Movie Review: Sparkle

There’s a tired look about Whitney Houston’s face for much of this movie. In this remake to the 1976 urban classic, Houston’s portraying Effie, an overly protective mom of three musically inclined daughters she doesn’t want falling into the trappings of secular ways. “Keep dancing like that and you’ll bring home a baby you can’t feed,” she snarls during one scene. She’s speaking from a place of experience and regret. But Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), “Sister” (an unforgettable Carmen Ejogo) and “Dee” (Tika Sumpter) aren’t really thinking about men; they’re mostly concerned with the music. And boy, in 1968 Detroit, the sounds of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and CeeLo Green (yep, that CeeLo!) are everywhere. At night, with Effie snoring on the couch, they’d sneak out to perform at local clubs. Sister led, Sparkle wrote and Dee kept everyone in check. They’d meet some good folk (Derek Luke, Omari Hardwick) and a few scoundrels (Mike Epps at his dastardly best) on their road up the charts, but sadly, not every sister would make it on the musical journey without hitting a few bumps. As for Houston’s character, she’d wise up to the daughters’ dealings after a while. That tired look turned into one of resentment. But after a powerful “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” solo one Sunday and a late moment of self-reflection, the radiant Whitney we’ll always remember makes an appearance. The Dreamgirls-ish film is just a so-so coming-out party for Sparks. However, it’s a poignant, appropriate going-home celebration for Houston, one of the greatest entertainers the world will ever see. (C+)

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

In the last Spider-Man movie series, Tobey Maguire was great as the awkward Peter Parker, fawning over Mary Jane Watson and delivering pizzas. In this take, Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) is awkward for about five minutes in a high school hallway–director Mark Webb must have looked at some footage and realized Garfield was too handsome to pull the shtick off for a whole movie– but quickly turns into this camera-wielding, skateboard-riding mystery who defends fellow students from bullies. But fanboys will appreciate the fact that Parker’s high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), is really his first crush from the Marvel comics. Of course, in between saving kids from cafeteria torture and staring at pictures of Gwen, Peter’s waging an internal struggle with the loss of his father, scientist Richard Parker. His uncle (Martin Sheen) and aunt (Sally Field) give Peter love, just not the answers he seeks. But a mysterious briefcase shows up in the basement, and its contents lead to Oscorp, an ambitious research outfit led by Richard’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). As you know, Peter goes snooping around the building and ends up bitten by an atomic arachnid. Scenes where Parker acclimates to his newfound powers, especially one cool moment on the train, are pretty special. In fact, Peter’s early fights against street thugs and his quiet spells with Gwen almost leave you questioning your loyalty to Tobey. It’s only when Dr. Connors’ screen time increases that this new version loses something. We know the doc wants to re-generate his missing limb, but why does he want to take out his frustrations on New York, too? We realize his failed experiment changes him into Lizard, but why does his alter ego have to look like something out of The Dark Crystal? We see the rotten reptile and Spidey get into a knock-down, drag-out at the school, so how does the place appear immaculate just a few scenes later? Not really sure. All we’re certain of is that the web-slinger’s flights are awesome. The behind-the-mask action shots are dynamic. The lovebirds’ chemistry is evident. But as a franchise reboot, there’s just not enough about this Spider-Man for it to be considered truly amazing. (B-)

Movie Review: Marley

Image“We came from a wailing environment,” explains Bob Marley’s longtime friend and bandmate, Bunny, on the origins of the Wailers’ famous name. Marley fans know Bunny’s speaking of Trench Town, a Kingston, Jamaica slum. Poverty and crime were everywhere. But so too was the music. And Robert Nesta Marley followed the music. Well, technically, he followed Desmond Dekker, a young ska performer on Beverley’s Records. Even back then, everyone knew Bob had a way with words. His early solo stuff just didn’t sell. Realizing the popular artists of the time, like the Temptations or Impressions, were all groups, Marley connected with Bunny, Peter Tosh and some other talented locals.

Of course, the Marley faithful knows all of that. The thing that keeps this intimate documentary from feeling repetitive is that director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) meshes first-hand takes of commonly know facts (failed assassination attempt, successful political unifications) with the unfamiliar (The Wailers’ courage-building practices in graveyards). The icon’s entire life is chronicled here, from his absentee white father, to his time working with Chrysler in Delaware, to the day he united with Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Marley is co-produced by Bob’s eldest son, Ziggy, so the film could have easily glazed over Bob’s less-flattering womanizing side. Yet it doesn’t. Bob’s ex-wife, Rita, and other former flames speak openly and honestly about the man. And that’s the key word—man. Robert Nesta Marley is revered to this day as a global icon, but the one thing this documentary states very clearly is that this musical god was also a flawed man. (A-)

Movie Review: Marvel’s The Avengers

When news broke that an Avengers movie was in the works, every fanboy and girls’ mind immediately started racing with questions. Who all would be in it? Which villains would they use? How would the Hulk look? That’s all important stuff, sure. But what many failed to ask was exactly how these supersized personalities were going to mesh on one screen. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) have all proven they can handle the solo spotlight, but putting them in front of the same camera? Let’s not even mention the IMAX-sized screen needed for Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

Truthfully, things are shaky early on. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists are seen doing some tests with Tessaract, the unlimited energy cube you’ll recall from Captain America. Something goes awry in the lab and a portal from another world opens, letting in Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s painfully insecure brother, who has sinister thoughts of world quest. With the Tessaract at his disposal, chances seem good. Before you can doze off from Loki’s hokey, Fury calls in the superhero cavalry to save the day…and get the movie going. When Tony Stark, Capt. and Thor get in the same room, there’s equal parts tension and inadvertent comedy. Captain America wants to follow Fury’s game plan. Tony wants to one-liner you to death. Bruce Banner just wants to get home before his alter ego makes a mess.

Speaking of the angry green guy, you’ll love how director Joss Whedon (Thor) teases up to his fulfilling first transformation. The last time Hulk rears his head is for an unforgettable finale in downtown Manhattan. It’ll rival any action scene you’ve ever seen in a comic book-based movie. A camera slides from Hulk smashing to Hawkeye shooting his arrows to Captain America slinging his shield in one mesmerizing take. It’s big. It’s beautiful. It’s almost everything fanboys could have ever dreamed. (B)

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