by Liz Smith
‘Lawless’ rules with violence ... ‘Sparkle’ bedazzles with Carmen Ejogo
“THE MOST delightful pleasures cloy without variety,” said Publilius Syrus, back in the 1st century B.C.
ATTENDING SCREENINGS in Manhattan, several nights in a row, can be exhausting — especially during a sultry heat wave. But these events can also play havoc with one’s emotions. The schizophrenia involved in sitting through movies that are totally different in style, content and energy is dizzying.
For instance, recently I saw, back-to-back, the new Harvey Weinstein opus, “Lawless,” — a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival — and the much-anticipated remake of the musical “Sparkle.” (This was the forerunner of the more famous, cohesive, “Dreamgirls,” which really was about the Supremes.)
“Lawless,” directed by John Hillcoat (from Matt Bondurant’s novel) is based on the true story of three Virginia brothers during Prohibition. They cheerfully go about making their staggeringly potent moonshine until a crooked Chicago deputy comes ‘a callin’’ wanting to shut them down or get a piece of the action, or else. It’s not a terribly inventive scenario — from scene to scene, we pretty much know what’s going to happen. But it is lifted from the commonplace by a gritty, sometimes very funny Nick Cave screenplay, and intense performances by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as the matter-of-fact liquor- makers.
Also on hand, in perhaps the most enjoyably florid performance of his (or anybody else’s!) career is Guy Pearce as the sadistic, vain, utterly evil corrupt official. He’s so bad the screening audience actually hissed his every appearance. Of the brothers, hunky Tom Hardy is the real standout. This guy can do more with an inarticulate grunt than most actors can manage with 12 pages of dialogue. (Young Mr. LaBeouf continues an impressive, burgeoning career, and is allowed a great variety of emotion here.) Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are the somewhat peripheral women. But both are appealing and a welcome respite from the unrelenting testosterone.
My warning. This movie is not for the fainthearted. It is incredibly violent. Everything from throat slittings, to castrations, to tar and feathering (the tar is poured on boiling hot) and I don’t know what else. It’s an assault, for sure. Be prepared. Also be prepared for actors who have steeped themselves so completely in their roles as backwoods Virginia poor-folk that their accents, though expert, are sometimes hard to decipher. “Lawless” has an undeniable, visceral energy. Lots of people are going to love it. (They sure did in Europe!)
THEN, the next night, came “Sparkle.” Both of these screenings were offered by Film Society’s Andrew Saffir, who throws together the most eclectic, sexy guests — a human mix of Waldorf, Caesar and Cobb salads, with some “caviar” on the side. (The caviar at the “Sparkle” event included five London Olympians, including gold medal swimmer Cullen Jones.)
Although two of my oldest friends, Howard Rosenman and Joel Schumacher were the producers and co-writers of the original 1976 version and Howard was listed as a producer on this one, I was there to see Whitney Houston’s final onscreen performance. Perhaps others felt the same. The atmosphere was light. Whitney was mentioned only in passing when, before the film began, producer Debra Martin Chase got up to speak about the cast, most of whom were in attendance. She was charming and funny, but in all the praise for the younger stars (“An Oscar-worthy performance, the new Sidney Poitier, a star is born!”) the late icon’s contribution went unnoted. (This film was Whitney’s dream for 10 years.)
So, how is “Sparkle”? So many years have passed since I saw the original, that the story seems fairly fresh - well, as fresh as anything can be based on material that is thirtysomething years old. Cliches abound. Set in Detroit, 1968, it tells the tale of three sisters who form a singing group, much to the displeasure of their mother (Whitney). She had once been a singer scorched by a cynical, voracious industry. Her daughters were certainly not going to follow in her footsteps. (I was struck that I was again seeing a movie centered on three siblings in a high state of conflict, i.e.; “Lawless.”)
The girls are played by Jordin Sparks (she’s Sparkle, the title character) Carmen Ejogo (Sister, of Sister and the Sisters) and Tika Sumpter, who’s in it for money for medical school and takes no nonsense from anybody.
Miss Sparks is one heck of a singer (a former “American Idol” winner) but she has a long way to go, acting wise. She is supposed to “sparkle” — that’s what everybody keeps saying. Yet her presence is distressingly low-wattage until she sings. Then, hold onto your seat!
Miss Sumpter is gorgeous and has one of those faces that don’t require her to utter a sound. Her attitude is fierce. She is going places. As for Carmen Ejogo, as the cynical Sister, she is mind-blowing. What a performance! Carmen has been around for a while, and has a fanatical fan base. Now I know why. If this turn doesn’t cop her an Oscar nomination, there is no justice.
And then there is Whitney Houston. The pain, in watching this gifted creature in her last screen performance, is palpable. Her acting is mighty strong. She looks wonderful. And then, toward the end of this (too long) movie, she opens her mouth to sing. She belts out “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and a collective sigh gripped the room. When she finished, the audience erupted into rapturous applause, and even in the dark, you could see people wiping tears from their eyes. My music-loving pal Roger Friedman turned to me and said, “Well, that’s the movie!”
“Sparkle” has plenty of pizzazz, great music and also some divine performances from the men in the cast - the usually comic Mike Epps as the demon-ridden entertainer Satin, Derek Luke as Stix, Sparkle’s big love (though perhaps because of Jordin’s inexperience before the cameras, you never quite believe this romance) and Omari Hardwick as Levi, the man who loves and is discarded by Sister. He is smokingly sexy and touchingly vulnerable. (Sister made a big mistake dumping him!)
Director Salim Akil keeps “Sparkle” moving at a nice clip, despite its length. It has soul, sound and sizzle.
Perhaps many will go to see “Sparkle” just to check out Whitney - did she look washed up (no!) could she still sing (yes! — especially in a studio, with the proper technical assist.) But there are many other pleasures to be found in “Sparkle,” mostly in the go-for-broke emoting of Carmen Ejogo. This girl owns “Sparkle.”
P.S. Aside from the swimming and gymnastics athletes at the “Sparkle” event, the big look-at-that was provided by Tika Sumpter’s tissue-thin dress. When the flashbulbs went off all one could think was “I saw London, I saw France...” Well, at least Tika was wearing underpants.