Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Sandra Bullock is the nation?s most famous tomboy. She began in action flicks but soon settled under the familiar road traveled by so many winsome, likeable young actresses: romantic comedies. She even turned down the role in Million Dollar Baby that Hilary Swank would later ride to Oscar gold. Bullock has now publicly stated that she wants to step away from romantic comedies and challenge herself as an actress. She of course must have felt this way before agreeing to Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.
Just weeks after foiling a beauty pageant tragedy, Gracie Hart (Bullock) is returning back to the FBI undercover field. Her newfound celebrity makes her stick out in a crowd of autograph-seekers. She cannot work undercover anymore so the FBI, in a stroke of public relations, wants Gracie to be the new face of the bureau. She gets a makeover (again) and a hot-tempered bodyguard (Regina King) to shadow her on talk show circuits, book signings, and other public appearances. Just when things are looking rosy, the reigning Miss United States, Cheryl, and the pageant host (William Shatner, gleefully hammy) are kidnapped. The kidnappers want millions or else they?ll kill them both. Gracie regroups from her makeover madness and jumps on the case to save her friend.
Bullock is a very likeable actress but seems prone to more pratfalls than Buster Keaton combined with two of the Three Stooges. The physical comedy comes off being tired this go-round. Watching Bullock be clumsy can be funny, but the comedy of Miss Congeniality 2 is too forced to crack a smile. The friction between Gracie and her bodyguard is one conversation away from evaporating. The girls have to pose as Vegas entertainers to get backstage, when they just could have used their “oh I don’t know?” FBI status. When Gracie goes undercover Bullock becomes unhinged and flounders around in rubbery ethnic stereotypes. Miss Congeniality 2 isn’t funny because the film doesn’t know what to do.
The finer moments of Miss Congeniality involved the dry wit of Michael Caine, and he is sorely missed in this sequel. The strangely necessary role of gay makeover artist is passed to Deidrech Bader (The Drew Carey Show). He amps up the sass but can’t really replace Caine. King is a greatly underrated actress (Jerry Maguire should have made her a star), but she suffers from the constraints of a rough-around-the-edges loner character. She mainly scowls and grumbles.
What made Miss Congeniality appealing was the fish-out-of-water conceit of an ugly ducking in a world of swans. Even though I didn’t like the film, it could at least muster up broad humor from its comic premise. Miss Congeniality 2 is a lot like Austin Powers 2, in that the sequel puts the fish back into the water. As a result the film loses whatever comic firepower it might have had. Miss Congeniality 2 attempts to be a female-buddy-cop caper, but the butting heads rarely produce any comedy. This film didn’t make me laugh until after 20 minutes in, and the ratio of screen time to laughs didn’t improve much afterwards (and that includes jokes about bad breath and tampons!).
Miss Congeniality 2 has some of the dumbest police work ever. Characters go to extreme lengths for basic information, make wild assessments on little to go with, and key clues are tripped over with the subtlety of a jackhammer. The idiotic police work syncs up with the preposterous nature of the crooks? scheme. They are ex-employees of the Treasure Island casino, so to take revenge they?re going to trap their prey inside the pirate ship display, which is set to sink as part of the attraction’s script. Yes, death by casino attraction.
There are also some wildly brainless moments. Gracie is about to flee the sinking pirate ship, when her elaborate showgirl costume gets trapped under a heavy canon. Now, with time and air running out, any normal person would quickly strip out of the costume and swim away. Instead, Gracie tugs at her costume trying to yank it out, and she does this until she nearly drowns. I don’t care who you are, if you’re about to drown then modesty isn’t going to get in the way. Better to be alive and naked than dead and soggy. For that matter, when Gracie discovers that the pirate ship has her friends she runs to get inside. Wouldn’t it be infinitely easier to find someone at the casino that could stop the animatronic attraction? I’m sure something that organized doesn’t just run without safety controls.
Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous is clumsy and riddled with contrivances and inanities. The jokes are forced and dead on arrival, and Bullock falls into what she does best, which is falling down. There is no reason for this film to exist other than that the original made money. Die-hard fans of Miss Congeniality may be the only ones to get some enjoyment out of this tepid sequel. Even casual fans of Bullock’s romantic comedies will likely be disappointed. You know you’re watching a tired comedy when they make Dolly Parton boob jokes in the year 2005. Miss Congeniality 2 is a film that doesn’t make the cut.
Nate’s Grade: C-