Here's what I knew, or thought I knew, about First Sunday before actually sitting down and watching it: I knew that based on the commercials that I'd seen that it was a comedy with Ice Cube (Friday) and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), and I'd seen many of those commercials plugging the film while watching 30 Rock, where Morgan appears and is frequently stealing the show. And after seeing a few commercials, I was certainly disappointed. Another bad Ice Cube comedy, and a waste of time for Morgan. And Chi McBride, who seemed to have a firm foothold in dramatic work, had been in movies like Let's Go To Prison and was wasting away his reputation. But you know, after looking at a paltry 15 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while making just $37 million domestically, something just doesn't click after seeing the film.
First Sunday was written and directed by Dave E. Talbert, a longtime award-winning playwright in the urban theatre who is writing and directing his feature film debut. Cube plays Durell, an ex-con who would like to work on the straight and narrow, though cannot seem to find steady work, but remains a loyal father to his son. When he finds himself facing the prospect of his baby mama Omunique (Regina Hall, Superhero Movie) taking his son away from him because of looming debt that will force her to move, Durell tries to figure out some way to keep them in Baltimore. Durell's friend LeeJohn (Morgan) suggests robbing the local church of its donations. After some initial reluctance, Durell agrees to do it, but when the safe they blow up doesn't have the money, they are forced to hold the church's patrons hostage to find out who has stolen the money. And it's in that dynamic that the film takes an unexpected turn.
In the supplemental material, Talbert said that he wrote the film with nods to older urban comedies like Uptown Saturday Night in mind, but along with that tribute, the film becomes a poignant message on today's black man and the struggle to free the constrictions of life in the 'hood. Durell walks his son to the bus stop for school every morning, and keeps him grounded as to what he does and wants to be. When his son says he's going to be a basketball player, Durell mentions the possibility of having a backup plan, just in case that doesn't happen. When his son says he wants to be like his Dad, Durell is embarrassed and dismisses his son's thoughts, saying that "you should be better than me." Durell clearly wants to do better for himself, but the stigma of being a felon is clearly dogging him, despite his best and purest intentions. LeeJohn is at first the goofy sidekick, another version of Smokey to Cube's Craig. But as there is more character exposition, we see that LeeJohn has been forgotten by society in a very real and pure sense. His name is from his mother, who named him after two paternal possibilities. When he was older, his birth certificate was lost on the way to foster care, and he never knew when his birthday was. In a touching scene, Doris (Loretta Devine, Eli Stone) sings "Happy Birthday" to LeeJohn in a quiet and direct way. It was love meant specifically for LeeJohn, and in a film whose second act transforms the film, this was its crystallizing moment. And while they bristle at the churchgoers' demeanor, Durell and LeeJohn warm up to their acceptance and affection, because at the end of the day, the church is about their community and the unconditional love of those in it. To paraphrase something McBride's character says in the film, the first time we see you you're a friend, but the next time we see you, you're family.
It helps that with Cube and Morgan's performance that there is a capable ensemble cast to back them up. Aside from McBride and Devine, performers include an Emmy winner (Olivia Cole, Roots) and a standup comic (Katt Williams, Norbit), who is much funnier than I was expecting. And while some of the points in the story are a little predictable, and Cube's emotional range appears to be a bag of potato chips sometimes (and holy crap, the girl from I Love New York has a cameo!), at its heart First Sunday is warm and a pleasant surprise to those who view it.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, First Sunday is a capable video transfer on Blu-ray. Blacks are solid and deep, providing excellent contrast and really stand out during the night sequences. You can see detail in the tight shots of Cube and Morgan, right down to beads of sweat on their foreheads. Wider shots possess some good depth also, to the point where I could spot the hills and palm trees of the film's Baltimore location (ed. note - all sarcasm included). Compared to another recent Blu-ray release (in 27 Dresses) that also came out in theaters at the same approximate time, First Sunday looks like a downright reference quality disc, because the detail was excellent here.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track was dialogue driven, though there are a few songs that are peppered throughout the film, and they possess quite a dynamic range. There was no subwoofer usage to speak of, though the songs came off sounding fairly robust, particularly the "Presence of the Lord" song when Durell and LeeJohn first go to the church. A directional sound effect or two could be picked up, particularly when LeeJohn picks up Durell immediately after Durell drops his son off at the bus stop, but otherwise it's a quiet affair when it comes to surround activity. But hey, if you want a different thing to experience, check out the French and Portuguese TrueHD soundtracks if you feel like tripping out.
Talbert provides a commentary for the film and unfortunately, Cube and Morgan can't join him, so this is a solo act. But he still provides a good degree of passion to the production. He talks about the reasons for shooting in Baltimore and the inspirations for some of the stories and characters. He discusses how the stars worked on set and how they interacted with him on set, and throws in thoughts on the supporting players. In addition, he talks about the more technical aspects of the film and the differences between cinema and the stage. He spends some time watching the film, but overall the track is worth listening to. I can't say the same thing about "The Almighty Version Enhanced Fact Track," a running subtitled trivia track that doesn't really bring any trivia to the people or things that I didn't already know. There is a whole host of deleted and extended scenes (34:47) with optional commentary by Talbert. There's a nice scene where Durell and his grandmother have some interaction, along with another scene that showed the friction and general greediness of the church deacon (Michael Beach, True Romance), both of which I thought could have been included in the theatrical cut, but it was understandable that they weren't. From there, "Hood Robbin' with the First Sunday Cast and Crew" (16:08) examines the production with interviews from the stars, director and producers. Talbert discusses what he wanted to write about, along with how the "church experience" shaped his belief structure. You've also got the usual thoughts on the cast and crew by the cast and crew, and of note, try to watch Morgan say the word "caterpillar" in this piece, you'll become as fascinated with it as I was. A funny gag reel (4:25) is next, which while containing the usual flubbed lines, also includes Talbert breaking up off camera. Some outtakes with Williams and Pollard follow (5:10), with the Williams material being hilarious. Talbert's speech at the last wrapped scene is a nice inclusion (3:09), with him showing a lot of love and giving gifts to Cube and Morgan before getting slightly emotional at the end. Trailers for This Christmas, Stomp the Yard, Hitch and Little Man finish the disc up.
There's not many times that you can come across a movie as fresh as possible from as many preconceived notions and wind up being proven wrong or even enjoying it, but this was the case with First Sunday. The performances were a mix of humor and emotion, and with Talbert's initial feature offering, there's a film whose effort is commendable and his cinematic talents are bound to improve. He should be a respectable force in the creative world as his works evolve and improve. Technically the disc is solid and holds a variety of bonus material, and I encourage anyone within the sound of my voice to give this disc a spin.