Saldana Successfully Channels Simone In Controversial Biopic
Most of the pre-release buzz surrounding this controversial biopic has swirled around the debate about Zoe Saldana’s darkening her skin, donning an afro wig and wearing a prosthetic nose to portray Nina Simone (1933-2003). Apparently, in these politically-correct times, some consider the casting of Saldana as the dark-skinned title character to be a case of cultural appropriation, 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 so beat up in the press that she’s even publicly acknowledged the micro-aggression, admitting, “I didn’t think I was right for the part.” However, I suspect anyone who actually sees the film would find Zoe’s Africanized features to be less of a distraction than her singing.
For, while she certainly manages to hold her own, Nina’s fans will undoubtedly be more disappointed by the absence of the haunting strains of The High Priestess of Soul’s distinctive voice than by her impersonator’s performing in blackface. Again and again, 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).”
Thankfully, Zoe does a better job in the acting half of the role, convincingly capturing Nina’s mercurial personality, from the imperious air, to the violent mood swings, to the substance abuse, to the bouts of depression and self-doubt. The movie marks the writing and directorial debut of Cynthia Mort, who reportedly distanced herself from her own production, at one point suing 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 exhibiting promise as a classical pianist. From there, the film fast forwards to New York in 1965 where we learn that the once-promising prodigy has been reduced to playing jazz in nightclubs after having dropped out of Juilliard.
The narrative quickly shifts to L.A. in 1995, where we find her already on the downside of an illustrious career. She’s just been committed to a mental hospital after being diagnosed as an alcoholic, paranoid, manic-depressive.
As luck would have it, Nina was assigned an empathetic nurse (David Oyelowo) who would take a special interest in her welfare. Not only did Clifton Henderson help her escape the facility but he quit his job to accompany her to France where he would serve as her personal assistant.
It is that relationship which would endure until the end of Nina’s life that is the focus of this warts-and-all biopic. Clifton spends as much time simply cleaning up the verbally-abusive, chain-smoking, substance-abusing fading star’s act, as he does trying to find her gigs, given her well-earned reputation as a difficult diva.
Ignore all the blackface haters, singing aside, Zoe Saldana delivers a decent enough Nina Simone impersonation here to make you wonder what all the brouhaha was ever about.
Very Good (3 stars)
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated R for pervasive profanity and graphic violence.
Brain-Altered Convict Chases International Terrorists In High Body-Count, Action Thriller
CIA Agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) was in London on assignment to deliver a ransom to a computer hacker called the “The Dutchman” (Michael Pitt) when he was assassinated en route by a terrorist (Jordi Molla) with a vicious gun moll (Antje Traue). This would ordinarily be a big loss for the Agency, given the veteran spy’s talents and abilities.
Luckily, government scientist Dr. Franks has been working on transferring memories from one brain to another. And while he’s been successful in several attempts with animals, he considers himself five years away from being ready for human trials.
Nevertheless, given the emergency, he is instructed to immediately implant Pope’s mind into that of Jericho (Kevin Costner), a death-row inmate in desperate need of a new lease on life. Next thing you know, the psychopathic murderer awakens from the experimental surgery raring to track down The Dutchman as well as the creeps who killed Pope.
That is the point of departure of Criminal, a sci-fi splatterfest directed by Ariel Vromen (The Iceman). Curiously, the movie marks Ryan Reynolds’ third venture into the brain swap genre, his previous being last fall’s Self/less. There, however, he played the recipient rather than the organ donor.
There isn’t much point to my reciting the scatterplot storyline, since it makes even less sense than the picture’s farfetched premise. Still, this high body-count, action thriller is apt to have a certain appeal to testosterone-sodden males seeking to satiate their blood lust by watching folks being blown away in spectacular fashion.
In the process, the film fritters away the services of an impressive cast which includes Reynolds, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and Kevin Costner. The film features a fair amount of eye candy, too, in Antje Traue, Alice Eve, Natalie Burn and Gal Gadot who plays Pope’s widow, Jill. As you might easily imagine, She and her daughter, Emma (Lara Decaro), are in for the surprise of their lives when hubby/daddy returns reincarnated as a redeemed convict in need of a loving family.
A novel enough spin on the brain switch theme to recommend, provided you’re very willing to suspend disbelief and you’ve got a strong stomach for senseless gore.
Good (2 stars)
Running time: 113 minutes
OPENING THIS WEEK
For movies opening April 22, 2016
The Huntsman: Winter’s War (PG-13 for action, violence and some sensuality) Chris Hemsworth reprises the title role in this Snow White sequel which finds the Huntsman and his warrior wife (Jessica Chastain) defending the Enchanted Forest from the Ice Queen (Emily Blunt) and her sorceress sister (Charlize Theron). With Nick Frost, Sam Claflin and Sophie Cookson.
Compadres (Unrated) Unlikely-buddies action thriller about a disgraced ex-cop (Omar Chaparro) who joins forces with a young hacker (Joey Morgan) to exact revenge on the mobster (Erick Elias) who kidnapped his girlfriend (Aislinn Derbez) and framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. With Kevin Pollak, Eric Roberts and Hector Jimenez.
Dispatches From The Gulf (Unrated) Matt Damon narrates this documentary taking stock of the environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico a half-dozen years after Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Elvis & Nixon (R for profanity) White House drama recounting the historic, 1970 meeting of Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) and President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in the Oval Office immortalized by the most requested photograph in the National Archives. Cast includes Colin Hanks, Johnny Knoxville and Alex Pettyfer.
Hockney (Unrated) Reverential retrospective chronicling the career of David Hockney, one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.
A Hologram For The King (R for sexuality, nudity, profanity and brief drug use) Adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel about a broke American businessman (Tom Hanks) who tries to recover by making a sales pitch to Saudi Arabia’s monarch. With Ben Whishaw, Sarita Choudhury and Tom Skerritt. (In English and Arabic with subtitles)
How To Let Go Of The World (Unrated) Eco-documentary chronicling the efforts of environmental activists dedicated to reversing atmospheric warming trends.
Love Thy Nature (Unrated) Environmental documentary, narrated by Liam Neeson, celebrating humanity’s connection to Mother Earth while warning of the ecological crisis threatening the survival of our species.
The Meddler (PG-13 for brief drug use) Romance drama about a grieving widow (Susan Sarandon) who moves from New Jersey to L.A. to be near her daughter (Rose Byrne), only to unexpectedly find romance with a retired cop (J.K. Simmons). With Cecily Strong, Jason Ritter, Lucy Punch, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael.
Precious Cargo (R for sexuality, violence and pervasive profanity) Crime thriller about a mob boss (Bruce Willis) who pressures a seductive thief (Claire Forlani) to recruit her ex (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) for a heist of rare gems. With John Brotherton, Daniel Bernhardt and Lydia Hull.
Streit’s: Matzo And The American Dream (Unrated) New York City documentary about the family-owned company that has been continuously manufacturing kosher food on Manhattan’s Lower East Side since 1925.