October 26, 2016

AMH_D5_04663.RAFNo one has ever accused Tyler Perry of being short on ideas. The prolific writer/director has been the brains behind plays, movies, and television shows. But he would be the first to admit that he was not the source of inspiration for Boo! A Madea Halloween, the ninth in the Madea series about the sassy sermonizing granny.

The idea originated with Chris Rock, who featured a fake poster for a film with the identical title in his 2014 comedy Top Five. Because the joke went viral, Tyler decided why not get back in drag and make a movie to meet the demand generated by the buzz.

However, Boo! definitely has a different feel from the previous Madea movies. It is not a typical Tyler Perry morality play but instead is a rudderless, kitchen sink comedy that seizes on any excuse for a laugh. Madea is no longer a Bible thumping role model who interferes on behalf of an underdog in distress. True, one minute, she’s promoting old-fashioned values. However, in the next scene she is exposing her breasts to frat boys.

The film does have a rudimentary plot about Madea’s 17-year-old grand-niece, Tiffany (Diamond White). However the idea is presented at the opening of the film and promptly abandoned. It’s Halloween, and the headstrong high schooler and her girlfriends hope to attend a party at the Upsilon Theta frat house.

Since her divorced father (also played by Perry) will be otherwise occupied, it falls to Madea to babysit Tiffany, to make sure the rebellious teen never leaves the house. Madea arrives with an entourage of amusing misfits, including Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), Hattie (Patrice Lovely), and Uncle Joe (also played by Perry).

Soon, silly Halloween one-liners, non sequiturs, slapstick, and sight gags appear at a fast and furious rate. Unfortunately, many of the punchlines are likely to be lost on those unable to decipher the often inscrutable exchanges.

Good (**). Rated PG-13 for drug use, suggestive content, profanity, ethnic slurs, scary images, and mature themes. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

October 12, 2016
Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was born into slavery on October 2, 1800 on a sprawling plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. He was a precocious child and had a thirst for knowledge at an early age. He learned to read the Bible with the help of his masters, Samuel (Armie Hammer) and Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). The couple shielded him from the brutality of slavery by allowing him to live and work in the mansion instead of toiling in the cotton fields alongside his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott).

Nat grew up and became a deeply religious youth. He became a traveling preacher who was told to spread the word of God to his fellow slaves in the neighboring towns. In that capacity, his job was to keep the oppressed African Americans content with their miserable lot in life by reciting scriptural passages such as “Submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18).

However, the more he witnessed the atrocities associated with slavery, the more outraged he became. And when he became an adult, he surreptitiously started including verses that proclaimed that slavery was evil — such as “Do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Nat had a miraculous vision in which he was directly ordered by God to set his people free. That transformative moment became the inspiration for him to mount a bloody insurrection that began with slaying his masters and ultimately claimed about 60 more white slave owner’s lives.

All of the above is graphically depicted in The Birth of a Nation, a biopic marking the directorial debut of Nate Parker (The Great Debaters). Parker also co-wrote the script and stars as Nat Turner in this revisionist movie that effectively recasts an infamous slave revolt leader — who has been denigrated by history because of his resort to violence — as a hero.

The compelling drama received both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and had emerged as probably the Best Picture Academy Award favorite until stories about Parker’s having been accused of rape while in college went viral. Nevertheless, judging The Birth of a Nation strictly on the merits, it undeniably deserves its status as a prime Oscar contender.

The movie is an emotionally unsettling alternate version of a controversial chapter of America’s slave history.

Excellent (****). Rated R for brief nudity and disturbing violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

October 5, 2016

movie-revOn April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, located 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, exploded when methane gas, under high pressure, blew out of the drill pipe and caught fire. Eleven members of the crew perished in the ensuing inferno that engulfed the platform.

The accident caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, with over 200 million gallons of crude oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico by the time the well was capped 86 days later. Next, authorities turned their attention to the question of who was to blame for the disaster.

There was no shortage of potential villains to sort through because the drilling unit had been built in South Korea — was owned by Transocean Limited, a Swiss company, operated under the flag of the Marshall Islands — was leased to British Petroleum (BP) but maintained by Halliburton, an American field service corporation — and serviced by Schlumberger, a Dutch company. Ultimately, the bulk of the blame would be attributed to BP, and the company was found guilty of gross negligence and ordered to pay billions of dollars in damages to thousands of aggrieved parties.

Directed by Peter Berg (Battleship), Deepwater Horizon revisits the infamous incident primarily from the perspective of the rig’s chief electronics technician, Mike Williams. The picture reunites Berg with Mark Wahlberg with whom he previously collaborated on Lone Survivor.

Wahlberg plays Williams, a working-class man of unquestioned integrity. As the film unfolds, we find him bidding adieu to his family as he was leaving for a 21-day tour on the oil platform. If Mike had heeded warning signs like his wife’s (Kate Hudson) premonitions and his daughter Sydney’s (Stella Allen) science project with a Coke can geyser, he might have decided to call in sick.

The same could be said of his colleague Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a mechanic who couldn’t get her car started that same morning. Even the helicopter ferrying them to work experienced an ominous bird strike en route to the platform. And upon landing, they were greeted by a friend who had a macabre skull-and-crossbones insignia on his hard hat.

Don Vidrine (John Malkovich) and Bob Kaluza (Brad Leland) are the BP bureaucrats who bullied their employees to increase production at all costs from the minute they arrived on the platform. These villains were willing to put profits before any safety concerns, so it’s not surprising when the platform’s unstable drill pipe failed disastrously.

During the pyrotechnic calamity that ensued, Mike’s actions were heroic and later his testimony in court identified the culprits who were responsible. The movie is a harrowing tale of survival that ends with justice being served.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense action sequences, disturbing images. and brief profanity. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

September 28, 2016

movie-rev-9-28-16Directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa in 1954, Seven Samurai was a groundbreaking film that had a profound influence on the evolution of cinema for many years. Superficially, that seminal work was merely a martial arts epic set in 16th century Japan. Yet, over the years, it has spawned a series of knockoffs that reprise the picture’s narrative about a team of selfless heroes who were recruited to achieve some lofty goal.

In 1960, Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven, a Western that co-starred Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. Today, that classic has been remade by Antoine Fuqua in a film that reunites the director with Denzel Washington after their successful collaborations on The Equalizer (2014) and Training Day (2001). The latter film won an Academy Award.

This version of The Magnificent Seven has a few variations on the original theme. For example, the picture’s bad guy is now an avaricious white man who is intent on seizing a mining town’s gold — instead of a Mexican bandito who has been staging a series of border raids. And the good guys enlisted to take care of the greedy villains are a politically correct rainbow coalition comprised of heroes who come from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Otherwise, the essence of the original plot remains intact. As the film unfolds, we find that the people in the frontier settlement of Rose Creek are living in fear of Bartholomew Bogue and his gang of marauders. Bogue is your stereotypical, bloodthirsty villain, played to perfection by Peter Sarsgaard.

It is made clear just how low the diabolical Bogue will stoop to achieve his evil ends when he murders an innocent woman and burns the church to the ground. The frightened local people are at their wit’s end, and are glad to welcome the arrival in town of the bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington).

They have no idea that Chisolm isn’t being merely altruistic and that he has his own reasons to eliminate Bogue. After Chilsholm is deputized, he proceeds to assemble a crew composed of: a Civil War veteran suffering from shell shock (Ethan Hawke), a hard-drinking bombmaker (Chris Pratt), a gruff mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Chicano outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Comanche archer (Martin Sensmeier), and a knife-throwing assassin (Byung-hun Lee).

Don’t expect any deeply-developed characters. The movie is about the inexorable march to the big showdown when the heroes even the score — and then some.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, smoking, profanity, and suggestive material. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

September 21, 2016

movie-rev-9-21-16Earlier this year, the film Citizenfour won the Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. But because the movie made less than $4 million worldwide, one might reasonably conclude that the details of Edward Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) release of National Security Agency documents is relatively unknown.

This is perhaps the reasoning of Oscar-winner Oliver Stone (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), who turns the story into a cloak-and-dagger drama about the NSA whistleblower’s leak of classified information who then went into hiding from the U.S. government. The movie unfolds in June of 2013 in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden met with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen Macaskill (Tom Wilkinson), and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the director of Citizenfour.

After four days of interviews, Greenwald published his first story in the British daily newspaper, The Guardian. The Pulitzer Prize-winning series related in stunning detail the extent of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens, in direct contradiction to a recent denial — given under oath — to Congress by James Clapper the nation’s Director of National Intelligence.

Because the articles identified Snowden as the source of the information, he immediately became the subject of an international manhunt. He somehow managed to evade the dragnet and boarded a commercial airliner bound for Moscow, even though his passport had been revoked and the U.S. had requested his extradition from Hong Kong.

Upon landing in Russia, Snowden was awarded temporary asylum and has remained there ever since. However, this movie has revived interest in his case, and he has recently make a public appeal for clemency.

A presidential pardon is unlikely to be forthcoming, even though President Obama considered the apprehension of the “29 year old-hacker” a very low priority in June 2013. So today, Snowden remains a fugitive from justice charged in absentia with theft, espionage, and conversion of government property.

Through a series of flashbacks, we are informed by the film that Snowden was a high school dropout who suffers from epilepsy. He also has a lasting relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his girlfriend who followed him from Virginia, to Hawaii, and then to Moscow. The movie portrays Snowden as a patriot who was willing to jeopardize his future in order to blow the whistle on the NSA’s violations of our constitutional rights.

Excellent (***½ stars). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and nudity. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 138 minutes.

Distributor: Open Road Films.

September 14, 2016

movie-rev-9-14-16US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport on the afternoon of January, 15, 2009 when the pilots sighted a flock of Canada geese flying in their path at about 2,800 feet. The Airbus 320 was unable to avoid them and the ensuing collision with the birds disabled both of the planes engines.

At that point, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger immediately took control of the plane from co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and told the air traffic controller about their predicament. After weighing his options in the next few seconds, Sully ignored air traffic controller Patrick Harten’s (Patch Darragh) suggestion to return to LaGuardia and instead decided to land the crippled jet in the Hudson River.

Thanks to a combination of calm water and the veteran Captain’s years of experience as a glider pilot and flight safety instructor, he managed to make a smooth landing in the river without triggering a fire or having the plane disintegrate upon impact. As a result, the 155 passengers and crew were floating downstream as the cabin slowly started to fill with water.

Sully ordered his passengers and crew to disembark into the inflatable life rafts and move onto the wings where they were quickly rescued by the commercial ferries and emergency vessels that were rushing to the scene. Amazingly, not a single life was lost in the crash that was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Sully is not only a reenactment of the landing but is also about the subsequent investigation of the incident by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). We learn that while Captain Sullenberger was publicly being celebrated as a national hero by the press, the wisdom of his water landing was being questioned behind closed doors by the NTSB’s investigators.

The specialists who had been assigned to investigate the matter thought that the plane’s engines, at the bottom of the river, might have been operational, meaning that the plane could have been brought down at a nearby airport. If this were true, then Sully would have been reprimanded instead of praised. Ultimately, divers located the left engine, and the experts confirmed that the pilot did deserve his accolades.

Kudos to Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks for successfully conveying the courage, wisdom, and stoicism that were exhibited by Captain Sullenberger in the face of the impending disaster. Stick around for the film’s closing credits that feature a reunion between the real Sully and many of the grateful people whose lives he saved.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for peril and brief profanity. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

September 7, 2016

movie rev 9-7-16Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) is considered by most fight experts to be one of the greatest boxers of all time. He earned his nickname “Hands of Stone” because of his punching power.

Born in Panama in 1951, Roberto exhibited promise from the moment he first entered the ring at the age of 8. He turned pro at 16 and won the World Lightweight title at Madison Square Garden in 1972 after Ken Buchanan (John Duddy) failed to answer the bell for the 14th round. Roberto went on to knock out over 50 foes and compiled an impressive 62-1 record as a lightweight before moving up in weight class.

When he retired in 2002, Roberto held the world welterweight, light middleweight, and middleweight titles. But despite that incredible feat, he is remembered for crying “No mas!” before quitting midway through his Welterweight World Championship rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond). And although he would eventually return to the ring, that one display of cowardice effectively overshadowed his subsequent achievements.

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express), Hands of Stone is a biopic that humanizes Roberto and puts a positive spin on his indelible stain. This version of his career blames Duran’s failing on his manager, Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), and pressure from the fight’s promoter, Don King (Reg E. Cathey).

In the movie, we see the backstage image of a burnt-out Roberto bemoaning his being exploited. “I worked all my life. I didn’t have any fun, when I was a kid.” He not only began boxing young, he also married when he was 17 to Felicidad (Ana de Armas), who was only 14. However, the couple went on to have eight children and are still together after 47 years.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s in the fight scenes which leave a lot to be desired. Anyone expecting cinema verite as in Rocky or Raging Bull, will be disappointed.

Robert De Niro plays the legendary Ray Arcel who came out of retirement, in spite of death threats from the Mafia, to train a teenaged Duran. He whips the promising protege into fighting shape, and it’s just a matter of time before Roberto becomes successful.

Very Good (***). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, and profanity. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

August 31, 2016

movie rev 3 8-31-16Who would ever think of making a movie about Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Obama’s (Tika Sumpter) first date? Richard Tanne would, and he makes an impressive directorial debut with this inspirational biopic that portrays a very eventful day in the lives of the future president and the future first lady.

The story unfolds in Chicago in the summer of 1989 when Michelle was employed as an attorney and living at home with her parents (Vanessa Bell Calloway and Phillip Edwad Van Lear). Barack had just finished his first year at Harvard law school and had landed an internship as her assistant at her prestigious firm.

Apparently, he was immediately smitten with Michelle. However, she had to politely remind him of the the office’s strict rule against fraternizing among associates. Nevertheless, when she refused to consider a date with him, he sold her on the idea of attending a business meeting with him.

After Michelle grudgingly agrees, Barack arrives late, and is not even embarrassed about either his tardiness or the gaping hole in the floor of his jalopy. He has also added a picnic, a museum visit, and a movie to their itinerary.

Initially, Michelle balks, but consents only after reminding Barack that “This is not a date.” Nevertheless, he presses on with his own agenda, with the Art Institute of Chicago being their first destination. And while enjoying paintings by the legendary Ernie Barnes, he begins broaching personal subjects.

The two continue to get to know each other over sandwiches in the park, with their conversations touching on everything from family, faith, blackness, and the meaning of life. So, Michelle had a pretty good measure of who he was by the time they arrived at the South Side rec center where Barack had worked as a community organizer.

The icing on the cake proves is be an inspirational, even presidential speech that he delivers to the people in the rec center. Michelle finally gives in, undoubtedly helped along by one woman’s (Deanna Reed Foster) approval of her as “the first sister” she’s ever seen Barack with. Next the pair heads to the theater to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and they conclude the evening with a little canoodling while sharing an ice cream cone.

Southside with You is a syrupy soap opera recommended for Obama admirers. However, the predictable love story telegraphs its punches and its plotline is public knowledge. Overall, this plausible account of the blossoming of love between Barack and Michelle is a pleasant version of their romantic beginnings.

Very Good (***). PG-13 for smoking, a violent image, brief profanity, and a drug reference. Running time: 84 minutes. Distributor: Miramax/Roadside Attractions.

August 24, 2016

movie rev 8-24-16It takes a lot of self confidence to remake the Hollywood epic that won the most Academy Awards in history. But that’s just what we have in Ben Hur, a fairly faithful version of the 1959 classic that starred Charlton Heston.

The films are based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a novel published in 1880, that quickly surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best-selling American novel at the time. The book’s author, Lew Wallace, was a Civil War general who had led Union soldiers at the battle of Shiloh.

His inspirational tale of redemption’s timely themes of family, freedom, and patriotism helped unify a country torn asunder by years of war and the Reconstruction. Its compassionate tone particularly appealed to Southerners because of its sympathetic treatment of slave owners that encouraged resolution by reconciliation instead of revenge.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Ben Hur stars Jack Huston as the title character, although he is overshadowed by the film’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, who portrays Ilderiim, a wealthy Nubian sheik.

The story is set in Jerusalem in the time of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). As the the film opens, we find Prince Judah Ben Hur living with his mother (Ayelet Zurer), sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), and adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), an orphan taken in as a child by the family. Judah also has a love interest, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), although her lowly slave status makes their marriage unlikely.

The plot thickens when the fully grown Messala, by then a Roman soldier, unfairly accuses the Ben Hur family of an act of treason that was perpetrated by Gestas (Moises Arias), one of the thieves crucified on Calvary alongside Jesus. As a result, the family is separated and sold into slavery, and Judah ends up in chains, rowing in the galley of a warship.

He eventually gains his freedom, and starts searching for his mother and his sister Esther. Concurrently, he finds religion and is afforded an opportunity to even the score with Massala in a chariot race at the Circus Maximus. Fortunately, Ben Hur has wily Ilderim in his corner, who is the best horse whisperer
/charioteer trainer.

In spite of the distracting mob scenes and religious sermonizing, Ben Hur 2016 is nevertheless an entertaining variation on the original that’s well worth seeing.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images. Running time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

August 17, 2016

movie revTanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) are brothers who are as different as night and day. The former is impulsive, reckless, and sociopathic, a combination that explains why he’s spent a long stretch in prison for a violent crime. In contrast, his younger brother is stable, sensitive, and chivalrous.

While Tanner was behind bars, Toby, who is divorced, divides his time between raising his two sons (John Paul Howard and Christopher W. Garcia) and caring for his terminally-ill mother. It’s no surprise that before she died, she cut Tanner out of her will and left a sizable estate to Toby.

Unfortunately, a shady loan officer (Richard Christie) had duped her into taking a reverse mortgage on her cattle ranch. As a result, the bank is holding a lien on her land which Toby has just learned is sitting atop a fortune in untapped oil reserves. However, unless the note is paid off by Friday, Texas Midlands bank will follow through on its threat to foreclose, “Come hell or high water.”

Of course, Toby wants keep the property and sign it over to his boys. Trouble is, he can’t raise the cash. As a result, he is considering breaking the law for the first time in his life.

Enlisting the assistance of his brother, who was just paroled, he hatches a plan to rob Texas Midlands’ branches until they’ve got enough cash to pay off the mortgage. The two proceed to embark on a spree aimed solely at branches of the bank that had taken advantage of their vulnerable mother.

However, the heists soon come to the attention of the Texas Rangers and the case is assigned to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a wily veteran who is only weeks away from retirement. Soon Hamilton and his Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham) are on the pair’s trail.

Thus unfolds Hell or High Water, a captivating, cat-and-mouse crime thriller directed by Brit David Mackenzie (Starred Up). Between Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) engaging script and the powerful performances by Jeff Bridges and company, this sleeper would be generating Oscar buzz if it hadn’t been released in August.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, pervasive profanity, and brief sexuality. Running time: 102 minutes. Studio: Film 44/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/Lionsgate/OddLot Entertainment. Distributor: CBS Films.

August 10, 2016

movie revFrank (Seth Rogen) is frustrated sitting on a shelf in a Shopwells supermarket where he’s cooped up in a shrink-wrapped package with seven other sausages. They pass their time speculating about what awaits them in “The Great Beyond,” meaning the vast unknown that is past the cash register and on the other side of the door.

They’re all very eager to be bought because they believe in the rumor that the store’s customers transport their groceries to a heavenly utopia where they enjoy lives of never ending bliss. Also, Frank has another reason he wants to leave, because he has a crush on Brenda (Kristen Wiig), the curviest of the Glamour Buns girls.

However, when they’re all about to be purchased during the blowout 4th of July sale, Frank learns from a returned jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) that the rumor is all wrong. In truth, the food gets taken home and is eaten by the humans.

So, Frank sounds the alarm and warns that “The Gods are evil and they will kill us!” Unfortunately, the news falls on deaf ears, since the majority of his friends are simply too brainwashed to believe him.

However, he and a few intrepid souls make a break for it. They include Brenda, Sammy Bagel, Jr. (Edward Norton), Teresa the Taco (Salma Hayek), Lavash the Pita bread (David Krumholtz), Grits (Craig Robinson), Twinkies (Scott Underwood), and fellow sausages Barry (Michael Cera), Carl (Jonah Hill), and Troy (Anders Holm). What ensues is a rollicking exploration of religion, sex, and political issues from the perspective of these anthropomorphized grocery items.

For example, Middle East concerns are reflected in the bitter discussion about aisle space between the bagel and the pita bread — a thinly-veiled reference to Jewish and Palestinian tensions. Race in America is touched upon when Grits complains about “Crackers” in a tirade during which he bellows “They call me Mr. Grits!”

Co-directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, Sausage Party is an adult oriented cartoon. It’s a coarse and crude movie that deserves its R-rating. Reminiscent of of other equally outrageous animated adventures — Team America (2004) and South Park (1997) — this comedy will resonate with fans of politically-incorrect shock-fare.

Very Good (***). Rated R for ethnic and off color humor, graphic sexuality, drug abuse, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 89 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

August 3, 2016

movie rev 8-3-16A Jason Bourne movie just isn’t the same without Jason Bourne, as the producers found out the hard way in 2012 when they made The Bourne Legacy without the title character. Fortunately, Matt Damon has returned to reprise the role of the renegade CIA agent that he originated in the series’ first three films.

The movie reunites Damon with Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), that were the series’ most successful episodes at the box office. While this film might not measure up to those earlier pictures in action, it nevertheless features riveting cloak and dagger intrigue.

The point of departure is Athens — ten years after the last time we last saw Jason. He’s now fully recovered from the amnesia that had plagued him. However, he has remained under the radar because he is still considered an outlaw by CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

We soon learn that Jason’s ally inside the Agency, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), has gone rogue. She’s off the grid in Iceland, working in concert with a whistleblower (Vinzenz Kiefer) who is attempting to hack into the CIA’s computer files.

Nicky eventually joins Jason in Greece where she provides him with some incriminating evidence about the Agency as well as answers about his own mysterious past. However, their rendezvous has been tracked by CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who has been surreptitiously monitoring Nicky’s movements.

Next, Jason finds himself on the run from an assassin (Victor Cassel), who was dispatched by Director Dewey. Then Lee joins the chase, too, hoping to talk Jason into voluntarily coming in from the cold. The ensuing cat-and-mouse caper becomes a globe-trotting affair that unfolds all across Europe and ends in a captivating showdown on “The Strip” in Las Vegas.

The film’s only distracting flaw is the sotto voce performance delivered by Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who seems to swallow every word. Otherwise, the principal cast acquits itself admirably: from Tommy Lee Jones in the familiar role of an orders-barking boss, to Vincent Cassel as a despicable villain, and Matt Damon as the two-fisted protagonist.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for brief profanity, violence, and intense action. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

July 27, 2016

movie rev 7-27-16Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) was an infamous mobster who ran Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel with an iron fist. During his reign, Escobar controlled about 80 percent of the global cocaine market, and took in about $70 million/day.

To maintain his power, the ruthless kingpin had his henchmen assassinate thousands of adversaries, including policemen, politicians, witnesses, judges, and journalists. Therefore, to infiltrate the ranks of such a vicious operation at its height in the 80s was certainly a very difficult and dangerous undertaking.

However, the risks didn’t deter U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), even though he had a wife (Juliet Aubrey) and two children (Lara Decaro and Niall Hayes). Robert assured his spouse that this would be his last assignment before retirement. He adopted the alias Bob Musella and pretended to be a shady Tampa businessman who was willing to turn the drug cartel’s drug money into Florida real estate.

He recruited two agents to help him bring off this daring sting. One was Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), a novice who posed as his fiancée on her first undercover case. The other was Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a new partner who has street smarts. Soon the trio is swept into a seedy underworld where they have a close brush with death at every turn. However, by proving themselves to be capable and trustworthy money launderers, they gradually work their way up the Medellin cartel food chain to the point where they gain the confidence of Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s Miami-based right-hand man.

Consequently, Bob and Kathy become friends with Roberto and his wife, Gloria (Elena Anaya). They are regularly invited over for dinner to the Alcainos’ sprawling mansion, however, the host always reminds Bob and Kathy about the gruesome fate that awaits snitches and traitors.

Thus unfolds The Infiltrator, a riveting, cat-and-mouse thriller directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). The screenplay was adapted by Furman’s mother Ellen from Mazur’s memoir of the same name. The film stars Bryan Cranston, who ratchets up the tension by portraying his conflicted character with a convincing combination of arrogance and existential dread.

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity, graphic violence, drug use, and some sexuality. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Broad Green Pictures.

July 20, 2016

movie rev 7-20-16First released in 1984, Ghostbusters grossed almost a quarter-billion dollars at the box office, making it the most successful comedy of the 80s. In the 2016 remake, director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) has tweaked the story by changing the gender of the leads from male to female.

Wisely, Feig chose four excellent comediennes: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The director developed a script that plays to each of their respective strengths. The result is a hilarious remake that pays homage to the first film while remaining refreshingly unique in its own right. Plus, the movie features amusing appearances by original cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts.

The point of departure is stately Aldridge mansion in Manhattan, where a tour guide (Zach Woods) inadvertently releases the disembodied spirit of Gertrude Aldridge (Bess Rous), a serial killer who had been locked in a dungeon and fed through a slot in the door after killing all of her family servants in 1894. The attack by the evil apparition causes the slimed victim to enlist the assistance of Abby Yates (McCarthy) and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), professors of the paranormal at the mythical Higgins Institute of Science to exorcise the evil spirit.

The two academics are anxious to explore the haunted house. On their way to the mansion they are joined by Abby’s friend Columbia Professor Erin Gilbert (Wiig), and Patty Tolan (Jones), a token booth clerk who was scared by a spook she saw in a subway tunnel. Unfortunately for the foursome, they are unable to find any evidence of a ghost in the building.

As a result, all three professors lose their jobs. Undeterred, they turn a loft above a Chinese restaurant into a research lab, hire a secretary (Chris Hemsworth), and convert a hearse, borrowed from Patty’s mortician uncle (Ernie Hudson), into a Ghostbuster-mobile.

The self-proclaimed “Conductors of the Metaphysical” develop an arsenal of high-tech weapons including ray guns, a ghost shredder, and a motion-activated proton glove. And just in time, because New York City is being invaded by an army of menacing apparitions.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action and crude humor. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

July 13, 2016

movie rev 7-13-16Tarzan quickly became a sensation soon after the stories about him appeared in pulp magazines in 1912. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the character soon became a cultural icon and was featured in a series of bestselling novels, more than 200 movies, and a myriad of consumer products.

According to the stories by Burroughs, Tarzan, aka John Clayton, was the son of a married pair of British aristocrats who died in Africa when their boy was an infant. The baby was found and raised in the wild by apes and he learned to speak the language of all the beasts in the jungle.

Moreover, as the “Lord of the Jungle,” he had dominion over the animal kingdom and also over cannibalistic tribes that were eager to rape white women and boil missionaries in a big pot. That insensitive portrayal of Africans as evil and uncivilized eventually became controversial in more enlightened times and Tarzan subsequently declined in popularity.

Now however, he’s been brought back to the big screen. Directed by David Yates (Harry Potter 5, 6, 7 and 8) The Legend of Tarzan portrays a more politically correct version of the Lord of the Jungle.

Set in 1884, the film stars Alexander Skarsgard in the title role and Samuel L. Jackson as his sophisticated sidekick, Dr. George Washington Williams. The American doctor was shoehorned into the story in order to offset the images of the indigenous black tribes.

At the point of departure, we find Tarzan and wife Jane (Margot Robbie) living in London as Lord and Lady Greystoke, and it has apparently been a long time since Tarzan lived in Africa.

When invited by Parliament to serve as a trade emissary, Lord Greystoke leaps at the chance to return to the Congo. What Tarzan doesn’t know is that he is a pawn in a plot masterminded by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a diabolical villain who is dealing in blood diamonds.

Upon arriving, it doesn’t take long for Tarzan to revert from a proper English gentleman to the feral vine swinger who can summon a thundering herd of elephants with his signature call.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, sensuality, and crude dialogue. Running time: 109 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

July 6, 2016

movie rev

The slave raids led by Nat Turner and John Brown are well documented in the annals of American history. However, the story of another abolitionist and insurrectionist has somehow slipped through the cracks. At least until now.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), the grandson of a slave owner, was born and raised in Jones County, Mississippi. That alone should make him an unlikely person to mount a revolt against the status quo in the South. He served as a medic in the Confederate army during the Civil War, and was disheartened when he learned that the sons of large plantation owners had been exempted from the military draft. He was further demoralized when a fresh young recruit (Jacob Lofland) from Knight’s hometown, who had just joined his unit, died in a battle.

Since he couldn’t see any sense in a war where poor people were fighting to preserve the privileges of the very rich, Newt went AWOL, taking the dead boy’s body with him. He returned to Jones County where he was quickly identified as a deserter. After his wife (Keri Russell) abandoned him and his farm was confiscated by the Confederacy, he fled for his life, and found sanctuary in a swamp deep in the woods that was inhabited by a handful of escaped slaves.

There, he befriended Moses (Mahershala Ali), a runaway slave with an iron collar that had been soldered around his neck by a sadistic slave master. Newt, a blacksmith by trade, gained the group’s trust by removing the collar from Moses’s neck.

A naturally charismatic person, Newt quickly became the group’s leader, and founded the Free State of Jones that had four core principles that promoted racial equality. Gradually, their ranks swelled to over 250, with ex-slaves and disaffected Rebels joining them.

Thus unfolds Free State of Jones, a biopic written and directed by four-time Oscar-nominee Gary Ross.

Matthew McConaughey shines from beginning to end in the film. The drama is compelling, primarily because nobody knew that this revolt had occurred in Mississippi. a state known for its segregation and intolerance.

Very Good (***). Rated R for brutal battle scenes, an ethnic slur, and disturbing images. Running time: 139 minutes. Distributor: STX Entertainment.


June 29, 2016

movie rev

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) was so shaken by her mother’s (Janelle Bailey) untimely death that she dropped out of med school. In an attempt to feel closer to her late mother, she decided to go to the same Mexican retreat where her mother told her she had been conceived. An avid surfer, Nancy plans to search for her mother’s favorite stretch of beach.

When she arrives, Nancy is so impatient to find that idyllic spot that she impulsively heads for the ocean with her surfboard, handbag, and smartphone, leaving her tired companion at the hotel. She gets a ride to the shore from Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), who is happy to serve as Nancy’s chauffeur and navigator. After depositing her at the secluded cove, he drives away. Nancy is not worried about being left alone, since she does have cell phone service. So she blissfully paddles out to deep water on her surfboard where she’s surrounded by a pod of playful dolphins as she starts riding the waves.

Things change when she spots the carcass of a humpback whale. What Nancy doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, is that she’s in the feeding ground of a shark.

She receives a nasty gash from the initial attack of the shark but is able to swim to a tiny nearby island. Her medical training comes in handy as she quickly fashions a tourniquet from part of her outfit.

However, with high tide coming in a matter of hours, she knows that she’s got to get to the beach before her temporary sanctuary is overrun by the rising sea level. The shore is 200 yards away, which is too far to swim with a determined predator steadily circling as her blood drips into the water.

Two potential rescuers (Jose Manuel Trujillo Salas and Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo) show up, but hope fades when they start swimming without noticing that Nancy is in trouble. The next beach goer (Diego Espejel) does see that Nancy needs help, and takes advantage of her predicament to steal her phone and other personal effects that were left on the sand.

So Nancy must survive by her wits, a daunting challenge given her situation. Thus unfolds The Shallows, an engaging thriller expertly directed by Jaume Collett-Serra (Non-Stop).

The movie borrows elements from Jaws, Castaway, Blue Crush, and MacGyver. The good news is that it all has been sewn together quite seamlessly into a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense scenes of peril, and brief profanity. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.


June 22, 2016

movie rev 6-22-16In high school, Calvin (Kevin Hart) was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” while his chubby pal Bob (Dwayne Johnson) was bullied by classmates because of his weight. However, that was 20 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

Today, Calvin is thinking that he might have peaked during his glory days at Central High when he and his childhood sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) were voted Homecoming King and Queen. The pair did get married, but their relationship’s been so rocky that she’s insisting that they enter therapy. Things are even worse for Calvin at his accounting firm, where he’s just been passed over for a promotion to partner.

In comparison, Bob’s fortunes have improved considerably during the 20 years. He lost weight, and with the help of weight-lifting, he has become quite handsome. Furthermore, he is having a successful career as a CIA agent involved in international espionage.

The pair meet again for the first time at their 20th high school reunion where Calvin is impressed both by Bob’s new physique and his daring line of work. Taking advantage of the situation, Bob enlists Calvin’s technical expertise as an accountant to help him in his latest assignment.

That’s the point of departure of Central Intelligence, a comedy directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers). Kevin Hart has proven himself quite the master of the genre, given the success of such box-office hits as The Wedding Ringer, Get Hard and Ride Along 1 and 2. Unfortunately, Kevin and co-star Dwayne Johnson fail to generate any chemistry, even though they appear in scene after scene of silly slapstick.

The movie attempts to be humorous by contrasting Bob’s bravery with Calvin’s cowardice. But sadly, the laughs are few and far between during this underwhelming action-adventure.

Fair (*). Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, nudity, crude humor, and brief profanity. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

June 15, 2016

movie rev 6-15-16It’s been three years since we saw the world’s greatest illusionists — known as the Four Horsemen — playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the FBI. Now, the master magicians have resurfaced for a mesmerizing adventure that ups the ante in terms of both audacity and visual effects.

This sequel wows the audience with a combination of spectacular stunts and an array of exotic locales. However, if you don’t expect a coherent plot, then this globe-trotting fantasy will not disappoint you.

Directed by Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms), the movie co-stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, and Dave Franco who reprise their lead roles as Merritt, Daniel, and Jack respectively. Lizzy Caplan rounds out the principal cast as Lula, replacing Isla Fisher as a member of the Four Horsemen. The ensemble cast also includes Academy Award-winners Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, as well as Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe and Sanaa Lathan.

After filling in a bit of backstory from 1984, the movie fast-forwards to the present where we find our heroes being blackmailed by Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), a billionaire bad boy who is bent on world domination. He has designs on “The Stick,” a special computer chip that will give him unfettered access to the back door of every computer on the planet.

Of course, the quartet proves adept at staying a step ahead of the megalomaniacal misanthrope. Instead of accommodating Mabry, they proceed to use their seemingly supernatural powers in displays of hocus-pocus.

Although the group is worried about restoring its tarnished reputation, that concern takes a back seat to staging a series of implausible magical acts.

There’s also a competition among the four with each one endeavoring to outdo the other. The ensuing feats make for an eye-popping blockbuster, even if what’s on the screen is computer generated special effects.

Excellent (***½ stars). Rated PG-13 for violence and some profanity. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

June 8, 2016

movie revX-Men: Apocalypse is the ninth movie in the Marvel Comics series that was launched in 2000. This episode is the fourth directed by the series’ originator, Bryan Singer, whose sophisticated touch gives the audience a relatively cerebral experience.

The movie not only includes action sequences that feature exhibitions of spectacular superpowers, but it also has an absorbing plotline. The result is a film for all age groups that’s memorable for more than its special effects.

The story begins in Cairo in 1983, where we we see the ancient mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) rising from the dead. Disenchanted with the world’s current state of affairs, he decides to destroy civilization and start over.

Although Apocalypse is the most powerful mutant, he recruits four allies to assist him in his mission. Dubbed the Four Horsemen, the group is comprised of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Archangel (Ben Hardy), who represent War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death, respectively.

By the time the forces of good understand the extent of Apocalypse’s diabolical scheme, it is almost too late because cities from New York to Sydney are under attack. Fortunately, after the X-Men leader Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) falls under Apocalypse’s spell, Professor Xavier’s protege — shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) — rises to the occasion and rallies the next generation of mutants in the battle to save the besieged planet.

She is helped by telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), supersonic Quicksilver (Evan Peters), brawny and brilliant Beast (Nicholas Hoult), laser-eyed Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). Initially, they prove no match for Apocalypse, who has been harnessing an assortment of powers over a period of several millennia.

However, by pooling their skills and resources very effectively, the protagonists prove themselves able to conquer evil, save the world, and thereby survive for another sequel.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for violence, action, destruction, suggestive images, and brief profanity. In English, German, Polish, Arabic, and Ancient Egyptian. Running time: 144 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

June 1, 2016

movie rev 6-1-16With over three billion downloads, Angry Birds is arguably the most popular app of all time. Nevertheless, you don’t need to be familiar with the video game in order to enjoy this delightful animated adventure.

The cartoon was co-directed by Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis who are making their debut with this silly comedy that features enough sophisticated asides to keep adults thoroughly entertained. The production is laced with witty one-liners (like “Something isn’t Kosher about these pigs.”) as well as lots of cute sight gags (such as a billboard for “Calvin Swine” underwear).

The story is set on idyllic Bird Island, a tropical paradise that is inhabited by a variety of very happy flightless birds. As the film unfolds, we’re introduced to four birdse who actually have trouble controlling their tempers. We find that Red (Jason Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad), Bomb (Danny McBride), and Terence (Sean Penn), are attending an anger management class being taught by Matilda (Maya Rudolph), a former angry bird who has become a therapist.

The plot thickens with the arrival of a big boat containing two green pigs (Bill Hader and Tony Hale) who claim to be alone and are explorers coming in peace. Of course, the pair have a hidden agenda that is about to be executed by their army of pigs hidden in the boat.

After persuading the gentle gullible birds into letting down their guard, the invaders steal every egg on the island and then set sail for home. When the birds realize that they’ve been duped, the angry quartet, led by Red, springs into action.

Because they can’t fly, they realize their best chance of retrieving the eggs depends upon enlisting the assistance of Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), the only bird on the island who can still fly. Unfortunately, he’s lazy and hasn’t flown in ages. Of course, Red and company coax him into joining forces with them to help save the day. The movie is a kooky comedy with lots of laughs for kids of all ages.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for action and rude humor. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

May 25, 2016

movie rev 5-25-16Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) was a working class guy from Queens who never had enough money to play the stock market until his mother died and left him $60,000. The truck driver put every penny of that inheritance into IBIS Clear Capital, a stock that was promoted by TV money guru Lee Gates (George Clooney) as being “safer than a savings account.”

Gates is the glib host of Money Monster, an investment advice show on the mythical FNN Network. The clownish character played by George Clooney was obviously inspired by Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money.

Unfortunately, in less than a month, Gates’s “stock pick of the millennium” goes bust, leaving Kyle frustrated, broke, and at the end of his rope. So, he crashes the set of Money Monster while it is being broadcast, and forces Lee Gates to put on a vest filled with explosives, while Kyle holds the detonator switch for the vest in one hand, and a gun in the other. Producer and director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) has no choice but to give in to Kyle’s demand that the show continue to broadcast.

With his finger on the trigger, he demands answers from Lee about why the stock collapsed while ranting and raving about how “The system is rigged!” Kyle is sure that Gates knew that the stock was going to tank, and demands that all of the IBIS shareholders be reimbursed for their $800 million in losses.

Meanwhile, the police descend on the set, led by Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) who summons a hostage negotiator. During the ensuing standoff, the truth about IBIS emerges in front of millions of viewers, and the company’s CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West) is shown to be involved in a shady manipulation of his company’s stock.

So unfolds Money Monster, a thriller directed by Jodie Foster. The movie is also a modern morality play that levels some serious accusations at Wall Street. Credit goes to George Clooney and Julia Roberts for committing fully to a production that rests on a farfetched premise that could’ve very easily proved unconvincing in less talented hands.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, brief violence, and some sexuality. Running time: 98 minutes. Studio: Smokehouse Pictures. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

May 11, 2016

movie rev 5-11-16After an Avengers mission that went horribly wrong in Lagos, Nigeria results in a terrible toll in collateral damage, the U.S. Secretary of State (William Hurt) calls the team of superheroes on the carpet. He proceeds to chew them out for behaving like vigilantes with unchecked power, and then makes them agree to be supervised in the future by a United Nations panel.

While Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is willing to submit to the Anti-Hero Registration Act, Captain America (Chris Evans) is much more suspicious of these Sokovia Accords that were ratified by 117 nations. As a result, the Avengers have split into factions that takes sides as to whether or not they should abide by the regulations in the Sokovia Accords.

What ensues is a visually captivating battle in which the former allies fight each other instead of resolving their differences civilly.

Among those siding with Iron Man are Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Captain America’s freedom lovers include Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd),

Fans of the series are delighted to see so many of their favorite superheroes together in the same episode. Regrettably, that is both the primary strength and weakness of this 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series. Co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: Winter Soldier) have cluttered the screen by introducing and then failing to develop over a score of prominent characters.

It’s too bad that they couldn’t come up with anything more interesting for the Agents of the S.H.I.E.L.D. confederacy to do besides battling each other. After 2½ hours the eye-popping special effects tend to get a little tedious once the wow factor wears off.

Fair (*). Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action, and mayhem. In English, German, Russian, Romanian, and Hausa with subtitles. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

May 5, 2016

movie revMost of the pre-release controversy surrounding this movie is the debate about the way Zoe Saldana darkens her skin, dons an afro wig, and wears a prosthetic nose to portray Nina Simone (1933-2003). Apparently, some consider the casting of Saldana as the dark-skinned title character to be not quite politically correct, since she is of Dominican and Puerto Rican extraction and thus, by implication, not black enough to play an African-American.

The beleaguered actress was criticized so much by the press that she’s even publicly admitted that “I didn’t think I was right for the part.” However, I suspect anyone who sees the film would find Zoe’s Africanized features to be less of a distraction than her singing.

Although she certainly manages to hold her own, Nina’s fans will undoubtedly be disappointed by the absence of the haunting strains of her distinctive voice rather than by Zoe performing in blackface. It’s frustrating to have to settle for second rate renditions of such Simone classics as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Feeling Good,” “Black Is the Colour,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).”

Fortunately, Zoe does a better job in the acting part of the role, convincingly capturing Nina’s mercurial personality, from her imperious air, the violent mood swings, the substance abuse, and the bouts of depression and self-doubt. The movie is the writing and directing debut of Cynthia Mort who reportedly distanced herself from her own production, and at one point even sued over the final cut because she had lost creative control over the editing.

The story unfolds in North Carolina in 1946 with an adolescent Nina showing promise as a classical pianist. From there she moves to New York in 1965 where we learn that the once-promising prodigy is now playing jazz in nightclubs after dropping out of Juilliard.

The narrative then shifts to Los Angeles in 1995, where we find her on the downside of her career. She’s just been committed to a mental hospital after being diagnosed as an alcoholic, paranoid, and bipolar.

Fortunately, Nina was assigned an empathetic nurse, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), who took a special interest in her welfare. Not only did he help her leave the facility but he quit his job and accompanied her to France to become her personal assistant.

Their relationship, which would last until the end of Nina’s life, is the focus of this warts-and-all biopic. Clifton spends time cleaning up the verbally abusive, chain-smoking, substance-abusing, star’s act, and he tries to find her gigs.

Aside from the singing, Zoe Saldana delivers a decent Nina Simone impersonation.

Very Good (***). Unrated. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: RLJ Entertainment.

April 27, 2016

movie rev 4-27-16Don Cheadle has wanted to make a movie about Miles Davis (1926-1991) for over a decade. The result is a warts-and-all biopic chronicling some of the highs and lows of the legendary trumpeter’s career.

Cheadle not only produces, directs, and co-writes the movie, but he also plays the title character in a haunting performance that convincingly portrays the spirit of Miles — from his gravelly voice to his mercurial temperament.

Even though the impersonation is spot on, the surreal screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The script eschews a conventional chronological approach to storytelling in favor of a free form structure that shows a series of vignettes that focus on his messy private life more than the man’s music.

The picture’s point of departure is 1975, when we find Miles in the midst of a self-imposed five year break from the music business. He spends his days barricaded in his New York apartment consuming drugs in order to mask the pain from a chronic hip condition.

Things change when Dave Braden, a pushy Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor), forces his way into Davis’s solitude in search of a scoop about a rumored comeback. Braden circumvents Davis’s dislike of journalists by serving as his chauffeur and procuring cocaine on his behalf. Of course, Braden has a hidden agenda, namely, gaining possession of the master tape of Miles’ next album — if it exists.

As this is going on, Davis reminisces about his past, which leads to intermittent flashbacks — mostly about his tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Unfortunately, Miles’s impressive body of work is given short shrift. except for the handful of classics on the soundtrack.

Very Good (***). Rated R for drug use, nudity, sexuality, brief violence, and profanity. Running time: 100 minutes. Studio: Crescendo Productions. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.