Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody review

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast : Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Clarke Peters, Nafessa Williams, Bria Danielle Singleton
Genre: Biography/Music
Run Time : 145 min
Opens : 29 December 2022
Rating : M18

Music superstar Whitney Houston was one of the greatest vocalists of her generation, and ten years after her tragic and untimely passing, she remains a beloved figure. Whitney has been the subject of multiple documentaries and has her life dramatised in a TV movie. She now receives the big screen biopic treatment.

Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) grew up singing in church, the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) and army veteran-turned manager John Houston (Clarke Peters). Whitney is a backup singer for her mother, and quickly catches the attention of record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), the founder of Arista Records. Whitney signs on to Arista Records, experiencing astronomical success. Whitney hires her best friend and lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) as her Creative Director, something her father opposes. Whitney soon falls in love with singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and they have a tumultuous relationship. Whitney struggles with severe substance abuse issues as she attempts to continue her career while facing various struggles. A best-selling artist, actress and mother to Bobbi Kristina (Bria Danielle Singleton), Whitney’s life is tragically cut short, but she leaves behind a legacy of astounding music.

Naomi Ackie is excellent in the demanding title role. While she doesn’t sing the vocals herself and lip-syncs to actual Whitney Houston tracks, one forgets that after a while. Ackie gives a lively, compelling performance, at no point succumbing to the immense pressure of portraying such a well-known and widely-loved figure. The rest of the cast is strong too, with Tucci serving as a warm, reassuring presence as Davis. The music of Whitney Houston is showcased prominently in the film, as it should be, with Houston’s oft-musical director Rickey Minor serving as a consultant. The re-enactments of key moments in Whitney’s career, including her triumphant, iconic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the in 1991, are suitably rousing. This is a movie that is very respectful of Whitney even as it depicts the low points of her life and career, and it refrains from exploitative sensationalism. There are moments when director Kasi Lemmons does arrive at the euphoric chills-inducing moments every musical biopic should have, even if they do seem a little manufactured.

Unfortunately, I Wanna Dance with Somebody suffers from pretty much every musical biopic pitfall. In trying to offer a macro lens overview of Whitney’s life and career, the movie can feel unfocused, and it is very much functioning as a greatest hits album. We get the feeling that the movie has to hit all the points in Whitney’s life that everyone remembers, and as such it feels dutiful. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also penned Bohemian Rhapsody, does sometimes lapse into a soap opera feel as we hop from confrontation to big performance to confrontation. Bohemian Rhapsody ended with a faithful re-enactment of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance, and I Wanna Dance with Somebody does a similar move. Letting multiple musical numbers play out in their entirety does honour Whitney’s craft, but it also increases the running time, and as good as Ackie’s performance is, we still are watching someone lip-sync to someone else’s singing, at the end of the day.

Clive Davis is portrayed as especially saintly in the film, which can be attributed to the real Davis being one of the movie’s producers. The movie also awkwardly avoids featuring certain figures: the production of The Bodyguard is covered but Kevin Costner only appears in archival footage cutaways, and in a later scene in which Whitney performs on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Oprah is only glimpsed on a monitor.

The film’s overall respectful approach can make it feel like it’s pulling its punches, but it serves primarily to celebrate Whitney, and not to dissect her, and it succeeds on that front.

Summary: Naomi Ackie delivers a radiant lead performance in the biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, but the movie is trapped by the standard rise-and-fall musical biopic structure. Made with a great respect for its subject while also attempting to cover the less glamorous parts of Whitney Houston’s life, the movie doesn’t offer great insight, but functions as a greatest hits album chronicling a truly remarkable career filled with unforgettable music. The multiple documentaries that already exist go into more detail and are more interesting overall, but at its best, I Wanna Dance with Somebody still possesses enough power to make Whitney Houston fans emotional.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avatar: The Way of Water review

Director: James Cameron
Cast : Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 192 min
Opens : 15 December 2022
Rating : PG13

In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was released, later becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. It is an oft-repeated snarky comment that the movie seems to have made no impact on popular culture at large despite its success. All the same, its sequel has been a long time coming and there is palpable anticipation for and curiousity about it. 13 years later, the landscape of cinema has changed, but Cameron is hoping there still is a place for his epic space opera.

It is 15 years after the events of the first film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permanently in alien Na’vi form, has five children with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). These children include eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted Na’vi daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), adopted human son Miles “Spider” Socorro (Jack Champion) and youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). The Resources Development Administration (RDA), the militaristic organisation which attempted to strip-mine Pandora, returns and is after a new natural resource, continuing to disrupt the Na’vi’s existence. Fearing that his presence endangers Neytiri’s Omaticaya clan, Jake uproots his family and they seek refuge in the oceans populated by the Metkayina clan. Leaders Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet) are initially wary of the Sullys, fearing their presence will make the Metakayinas a target of the RDA. Jake must convince the Metakayinas to work together with him as an old foe rears his head and the battle for Pandora rages on.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a lavish spectacle, and all the money is up there on the screen. The visual effects work is polished and after a while, one might even forget that all the Na’vi characters are computer-generated. New Zealand-based visual effects studio Wētā FX made staggering advancements in water simulation physics for this film. In a lot of present-day blockbusters, the use of CGI can feel like a stopgap and can come off as haphazard, but the visual effects in The Way of Water are all employed deliberately. There is an inherent amount of silliness in the premise, as was the case in the first film, but eventually, the characters do earn our emotional investment, including an especially sympathetic whale-like creature named Payakan the Tulkun. The action sequences are exciting and easy to follow, and the use of 3D is well-considered and unobtrusive. The aquatic combat set-pieces, like Thunderball on steroids, are some of the best put on film. No one can say that the filmmakers didn’t care, because there is a meticulousness to The Way of Water not seen in most production line blockbusters, and in this sense, it does benefit from its long development time.

Much has been made of the movie’s 192-minute runtime. Cameron has infamously stated that audiences can take a toilet break “any time they want,” saying with his trademark cockiness that “they can see the scene they missed when they come see it again.” It’s safe to say The Way of Water is too long. Much of the first hour feels like drawn-out set-up, before the Sullys relocate to their new reef home. Then the movie becomes a bit of a nature documentary set in an alien ocean, before the last act is an all-out waterborne action extravaganza. Seeing how Jake and Neytiri have five kids, there are too many characters altogether, including new and returning human characters and the Metkayina clan. For its epic ambitions, there are times when The Way of Water feels like it should be a TV series, with different episodes focusing on different kids. Also, while Stephen Lang returns as the antagonist, his presence feels somewhat diminished, and reusing Quaritch as the main antagonist, albeit in an altered capacity, seems like a bit of a retread.

The 15-year gap between the events of the first film and this one allows Jake and Neytiri to have a whole bunch of kids. The two sons Neteyam and Lo’ak have a rivalry, and are sometimes a bit difficult to tell apart. Baby daughter Tuktirey is there to be cute and succeeds at that.

The most out-there sci-fi idea in this film is Sigourney Weaver returning after her character Grace Augustine died in the first film, playing the Na’vi daughter of Grace’s Avatar, who is then adopted by Jake and Neytiri. It is a fun performance, with a lot of eye-rolling involved – which, to be fair, is an accurate portrayal of many teenagers.

The addition of a human child makes narrative sense, especially given his connection to another human character, but as written and performed, Spider feels straight out of the 90s, like he’s escaped from an unproduced Disney TV series about a teenage Tarzan. There is also perhaps a whiff of John Connor from Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day about the character.

The sci-fi world-building in the first Avatar was not terribly original, but it did result in several eye-catching creature designs and cool-looking human tech. The Way of Water ups the ante with an array of sea creatures, including the afore-mentioned Tulkun and the flying fish-esque Skimwing. The underwater photography benefits from Cameron’s well-known affinity for the oceans and for underwater exploration. On the human front, the crabsuit, a mechanical submersible, is an especially dynamic piece of tech. This time, the environmental commentary is arguably less on-the-nose than in the first movie and aims a harpoon at the whaling industry.

Summary: Avatar: The Way of Water has been a long time coming. It mostly lives up to the hype. While it is overlong and generally predictable, it is also an impressive technical achievement, and its story is eventually an affecting one. Whatever narrative shortcomings the film might have are more than compensated for by the craftsmanship on display, reminding us that there is a reason that James Cameron has made some of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The visual effects are a cut or more above those audiences have gotten used to seeing from blockbuster programmers. More cynical audiences might remain unseduced by the world of Pandora, but for everyone, pop those 3D glasses back on and dive in.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong