Black Panther Review (Spoiler Free)

When you are excited about a film and you want it to succeed, one of two things can happen. It can be a massive disappointment (Glaring at you Batman v Superman) or it can live up to the hype to become a timeless cinematic classic. From the moment the Black Panther graced the screen in 2016’s sensational Captain America: Civil War it became clear that this character, originally created by Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, was ripe for his own memorable adventure.

Black_Panther_film_posterChadwick Boseman returns to the role of T’Challa, heir to the throne of Wakanda, a secret nation located in the heart of Africa. Using a unique and powerful element known as vibranium, Wakanda is a technological utopia, ruled by four peaceful tribes who vow to shield the nation’s resources from the chaotic outside world. As he ascends to his new role as King, T’Challa must use the mantle of the Black Panther to protect the country from those who wish to steal the throne and exploit vibranium for violent means.

As grand as the scope and visual elements are in Black Panther, it is the film’s characters, and specifically the supporting cast, that make it feel transcendent. Chadwick Boseman is once again regal and captivating as T’Challa, but it is the women around him that steal the show. Danai Gurira is wonderfully strong willed as Okoye, the Black Panther’s right hand women. Lupita Nyong’o brings alluring sophistication to the role of Wakandan spy, Nakia. Her chemistry with Boseman provides an intriguing romance that makes it feel like the characters have been on screen together many times before. And Letitia Wright is an absolute scene stealer as T’Challa’s brilliant and feisty younger sister, Shuri.

As for the villains in the film, they are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most compelling to date. Andy Serkis, expanding on his small role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, brings deliciously wicked humor as the terrorist Ulysses Klaue. But it is Michael B. Jordan who solidifies the film’s surprisingly emotional themes. Jordan brings undeniable swagger and intense passion to the role of Erik Killmonger, a character whose heartfelt motivations make him someone easy to route for. The best action movies are the ones that can create the perfect foil to the main protagonist and here, Director Ryan Coogler crafts a script that gives Killmonger motivations that are easy to understand and sympathize with. What it creates is something akin to Civil War and X-Men, where the villain’s ideals are admirable, but his methodology is treacherous.

There are action sequences, like an intense car chase through the streets of South Korea, that are jaw dropping. But it is the drama that takes place in between that makes Black Panther stand out as something timeless. The film deals with the notion that it is one’s duty to serve those who are less fortunate while also exploring the dangers of adhering to longstanding traditions that no longer serve the modern world. Thus, it manages to be a movie that transcends the often formulaic nature of the prototypical superhero flick.

What has continuously made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the peak of superhero filmmaking is their ability to constantly reinvent the genre. With Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) at the helm, Black Panther cements itself as arguably the studio’s most unique film. From the costumes, to the inventive technology, to the captivating customs, the film creates a rich lore that feels like a sci-fi Game of Thrones with a neo-African twist. The CGI gets a bit flimsy at times, a problem becoming more and more prevalent in superhero films as they become more ambitious, and there is also a romantic relationship in the film that could’ve been better fleshed out. But neither of these miniscule flaws is enough to keep Black Panther from being a stunning creation that pays homage to a long ignored culture. With thought provoking themes, and a witty and exuberant cast each bringing their best performances to the table, Black Panther deserves to be celebrated as a pillar of what the genre can and should be.

FINAL GRADE: A

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The 15:17 to Paris (Full Review)

A true story. The real heroes. You certainly can’t fault director Clint Eastwood for his fervor on this one. But there’s a reason actors are in movies. Actors are professionals at conveying emotion and creating an atmosphere that doesn’t make it obvious you’re not watching something that is staged. Despite a worthy subject matter, The 15:17 to Paris isn’t as compelling as it wants to be.

The_15.17_to_ParisIn 2015, two American soldiers and their civilian best friend stop a terrorist attack aboard a train while vacationing in Europe. The film delves into the back story of Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, exploring how they became friends and their struggles to go from juvenile delinquents to brave heroes. Rather than use actors in the main roles, the three men play themselves.

Knowing what they did to gain notoriety, it’s certainly easier to forgive the three leads for their terrible acting. But virtually every performance in this film feels wooden and cheesy. The dialogue doesn’t feel genuine and it constantly feels like everyone involved is struggling not to look at the camera. Poor writing is accompanied by a dull overall story. Instead of focusing on things that matter, the movie features scenes that are meaningless to the overall story which makes the movie ultimately boring with the lack of engaged performances.

It takes literally an hour and a half for 15:17 to Paris to actually become interesting when the heroic event is finally reenacted. But unless you feel like watching botched military try outs and empty banter between guys watching sports or at a bar, you’ll have to fight to stay awake long enough to reach the climax. Maybe real actors might’ve helped, but a script with better focus on pertinent details and character development is likely the only thing that could’ve saved this dull retelling of actual heroism.

FINAL GRADE: D

Winchester (Full Review)

There’s a reason I hardly ever review ghost stories. Hollywood seems to be obsessed with jump scares and operates under the assumption that using true events for inspiration is the best way to enthrall moviegoers. Not me. Winchester is basically everything I loathe about the genre rolled up into an hour and a half mess.

Winchester_(film)The Winchester estate is a real mansion located in San Jose, California. The story goes that Sarah Winchester (portrayed by Helen Mirren), a widow and heir to a gun manufacturing company in 1906, believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of the people killed by the company’s weapons. To keep the unruly spirits at bay, she keeps the mansion under endless construction with halls, doors, and stair cases that lead nowhere. In this film, the company’s board of directors enlists drug addicted psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to give Sarah Winchester a psychiatric evaluation in hopes that they can strip her of ownership. Once invited into the mansion, he begins to experience the haunting for himself.

Let’s start with the scares, or lack thereof, in Winchester. Every single moment meant to frighten the audience is telegraphed beforehand thanks to the usual juvenile tactics of silence and unsubtle camera placement. And, like most films in the genre, these moments are few and far between. When they aren’t lazily yelling ‘Boo!’ at the screen, the movie sluggishly moves along with Jason Clarke’s dull, unlikable lead taking up screen time with a backstory you won’t care to remember.

The supporting cast is useless and forgettable and when the movie turns into a dark and lackluster version of Ghostbusters, it quickly nosedives into unwatchable territory. Despite such impressive talent in the lead roles and a somewhat eerie subject matter it feels like a squandered opportunity. But make no mistake, there is nothing entertaining or suspenseful about this story. You’d be better off just taking a trip to San Jose and walking through the real house at night.

FINAL GRADE: F

The Shape of Water (Full Review)

You can always recognize a Guillermo Del Toro film. The acclaimed director of HellBoy and Pan’s Labyrinth always carries a special aesthetic that usually involves unique creatures and gothic cinematography. His latest film, The Shape of Water, is a pleasant reminder of the charm he is also capable of bringing to his iconic brand of filmmaking.

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman in the 1960’s who lives above a movie theater and works janitorial night shifts at a secret government facility. When a South American humanoid is brought to the facility by a malevolent government agent (Michael Shannon), Elisa befriends and eventually falls in love with the amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones). With the help of her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), her coworker (Octavia Spencer) and an undercover Russian scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), she embarks on a plan to help the creature, known as ‘The Asset”, escape.

A movie that teeters on being about bestiality certainly can be categorized as an odd film. But Del Toro’s story never manages to let its bizarre romance subvert its charm. Despite using only sign language, Sally Hawkins delivers a wholesome performance and makes her character’s unusual attraction to The Asset feel holistically human and genuine. Adding to the allure of the story is the supporting cast. Richard Jenkins is wonderful as Elisa’s artist neighbor who struggles with his sexuality while also trying to manage his friend’s dangerous ambition. Octavia Spencer works as the perfect companion and provides wonderful comedic timing as Elisa’s motor mouthed best friend.

Michael Shannon’s performance as the film’s villain is perhaps the greatest triumph of the film. His grotesque personality is accentuated with astute, yet subtle character development that makes him magnetic on screen even if you’re supposed to hate him. With hardly a dull moment, The Shape of Water manages to be a modern fairy tale that coupled with a sound score and gorgeous cinematography is a film easy to enjoy despite its many bizarre moments.

FINAL GRADE: B

Forever My Girl (Full Review)

There’s something about the south that brings out the wholesome charm in a love story. Forever My Girl is your run-of-the-mil Nicholas Sparks-esque story of good ole’ country lovin’. Clearly designed for those who enjoy a feel good romance, this movie directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf contains everything casual movie goers love and hate about the genre.

ForeverMyGirlposterAfter the death of a childhood friend, country music star Liam Page (Alex Roe) returns to the Louisiana hometown he left to chase his dreams. Waiting for him after a decade of no communication is his Pastor father (John Benjamin Haley) and Josie (Jessica Rothe), the woman he left at the altar. Liam still loves her and wants to rekindle their romance, but to win her back he’ll have to first win over the daughter he never knew (Abby Ryder Fortson).

For a romance to work, both characters have to be likable. Neither is. Josie is a sweet and wholesome woman, but it’s hard to pull for someone who comes off so desperate. Page essentially woos her by buying her things and charming her impressionable daughter. And even after he inevitably screws up again, she is still willing to give him another chance.

There is absolutely nothing to like about the Liam Page character other than his smooth singing voice. The character is an absolute man child who is lazy, irresponsible, and selfish. He is given more chances than any real person in the same situation should be given. It doesn’t help that the movie begins by establishing him as a person willing to leave his fiancée on their wedding day without even saying goodbye. He even neglects to return her phone calls for a decade!

Some good laughs and a strong performance from child actor Abby Ryder Fortson gives the movie some necessary charm. But it doesn’t change the fact that this relationship is one that will make any person with realistic notions of romance cringe.

FINAL GRADE: D

Den of Thieves (Full Review)

Den of Thieves is a high stakes thriller with a band of ruthless cops facing off against a team of convicts. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets Training Day. Well… at least that’s what they were probably going for. If you’re going to make a movie like this, you’d better cover all ground, or else you’ll risk being an occasionally fun movie with enough holes to drive an armored truck through.

Den_of_Thieves_posterO’Shea Jackson Jr.  stars as Donnie, an ex-con who is recruited to join a group of former soldiers led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and Enson (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson). After a plot to steal an armored truck turns violent, they catch the attention of a team of vicious L.A. officers led by degenerate Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler). Despite the police being on their tales, the crew of thieves prepares for an intricate plan to steal millions of dollars from the Federal Reserve.

There are moments in Den of Thieves that are truly intense and exciting. The cat and mouse game between Schreiber’s Merrimen and Butler’s ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien is fun to watch. Despite being a police officer, O’Brien is a demon of a character who cheats on his wife and breaks protocol at the drop of a hat with deadly consequences. This creates a film where there are no good or bad guys, but a bunch of characters with their own intriguing motivations.

But for all of the action and cheap thrills, this actually ends up being an egregiously faulty movie. The federal reserve heist, which starts off as an ingenious plan, unravels as it goes. The plan bounces from crafty to outright ridiculous and ends with several instances of poor planning that make you wonder how in the world they ever thought it could work. For instance, the thieves manage to brilliantly distract the entire L.A. police force and sneak into a heavily guarded bank but don’t account for traffic?

As a narrative, things get flimsy too often. There is far too much screen time attributed to O’Brien’s atrocious personal life. It’s necessary for character development to have a moment showing his failing marriage, but do we have to get several scenes reinforcing the fact? O’Shea’s Donnie is also recruited to be a Vin Diesel-esque getaway driver, but the skill is virtually unrelated to the overall plot. Then there’s ’50 Cent’s’ character. Placed in top billing, the character barely speaks and has an utterly irrelevant scene that is ripped straight out of Bad Boys II. A solid ending twist will help you enjoy Den of Thieves if you put forth minimal thought, just don’t expect anything groundbreaking from this one.

FINAL GRADE: C