Film Review: Almost Christmas

— Watching this humorous film is like getting a funny greeting card that makes you laugh as it warms your heart. This ode to the joy and angst people feel as their family reconvenes for the certain chaos, gluttony and joy during Christmas, is a nice way to start the holiday season. It’s a very entertaining stocking stuffer. It’s comic relief.

Under writer/director David E. Talbert’s (“First Sunday”) guidance you know there will be equal doses of merriment and inspirational message. Toss in producer Will Packer’s (“Think Like a Man”) sensibility and you can pile on the silliness and bawdy humor. What’s on view is a raucous comedy that feels almost TV sit-com-ish. It’s seasoned with enough soap opera-ish drama to make you laugh at the characters and be astonished by their mischievous schemes.

Walter Meyers (Danny Glover, “The Color Purple”), the successful owner of several auto repair shops, eagerly awaits the arrival of his four adult offspring and their extended families back to the Atlanta home they grew up in. He looks forward to their smiling faces, is somewhat saddened that his deceased wife Grace won’t be there and is frankly wondering if his kids can set aside their differences for five days so they can enjoy the holidays. Fat chance.

His youngest daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union, “The Birth of a Nation”), a perpetual law student who is low on funds, brings her young daughter and the grudge she bears for her older, far more successful sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise, “For Colored Girls”), who is a dental surgeon. Big sis is coming with her flaky, conceited, retired basketball player husband with wandering eyes, Lonnie (JB Smooth, “Top Five”).

Christian (Romany Malco, “Think Like a Man”), the oldest son is running for Congress and no one knows if he can forget campaigning long enough to focus on the family. His wife Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker, “Murder in the First”) is skeptical. Evan (Jessie T. Usher, “Independence Day: Resurgence”), the baby of the family and a popular football player, is just getting off the disabled list (DL) and has a jones for painkillers, unbeknownst to the rest of the clan.

And if that isn’t enough spice in the house, Malachi (Omar Epps, “Love and Basketball”), Rachel’s old high school fling and neighbor, is hot on her tail. Alan, (John Michael Higgins, “Pitch Perfect”), Christian’s campaign manager is working on a gentrification scheme that’s in conflict with the downtown area that’s home to a shelter where Walter’s wife worked. Evan’s old friend Eric (DC Young Fly, “Hollywood Hearts”) is supplying him with drugs. And he’s also hitting on Evan’s saucy Aunt May (Mo’Nique, “Precious”), an aging backup singer. She claims: “I got vibrators older than that child!”

Surprisingly, African-American Christmas movies are quite prevalent: “A Madea Christmas” (Tyler Perry, Tika Sumpter), “The Best Man Holiday” (Monica Calhoun, Morris Chestnut), “This Christmas” (Loretta Devine and Chris Brown), “The Perfect Holiday” (Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut) and “Last Holiday” (Queen Latifah and LL Cool J). So, what sets this one apart? It’s refreshing that the central character is a wise, silver-haired patriarch.

And to add a bit of hot pepper to the mix, Aunt May, played with verve by scene-stealer Mo’Nique, adds just enough naughty humor to please adults and warrant an MPAA PG-13 rating. As she walks into Walter’s house, May says to her brother-in-law: “Where’s the liquor? I hope it ain’t that dark liquor, because that dark liquor will make a bitch want to fight.”

Playwright-turned-filmmaker David E. Talbert has a very assured style that involves “comedy in the midst of chaos.” One minute there’s a verbal brawl and the next moment everyone is laughing. This rhythm serves his plays and screenplays well, keeping audiences engaged through his explorations into the sometimes awkward dynamics of friendships, marriages and relationships. Comparisons to Talbert and Tyler Perry are inevitable. The difference is that Talbert is far more consistent as a writer and director.

Gabrielle Union and Kimberly Elise rattle off catty one-liners like they were schooled on Edward Albee’s vicious “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.” For female viewers, Epps is the romantic ex-boyfriend who got away. Usher and Young Fly will keep the younger audiences engaged. JB Smooth is hysterical as the out-of-touch playboy who is courting disaster.

Perhaps the smartest bit of casting was giving Danny Glover the role as the dad and referee. His strong acting brings more to the role of Walter than most performers could summon. Strong, humbled, determined and embittered are just some of the emotions he shows over the course of 1 hour and 52 minutes. When he screams to his out-of-control family “It’s my house,” there is no question; he is the lord of the manor.

The second coup is having Mo’Nique spice up Aunt May to the point that you’re belly laughing even before she opens her mouth. And for those who wonder if she really deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film “Precious,” wait until you see final scenes when it is just her and Danny Glover at the dining room table talking about the sweet potato pie her sister used to make. It’s a treasured moment.

John Paesano’s impassioned musical score is supplemented with appropriate soul, pop and jazz tunes like Etta James singing the sultry “The Very Thought of You.” Wynn Thomas’ production design and Marthe Pineau’s set decoration make Walter’s house an enviable abode and the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly a perfect place for extramarital flirtations. Larry Blanford’s photography and lighting give the footage a warm glow. The editing by Troy Takaki adds a solid beat.

If you’re looking for Shakespeare, try another theater. If you want a good stick-to-your-ribs family comedy that will make you chuckle and forget your troubles, pull up a chair and sit down.

The spirit of the holiday season is in the house.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Film Review: Arrival

— Nearly 40 years ago, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” set the bar very high for sci-fi films that eschewed conventional all-out action sequences and garnered their strength from immense suspense, evocative visuals and mind-numbing mystery. “Arrival” is in that same elite category. Brainy. Intense. Scary. It joins a very exclusive club.

The source material for this endeavor is the science-fiction short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life,” which was published in 1998 and won a Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2000. That award is given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which verifies this story’s geeky pedigree. It was up to executive producer and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Final Destination 5”) to turn Chiang’s lofty thoughts on language, linguistics and cognitive science, as they pertain to the worldview of people or aliens in this case, into a cohesive screenplay that uses a very scrambled method of storytelling to disseminate the plot and characters.

Aliens arrive in massive floating vertical pods that land in 12 locations around the world. They actually float just above the ground astounding governments, the military and all who gaze. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a noted linguistics professor, is asked to head a team that will try to communicate with the interlopers. She is helped by the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and guided by the military Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), the latter being very intent on making a quick connection with the aliens or possibly annihilating them before anyone has ascertained why they’ve ventured to earth.

Dressed in orange hazmat suits, and looking quite strange themselves, the earthlings head into the tall cylinder day after day, hoping to communicate with a being that does not speak in linear terms, sentences or easily discernible patterns. Banks is having a tough time making a breakthrough.

The government is losing patience with the whole endeavor. It has occurred to everyone that the planet may suffer grave consequences beyond anyone’s imagination if a meeting of the minds is not imminent. Also, world leaders are antsy and are pointing fingers at each other, especially the Russians and Chinese. Banks: “I know something is going to happen.”

Chiang’s novella is not for the casual reader. It is complex, told in bits and pieces, in the past, present, and future. Heisserer’s ingenious script lays out all the plot pieces as coherently as possible, but it is the brilliant work and guidance by Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, the A-list filmmaker of the thriller “Prisoners” and the crime/drama/thriller “Sicario,” that takes this far-fetched and heady sci-fi story to another stratosphere.

Villeneuve turns the Banks character, who is tasked with a near impossible mission, into an everywoman that audiences will root for. Her exceedingly slow and minimal progress, day after day, becomes tedious and disheartening. By the time she makes minimal advances with the unearthly guests, it’s so dramatic it’s as if she has discovered the cure for cancer. The intensity of her attempted accomplishments, under the threat of the military taking harsh measures, is so nerve-racking at times your heart will stop, then rev up, then stop, then rev up, over and over again.

Add in the unfathomable visuals of an alien being that defies anything any viewer has ever seen and the sojourn Banks takes you on becomes so mind-boggling, even the most hardened sci-fi fans will be impressed. Credit production designer Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”), supervising art director Isabelle Guay (“The Revenant”) and set decorators Paul Hotte (“300”) and André Valade for visuals that leave indelible impressions. All the aforementioned will likely receive Oscar nominations for their tech contributions.

The weight of this film is clearly also on the shoulders of Amy Adams, who let’s the character revel in strengths and attributes that are often associated with mothering. Patience. Perseverance. Understanding when no one else can. The story is written and directed by men, but the themes are very feminist. Banks grapples with a force that is mightier than anything anyone has every imagined. At the same time she is dealing with an inner conflict she can’t understand that has to do with her daughter. That intimate seed is a very personalizing device that claws at Banks’ soul. Chiang created this dilemma in his short story, and it augments this very intellectual, science-heavy movie, adding a very sensitive and humane undercurrent.

The cast is filled out with Jeremy Renner as Banks’ partner and fellow decipherer who believes in her when all others have abandoned her investigation methods. Whittaker, as the sledgehammer over her head, adds to the blistering pressure of the situation.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s (Sicario) mesmerizing score intensifies the drama at every turn. Editor Joe Walker (“12 Years A Slave,” “Sicario”) is not afraid to let the footage run long enough to tell the complex story. Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”) lights crucial interior scenes perfectly, positions the camera in the most opportune places on the countryside that surrounds the space ship and makes scenes of the pods floating precariously above the earth look like ominous vehicles of mass destruction.

If you’re up for a sci-fi thriller that expects you to think outside of the box, you won’t be disappointed. Don’t be dismayed if you can’t grasp every plot point quickly and easily. The images you see and things you hear need time to ruminate and be savored.

At the end of two hours and five riveting minutes you may feel your brainpower has been tested. Don’t worry. That’s what mind-numbing, science fiction will do to you. That’s what “Close Encounters” did to audiences almost 40 years ago.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Film Review: Moonlight

— In just his second feature film, writer/director Barry Jenkins tells a compelling story about sexual repression and ambiguity through the eyes of a vulnerable and confused little boy, who grows up to question his sexual identity as a teen and then finds a thin measure of serenity as a young man.

Based on Tarell McCraney’s theater piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the film is set in Miami’s Liberty City, a thriving middle-class African-American community in the ‘40s and ‘50s that became a lower income neighborhood after the 1960s. The story unfolds in three chapters, three stages in life when emotional and psychological development are crucial for anybody, especially inner city males.

Little (Alex Hibbert) is a scrawny kid, growing up in a neighborhood where crime is rampant and much of it is attached to drugs. He has no dad. His mom Paula (Naomie Harris, “Skyfall,” “28 Days Later”) is a nurse who struggles with crack addiction. On a day when he’s being chased by bullies, the extremely withdrawn youngster meets Juan (Mahershala Ali, “Free State of Jones,” “House of Cards”), a local drug dealer. The two hit it off. Juan becomes a surrogate dad, bringing Little home to meet his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe). The couple and Little’s best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) are the only stabilizing forces in his life.

The boy, as a teen is called Chiron (Ashton Sanders). His best friend is still Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). They’ve come to a fork in the road, taking two opposite directions, so they think. Chiron is a confused gay adolescent. Kevin is a seemingly very straight kid with a long list of ad hoc sexual conquests. When Chiron is harassed by homophobic schoolmates, in the most public and embarrassing ways, he reaches a breaking point.

As the adolescent Chiron becomes a twenty-something young man, he is known by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes). He’s adapted. He’s the alpha dog drug lord in his neighborhood. He has a calm manner. A bit more assured, yet still very internal. He’s learned from Juan that he can survive, be tough, and yet still be human. His relationship with his mom is estranged. Kevin is off somewhere else. On the outside, Black looks like a cool reserved brother, but on the inside, something is not fulfilled.

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins is an artist. That’s evident in the visually arresting way he shot the film with the aid of cinematographer (James Laxton). First, opening scenes depict dealers on the street being interrogated by their boss. The camera swirls around them like a bee preparing to sting. Second, Juan takes Little to the beach to teach him to swim. The vision of the burly man holding a very skinny boy in his arms as he floats him on top of the water is reminiscent of paintings of Jesus being immersed in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Third, a dalliance Chiron has at a beach is more memorable because it isn’t graphic. The camera just focuses on a hand making circles in the sand. It’s a poetic moment.

Jenkins also intuitively develops the relationships between the boy and his extended family. The scenes between Juan and Little, two totally disparate characters, exhibit a nurturing that is rarely depicted in films focusing on inner-city life. In one scene Little asks: “What’s a faggot?” Juan answers: “A word used to make gay people feel bad.” The relationship between Kevin and Chiron is also very tastefully delineated. Just enough to make audiences wish the two could work out their differences. The tumultuous connection between the needy lead character and his dysfunctional mother is fraught with raw tension.

Creating the extremely fragile protagonist is a stroke of genius. Making him severely withdrawn in the first act is a great character device. Keeping his emotions so internal throughout most of the second act is not the best decision, but during this sequence of events there is a memorable and shocking outburst that sets the teen on a different course. Unfortunately for the rest of the film, that cathartic scene appears to be the only real climax. Nothing that follows is as purging and emotionally fulfilling. By the third act, the pacing drags a bit, the lead character is still intimidated by his feelings and his personality seems monotonous.

The final act needed a more dynamic character arc for the brooding inhibited man known as Black. Watching him stammer through the final scenes, when he should have had a major transformation, is frustrating. On the other hand, every time the effervescent Kevin enters a scene the screen lights up with an energy and vitality that evades the main character.

Naomie Harris, who gave a stunning performance in “28 Days Later,” is a superb actor. Unfortunately, here interpretation of a drugged out mom is way too showy and over-the-top for the role. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mahershala Ali underplays Juan, relying on nuances, facial expressions, eye movement and feeling to render his character, a dope dealer, with the kind of heart that films never give men in this profession. He deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. All the actors who played Little, Chiron, Black and the Kevins do a solid job.

The most intimate moments are caressed by a dramatic musical score (composer Nicholas Britell, “The Big Short”), which is atypical for urban films. The production design (Hannah Beachler) and set decoration (Regina McLarney) make the settings look real. The costumes design (Caroline Eselin) is virtually invisible, the way it should be. The actors are dressed like real people wearing clothes that look lived in.

“Moonlight” has become a popular movie on the film festival circuit. It’s uncanny blend of strong visuals, social issues, sexuality themes and urban life is a potent mix that endears itself to smart filmgoers.

“Moonlight” is a very thoughtful and artistic filmmaking.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Film Review: Kevin Hart kills in new stand-up “What Now?”

— Has success spoiled Kevin Hart? Forbes Magazine lists him as 2016’s highest-paid comedian with an annual income of $87.5 million, from June 1, 2015, to June 1, 2016. Unlike many of his cohorts (Jerry Seinfeld, etc.) Hart makes lots of his income from live performances in large stadiums where he can earn $1 million a pop. So, it’s fitting that his latest live concert film was shot outdoors at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, in Hart’s hometown. Fifty thousand people ate up his bawdy, personal humor like they were famished. Spoiled by success? Maybe. Spoiled by his fans? Definitely, yes.

The ninety-six minutes of hilarity opens with a mock James Bond shtick over the titles that segues into Hart hooking up with Halle Berry as they scheme and con some crooks out of their money at a casino’s no-limit poker table. The spoof is funny (written by Hart), unexpected and features a cameo by a profanity-spewing Don Cheadle as Hart gets under his skin. Hart: “Don’t you have an empty room at Hotel Rwanda?”

Clad in a tight-fitting black muscle T-shirt and a fancy gold-jeweled necklace he takes center stage, staring out into a record-setting night. He’s filled a football stadium, every seat, ardent fans and a very multicultural audience. They’ve come to see a brand of comedy that eschews politics, topical news and social issues. The humor sticks to Hart’s personal life, kids, fiancée and sexual prowess (he calls satisfying his paramour “Operation put a hole in your back”), or lack thereof. Scatological humor, penis jokes, sex toys—nothing is off the table.

One of the reasons Hart’s game is so prime for live performances is that fans can see him up close or on jumbo screens as he doles out his brand of physical humor. He stalks the stage, mimics odd characters (a woman with one shoulder, a man with no knee caps), prances, dances, makes funny faces and bugs his eyes out like he just saw his mother naked. It’s all intricately intertwined with an endless supply of anecdotes. It’s enough to make you laugh so hard you’ll wet yourself.

The best joke line involves Hart sending his seven-year-old son out to empty the trashcans at the end of their long driveway, in the ‘burbs of Southern California. Standing at the door he hears his kid yell and sees him start running towards the house. It’s as if he’s being chased by a mountain lion. Hart slams the door, locking the offspring out so he can protect himself. It’s an outrageously funny bit that highlights his keen ability to tell stories that become so crazy and graphic you think that you witnessed the whole thing firsthand.

Director Leslie Small (“Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain”) guides the concert footage with little fanfare and lots of close-ups of folks in hysterics. Peter S. Elliot and Guy Harding cut the footage down to a tight hour and a half. It’s just enough time for Hart to do his thing and not wear out his welcome. Tim Story is credited with directing the James Bond segments, which are fairly intriguing and fill out some crucial time, otherwise this live performance film would barely last 80 minutes.

Be prepared to laugh. Be prepared to sit through some routines that are not as funny as others. What gets you over the rough spots is this diminutive comedian’s uncanny ability to welcome you into his life, like he’s invited you over for a poker game and he’s just telling you what happened to him the past week—no holds barred. Any comic who is willing to talk about the skid marks in his white underwear has no compunction about putting it all out there to get a laugh. That kind of attention-needy humor is what gets 40 million fans to follow him on social media.

If you’re in his corner, this film will hit your funny bone. If you’re not, he’s trying to win you over. Hart says, “If we can laugh together, we can live together.” It’s a branding slogan that’s too long to put on a welcome mat, but you’ll get the point.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Film Review: The Birth of a Nation

— By Dwight Brown (NNPA Wire Service Film Critic)

Finally, a filmmaker unearths one of the biggest secrets in American history: slave revolts. It’s a lesson rarely mentioned in history books, though it’s common knowledge to anyone who has taken a Black History course. Kudos to actor-turned-director Nate Parker for shepherding this ambitious project from the kernel of an idea to the completion of an inspiring and evocative film that is nothing less than a masterpiece. There are many facets of this movie that are groundbreaking, historic, monumental and unique.

In the evolution of the American film industry few films have ventured into the subject of slavery. Some have misleadingly romanticized the era (Gone With the Wind). Some have made fun of it and belittled its tragic consequences (Django Unchained). Some have eloquently captured the suffering (12 Years a Slave). Some have revealed rebellions from a White man’s perspective (Free State of Jones). None have captured the spirit and emotion of the time, the courage and bravery of resistance and the calculated planning and execution of a rebellion from the viewpoint of African American culture. Until now.

Southampton County, Va., is filled with cotton plantations. A young slave boy named Nat (Tony Espinosa) and his family work on a farm run by the Turner family. Nat is thought to be a chosen child by friends and family: “This boy has the holy markings of our ancestors.” He is friendly with the slave owner’s son Samuel (Griffin Freeman). That boy’s mom Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) notices that Nat has a knack for words and she helps him learn how to read, using the Bible as a learning tool.

Years later, Nat (Nate Parker) is a young Reverend. His stature among the slaves is high. The Turner family seems to not be too apprehensive about their slave who seems to be intelligent and a leader. Samuel (Armie Hammer), now a young man too, is in charge of a farm that is failing to make money. As talk of rebellious slaves sweeps through the county, Samuel gets Nat to become a traveling pastor who “tames” the nerves of slaves on other plantations, for a fee that is paid to the Turner Family.

Traveling around to other farms gives Nat a general of sense of other slaves’ wretched conditions. Several intensely brutal incidences, involving him, friends and a vicious assault on his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) by white men, bring things to a head. The time to act has come. Nat: “We’ll destroy them all.” How will it be done? Who will join him? How will this insurrection end?

Throughout the film, the script by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin establishes and maintains a spiritual destiny that never wanes. There are moments that the Nat Turner they have created has Christ-like, martyr-like attributes. How much of this is based on fact or is manufactured to produce a character that audiences will root for is up for debate. One thing for sure is that the real Nat Turner was a courageous man who gave his life for freedom, and the one on-screen takes over that mantle very well.

For a first-time filmmaker, Parker makes no huge gaffes. He finds and keeps a tone, pulls Oscar-worthy performances from his cast and sets everything in motion in a thoroughly engaging manner that is sustained for 118 minutes. With the skill of directors with ten times his experience, he blends drama, psychodrama, romance, spirituality and action into a relentless, uncompromising classic.

By most epics’ standards, this is concise storytelling (editor Steven Rosenblum) that is perfectly set in the 19th century (Jim Ferrell, set decorator; Geoffrey Kirkland, production designer). The characters wear clothes that looked lived in (Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, costume designer) and when they are injured their cuts and bruises look scarily real (Randi Owens Arroyo, makeup artist). And every element is captured by a very perceptive lens (Elliot Davis, cinematographer).

It is a miracle that Parker can write the script, produce the movie, direct the proceedings and still turn in what has to be one of the most difficult and emotionally complex performances of the year. His character evolves from jovial, young man, to preacher with guilt, to loving protective husband and father, to angry rebel seamlessly. Every feeling he exhibits seems authentic.

Parker’s portrayal peaks in a pivotal scene when Cherry lies on a bed of white sheets, bludgeoned, and he assures her that everything will be all right, even though life couldn’t be worse. The two actors cry and hold each other in a way that creates an indelible moment. Before, and more now, the audience is waiting and ready for Turner to take matters into his own hands. And so is Cherry: “If the Lord has called you to fight, you fight for me. You fight for all of us.”

Ensemble acting is rarely this flawless. Usually one actor overdoes it, or one is not up to snuff. Not here. Hammer as the friendly, then cold, Samuel makes you never question his motivation. Colman Domingo as Nat’s cohort gives depth to his role in ways that deserve acclaim. Aunjanue Ellis as the mother and Esther Scott as the grandmother, are stoic. Penelope Ann Miller, through the character of Elizabeth Turner, aptly conveys a sense of nurturing, confusion, shock and fear. Villains come and villains go, but Jackie Earle Haley’s interpretation of Raymond Cobb, a “paddy roller,” a White man who monitored and enforced discipline upon Black slaves, is one of the most vile you will ever see.

A rebellion and a subsequent massacre happened in the backwoods of Southampton County, Va. on August 21, 1831. Those events foreshadowed the Civil War. And now millions have the chance to learn a part of Black history that few know.

It is so fitting that the brilliant Nate Parker has called his great opus “The Birth of a Nation.” If there is justice in this world and the afterlife, D.W. Griffith, the racist director of the 1915 propaganda film of the same title, is turning over in his grave.

This is a story that had to be told. And must be retold again and again.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Movie Review: Suicide Squad

— “Deadpool” may have raised the bar far too high for the comic-book-turned-film genre. It was fresh, innovative, irreverent, demented, unpredictable, visually alluring, well-acted, written, directed and produced. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” flew in its shadow. And now the much-hyped “Suicide Squad” falls short, too.

The task of bringing this DC Entertainment comic book story to life is on the shoulders of writer/director David Ayer. Within the first 15 minutes, it’s obvious that something is off. The film doesn’t start with a killer action scene that draws you in. It gets stuck in a dull parade of flashback backstories for each of the characters.

As the action scenes do come into view, none are well-shot, choreographed or out-of-this-world sci-fi crazy. Ayer wrote the script for “Training Day.” He directed (in a compelling documentary style) and wrote (with engagingly grim realism) the cool police/crime/drama/thriller “End of Watch” (starring Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal). Nothing on his resume screams, “I know how to make a fantasy adventure film.”

The footage seems cheesy and low budget. Too many shots have a brownish hue. The cinematography (Roman Vasyanov, “End of Watch”) looks like someone put dirty Scotch tape over the camera lens. The interior sets and street or back alley scenes (Oliver Scholl production designer; Beauchamp Fontaine and Shane Vieau, set decorators) appear fake, and not in a stylish-really-intended-to-do-this way. The entire production looks like it was filmed in a studio or a back lot.

Hard to believe that Steven Price, Oscar-winner for the beautifully scored “Gravity” is responsible for the background music that sounds like it’s from the Macy’s Day Parade. The pacing and editing are tolerable (John Gilroy, “Nightcrawler”) and neither help or hinder.

U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who runs a clandestine ops group called the Advanced Research Group Uniting Superhumans (A.R.G.U.S.), is trying to lead the charge against an alien superpower that is threatening her city and the world. Her strategy is to fight evil with evil by enlisting the aid of hardcore super villains who are languishing in the Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary and desperate for freedom. “I’ve finally got the worst of the worst,” Waller says. She dubs them “Meta-Humans.”

She assigns military commander Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, “Robocop”) to lead the mission. He brings a Samurai warrior woman named Katana (Karen Fukuhara) along.

The criminals who will form the A-Team militia are: Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin in solitary confinement who was captured and arrested by none other than Batman (Ben Affleck version and seeing him is a buzzkill). Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, “The Legend of Tarzan, “Focus”) was once a psychiatrist who had a very famous patient, The Joker (Jared Leto). She let the fiend get the better of her and she now has amazing agility, fighting powers and a bad girl attitude.

Slipknot (Adam Beach, “Flags of Our Fathers”) is a master escape artist. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, “Divergent”) is a buffed and muscular Aussie robber. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Pompeii”) is a beast with an amphibians’ face. The group is rounded out by the very enigmatic and troubled Diablo (Jay Hernandez, Bad Moms) a fire starter.

Complicating matters, as the soldiers and the coerced criminals hunt the evildoers, is Flag’s love affair with a Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne, “Pan”). His paramour has been possessed by a witch named Enchantress, an ancient goddess who is in cahoots with the enemy. In a piece of tacky, over-obvious dialogue, Flag pines, “The only woman I cared about is trapped inside that witch.” First: the audience can see that, you don’t have to tell them. Second: Man up, handle your business, go kick ass and stop whining. Do you think Deadpool would utter a line that belongs in a Hallmark Halloween Card? No!

Unlike the Avengers or X-Men movies, where some moviegoers will be familiar with the heroes or anti-heroes, this film brings a whole new set of characters to the screen that only hardcore DC comic book readers would know. The viewer is forced to meet, greet and hear the history of each, and it’s a lot to ask. What’s even more challenging is that none of the Suicide Squad participants have powers that are all that magical. If they really had a lot of mojo, they wouldn’t spend so much time in long drawn-out and often boring fight scenes. They’d be able to annihilate their adversaries, in seconds.

Though the cast members put their hearts and souls into their performances, none of their portrayals resonate and all have done better jobs in other films or TV shows.

That’s a further reflection on the unimaginative direction and a feeble script that never puts them in the right light or makes their characters worth watching. Given the right material, some in the cast are fully capable of handing in Oscar-worthy performances. They’ve done it before.

As the film grinds to its cataclysmic ending (think Ghostbusters, the new one), and the witch is casting spells and fighting the squad with all the deadliness of a Miss America contestant, the scenes become less plausible, less likable, more preposterous and mundane. It’s enough to drive you crazy with contempt as you think of what might have been. This is a wasted opportunity on so many levels.

Considering this film, the misguided “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” doesn’t look so bad. And that glowing halo that “Deadpool” wears proudly shines brighter every time a pretender like “Suicide Squad” hits the theaters.

Film Review: Miss Sharon Jones!

— Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings is a Grammy-nominated R&B band from Brooklyn. Their groove is funky like James Brown’s. Jones’ gyrations are as wild and ferocious as Tina Tuner’s. The group’s soul shakes and their lead singer’s indomitable spirit blend into something very special, heartfelt and familial. When Jones is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it rocks the band’s foundation. Her fight for life and that harrowing journey is what’s on view in this very emotional and inspiring documentary titled, “Miss Sharon Jones!”

According to the American Cancer Society, for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined the one-year relative survival rate is 20 percent and the five-year survival rate is 6 percent. Blacks are more likely to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than Whites.

Jones is the lead singer and the star attraction of her group. Her ability to perform and record determines whether the artists she loves can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. She has a lot of responsibilities and a lot of reasons to want to beat her deadly illness. At just 4’11” she carries the weight of a mountain on her shoulders.

In many ways, she is no different than others who undergo cancer treatments: surgery, week-upon-week of chemotherapy, a loss of energy, loss of hair, doubts and despair. In other ways her experience is so unique because of her public life and a support system that consists predominately of friends and medical/healing practitioners and not her immediate family.

Veteran documentarian Barbara Kopple (Oscar winner, “Harlan County U.S.A.” and “American Dream”) takes the audience behind the scenes as this ultra-cool music group with an old school feel goes through hell and back. Kopple’s efforts are aided by judicious editing (Anne Fratto, Jean Tsien) and illuminating cinematography (Gary Griffin, Tony Hardmon, Kyle Kibbe).

For 94 heart-warming minutes, every emotion, every dramatic confrontation, setback and supportive gesture is on view. It’s hard not to be touched by it all. It’s as if Kopple’s camera is an invisible friend that lets you hold Jones’ hand along the way. Witnessing the singer’s day-to-day battle is an extraordinarily humbling and enlightening experience.

This personal story will make you appreciate the very essence of life. By the end of the film, you’ll desperately want Jones to recover, revive her career and make it back to center stage. Will she?

Bring a hanky and get blessed by a beautiful spirit. “Miss Sharon Jones!” is pure joy.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a critic he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Film Review: Jason Bourne

— There’s something missing in actor Matt Damon and director/writer Paul Greengrass’s return to the Bourne action/spy/thriller franchise. It’s hard to put your finger on it. But the brutal fight scenes, painstakingly coordinated cloak-and-dagger sequences and elaborate car chases aren’t as intriguing as those in “The Bourne Supremacy” or “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

On paper (script by Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse), the CIA plot to kill Jason Bourne, the naïve soldier they drafted into an experimental special ops program, should be totally engrossing. Says the menacing CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones): “No bringing in Bourne. He has to be taken down.” Also, following the vengeful Jason Bourne, the hoodwinked amnesia-suffering killing machine who wants to destroy his tormentors, should be compelling. Add plenty of clandestine meetings and attempted assassinations, and the plotline, characters and events should hit their mark consistently, not intermittently. Right?

Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a colleague of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), tracks him down to the Greek/Macedonian border where he’s become a successful underground fight club boxer. She has info that will help him determine his real identity and what happened to his father, whom he believes was killed by terrorists. She also wants to expose the Central Intelligence Agency’s perverse machinations. Parsons and Bourne are being tracked by the CIA, Director Dewey and the hacker slash counterinsurgency expert Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in the “The Danish Girl”).

Besides silencing and killing the assassin he created, Dewey is in cahoots with tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”) who is the CEO of the hip social network Deep Dream Corporation. He’s an entrepreneur who is loved by nerds and geeks and swears he respects their right to privacy.

Kalloor’s fans don’t know that their guru is secretly involved with the CIA’s plan for wide scale espionage. “Ironhand,” the agency’s new ops mission, involves “Full Spectrum Surveillance,” the kind of snooping that gives Edward Snowden the palpitations. Kalloor is in over his head as Dewey puts the screws to him. Meanwhile Bourne seeks revenge for the murder of his dad, and new clues point to the CIA.

Yes, Greengrass is a champ at action scenes. For two hours and three minutes he puts on a graduate school course in frenetic direction. Yet what’s on view lacks the style, class and depth he’s exhibited before. The grand technique that made his Bourne films win Oscars for technical credits (Christopher Rouse won for editing “The Bourne Ultimatum”) has lost its charm. One hour into the movie, you feel like you’re watching outtakes from a Mission Impossible sequel. It all leads to a grand finale chase scene in Vegas that is worthy of a great action B-movie, not a Bourne film.

The “personal rights versus public safety” theme is very topical. Alicia Vikander’s character adds a new complexity. Vincent Cassel, as the deadly assassin known as “Asset,” is evil in a two-dimensional way. Tommy Lee Jones is convincing as a devious, cold-hearted adversary, but his performance is too reminiscent of his Oscar-winning role in “The Fugitive.” The turmoil plays out over several countries, providing alluring locations that are well shot by Barry Ackroyd (Hurt Locker). Set design, art direction and music are decent, but don’t stand out.

Perhaps it’s tough to judge this movie because the nostalgia for the other Bourne movies made by Damon and Greengrass is so strong and indelible. Perhaps wanting the filmmakers to take this franchise up a level is asking too much.

Either way, it’s hard to lose that nagging feeling that this good film could have been great.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a critic he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at

Film Review: The Legend of Tarzan

— Some things should be left in the past and forgotten. Case in point: Tarzan. This modern version, “The Legend of Tarzan,” adds some politically correct touches to an old-fashioned (dated) story. But even with new gloss and a fresh scent, the central problem still remains: a near super-human White man lording over apes, animals and Africans. It’s an image that is dubious at best, and repulsive at its worst, even if well intentioned.

The script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, based on the Tarzan stories created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is set in the late 1800s after the man of the loincloth has relocated to England.

John Clayton III, the fifth Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård, HBO’s “True Blood”) is a member of the House of Lords. He’s living comfortably in London with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”). Everyone knows that even though he has a genteel demeanor, he was raised in the jungles of the Congo by apes.

Parliament has asked him to go to the Congo as a trade emissary. That’s due to an invitation from Belgium’s King Leopold who wants the world to know all the great things his country is doing for the region. Initially, Clayton is disinterested. He is convinced to go by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American soldier-turned-humanitarian who believes the Belgians are secretly enslaving the Congolese. This argument convinces Clayton to return to his old surroundings, and his wife insists on accompanying him and Williams.

Little do they know that Clayton is being lured to his homeland by the king’s duplicitous envoy, Capt. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”). Rom intends to trade Tarzan’s carcass for diamonds that are being held by the ape-man’s old nemesis, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou, “Gladiator”), who wants him dead.

And so, director David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”) takes the characters and the audience off into the deep dark jungles and sun-burned plains of Africa where painfully obvious CGI animals roam (The Jungle Book did this so much better), everyone is dressed meticulously (Ruth Myers, L.A. Confidential), huts and homes are color-coordinated (set decoration Anna Pinnock, Skyfall), jungles are pristine (production design Stuart Craig, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and everything looks rosy (cinematography Henry Braham, The Golden Compass). The spit and polish on this overly gleaming production doesn’t bring a dose of reality and grit to what used to be a very earthy story.

As Clayton, Williams and Jane walk into a trap, and as Rom plots their demise, their backstories are told in annoying flashbacks that rob the film of momentum: Orphaned baby, raised by apes. Young ape-man meets daughter of a missionary. Ape-man kills man who killed his ape mom. A smarter script would have laid out the plot in chronological order to avoid so many distractions.

The anti-slavery and blood diamond themes add modern touches and concerns to an old vehicle. In addition, Samuel L. Jackson’s character and Waltz’s Rom are actually based on real people. But those are just footnotes in a complicated script that still can’t lift the film’s heavy baggage: A White savior rescuing Black people and apes. And in this poorly conceived rendition, he even has superhuman strength that allows him to annihilate busloads of rivals.

In the words of Shakespeare, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Or to be more blunt, “This stinks.” By the time Tarzan calls in all the animals of the jungle to help him in the grand finale, the film goes from tentatively intriguing, to slightly repulsive, to absurd and finally laughable.

Watching Skarsgård do action scenes is about as compelling as watching an Abercrombie & Fitch model do runway on an obstacle course. Granted, he has six-pack abs that will make female viewers swoon, but he lacks grit. (Johnny Weissmuller, one of the original Tarzan actors, must be turning over in his grave). Robbie’s Jane has a token bit of bravery intertwined with a damsel in distress drawback, which means her character is brazen, but falls when she’s being chased by advisories.

Waltz is suitably evil, a cliché emotion that is all too familiar with the characters he plays. Djimon Hounsou’s rage as Chief Mbonga feels authentic, even if he’s forced to wear a costume more fit for a Grace Jones video. Samuel Jackson’s shtick, as the comical second banana in so many dubious movies, is growing tired. He deserves better material and so do his fans.

At one point Rom says, “A tribe of savages may try to eat him (Tarzan).” That was always the dismay with the old Tarzan movies: the way Africans were portrayed. And sure, in this film the biggest devil/savage is Rom, but still his utterances are revolting and will remind many why Tarzan movies were one part noble, and the other part degrading.

A new coat of paint can’t hide the very dated premise of this misguided film. This is a revisionist tale that wasn’t revised enough, or should have been left on a shelf.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a critic he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown at

Film Review: Free State of Jones

— In the 1860s, Newton “Newt” Knight, a farmer who is not a slave owner, becomes a medic in the Ambulance Corps of the Confederate Army. His social/political bent is more Union than Confederate. He is disillusioned with the war and despises rules like the Twenty Negro Law: Sons of wealthy owners of 20 or more slaves are exempted from the military. When his 14-year-old nephew Daniel is killed in combat, Newt takes his body home, back to the Jones County region of Mississippi. He is further dismayed to find that Confederate tax-in-kind agents (plunderers) have been taking landowners’ animals, food and provisions in lieu of taxes. Folks are being left penniless and without food.


Free State of Jones Official Trailer #1 (2016) – Matthew McConaughey War Drama HD

Newt helps his neighbors rebel and is hunted. Leaving his wife Serena (Keri Russell, “The Americans”) and a young son behind, he escapes into the swampland, joining a group of runaway slaves led by Moses. In the swamps he is protected, and along with Moses forms a more organized group of rebels that include Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Beyond The Lights”), a house slave who is being abused by her master. Their group becomes more organized every day and more bold. They form “The Free State of Jones,” a mixed-race, anti-war community—a safe haven.

For two hours and 19 minutes, Gary Ross’s script and steady, perceptive direction and the story, by Leonard Hartman, are fairly engrossing. What’s presented is a side of the Civil War (theft, taxation and privilege) that most audience members will not have known. They also don’t sugar coat the frail union between slaves and poor Southern Whites, another curious part of the puzzle.

A parallel subplot set in 1948, involves Knight’s great grandson facing off against the State of Mississippi in a groundbreaking miscegenation trial. He has married a White woman, but because he has one-eighth Black blood, making him Black in the eyes of the state, their union is illegal and must be annulled or he faces prison. This storyline seems superfluous, even if it is based on fact.

The film’s pacing (editors Pamela Martin and Juliette Welfling) is deliberate. The cinematography is graphic (Benoît Delhomme) and unlike many war dramas, the costumes (Louise Frogley) look lived in.

That said, the film’s strength comes not only from its surprising premise, but also from its superb performances. Mahershala Ali as Moses is stoic. Keri Russell as Newt’s wife gives a seamless backwoods country performance. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel, who becomes Newt’s common-law wife, balances vulnerability and courage gracefully. Every actor who plays a heartless Confederate soldier (Bill Tangradi, Thomas Francis Murphy, Wayne Pére) brings a cold demonic presence to his role. You know they are the bad guys, the antagonists.

Matthew McConaughey was born to play this part. His Texas drawl, laconic ways, and local boy feel suit him well as the understated leader of a ragtag group of rebels who defy the odds. Regardless of the success of this movie, this may be his best performance ever.

Most of the time, movies are more fascinating than history because they get to use creative license. In this case, fact may be more shocking than fiction as the real Newt, Rachel and Serena led very uncommon lives that are quite fascinating.

A surprisingly enlightening film.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a critic he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown at