Tag Archives: Gabrielle Union

The Baker Bunch

Cheaper by the Dozen

by George Wolf

By now, you’re probably pretty familiar with the premise of Cheaper by the Dozen. But really, the best way for adults to enjoy this new Disney version is by using it as a way to gently introduce small children to more grown up issues.

Otherwise, it’s pretty insufferable.

This time, the heads of the blended brood are Zoey and Paul Baker (Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff), who first meet cute at the L.A. breakfast joint he owns. Their marriage and eventual offspring create a blended family full of diverse and seriously precocious siblings, step-siblings, and later a wayward cousin in need of some guidance. Throw in two ex-spouses (Erika Christensen and Timon Kyle Durrett) who are never far from the shenanigans, and that’s the way they become the Baker bunch.

Director Gail Lerner and the writing team of Kenya Barris, Jenifer Rice-Genzuk and Craig Titley all have extensive credits in series television, which would be a good reason why everything about this film screams “TV sitcom.”

Plot points are hastily introduced and heavily contrived, while any conflicts are soft-peddled and quickly worked through with barely a bad mood or sass mouth in sight. One thing you will see is some surprisingly modest set design (especially for those high school basketball games, yikes) that too often seems fit for an afterschool special.

The Bakers get a corporate offer to franchise the diner and market Paul’s special cooking sauce, so the gang moves on up to a sprawling house in Calabasas that requires just one afternoon to completely move into.

But settling into a new home brings some challenges for everyone. There’s bullying, peer pressure, and dating drama for the kids, while the parents face bless-your-heart prejudices and questions about mixed-race parenting.

Union and Braff are both likable actors, and that’s all they are asked to be, because no one in the film comes anywhere close to resembling a real person. And much like these characters, all the worthy issues raised are treated with a “we got 23 minutes minus commercials” mindset and wedged in between telegraphed attempts at humor and constant mugging.

The PG rating is a bit surprising, because despite the warning of “thematic elements, suggestive material, and language,” everything here is as sanitized as a freshly minted urinal cake.

Cheaper by the Dozen, yes. And you get what you pay for.

The Grapes of Something Something

The Public

by George Wolf

Emilio Estevez just does not do nuance.

The Public marks his fifth feature as writer/director, and it sports the conviction of his best work while also suffering from his familliar lack of restraint.

Estevez also stars as Stuart Goodson, a dedicated, stoic manager at the Cincinnati Public Library. While Stuart and his staff deal daily with an array of homeless citizens using the library, he finds himself a “good son” under fire when complaints about body odor lead to one vagrant’s eviction – and a lawsuit.

And then things get complicated.

Beyond the free computer use, the library also offers respite from the bitter winter cold, and when a deadly deep freeze grips Ohio, Stuart sits at the center of an armed standoff between the city and homeless folks needing shelter.

And it’s not just the homeless question The Public is addressing. From addiction and recovery to tabloid journalism, political cowardice and civic (ii.e. “the public”) responsibility, Estevez has plenty of heart available for numerous sleeves, getting admirable support from a solid ensemble cast including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, Taylor Schilling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gabrielle Union and the ever-ageless Jena Malone.

Characters and subplots converge through dialog that’s too often desperate for authenticity, and a film that decries “intellectual vanity” seems overly proud of its own moments of clumsy enlightenment.

Case in point: a callous TV reporter (Union) is pumped at the social media traction she’s getting for her live reports from the library conflict. While her cameraman points out the plight of people at the heart of the story, she stays glued to her phone.

Point made, but Estevez can’t leave it there.

“Huh? What?” she answers, then a cut to the cameraman rolling his eyes. Second that.

Similarly, the stunt Estevez engineers for the big resolve gets a bystander explanation that is not only unnecessary, but factually dubious at best.

It’s just a culmination of the slow slide from good intentions to self-satisfied finger-wagging. The film has a respect for books and libraries that is indeed admirable, but by the time Goodson starts reading from Steinbeck on live TV, it becomes painfully evident what The Public wants to be when it grows up.


One Bad Mutha

Breaking In

by Hope Madden

Breaking In—the latest in a line of Liam Neeson movies—sees a desperate parent doing whatever it takes to save their tender offspring.

This time around Gabrielle Union plays Liam Neeson. Well, she plays Shaun, a woman who’s brought her two children with her to her recently-deceased father’s wooded property to get the place ready to sell. Problem is, somebody’s already there.

Shaun suddenly finds herself in the situation of trying to save her children from the men who’ve come to rob her late father’s safe.

The film was penned by Ryan Engle, who’s written two of Neeson’s own Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop, The Commuter). The man likes a formula.

Union convinces as the family’s level-headed, savvy matriarch.

She’s locked out of her dead father’s tech-dense fortress while her kids are locked in with baddies. The clock is ticking until the cut phone cable brings the cops. Shaun’s indeterminate experiences at her shady father’s secluded property have apparently better prepared her for this event than the villains would have expected.

There could be something here.

Though little more than a mishmash of domestic thriller clichés, still, with a bit of style and a little creativity, it could make for a tense and brisk 90 minutes.

If only the bad guys moved quickly, as if they were working against a timer. Show a little urgency, fellas.

Or if all that tech—the cameras, the motion-sensor lights, the door locks—worked consistently rather than conveniently.

Or if director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) brought any style to the project. Any at all.

Home invasion movies can become pressure cookers of tension and diabolical possibility. Too bad McTeigue has no idea how to exploit any of the tenser elements Engle gives him, nor does he have the skill to draw your attention away from any of the gaping holes littered throughout this plot.

Union’s fighting against more than seedy criminals.

The Rising

The Birth of a Nation

by George Wolf

Two years ago, Selma delivered a graceful reminder of one man’s courageous commitment to a civil rights movement rooted in non-violence.

Now, The Birth of a Nation recreates a primal scream of outrage from one man driven to a violent uprising against the inhumanity of slavery. It is a passionate, often gut-wrenching film that stands as a stellar achievement from director/producer/co-writer/star Nate Parker.

Parker pours his soul into this film, both behind the camera and in front, delivering a searing performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who organized a bloody rebellion in 1831. Parker’s film is blunt and visceral, displaying a strong sense of visual style and narrative instinct.

Reportedly kicking in over one hundred grand of his own to ensure more creative control, Parker’s use of poetic license is understandable even when it is questionable. Here, Turner’s motives for turning from an obedience-teaching plantation preacher to a vengeful killer are rooted in retaliation for brutal rapes rather than a spiritual calling. This doesn’t help the definition of the film’s female characters (a criticism smartly addressed by co-star Gabrielle Union in recent interviews) but it does allow Parker space for a more dimensional religious undercurrent.

He shows us how faith can be both a source of comfort and an instrument of oppression. Samuel Turner (a terrific Armie Hammer) finds fellow plantation owners will pay handsomely for his “preacher” to come help them quiet unruly slaves. After multiple trips to preach salvation through obedience, Nat Turner decries that for every Bible passage the slaveholders cite to support their actions, he can find another “damning them to Hell.”

Parker’s debut as a director, while often short on nuance, is remarkably assured, displaying a sharp eye for framing, a nicely controlled pace and a confidence in the effect of his visuals. Using Nina Simone’s haunting version of “Strange Fruit” could have been jarringly anachronistic, but Parker lays it over a montage so striking the combination proves undeniably powerful.

The story of Nat Tuner’s rebellion absolutely deserves a big screen treatment like this, and Parker presents a brilliant irony right up front. The title rebuts one of the most notoriously racist films in history while it serves as a stark reminder that much of this country was built with slave labor. The Birth of a Nation is a truly raw and moving experience that finds humanity in the horrors of history.

Shouldn’t it be even more than that?

As unarmed black men continue to die at the hands of law enforcement, as non-violent protests are labeled anti-American and as overt racism stains a Presidential campaign, shouldn’t this film embrace its chance to be the generational bellwether we need right now?

Those are grandiose and mainly unfair expectations, as it’s not Parker’s responsibility to give us something to post about on social media to prove our “woke”-ness. This is an important film, due less to the climate in which it arrives than to the fact that it heralds an important new creative voice, and moves us one step closer to the day when this diversity in cinema is more commonplace.