(US/China - 2016)
"Let Your Love Flow," or Jefferson Starship's "With Your Love," instead going with distractingly inferior cover versions for a high school prom taking place in 1977.
MR. CHURCH isn't a very good movie, but Murphy, in a role originally intended for Samuel L. Jackson, is absolutely terrific in it. In an understated performance, Murphy is the title character, a cook who ends up working for single mom Marie (Natascha McElhone) and her young daughter Charlie (Natalie Coughlin) in 1971 Los Angeles. Marie was the mistress of Mr. Church's recently-deceased and very wealthy boss, who made a deal with Church that he'd be granted a salary for life if he took care of Marie and Charlie for six months. Why six months? Because Marie has breast cancer and has been given six months to live, and Charlie doesn't know it. Mr. Church bonds with Marie and Charlie, preparing their meals and getting young Charlie enthused about literary classics, but he's intensely private and is adamant about his personal time being his own. Marie beats the odds and lives for another six years, during which time Mr. Church dutifully remains their cook and caregiver, though they still don't even know his first name (the only thing Charlie can coax out of him other than his love of literature is that THE MALTESE FALCON is his favorite movie). Marie dies, and Charlie (now played by Britt Robertson) goes off to college in Boston after having her heart broken by high school boyfriend Owen (Xavier Samuel). She returns to L.A. a few years later, pregnant and a college dropout, and Mr. Church takes her in, becoming a father figure to her own child, Izzy (McKenna Grace).
It's a maudlin tearjerker that works on occasion, thanks to the poignant moments provided by Murphy. But as good as he is (there would be some Oscar buzz for him if this was a better movie), he's no match for the woefully predictable story arcs in the script by Susan McMartin, whose writing credits include the TV series TWO AND A HALF MEN and MOM. As the story goes from 1971 to 1986, it seems Charlie can't leave the house without running into someone she knew years ago: troubled high-school kid Landon (Christian Madsen) happens to be right there when she nearly miscarries after a collision with a skateboarder. Why? Because he was on his way to kill himself. See? She thinks Landon saved her and unborn Izzy, but they saved him! And when an aging Mr. Church finally goes to see a doctor about a persistent cough, the doctor just happens to be...a grown-up Owen! And dialogue doesn't get much worse than when Charlie has a disastrous reunion with her now rich and materialistic childhood best friend Poppy (Lucy Fry), culminating in an argument that actually requires Robertson to utter the line "Izzy's my diamond, Poppy...I'm sorry if she doesn't sparkle enough for you!" Through it all, Murphy brings a stoical dignity that commands respect (Charlie expects to be judged over her pregnancy, and when she asks if he wants to know what happened, Mr. Church simply replies "I know how girls get pregnant, Charlie," and leaves it at that), even in Mr. Church's weaker moments when Charlie hears him coming home drunk after a night at the bar, a secret neither of them ever mention. Director Bruce Beresford is mining similar territory as his Oscar-winning DRIVING MISS DAISY, with Mr. Church not that far removed from Morgan Freeman's dutiful Hoke Colburn, and Murphy is so good here that you really want MR. CHURCH to work better than it does. It's shamelessly sappy and manipulative in a way that will probably work with easy weepers, but there's an unspoken darkness to Mr. Church that a stronger, edgier film would've explored, and one that Murphy likely would've been willing to pursue. (PG-13, 105 mins)
(China - 2016)
A bargain-basement De Niro and Grodin on a midnight stumble, Chan and Knoxville are more grating than funny, and the film tries to tug the heartstrings and score emotional points it never earns after a climax set--to no one's surprise--at an abandoned shipyard. And when they aren't ripping off MIDNIGHT RUN, they borrow some PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES for a scene where Bennie and Watts wake up spooning to the delight of shocked tourists snapping photos ("My hands are kinda warm," Watts says in lieu of "Those aren't pillows!"). Much of the action is given an unconvincing digital assist, with an aging, slower Chan doubled pretty frequently. Again, the guy's got nothing to prove to anyone when it comes to action movies, but it just makes SKIPTRACE all the more depressing to see him fumbling through one dull set piece after another and leading a group of Mongolian villagers in a rendition of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." You'd think you'd get better given the experience that DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT director Renny Harlin (yes, that Renny Harlin) brings to the table, but honestly, he hasn't made a good movie since 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA and even that hasn't aged well. Casting a dark cloud over the whole misbegotten endeavor is the knowledge that veteran camera operator Chan Kwok Hung drowned when a motorized sampan capsized while shooting a sequence on some rough waters. The only winner in this Lionsgate VOD dumpjob is Seann William Scott, who was originally cast as Watts before bailing during pre-production. Is it a bad omen when even a 40-year-old Stifler has better things to do? (PG-13, 108 mins)
(US - 2016)