Black Panther

February 17, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Where to begin? With some films, there is so little I want to say, that I’m not sure I can squeeze a decent review out of them (whether I liked the film or not). For films like this one, I have so much to say, I don’t know how to fit it all in. To call Ryan Coogler’s new film brilliant seems to risk both overhyping it and underselling it; it cannot be categorized so easily with just one word. Coogler, whose other two movies include “Creed” and the stunning “Fruitvale Station,” has deliberately made a Black movie for a Black audience. What makes this film revolutionary is that he has done it within a genre that has been colonized entirely by the White perspective until now. The basic rules of a good superhero movie include: a lot of interesting action, great special effects, powerful (and emotionally complex) heroes, a daunting evil villain, and (more recently) plenty of quips and tie-ins to a larger superhero universe. To that end, this film checks most of those boxes and does so as well as, though not particularly better than, most of the best superhero movies. But evaluating it just on that criteria entirely misses what this film really does. For every other film in this genre, the race of the characters and the director was overwhelmingly White. As a result, the perspective of the entire film was a White one, and the implications of that remained unexamined by almost all of us, myself included. But, in “Black Panther,” the perspective is shifted, the lens turned back on itself, and the limitations within the genre thus far are left exposed. This is not a film made from the White perspective that happens to have an all Black cast; this is a Black film and we, as White viewers, are left on the outside looking in. It’s about time. This is a film whose bones are built on the thing that makes most White Americans uncomfortable with African Americans– their deep and abiding anger. That is why this film is so revolutionary. We have had plenty of films in the past that have explored the complex cultural issues around race, including fantastic Black films by Black artists. But those films have almost always been serious dramas or sly comedies. But superheroes are America’s epic heroes. As with other heroic tropes of the past (cowboys, knights, etc.), they serve as the representation of how we want to view ourselves: bold, noble, self-sacrificing, and the idealized representation of our truest values. When Coogler uses this genre to make us participants in the conversation about racial injustice and anger, he subverts expectations in a way we aren’t prepared for. I noticed my own discomfort when I watch Black people talking about White people behind our backs, so to speak. Typically, when we see this in film, White people remain the ones in power, even in those conversations, even when we aren’t present. Within the realm of comic book fantasy, Coogler is free to imagine a world where Black people are truly, entirely in power. In that world, we see Black people talking about White societies with the same “benign” condescension that we have historically used when discussing African societies; ie what is our responsibility toward the ignorant savages (only, in this case, the savages are the White societies). That that is such a revolutionary perspective, and that it makes me uncomfortable, exposes for me just how entrenched the colonizer’s gaze is. In “Black Panther,” we are shown a beautiful African society, as idealized as many movies have made American society. Coogler’s Wakanda manages to be both a technological supercity and also deeply African. The art, streets, clothing, architecture all have a profound African identity built into them. It is also a truly equitable city, where women serve in all roles of society (in fact, one could argue that this is also the most feminist superhero film made to date). Wakanda is a city built for the Black audience, as a representation of their idealized world. From that perspective, the final scenes of this film are particularly powerful. It feels as though this movie is having a conversation with Black America and, in the final moments, it is inviting the larger world to join that conversation. But (and here is the real revolution), they are not inviting us to a conversation about race on our terms; we are being invited to finally start having the conversation on their terms. I have said much about Coogler as the director and writer and nothing about the cast. It seems flippant to simply say that everyone was fantastic, but they truly were. This is a brilliant cast that includes some of the best of the rising young actors in Hollywood today. I will highlight one performance, though. I do think Michael B. Jordan should get an Oscar nomination for his character Killmonger. Everything about that performance is incendiary and his character is uncompromised from start to finish. His final scene with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was stunningly powerful; I cannot remember ever seeing that much honesty, rage, pride in a comic book film. And, all of that came from the villain. He is one of the best villains in any superhero movie to date; Heath Ledger’s may have been edgier, but Jordan’s is more moving and emotionally real. Now, I must confess my own discomfort reading back over this review. I am cognizant that I am speaking about a world that I’m not a apart of. Mine is not the best voice to interpret this film and its importance; I know that. I share here my perceptions and my desire to be apart of a broader conversation, that should happen on every level, including the arts. Film has a unique ability to reach so many people. That this one uses the framework of a genre we are so familiar with to speak a language that is so unfamiliar to most of us (and yet so comfortable to some), is why I think the only, best word for “Black Panther” is, in the end, simply brilliant.




February 4, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Within the first few minutes, I had a clear sense of what this movie was going to be. It starts with Comanches massacring a homesteading family. The screen fades to black and we get the single word “Hostiles,” which fades until only the “I” remains. Just in case it isn’t clear yet that this is a film about how everyone is a hostile (including you and I), the first scene after the title is of white soldiers terrorizing an Apache family. From there, the film moves at a languid pace, interspersed with sudden moments of violence, as it tells the story of a group of soldiers commanded to take a Native American family home, so that the chief can die. They are led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), who has killed countless Native Americans and (of course) hates them all with a passion. The film hasn’t really started yet, but we can all see where this is going. Over the long course of 135 minutes, there will be some measure of suffering and redemption for virtually everyone. This is a strong cast, including Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons, Jonathan Majors, and Timotheé Chalamet. They all do a good job of being grim, broken, and determined. Few other emotions are required. That said, I was particularly impressed by Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused,” “Empire Records”). I have mostly considered him a comic actor, but his haunted Sgt Metz was particularly effective. The film unfolds over the stunning Montana landscape and director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) pulls out every stunning “Dances With Wolves” shot he can think of. And, in the end, that’s its biggest problem; there was really nothing new here. Every image shown, every idea explored, has all been done in other films. There is nothing wrong with this story. It just isn’t an original one. On top of that, the final scene was just a little too pat and easy. I’m not sure that much redemption had been earned. This wasn’t a bad film. It just felt like something I would have been impressed by a couple of decades ago.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 18, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Expectations are always high when it comes to “Star Wars,” and that certainly was the case here. There was a giddy eagerness in the theater the night I was there. My audience applauded the opening credits, whooped and clapped throughout. They were looking for a good time and, fortunately, they were not disappointed. This, the 9th “Star Wars” film and the 8th in the Skywalker series, is the best one in years. Darker and far more brooding than most of the films, it also shows a level of character development that the series has sorely missed until now. In Lucas’s world, there were good guys and bad guys, but little in-between. Director Rian Johnson had directed three feature-length films before this: “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom,” and “Looper.” Anyone who has seen any of his films knows he loves complicated, morally ambivalent characters. In Lucas’s hands, a character like Luke always felt a bit one-dimensional to me. Yet, in “The Last Jedi,” we get a window into a more complex character filled with guilt, self-doubt, a bit morally simplistic and even a bit arrogant. It was great to see Hamill again, playing the only character I have ever seen him play. He has become a comfortable actor, capable of playing a far more interesting Luke than he could 35 years ago. I really liked this new version of an old character and I hope to see more of him. I also really like how the two core characters are being played. I realize one might debate that there are core characters in this rich ensemble cast. But, using the first films as a guide, it seems to me the backbone of these stories is the relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), much as it had been the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader. I find this relationship more interesting than the Luke/Vader one. It has more uncertainty in it, with Kylo Ren as a far more conflicted villain than Vader ever was. I am very interested to see his character arc. I was also really pleased with the screen time General Leia was given. This final role was a fitting tribute to Carrie Fisher. Johnson also filled the film with all the things one would expect: beautiful planets, interesting aliens, a few battles and chase scenes, all the good stuff. He also had the requisite cute/funny aliens but, mercifully, kept them tightly contained. From start to finish, this was an entertaining ride and, more than that, it intrigued me. I genuinely want to see where these characters end up and that’s something I haven’t felt in a “Star Wars” film in a long while.

Atomic Blonde

December 8, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

In deciding how to rank this film, my thinking was fairly simple. It’s really not worth paying to see, not even just a rental fee. However, if you can watch it for free some time, it is reasonably entertaining. Taking place in 1989, as the Berlin Wall is falling, it follows one MI-6 spy (Charlize Theron) as she tries to find a defector and save his life with the help of a deep cover spy, played by James McAvoy. We are clearly meant to be entertained by the back-and-forth, fight-or-flirt tension between them. However, it all felt too predictable to be charming. In fact, the film goes exactly where you think it will. Even the twists within twists were telegraphed 10 minutes in. I could imagine the writers feeling very pleased with the ending they came up with, but it was truly the only real option for an ending that wasn’t completely dull. That said, the action was relentless and oft times entertaining, in that relentless action kind of way. There was some jaded humor, even a few good lines, and a great 80s soundtrack, even if it was used ridiculously literally (e.g. Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran” for a chase scene). This really was an absolutely adequate way to waste an evening. But it was absolutely nothing more than that.

Justice League

November 19, 2017 at 10:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Admittedly, the bar was low for this one. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was just a mess, with moments of visual wonder amongst the horrendous dialogue and muddled, overly-stuffed story line. I did not expect much as the curtain rose (I go to an old-timey theatre, where there actually still is two layers of curtains that do rise and a guy playing on the organ before the show starts). When the final credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Director Zac Snyder (“Batman v. Superman,” “The 300,” “The Watchmen”) has toned down the moody visuals he is known for. They were really the only thing I like about the last film, but they aren’t missed here. In their place, we get a tighter and less grim story arc, with genuine humor and even some actual character development. DC has a long way to go to match the camaraderie and complexity of the Avengers’s relationships. That said, I think Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, does a good job of getting us halfway there. Each of these characters had his/her own distinct personality and way of interacting with the others. Even a character like Cyborg, who I had worried would get lost against the larger and more iconic characters, was a vital member of the team, with his own unique personality and compelling story. Whedon and Snyder even managed to create an Aquaman who was not wholly ridiculous. Much of that credit also goes to Jason Momoa who gave the character a sly humor and gravitas that he desperately needed. Most of the laughs centered around the Flash, with Ezra Miller well cast in the part. Miller’s Flash is hyperactive, giddy, wide-eyed and a bit goofy. He’s far more interesting than the boy-scout TV version. At times, the humor around him felt a bit forced and fell flat for me. But, the funniest laughs also centered around his character. Overall, I think this film lacked the comfortable humor of “Wonder Woman” and the action scenes were not quite as fun. That said, I found the plot here to be much more interesting, the story arc more satisfying, and the ending avoided the silliness that crept into “Wonder Woman’s” final moments. This was a fun, high action romp with characters I would love to see more of. In the end, I think DC did exactly what it needed to.

Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I liked this film so much more than either of its prequels (“Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World“), which is admittedly a pretty low bar.  Those were both dull and overly serious, relying entirely on special effects to replace any meaningful plot or dialogue. Come to think of it, this film is not so different. It is mostly a special effects spectacle with largely silly dialogue and a plot so full of holes that it is hard to decide which ones to highlight. How about the utter lack of explanation for how Hulk ended up on this planet, or how Bruce Banner’s ominous fear about himself is utterly ignored in the end, or how a creature vanquished so easily at the beginning of the movie becomes all powerful when it returns. The list could go on, but then you might be tempted to think that I didn’t like this film and I did. Why? Because there was one critical difference between it and its predecessors; it had a sense of humor. New Zealand born director Taika Waititi, who is most known for the tedious “What We Do in the Shadows” and the lovely “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is primarily a comedy writer/director. He has brought that aesthetic to the Thor franchise, where it is much needed. This film was, first and foremost, a superhero action movie. As such, it had its main villain, played with delicious glee by Cate Blanchett. It had its various lesser baddies, played with varying levels of silliness, from the relatively straight Karl Urban (as “Skurge”) to the always over-the-top Jeff Goldblum (“Grandmaster”). And it had several well-choreographed fight scenes, including the Hulk/Thor battle that we have all seen in all the previews, and the final battle scene, which was beautifully scored to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The best thing about these scenes was that the audience could actually follow the action, which has been a real problem in many CGI fight scenes in previous movies (think anything Michael Bay). But, as I mentioned, on top of all of this saving-the-universe-yet-again stuff, there was this nice layer of light comedy. At times it didn’t work, particularly when it was overly adolescent; I could have gotten through a Thor movie without ever hearing any masturbation, penis-size or anus jokes. But, what it did really well was to add dimension to two overly dramatic Marvel characters. Both Thor and The Hulk have suffered in overly serious films. Here, they suddenly became real people. These two characters were more alive in this film than in any film to date. Their buddy relationship was particularly fun to watch, as it allowed both actors to show a softer side to their characters, including warmth, humor, and self-doubt. I like this new Hulk a lot and I really like the new Thor who has evolved by the end of this story. I hope these are the two characters who show up in the “Infinity Wars” movies. I could definitely watch more of both of them.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Based on a set of French comics that ran from 1967 – 2010, the film focuses on a Flash Gordon-type hero named Valerian and his partner, Laureline. They do amazing things and save the good guys from the bad guys. That’s hardly a revolutionary story line, though it doesn’t need to be. We go to films like this for a lot of reasons but being surprised isn’t typically one of them. However, we do expect to be entertained. And, in a movie so full of spectacle and action, I am sorry to say that I was bored, almost from the first scene to the last. The backbone of any good film is an engaging plot; it draws the audience in, creates the context for everything we see, and defines what’s at stake for the protagonists. But, right from the start, it’s clear that the emphasis is on surface over substance. Whole scenes are unnecessarily convoluted just as an excuse to play with more visuals and the plot as a whole makes virtually no sense. Similarly, the dialogue and character development feel frankly adolescent. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be falling in love but the actors had no chemistry. In fact, none of them appeared to be trying particularly hard. Dane DeHaan, who played Valerian, is a terrific actor; watch him in “Kill Your Darlings.” But, here, he seemed to be channeling Keanu Reeves, as though Luc Besson thought he was making his own sort of “Matrix.” Besson, who is best known for directing “The Fifth Element,” shows all the subtlety here that he did there, though at least that film was visually arresting at times. Filmed almost entirely against a blue screen (there could not have been more than 3 or 4 actual sets in this whole film) for a whopping $180M, you would think “Valerian” would at least be fun to look at. You would be wrong. The imagery was all too much too often and without a coherent whole. Visuals were created just because they looked good and not because they served a consistent vision of this universe. The film lacked an internally compelling aesthetic. Also, because the characters all lacked depth, it did not matter that the CGI was good. None of their emotions meant anything. I kept thinking about the most recent “Planet of the Apes” and the character of Caesar. He was such a real and complex character that the CGI served to bring him to life. But CGI cannot animate the lifeless. As a tool, it can add new dimensions to film and allow the director/actors/audience to explore core truths in new and compelling ways. Or it can simply be gratuitous overload; visuals for the sake of the fact that you can create them. That’s what we have here. This film is all surface with nothing below a very thin veneer of pretty. Why bother? There are so many other better films to see. I can’t give this film a ∅. I mean, it didn’t offend me. It just felt like an 137 minute waste of time.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 15, 2017 at 9:25 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Director Matt Reeves made his name as the writer and director for the “Felicity” t.v. series. He then went on to direct “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” and the last “Planet of the Apes” film.  “The Batman” is next on his roster. Reeves brought a much needed depth to the previous “Apes” film. The first one had little to offer beyond the (then revolutionary) CGI. The story itself was painful. Reeves is now also the writer of “War” and has further developed the story established in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Taking place just 2 years after that film, we are in the middle of the war between humans and apes that started at the end of the “Dawn.” Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troop have been hiding deep in the woods until they are forced to look for a new, safer home. This film is less of an action/sci fi film and really more of a psychological drama. It explores how someone deals with trauma, battle fatigue, mistrust, rage and hatred, while still trying to be a leader to his people. The CGI is now good enough that a film like this can allow for a whole range and depth of emotions to play across a character’s face and Andy Serkis is a master actor. Though Reeves has cleverly evolved Caesar’s speaking abilities with each film, he does not rely on dialogue to convey most of the emotions we see on screen. Instead, we get beautiful close ups of Caesar’s and the other ape’s faces as they wrestle with complex and sometimes heartbreaking emotions. This film works because Caesar is such a beautifully realized character. The action scenes are fine, though nothing stands out as being as impressive as the Golden Gate Bridge scene from the first film. Also, there was a welcome amount of humor in an otherwise very serious story. But those are not the reasons I am recommending this film. Rather, see it because it completes the story arc in a really satisfying way. Though I am sure there will be more in the series, this trilogy is a better character study than most. See this film because it is beautifully acted. See it because it is touching. See it because I was surprised by how moved I was by its final moments. See it because great acting is always worth watching.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

July 9, 2017 at 10:53 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The Spider-Man franchise, in its various incarnations, has been the gold standard for superhero franchises, having brought in just over $4 billion in its 15 year run. Not bad for a kid in tights. So, expectations have been high for this reboot, especially after the Andrew Garfield one failed to take off. Right from the start, they were off to a good start because Marvel was back in control of the franchise and they have shown a deft hand at translating even the goofiest of characters to the screen (think “The Guardians of the Galaxy), where others have failed, even with hugely popular characters (think “The Fantastic Four”). Marvel chose to bring Spider-Man right back to his roots. What made him unique when he debuted in 1963 was that he was an awkward teenager, so unlike the cool and supremely talented heroes we had seen in comics to date. I think this is part of why Garfield’s Spidey never worked; he was too cocksure and smirky. Nothing about him read awkward teen. This time, Marvel hired the youngest actor yet to play Peter Parker, 21 year old British actor Tom Holland (“The Impossible,” “In the Heart of the Sea”). Unlike previous actors, Holland is able to believably play a 15 year old. In fact, the real contribution of this film to the genre is in just how different its hero is. This Spider-Man is every bit the nerdy, self-conscious, angst-ridden teen. He is impulsive, eager to please, clumsy and incredibly endearing. Holland’s charm as the character is what makes the film work. The storyline is not particularly better or worse than any of the other films. Again, the writers have dragged out a couple of classic Spider-Man villains. This time it is The Shocker and The Vulture. Robert Downey Jr’s cameo as Iron Man adds some humor and deeper context, but only if you are a fan who has watched all the other Marvel movies. Otherwise, he looks like a confusing add-on. Far funnier were Chris Evans’s cameos as Captain America. They were brilliantly clever (make sure you wait until after the final credits to see the last one). But the real star to watch was Michael Keaton as The Vulture. Keaton is having a well deserved revival after “Birdman” reminded everyone of how brilliant he is. He imbues this villain with just the right balance of menace, cynicism and blasé attitude. He is the perfect foil for Spider-Man’s goofy energy, wide-eyed wonder and perkiness. I found their in-costume battle scenes to be a bit dull, but when they were face-to-face, sparring verbally, that was just a joy. Keaton commanded every one of those scenes, but that’s okay because he should have. This geeky boy, despite his super powers, was no intellectual match for his enemy. I love that Marvel was willing to give us such an incomplete hero here. Usually, super heroes are all so automatically super and heroic. Even previous Spider-Men (Men? Mans? What’s the right grammar here?), had a “learning my powers montage” or two and then were remarkably proficient. I loved that this film chose to tackle the character so differently. As an action movie, this was about par with the most of them and not nearly as good as the likes of last month’s “Wonder Woman.” But, as a character study, this is really one of the best superhero films we have had to date.

Baby Driver

July 2, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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It was impossible to not think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant “Drive” throughout this film. Both tell the story of a getaway driver who tries to leave the life after falling in love. And Refn’s film was so vital and bold that it feels like I saw it yesterday, even though it was almost 5 years ago. This was hardly a fair thing to do to “Baby Driver,” which can only suffer by comparison. That film was brilliant; this one was merely very very entertaining. But worth the price of admission, none-the-less. Beyond the similarities in story, these films could not be more different. The tone, temper, pacing, acting, and visual palettes were virtually opposite each other. Refn’s “Drive” was a sort of minimalist masterpiece. The pace was deliberately slow and brooding and all of the acting was appropriately understated. Scenes seethed with unstated tension. And the lighting was dark, long night scenes, and lots of orange/red hues. But “Baby Driver” goes in the opposite direction. Director Edgar Wright (“Sean of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”) loves excess and draws over-the-top performances from his actors. From the first moments of the first scene, “Baby Driver” takes off and keeps going at an almost unrelenting pace for its entire 113 minutes. Every single performance is bursting with energy. Where Ryan Gosling’s driver was all coiled potential energy, Ansel Elgort’s Baby cannot stop moving. He is endless kinetic energy. The villains are equally as manic. Jon Bernthal’s Griff made his “Punisher” from the “Daredevil” t.v. series seem realistic by comparison. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it adds to the fun of a film that is clearly just meant to be fun. Jon Hamm appears to be having the time of his life as the absurdly one-dimensional Buddy. This film is all flash and buzz and hi-octane energy. It’s a cotton-candy thrill ride that knows how to be that, exactly that, and nothing more. Go, settle into your seat with a big bag of popcorn, and enjoy the ride.


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