MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Sparkle; Greed in the Sun, Abraham Lincoln


SPARKLE (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Salim Aki4l, 2012 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

I’ve never seen the 1976 Sparkle, co-written by Joel Schumacher and directed by Sam O’Steen, but it sounds like a sentimental movie with good music, and with Irene Cara as Sparkle, and a lead performance in the Sister- role by Lonette McKee that a lot of people like a lot. (I’ll have to see her someday.) You could describe this remake — with the three singing sisters  played by Tika Sumpter (Dee),  Carmen Ejogo (Sister), and Jordin Sparks (Sparkle), directed by Salim Akil, from a script written by his wife Mara Brock Akil — in similar terms. The music outshines the story, even though the story has some good performances and shining moments — along with the same clichéd, unconvincing stuff we get in too many movies these days. Of course, Whitney Houston (who also served as an executive producer) is there, to give the movie an added punch, and I just wish she had more time and space and music for it.

Houston plays mom Emma, a somewhat failed pop singer who crashed and burned and, like many candle-at-both-ends burners, found religion — and then came home to her daughters: songwriter Sparkle, Sister and Delores (Dee). She wants them to lead decent lives and she’s a pillar of the church. (Televangelist T. D. Jakes is one of the producers here). But they want to sing, together.

Sister is the front, Sparkle writes the songs, and Dee and Sparkle sing back-up — and they’re helped by Sparkle’s admirer and go-getter/manager Stix (Derek Luke), and Sister’s working class beau Levi (Omari Hardwick). But they‘re hindered by Sister’s future abusive husband Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who brushes aside Levi, sweeps Sister off her feet and jams candy up her nose. Emma hates Satin so much, she disowns her daughter — which at least saves Sis the trouble of sneaking out of the bedroom windows at home for her gigs.

The movie’s Sparkle, Jordin Sparks, became famous on “American Idol” (which I haven’t watched and probably never will) and she’s an appealing presence who sings up a storm. Ejogo has a scorching presence, and her scenes, and especially her songs, are incendiary. Sumpter has a more thankless middle-range assignment, until she gets to get funky and sport an afro. Luke, as always, is likable as can be. Houston does a good job as Emma, and she sings the daylights out of “Sparrow” — even if her voice here seems rougher and lower than we remember, in her glory days, when she tore down the house with the high notes on “I Will Always Love You” in The Bodyguard). Hardwick is a good, glowering foil for Epps’ sleek and strutting Satin.

Interestingly, the best performance in the movie (not counting the singing) is by Epps, who’s also playing the nastiest character — a rich, bad-mouth comedian who truckles to whites and beats Sister on the side. But really, we’re watching two movies here: the musical one, which is well-done, engrossing and even moving, and the drama, which is shallow, conventionally clichéd and needs somebody like Epps’ bad boy to goose it up. If you like the music, and I did, you probably won’t mind the rest of it too much. But you might.

Then again, I think we’re wrong when we say the story doesn’t matter in shows like this, because the audience just comes for the music. (People say the same kind of thing about action and horror movies, and they‘re wrong there, too.) The story does matter, always, and when we start getting more great musicals again — and I hope we will — it’ll be because all of the movie will click and not just a part of it. The high notes as well as the low. The words as well as the music. The dirt as well as the Sparkle.

GREED IN THE SUN (“100,000 Dollars au Soleil“) (Three Stars)

France: Henri Verneuil, 1964 (Olive)

Greed in the Sun is a French film that you probably haven’t heard of. Some of you, though, may enjoy it a lot — especially if you’re partial to action comedies, Jean-Paul Belmondo and gorgeous Sahara Desert scenery. It’s a lusty, well-tooled entertainment from the very popular, but often neglected, French action-crime-comedy genre specialist Henri Verneuil, and it stars Belmondo, Reginald Kernan and those quintessential film noir actors Lino Ventura and Bernard Blier as cynical truck drivers, along with Gert Frobe as their exploitive boss, and Anne-Marie Coffinet and Andrea Parisy as improbably glamorous trucker‘s girls — all fighting over a huge money load ($100,000, in fact) on a race through the desolate Sahara.

This brisk thriller basically re-imagines Henri-Georges Clouzot’s heart-stoppingly suspenseful trucks-carrying-nitro masterpiece The Wages of Fear (1952), as a lighter-hearted buddies-gone bad comedy thriller. Surprisingly, it works pretty well. The plot starts in high gear and never lets up: Belmondo vamooses with a huge, super-deluxe transport truck and the loot (and Coffinet). Ventura and a German mercenary (Kernan) pursue him. And Blier keeps popping up, as a kind of traveling Sahara Desert fix-it service.

The show boasts pungent performances (especially by Belmondo as Rocco the happy truck-napper and Ventura as Herve, the incensed ex-pal on his tail), salty glib dialogue (by Michel Audiard, the prolific and crafty genre screenwriter, whose son is the current French film festival favorite Jacques Audiard), terrific black-and-white cinematography (by the excellent Marcel Grignon), an effective score by the great Georges Delerue (who wisely dispenses with music in the big thrill scenes), and lots of action. If there’s a bar or a truckstop, these guys will tear it apart; if there’s a mountain road with hairpin turns they’ll race up it, careening into each other. If there’s an empty courtyard, they’ll stage a balls-up fistfight, until they both fall in a fountain, laughing.

Verneuil, an Armenian-French director (born Achod Malakian in 1920 in Turkey) first hit his stride in his feature film career in the ’50s, directing Fernandel comedies (also very popular). He‘s no Alain Resnais or Jean-Luc Godard, of course, but then, they‘re no Henri Verneuil, and Verneuil is almost as good at this kind of movie as American action maestros like Karlson, Fuller or Siegel. One difference: Verneuil usually had “A” French budgets as well as big stars. We probably ignored him out of snobbery.

1964 was a good year for Belmondo. He was in 5 movies that year, including that now-neglected classic of comedy-adventure, Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio. The very next year, Belmondo played the title role in the modernist classic Pierrot le Fou for Godard and with Anna Karina (and Sam Fuller). It was Belmondo’s heyday as the tough guy from Breathless, the lithe, limber, “yam-nosed” star of thrillers and comedies (and dramas). And it was also the heyday of the grim deadpan gangster movie bulwark Ventura, and of Henri Verneuil.

But unlike Belmondo and Ventura, Verneuil was mostly ignored or underrated in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s — though his 1962 dramady A Monkey in Winter, with Jean Gabin and Belmondo, had some American art-house success, and Verneuil’s 1969 The Sicilian Clan (with Gabin, Ventura and Alain Delon) is one of the best heist thrillers. Yet Greed in the Sun is still little known here even among critics, despite its cast and even though it played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. (It lost to Jacques Demy and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) Anyway, you’ll probably like Verneuil’s movie more than you think you will. And, by the way, when is some American DVD company going to release The Sicilian Clan? And That Man from Rio?

No extras.

U.S.: D. W. Griffith, 1930 (Kino Classics)

The story of Abraham Lincoln — the true heroic saga of the great American from humble origins who guided the nation and won the Civil War and preserved the Union and died at Ford Theatre at the hands of a fanatic — has been told so often in the movies, that we can understand why some current critics may question or even disparage some of the older film portraits, why they might find fault with the venerable Lincoln film biographies made by directors and writers like D. W. Griffith and Stephen Vincent Benet (1930’s Abraham Lincoln) or John Ford and Lamar Trotti (1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln), the better for those modern critics to proclaim the many virtues of Steven Spielberg’s and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln.

It’s understandable. Spielberg‘s Lincoln, with its towering central performance of Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis, is superior to the films of Griffith and Ford (two directors that Spielberg certainly admires and emulates), as well s being the screen’s finest portrayal of Lincoln or any other American president and one of its best and sharpest portrayals of American politics and history.

But Young Mr. Lincoln is a great film too– a different kind of great film, a lyric poem in contrast to Spielberg’s semi Shakespearean historical drama-novel. And if Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln is inferior to either of them, it too has  moments of greatness, moments of majesty. It’s a better film than it’s often credited for being, and more revelatory of Griffith.

What a strange project the film Abraham Lincoln was for Griffith to tackle at what was almost the end of his career! He had been the screen’s major propagator of the South’s distorted view of the Civil War, galvanizing a world audience with the artistic brilliance of The Birth of a Nation, his smphonically powerful, but morally benighted and historically flawed, racist Southerner‘s view of the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a film in which the portrayal of Lincoln, as “the South’s best friend,” was not only sympathetic but adulatory, despite the fact that Griffith, in the picture’s often vile and infuriating second half, demonized African Americans, made venal fools of their Abolitionist supporters, and heroized the vicious and villainous Klan. Griffith, who argued for the rest of his career, and tried to dramatize in pictures like Intolerance and Hearts of the World, that he and his film were not bigoted, finally returned to Lincoln in his next to last film, his final word on the subject of the Civil War that had obsessed him, and the earlier film that had been both his triumph and ultimately his undoing.

Many critics have been unkind to Abraham Lincoln, and that includes me. It has generally been regarded as stiff melodrama, populated with waxworks historical figures and loaded with static camerawork and sermon-like speeches –a film in which the creative spark and dynamism that enlivened most of Griffith’s Civil War films, is muffled. But Griffith’s Lincoln was made in 1930, in the difficult transition period between the silent cinema (of which Griffith was a master) and the crude and awkward early talkies — and it’s a more mobile, creative, innovative work than many others of its era.

Walter Huston, who plays Lincoln for Griffith, was, according to Howard Hawks, the most admired American movie actor of that era (among Hawks and his director friends). And though Huston doesn’t almost vanish into the role the way Day-Lewis does for Spielberg, it’s a performance full of strength and grace and intelligence and wit — and a deep inner well of eloquence and sadness (Lincoln’s inner traits). It is a gentle but powerful performance, just as Lincoln was gentle but powerful, strong yet subtle, funny yet profound — and, in Spielberg and Day-Lewis’ film, idealistic but crafty and shrewd. Huston and Griffith bring out the poetry of the man and his period, and there’s poetry also in Una Merkel’s brief portrayal of Lincoln’s lost love, Ann Rutledge, in a classic sylvan Griffith scene.

Commentators have sometimes questioned whether Griffith‘s Southerner’s praise of Lincoln was sincere, even though it echoes the sympathetic and admiring portrayal of the 16th president (by actor Joseph Henabery) in Birth. It is hard perhaps to trust someone whose feeling for Lincoln and against slavery (in this film’s harrowing slave ship scenes) contrasts with the unforgivable tribute to the Klan in Birth. But Griffith was an immensely complex man: both conservative and progressive, tolerant and intolerant. His views of the South and of the war were nurtured by the stories he heard in his youth from his father and other relatives and family friends — and he never lost the impact those stories had on him.

Things change. People change. Movies change. Watching Abraham Lincoln again , for maybe the first time since the ’70s, I was surprised at how different it looked to me, how much I liked it, and how much of Griffith’s poetry came through — and, most crucially, how much of his love of Lincoln.

Extras: Short film made as an introduction to the 1930s re-release of The Birth of a Nation, in which Walter Huston and Griffith, on an Abraham Lincoln movie set, discuss both the movie and Griffith’s youthful memories of the American South.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon