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Wilmington on DVD: The Queen of Versailles, Sparkle, Abraham Lincoln

The Queen of Versailles (B)
U.S.: Lauren Greenfield, 2012, Magnolia Home Entertainment

Who are David and Jackie Siegel, and why were they building a house with 20 bathrooms modeled on the Palace of Versailles? And why did Lauren Greenfield (Thin) make a Sundance Festival award-winning documentary about them? Well, the Siegels are not at all unlikable people. David is a congenial, white-haired, energetic, very candid-seeming guy with a frequent smile who amassed a billion dollar-fortune in an enterprise called Westgate Resorts by selling time-shares -- deluxe hotel rooms -- to multiple owners. Westgate operated in many locations, including his brand-new, deluxe Las Vegas palace, the 52-story Westgate PH Towers.

Jackie Siegel is blonde and buxom and lively and very engaging: a self-professed middle-class girl from what she considers humble circumstances, who got an engineering degree and started working for IBM, then quit to become a model and a Ms. Florida beauty contest winner. She had one bad marriage, until she hooked up with David (definitely a catch), conjoined their two broods of children and became the toast of Orlando. Proudly described as a trophy wife by her own children, Jackie, when we meet her, is a young-looking 40-year-old. (David jokes that he may be ready to trade her in for two 20-year-olds.) She likes to shop, and has big blonde hair and a pair of truly immense bosoms (apparently, we surmise, due to technical augmentation)

I liked Jackie and David. They're friendly, welcoming, companionable, proud of their lifestyle, and proudest of all of the showcase Versailles Palace they were erecting amid the splendors of Orlando. Why and how was it begun and stopped? Well, David, not very wisely -- but in a move that has conferred cinematic immortality on him and Jackie -- granted permission to documentary director Greenfield to enter his smaller 26,000-square foot-residence (and Versailles as well), and film him and Jackie and some of their servants (but not, strangely, very much on the kids), at occasional work and mostly play. The filming commenced in 2007, a year before the crash.

The idea, I suppose, was to immortalize the Siegels in their hour of triumph: to show how two people from relatively humble origins could rise to the pinnacle of wealth and society, hobnob with George W. Bush and other great, or seemingly great, or great-give-me-a-break guys (and a few trophy wives) and end up with digs swankier than Marie Antoinette's, but without any bothersome class warfare. Such a tale might be truly inspirational: entertaining of course, in a Great Gatsbyish sort of way, but also a heartfelt message from the 1% (or maybe the upper 1% of the 1%) addresssed to the 99%, a call-to-arms afirming that if only we work hard and wait patiently, catching whatever trickles down to us from those tireless job creators and their courageous defenders in Congress (or better yet, get a few bank loans like David and start your own business), we too can ultimately have a bowling alley next to our 20 bathrooms, a baseball field with a lion roaming around, 19 servants picking up the lion poop (because the big cat isn't house-trained), a replica Palace of Versailles and a deluxe time-share hotel in Las Vegas, with lots of showgirls and maybe some Frankie and Dino impersonators in the lounges singing imitations of "High Hopes!" and "My Way" and "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?" in the lounges.

But life can take some funny curves. Whatever the motives behind this film, the results are devastating. Shortly after Ms. Greenfield's movie commenced filming, awful things started happening to the U.S. economy and citizenry, and not just to the poor whining 99% or 47%, but to some of the 1%, like David and Jackie, who are supposed to be well-protected, especially in a Republican administration. Bush hit a wall. The economy tanked. Derivatives and deregulation bred chaos. Major corporations, like G.M., Ford and Chrysler, threatened to collapse. The real estate boom shriveled. Jobs disappeared.

And, like a house of cards, the effects hit Westgate. Bank loans dried up, including the ones absolutely crucial to David's payroll. Building stopped at Versailles. Even the PH Towers were threatened, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Fifteen of the 19 servants were downsized, with the others reduced to double-duty, forlornly picking up lion poop from the carpets. Jackie, facing reality, had to tell her children that they might actually have to go to college and get jobs, and abandon any dreams of an honorable life as world travelers and political campaign contributors. Ain't that a kick in the head?

So the movie swerves from its original intentions to become instead an appalling chronicle of financial chaos and greed derailed and dreams deferred and cakes uneaten and guillotines rusting uselessly in the sun -- of poor Jackie reduced to shopping at Wal-Mart and charging down the aisles filling up a shopping cart with lots of stuff anyway.

In a way, of course, Lauren Greenfield somewhat betrayed her subjects, though not maliciously. They trusted her to come into their house and film them intimately, and apparently were amazed at what it all finally looked like. But however Greenfield got this footage, it's priceless. The Siegels have become superstars of one percentism, and if they're smart, they'll capitalize on it. Instead, David is suing for defamation -- though oddly, what seems to bother him most is a press note that calls this movie a "riches to rags" story.

I also can't quite fathom why he was so disturbed by any seeming aspersions cast on his financial ability (he was, after all, a genuine job-creator), instead of another shortcoming he confesses to earlier in the film. Speaking to his interviewer, David claims, boastfully but quietly, that he is the man "who got George Bush elected president." Really? How? He'd rather not say, David replies teasingly. It might not necessarily have been legal. Of course, maybe it was a joke. (Like the Bush presidency.) But somehow, it doesn't come across as comedy, or satire. Our pal David seems to be telling it like it is. Are you laughing?

Sparkle (B-)
U.S.: Salim Akil, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

I've never seen the 1976 Sparkle, co-written by Joel Schumacher and directed by Sam O'Steen, but it sounds like a sentimental movie with good music, and with Irene Cara as Sparkle, and a lead performance in the Sister role by Lonette McKee that a lot of people like a lot. You could describe this remake -- with the three singing sisters played by Tika Sumpter (Dee), Carmen Ejogo (Sister) and Jordin Sparks (Sparkle), directed by Salim Akil, from a script written by his wife Mara Brock Akil -- in similar terms. The music outshines the story, even though the story has some good performances and shining moments -- along with the same clichéd, unconvincing stuff we get in too many movies these days. Of course, Whitney Houston (who also served as an executive producer) is there, to give the movie an added punch, and I just wish she had more time and space and music for it.

Houston plays mom Emma, a somewhat failed pop singer who crashed and burned and, like many candle-at-both-ends-burners, found religion -- and then came home to her daughters: songwriter Sparkle, Sister and Delores (Dee). She wants them to lead decent lives, and she's a pillar of the church. (Televangelist T.D. Jakes is one of the producers here). But they want to sing, together.

Sister is the front, Sparkle writes the songs, and Dee and Sparkle sing backup -- and they're helped by Sparkle's admirer and go-getter/manager Stix (Derek Luke), and Sister's working-class beau Levi (Omari Hardwick). But they're hindered by Sister's future abusive husband Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who brushes aside Levi, sweeps Sister off her feet and jams candy up her nose. Emma hates Satin so much she disowns her daughter -- which at least saves Sis the trouble of sneaking out of the bedroom windows at home for her gigs.

The movie's Sparkle, Jordin Sparks, became famous on American Idol, and she's an appealing presence who sings up a storm. Ejogo has a scorching presence, and her scenes, and especially her songs, are incendiary. Sumpter has a more thankless middle-range assignment, until she gets to get funky and sport an afro. Luke, as always, is likable as can be. Houston does a good job as Emma, and she sings the daylights out of "Sparrow" -- even if her voice here seems rougher and lower than we remember, in her glory days, when she tore down the house with the high notes on "I Will Always Love You." Hardwick is a good, glowering foil for Epps' sleek and strutting Satin.

Interestingly, the best performance in the movie (not counting the singing) is by Epps, who's also playing the nastiest character -- a rich, bad-mouth comedian who truckles to whites and beats Sister on the side. But really, we're watching two movies here: the musical one, which is well-done, engrossing and even moving, and the drama, which is shallow, conventionally clichéd and needs somebody like Epps' bad boy to goose it up. If you like the music, and I did, you probably won't mind the rest of it too much. But you might.

Abraham Lincoln (B)
U.S.: D.W. Griffith, 1930, Kino Classics

The story of Abraham Lincoln has been told so often in the movies that we can understand why some current critics may question or even disparage some of the older film portraits, why they might find fault with the venerable Lincoln film biographies made by directors and writers like D.W. Griffith and Stephen Vincent Benet (1930's Abraham Lincoln) or John Ford and Lamar Trotti (1939's Young Mr. Lincoln), the better for those modern critics to proclaim the many virtues of Steven Spielberg's and Tony Kushner's Lincoln.

It's understandable. Spielberg's Lincoln, with its towering central performance of Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis, is superior to the films of Griffith and Ford (two directors that Spielberg certainly admires and emulates), as well as being the screen's finest portrayal of Lincoln or any other American president and one of its best and sharpest portrayals of American politics and history.

But Young Mr. Lincoln is a great film too-- a different kind of great film, a lyric poem in contrast to Spielberg's semi-Shakespearean historical drama-novel. And if Griffith's Abraham Lincoln is inferior to either of them, it too has moments of greatness, moments of majesty. It's a better film than it's often credited for being, and more revelatory of Griffith.

What a strange project the film was for Griffith to tackle at what was almost the end of his career. He had been the screen's major propagator of the South's distorted view of the Civil War, galvanizing a world audience with the artistic brilliance of The Birth of a Nation, his symphonically powerful, but morally benighted and historically flawed, racist Southerner's view of the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a film in which the portrayal of Lincoln as "the South's best friend" was not only sympathetic but adulatory, despite the fact that Griffith, in the picture's often vile and infuriating second half, demonized African Americans, made venal fools of their Abolitionist supporters, and heroized the vicious and villainous Klan. Griffith, who argued for the rest of his career, and tried to dramatize in pictures like Intolerance and Hearts of the World, that he and his film were not bigoted, finally returned to Lincoln in his next-to-last film, his final word on the subject of the Civil War that had obsessed him, and the earlier film that had been both his triumph and ultimately his undoing.

Many critics have been unkind to Abraham Lincoln. It has generally been regarded as stiff melodrama, populated with waxworks historical figures and loaded with static camerawork and sermon-like speeches -- a film in which the creative spark and dynamism that enlivened most of Griffith's Civil War films is muffled. But Griffith's Lincoln was made in 1930, in the difficult transition period between the silent cinema (of which Griffith was a master) and the crude and awkward early talkies -- and it's a more mobile, creative, innovative work than many others of its era.

Walter Huston, who plays Lincoln, was, according to Howard Hawks, the most admired American movie actor of that era. And though Huston doesn't almost vanish into the role the way Day-Lewis does for Spielberg, it's a performance full of strength and grace and intelligence and wit -- and a deep inner well of eloquence and sadness. It is a gentle but powerful performance, just as Lincoln was gentle but powerful, strong yet subtle, funny yet profound. Huston and Griffith bring out the poetry of the man and his period, and there's poetry also in Una Merkel's brief portrayal of Lincoln's lost love, Ann Rutledge, in a classic sylvan Griffith scene.

Commentators have sometimes questioned whether Griffith's Southerner's praise of Lincoln was sincere, even though it echoes the sympathetic and admiring portrayal of the 16th president (by actor Joseph Henabery) in Birth. It is hard perhaps to trust someone whose feeling for Lincoln and against slavery (in this film's harrowing slave ship scenes) contrasts with the unforgivable tribute to the Klan in Birth. But Griffith was an immensely complex man: both conservative and progressive, tolerant and intolerant. His views of the South and of the war were nurtured by the stories he heard in his youth from his father and other relatives and family friends -- and he never lost the impact those stories had on him.

Things change. People change. Movies change. Watching Abraham Lincoln again, for maybe the first time since the '70s, I was surprised at how different it looked to me, how much I liked it, and how much of Griffith's poetry came through -- and, most crucially, how much of his love of Lincoln. (Extras: short film made as an introduction to the 1930s re-release of The Birth of a Nation, in which Walter Huston and Griffith, on an Abraham Lincoln movie set, discuss both the movie and Griffith's youthful memories of the American South.)

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