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Review: ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ By the Numbers

Naomi Ackie stars as pop singer Whitney Houston in the biographical drama, directed by Kasi Lemmons.

Built around impressively recreated performance sequences, I Wanna Dance With Somebody follows well-worn biographical channels as it tells the story of pop singer Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie). For dedicated fans, that may be enough. 

For the uninitiated, in 1985 Whitney Houston catapulted to the top of the pop music charts, recorded successful albums, starred in successful movies (The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife, TV’s Cinderella), and then returned to making popular music. During the 90s, she married fellow pop star Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). Troubles were never far away, though, and throughout the remainder of her life, the singer was often rumored to have a drug-dependency problem and abuse issues with Brown. 

Written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything), the narrative structure of the film reflects his experience in converting real-life characters and their experience into cinematic form. Empathetic and respectful to a fault, it smacks of an “authorized biography,” acknowledging her darkest moments and periods of tribulation, but only to the degree that emphasizes her vulnerability to stronger personalities. 

For example, Whitney’s longtime friend Robyn (Nafessa Williams) is introduced as a romantic interest, which is quashed by the demands of Whitney’s father that the rising star instead date men in public, hiding her relationship, which then shifts from an intimate friendship to a hidden friendship, which is eventually quashed by a weakening Whitney’s capitulating to the demands of Bobby, her emotionally abusive husband, that she sever relations with Robyn, which she can never quite do. 

According to the film, Whitney always fell victim to other people and their desire to control and/or benefit from her professional career, including her strict mother, professional gospel singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), who only becomes more encouraging as she sees her child’s success; and her stern and controlling father (Clarke Peters), who lives high on the hog off her success, and never quits his priority of money over family ties. 

Both Robyn and Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) realize that she needs her with her drug issues as the 90s morph into the new century, though she declines their attempts to help her. Clive Davis is portrayed as one of a few music professionals who surrounded Whitney, recognized her incredible talent, and did what they could to maximize her professional opportunities, yet were ultimately helpless against her own self-destructive impulses, as well as enablers that drew close to her. 

It’s a tragedy, but I Wanna Dance With Somebody does its utmost to put a happy face on a life that was sadly cut short. For now, the memories of a phenomenal voice remain. 

The film opens, only in movie theaters, December 23, 2022, in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities, via Sony Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ Gobsmacking in Its Visual Audacity and Diverse Beauty

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis and Sigourney Weaver star in director James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel. 

A spectacular must-see in 3D, Avatar: The Way of Water is more like a three-hour amusement park ride than a movie. But what a ride!

My seat shook and thundered in tune with the thundering sound. Gobsmacking in its visual audacity and diverse beauty, the “film” — I’ll call it that for lack of a better word — is incredibly compelling to watch, at least for the first 20 minutes or so. Then my eyes started to settle down and I began to consider what was unfolding before me. 

Designed especially, it seems, for non-movie buffs who may need a reason, excuse or justification to spend possibly big money for a night out, director James Cameron often appears intent on bludgeoning the audience with an overwhelming amount of visual information. But he’s too skilled a storyteller entertainer to do that, which is a characteristic of his films over the years, from The Terminator (1984) onward. (My personal fave remains The Abyss, 1989).  

Cameron borrows liberally from literary, cinematic, and other sources to cobble together his storylines, which serve as skeletons that allow him to tell his stories in visual form, which always takes precedence over his characters. Cameron has consistently bent lights into odd and unexpected shapes and shadows to suit his stories, which may be why he takes full advantage of 3-D filmmaking. 

To be sure, I was distracted throughout the opening 20 minutes or so by the extreme brightness of the lightning, something that looked more like a cold live television show than what I associate with the warmer colors of celluloid and more recent digital productions. The very practical aspects of 3-D — the ever-present, if slight, weight of the 3-D glasses, worn over my own prescription eyeglasses — become a bit uncomfortable over the movie’s three-hour running time. 

As a film buff, though, I was eager to see what Cameron had wrought. The story feels like one might expect from a sequel to a movie that was released years ago, in that the characters have aged. Some of them have married and given birth to one or more children, while others who died in the original film have now been resurrected as avatars, or clones of their original selves. 

Thus,the blue-skinned Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are raising their four children on the peaceful, paradisaic planet known as Pandora when a military force from Earth returns on their quest to conquer Pandora so it can become the new home for humans. As part of their mission to dominate the planet, the humans (or Skyriders) have placed a bounty on Jake’s life, since they think he has an outsized role of influence upon the natives. 

In truth, Jake can barely manage his own family, much less anyone else. However, he realizes the danger that his family’s presence poses to their tribe, and so they move on in secret, soon finding refuge with a seaside community of people who have green skin and a great capacity for breathing and hunting underwater. 

Cameron and his co-writers on this film, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, have trouble dreaming up sufficient plot to cover three hours, so they tend to repeat story beats with a certain degree of variety in setting and outcome. Really, the plot is just an excuse for the visuals to play out, and they are lovely. 

If you haven’t suffered from 3-D overkill already, that may be sufficient. With its simple-minded, catch and release dramatic rhythms, accompanied by mind-blowing visual effects that overshadow a shallow collection of characters, Avatar: The Way of Water features more than enough eye candy, if that’s your primary motivation for spending three hours staring at a screen bigger than many palatial estates. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, December 16, via Fox and Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘The Fabelmans,’ An Origin Story By Steven Spielberg

Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogen star in a coming-of-age story, directed by Steven Spielberg. 

After directing dozens of films, Steven Spielberg goes home to tell his own story. 

In its very first scene, The Fabelmans throws down the gauntlet between art and science in cinema. Trying to convince the reluctant young Sammy that he will enjoy the experience of watching his very first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), in a New Jersey theater as they wait for the doors to open, his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), herself an artistic type who gave up any career hopes in favor of raising a family, argues in behalf of of the film’s artistic merits and how it will make Sammy feel. Simultaneously, his father Burt (Paul Dano), a scientist, explains how movies are exhibited 24 frames per second, and so forth. 

Once they start watching the movie, young Sammy is caught up completely in the experience. Realizing at once his purpose in life, he knows he must somehow make his own movie. From there, of course, a star (filmmaker) is born. 

Even before I knew his name or understood (faintly) what he did as a director, Steven Spielberg captured my attention, first with the television shows he helmed (Colombo, Name of the Game, Night Gallery) and then with the films he made. Starting with his second feature, Jaws (1975), I have endeavored to see everything he has directed on a big screen, if possible, and if circumstances did not permit, then certainly on television. 

I believe The Fabelmans is his 33rd feature film, so far, and certainly ranks in his upper percentile. With the passage of time, he is able to look back upon his own youth, fictionalizing it for dramatic purposes — he receives his first writing credit since A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), collaborating with writer Tony Kushner (Munich, 2005; Lincoln, 2012; West Side Story, 2021) — and softening the edges, without eliminating entirely the painful stabs of memory that are inherent in recalling any great love. We can learn from the past, but only if we are honest with ourselves. 

In Spielberg’s telling, he enjoys a happy family life with his parents and sisters, along with their “Uncle” Bernie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s gregarious best friend and fellow worker, who is also a special friend of Mitzi. When Burt gets a new job with greater responsibilities in Arizona, they all move cross-country together. 

It’s in Arizona that Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) becomes more ambitious as a filmmaker, gathering like-minded friends to help him realize his dreams on film, and gaining recognition among his peers. From there, however, a fateful camping trip and another big move awaits to deepen the story and raise the stakes for everyone. 

Spielberg’s films are always a pleasure to watch, and this one flew by, belying its extended running time, without aliens or spaceships or the horrors of (genuine) war. Instead, the battles are interpersonal, as Sammy wrestles with what is happening to his parents as they slowly drift apart and the children are left hanging. 

Michelle Williams gives a remarkable performance as Mitzi, much of it with subtle graduations of her facial expressions and body language, as she captures the highs and lows of an artistic woman at a time when women were expected to conform to stilted cultural preconceptions as to their behavior. She doesn’t always need to say anything; sometimes, it’s the way she cuts off her own desire to say something that speaks volumes.

Playing the more contained, conservative parent, Paul Dano is no less effective as Burt. In his own modest, scientific manner that favors analysis over emotion, his face ripples with love and pain, adoration and suffering, as he records everything and files it away for later absorption.  

Entirely absorbing and eminently entertaining, The Fabelmans is a true marvel to behold, a jewel that will last a lifetime. Or more. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities Wednesday, November 23, 2022. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Armageddon Time,’ Refracting the Past Through the Eyes of a Young Man 

James Gray writes and directs a very personal story, featuring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins. 

The past is a funny thing. It’s always changing. 

Filmmaker James Gray has said that Armageddon Time is inspired by his own personal experiences as a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City. As we all know, though, the past is a minefield planted with destructive bombs. We remember certain events very well, especially those that had a lasting beneficial impact upon us, while we do our best to release memories that we don’t wish to recall. 

In Gray’s telling, his stand-in family is dramatized as the Graffs, a family in Queens that was founded by the declining patriarch, Grandpa (Anthony Hopkins), who fled Europe ahead of Hitler. His son, Irving, broadly caricatured by a thickly-accented Jeremy Strong, and daughter-in-law Esther, captured lovingly by Anne Hathaway, are parents to Paul (Banks Repeta) and his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell). 

Young Paul is filmmaker Gray’s personal stand-in and his coming-of-age story is told through his eyes, so nearly eveything in the film reflects his memories as a young man on the cusp of adulthood. Gray, however, avoids the usual traps of nostalgic sentimentality; thus, the film feels different from nearly evey other coming-of-age story, with the characters acting in a manner that is not always praiseworthy, yet feels relentlessly authentic. 

The story begins in September 1980 with Paul beginning a new school year as a troublemaker who quickly makes a new friend in Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who is apparently the only Black kid in Queens, or at least in the neighborhood where the Graff family lives. (Personal aside: I visited New York City in 1981 and 1982 before moving there in 1984, but I can’t recall spending much time in any neighhorbood like the one depicted in the movie. Maybe that was a good thing for my health and safety.)

Paul’s grandfather dotes on him, but his careless, non-studious behavior and his restless antics with Johnny very much concern his mother and father, who eventually decide to enroll him in the same private school where his brother attends class, with the hope that he will cease any association with Johnny and start applying himself to his studies.  

Without ever giving way to dramatic flashiness or creating extreme moments of thunder, the film still pulses with life, beautifully shot by Gray’s usual collaborator, director of photography Darius Khondji, and edited by Scott Morris to enhance gently every key moment. The performances are finely modulated. Director Gray gives each key actor, notably Hopkins and Hathaway, at least two scenes in which it’s the actor’s subtle graces that makes the scenes dramatically effective.

For much of its running time, Armageddon Time doesn’t call attention to itself. This can present a daunting challenge to viewers, including myself, who are accustomed to films — especially ‘coming-of-age’ stories — that shout out their narratives and give advance warning about their narrative direction. For most of his filmmaking career, however, James Gray has defied expectations and created his own path forward. Now it’s resulted in what may be his warmest, truest film yet.

Review originally published by Screen Anarchy. The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, November 4, via Searchlight Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Aftersun’

In the midst of flailing bodies on a strobe-lit dance floor, Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects on a summer vacation with her father (Paul Mescal) that took place years earlier. Lucky for us, her remembrances aren’t infused with the same splintered visual aesthetic that has trapped her, almost motionless with sadness. Instead, Charlotte Wells’ magnificent Aftersun almost feels too personal for the way in which it textures a relationship between father and daughter that’s acutely aware of the perceptions, mood swings, and minor infractions that color the most intimate of our relationships. This is a film that wallops the viewer in its final moments, accumulating its power gently along the way.

Also written by Wells (and based on an idea of a father and daughter on vacation and not tied to any autobiographical cues), Aftersun follows the lengthy summer vacation of Sophie (played in her eleven year old self brilliantly by newcomer Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Mescal). All seems bright and cheery on the surface, besides the fact that Calum seems to share custody of Sophie only briefly through a divorce.

The two check into a resort and the remainder of the film observes the two as they interact with one another in both big and small moments. There’s poolside horse play, Sophie’s emergence into the world of older kids and a first kiss, and darker moments of tension, such as the karaoke event that turns sour and reveals a hidden side to Calum that Sophie senses but never sees for herself. Through all of this, Mescal and Corio have immense chemistry as a splintered family trying to block out the rest of the world and enjoy themselves for their short time together.

And enjoy themselves they do. Most of Aftersun is a tender, joyous celebration of father-daughter compassion, proven by the humane camcorder footage of their time together that quickly reverses its happiness by film’s end. But bittersweet old recorded images aside, writer-director Wells maintains not so much a coming-of-age drama, but a drama that understands the fleeting memories of youth sustain us later in life. As the adult Sophie reconciles the time spent at Ocean Park with her father, (in a sequence of dancing that collides both past and present in a thundering movement of melancholy) Aftersun becomes a film about treasuring the now and here.

Aftersun opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday November 4th.

Review: ‘The Good House,’ We All Want to Live There

Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline star in a sobering account of one woman’s reckoning. 

By and large, character portraits of older adults have decamped from movie theaters, heading for the friendlier confines of streaming services, where the presumed “target audience” will settle in for a comfortable evening at home, watching stars of yesteryear in movies that can be easily paused, whenever desired. 

More’s the pity, and all the more reason why a film such as The Good House should be valued for what it is: a calm, low-key, charming, and utterly compelling story of a complicated woman. Hildy Good, a realtor who has long lived in the suburbs north of Boston, Massachusetts, certainly appears to be a well-heeled, yet down-to-earth professional person. 

Sure, she has problems, primarily the burden of still providing financial support to her two adult daughters, as well as paying alimony to her ex-husband, Scott (David Rasche), who revealed he was gay after 20 years of marriage and now lives in town with his partner. None of them are desperate, per se, but they have become accustomed to Hildy’s support. 

Eight months before the film begins, however, Hildy finally accepted her family’s insistence that she get help for her alcoholism. Though she is ostensibly recovered, and professes to one and all of her family that she no longer drinks, in reality, she still drinks wine daily, even excusing herself to the point that she occasionally drinks and drives. 

Sigourney Weaver makes Hildy an entirely likable person, which in large part is why she is able to keep up her masquerade of sobriety for so long. She appears be dealing with her problems in an open and honest manner, but she is not, and continually justifies her actions to herself, which she speaks openly to the camera, constantly breaking the fourth wall. 

Longtime partners Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarksky wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bezucha, adapting Ann Leary’s same-titled novel, first published in 2013, and they create an environment that is constantly filled with light, so that the audience can get easily carried away by Weaver’s likable personality as Hildy Good. Throughout, it’s easy to wonder: why is she drinking so often? Where are her demons? Could she or other people be exagerrating  her social drinking? What’s the big deal? 

And that, of course, is the problem for addicts. To the addict, it can be monstrously difficult to see how their addiction may be affecting other people, and incredibly difficult to see how it affects themselves, on an individual level. 

The Good House sometimes strays into mawkish territory, sometimes stumbling as it attempt to deliver a measured message thast doesn’t come across as preachy or heavy handed. Sigourney Weaver glides thorough the proceedings with such practiced ease that it’s nearly impossible to contemplate that she is portraying an addict who desperately needs help. 

She is surrounded by seasoned professionals, such as Kevin Kline, Morena Baccarin and Rob Delaney, who are equally at ease in gliding between lightly comic and darkly dramatic material. The cast is well dotted with other familiar faces, such as Kathryn Erbe, Beverly D’Angelo, and Paul Guilfoyle, who add to the film’s sturdy bearing as it sails through occasionally troubled waters. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on September 30, via Roadside Attractions. For more information about the film, visit the official site