also showed that an extension of story works just as sharp and rewarding as the first film was. It just needed the proper balance of new and old. Too much new and you end up reimagining the franchise every time (The Punisher films); too much old and you end up with a unsurprising waste of time (Escape From L.A., The Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). They won’t all be terrible, but they won’t have the allure of the original. Don’t believe me? Ask Bryan Singer.

Singer has been on both sides of the coin. With X2: X-Men United, he elaborated on the universe he brought to the screen in X-Men. X2 had a scope and originality that allowed it to act as a proper benchmark for the franchise. But when Singer stepped away from directing another X-Men film, he had decided to reintroduce another superhero. When Superman Returns finally hit theaters, people left underwhelmed. The film focused so much on catching up that no amount of Brandon Routh’s talent could save the film. Two and a half hours later, and people vacated the theater wishing for more action and less drama. At the end of the day, the film was too loyal to everything that had happened before to really make a stand for existing.

John McClane can't die. Hard or otherwise.

Now, despite all I’ve said about these films, even the bad ones still have merit. Sometimes it’s nice to revisit a character on the big screen, even if the actors wink at you as they phone it in. I enjoy a few of them. If they make another Hangover movie or when Die Hard 5 finally makes its way to theaters, I’ll see it opening. What can I saw, I’m exactly what Hollywood wants in moviegoers (I’m far from perfect).

This upcoming summer, we’ll see Will Smith back in his black suit and Peter Parker starting over, but I’m not holding my breath for anything new (exception of course being The Dark Knight Rises). The studios will never learn. Sequels may mean a low risk investment with a tried-and-true brand, but why can’t we add some more originality to things? Take the time to come up with something fresh and exciting. If the Mission Impossible and The Fast and the Furious franchises can experience a new creativity high this late in their respective universes, why can’t every sequel? Christopher Nolan and James Cameron can’t do it themselves.