Holiday movies: 'Premium Rush,' 'The Expendables 2' & 'Sparkle'
Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
This race-against-time thriller finds Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, channeling Wile E. Coyote), a bicycle messenger entrusted with a mysterious "premium rush" envelope from Columbia University in uptown Manhattan that he must deliver downtown to Chinatown.
He's having problems with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramiriz), another bike courier who's being pursued by his rival Manny (Wole Parks). And his lightweight cycle is a "fixie," meaning it has only one gear and no stopping power. But that's nothing compared to menacing Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a sneering New York detective with a gambling problem, who really wants that envelope.
Co-written by John Kamps and director David Koepp ("Ghost Town"), it gets points for graphic originality and terrific action visuals. Most of the chase sequences -- 96 percent, according to Koepp -- are real, meaning without resorting to computer-generated imagery. And among the peddling daredevils is Scottish street cyclist Danny MacAskill, whose YouTube videos attract millions of views.
During a nine-day stretch when his team roamed the Big Apple, filming in the streets, at least one member of the production cast/crew required emergency medical treatment each day, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who needed 31 stitches after careening into the window of a taxi.
Yet Koepp's pace loses momentum when he veers into expositional flashbacks to reveal the contents of that envelope and why it has value to so many people.
In addition, given the 90-minute deadline, there's no logical explanation why the courier doesn't just take the subway for this particular errand. Koepp is also tripped up by Jamie Chung's bordering-on-racist portrayal of Nima, a desperate Chinese exchange student who barely speaks English and just happens to have a history with Vanessa.
Too many unrealistic coincidences decrease believability.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Premium Rush" delivers a silly, speeding 6, filled with impressive chase scenes and stunt work on a bike without brakes.
"THE EXPENDABLES 2"
Blasting fire power, the geriatric goons are back, toting not only tons of ear-splitting explosives but also deadpan, self-parodying laugh lines.
Under the leadership of Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), the past-their-prime mercenaries -- including knife specialist Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), martial-arts master Ying Yang (Jet Li), volatile sniper Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), demolition-skilled Toll Road (UCF's Randy Couture), weapons-savvy Hale Caesar (wisecracking Terry Crews), along with newcomer sharpshooter Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) -- are deployed to Nepal to rescue a Chinese businessman, along with Ross'rival, Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). They're then dispatched by CIA operative Mr. Church (toupee-less Bruce Willis) to retrieve something from the wreckage of a plane that crashed in the Balkans, taking along tech-savvy Maggie (Chinese actress Yu Nan). But when one of their team is viciously killed, vengeance becomes the motivating force against sadistic Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his henchman Hector (Scott Adkins), who threaten the world with deadly plutonium.
Based on a story by Ken Kaufman, David Agosto and Richard Wenk, with characters created by David Callahan, it's scripted by Wenk and Stallone. Simon West ("The Mechanic") directs the mindless macho mayhem, while Lone Wolf Booker (Chuck Norris), single-handedly, manages to save everyone during an ambush as they're trying to help hapless miners who -- once conscripted -- never return to their families.
Filmed primarily at Sofia's Nu Boyana Film studio in Bulgaria, one of the big shoot-em-ups is at Ploydiv Airport. During a staged explosion at Ognyanovo reservoir, 15 miles outside of Sofia, one stuntman, Kun Liu, was killed and another, Nup Sun, was critically wounded.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Expendables 2" is an action-packed, self-deprecating 7. It's reported that Nicolas Cage will join them for "Expendables 3."
It's impossible to view this musical without realizing its poignant significance as Whitney Houston's final appearance, particularly when she asks, "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?"
Houston plays imperious Emma, a former entertainer who has become a prim 'n' proper Detroit church lady. When her three daughters -- Sister (Carmen Ejogo), the eldest; aspiring med student Delores (TilkaSumpter), and the youngest Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) -- form a Supremes-like trio, calling themselves Sister and her Sisters, Emma is distraught. But to no avail. They not only become Motown-famous but the national spotlight beckons -- if they can ever escape from under their dominating mother's roof. Though they're already grown-up, Emma makes them do an hour of Bible study for every hour of television they're allowed to watch.
While shy Sparkle writes the songs, Sister starts out as the sultry lead singer who's swept away by a smarmy comedian suitor named Satin (Mike Epps). It's only a matter of time before Sparkle will gain enough confidence to go out on her own as a singer/songwriter with the support of her ambitious manager/boyfriend Stix (Derek Luke). Then lots of heavy-handed melodrama intervenes with drug abuse, addiction and murder.
Unevenly written by Mara Brock Akil, it's based on a story by Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman and a remake of the 1976 "Dreamgirls"-evoking film "Sparkle," except the timeline's been transferred from 1950s Harlem to late-1960s Detroit. Director Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom") puts an emphasis on the clumsy, complicated, cliched relationships. In the earlier version, Emma was a worn-out domestic; now, she's a defiantly middle-class former pop singer who never quite made it but can still rattle the church rafters when she's singing in the choir.
Although 2006 American Idol winner Jordin Sparks is, ostensibly, the star, it's Whitney Houston who steals the show with her solo gospel rendition of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Sparkle" is a sudsy, spirited 6 -- with a memorable soundtrack and "Celebrate" serving as Houston's unintentional cinematic swan song.