Movie Reviews: Hotel for Dogs, Notorious, Paul Blart, Mall Cop 

Also, My Bloody Valentine 3D and Owl and the Sparrow

Wednesday, Jan 14 2009

HOTEL FOR DOGS Kids, pooches, childless couples, hotels past their prime, gifted actors in demeaning roles — who doesn’t need saving from themselves and others in this slobbery wet kiss of a family movie, whose premise appears to have been slapped together on the back of a napkin, then pitched to a roomful of exhausted executives banging out the January release slate? One winces for Lisa Kudrow, poured into a tight miniskirt as an aspiring rock star and wicked foster parent to two cute orphaned siblings (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin), and no less for Don Cheadle as the kindly Child Protection officer who toils to find them a loving family. Collecting strays as they go, the children install themselves and a herd of good-looking dogs in a formerly grand downtown hotel and set up a utopian alternative to the pound and the orphanage. Novice director Thor Freudenthal has worked as a storyboard artist, and it shows in the movie’s lone imaginative diversion — the gizmos set up by a lonely child to entertain the hounds so they won’t bark up the authorities. In the department of small mercies, the dogs don’t talk, but the human dialogue is as stale as the characters bathing in love-the-family-you’re-with pathos. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)

NOT EASILY BROKEN Would that the sparring spouses of Revolutionary Road had only thought to turn to the Lord for help; it would have solved all their pesky problems. Such is the lesson to be taken from Not Easily Broken, the second feature film (after 2004’s Woman Thou Art Loosed) adapted from the novels of Dallas televangelist T.D. Jakes. Directed by actor Bill Duke (whose erratic behind-the-camera career has ranged from the searing neonoir Deep Cover to the altacocker crowd-pleaser The Cemetery Club), Not Easily Broken begins in 1995 with the wedding of pro-baseball player Dave (Morris Chestnut) and upwardly mobile real-estate agent Clarice (Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson), then catches up to the present, where a knee injury has sidelined Dave into a contracting career and Clarice’s taste for luxury finds the couple living well beyond their means. It’s not long before the strands of their union begin to fray, abetted by a car accident that leaves Clarice with a mangled leg to complement Dave’s metaphorical knee. Tragedy lurks around every bend here, along with the requisite quotient of meddling mothers-in-law, derelict baby-daddies and Nordic-looking white temptresses — all of it played to the rafters for an unsteady mixture of Sirkian melodrama and “You go, girl!”/“Oh, no, he didn’t!” empowerment fable. These resourceful actors — to say nothing of the audience — deserve better. “Don’t go all Waiting to Exhale on me,” advises one of Clarice’s soul sisters late in the film. If only. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

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NOTORIOUS In this thoroughly inoffensive biopic about Notorious B.I.G., Christopher “Biggie” Wallace is played by Jamal Woolard, known as rapper Gravy, who does a respectably credible impersonation. It helps that he’s a first-time actor; Woolard offers more than just another famous face playing Hollywood Halloween dress-up, unlike Derek Luke as Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Anthony Mackie as Tupac Shakur. He’s imposing but also gentle, a bastard but also an angel, and he renders a young Chris Wallace’s dreams almost tangible. But director George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor), who makes square and reliable biopics every decade or so, doesn’t have time to dwell on the nobody Chris, who’s too small-fry for the bigtime Biggie story for which the audience has paid its hard-earned. He fast-forwards instead to the glossy, glamorous life — the fuck-you photo-ops with Tupac; the change-the-world meetings with Puff Daddy; the steamy trysts with Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith); and the nasty run-ins with Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold). The movie turns into a parade of bold-faced names — a hip-hop, stunt-cast episode of Entourage but with a decidedly tragic ending. Notorious doesn’t wash away Biggie’s sins, but it absolves him too easily; as every deed’s done, it’s explained away by the ghost of Biggie spouting hindsight wisdom. Such is the restraint to be expected from the authorized biography — Notorious, after all, was produced by Biggie’s mom and executive-produced by Combs, who do just enough to burnish the legend without tarnishing it. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

GO   OWL AND THE SPARROW The humanistic ensemble drama has gotten such a bad name in recent years, thanks to ponderous high-profile entries like Crash and Babel, that a barebones plot description of Owl and the Sparrow might convince you that you’ve seen this movie before — and, more importantly, that you don’t want to see it again. Still, don’t let that discourage you from seeking out writer-director-cinematographer Stephane Gauger’s lovely debut, which tracks a week in the separate lives of three young Vietnamese: a flight attendant on holiday (Cat Ly), a zoo employee (Le The Lu), and a 10-year-old runaway (Pham Thi Han). As expected, the characters cross paths amid the hustle and bustle of Saigon’s eight million residents, but Gauger forgoes the usual convoluted narrative coincidences in order to craft a refreshingly simple look at loneliness and tentative connection. Those hoping for grander political commentary about Saigon’s urban poverty will be disappointed; Gauger is less concerned with sociology than in following his guarded but intensely empathetic characters through this slight, resonant story. At its core, Owl and the Sparrow is yet one more film that preaches the importance of opening your heart and reaching out to those around you, but that treacly sentiment is nicely undercut by the unvarnished naturalness of the actors — particularly young Han, who doesn’t have a cutesy bone in her body. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)

PAUL BLART, MALL COP Somewhere beneath its mediocre comedic trappings, there’s a decent action movie trying to fight its way free from Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which stars Kevin James as an overweight regular joe who can use only the items in the mall where he works to fight obnoxious extreme sports athletes with guns. Done as an all-out battle to the death, this could have been an entertaining mix of Die Hard and The A-Team; the movie briefly sputters to life when the passive policeman-in-training actually has to fight, and becomes a badass for a second or two. Alas, it takes forever for the plot proper to kick in — meanwhile, there are endless fat jokes, which even Chris Farley would have rejected, and numerous plugs for the Segway and Perfectmatch.com. That this is a Happy Madison production suggests that James’ starring role here is a reward for being in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; that previous Adam Sandler rewards to his friends have included Grandma’s Boy and Strange Wilderness ought to be sufficient warning of what to expect. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

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