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

Advertisements

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

The Post (Full Review)

Contrary to what some might have you believe these days, the purpose of the news media has always been to serve as a check on those in power. Never was that purpose more evident than in the early 1970’s in the midst of the controversial Vietnam War. Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post tells the story of the battle to uphold that right during the height of the newspaper industry.

The_Post_(film)Meryl Streep portrays Washington Post owner Katherine Graham who is thrust into the leadership role after her husband’s untimely suicide. Her high class social life of dining with politicians is threatened when a whistleblower reveals years of documents proving that several U.S. Presidents had been lying to the American people about the lack of success during the Vietnam War. After President Richard Nixon leads the charge for a court order forbidding the New York Times from publishing the documents, fiery Washington Post editor and chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) decides to challenge the court’s rulings by publishing the documents under the guise of Freedom of the Press. But to do so, he’ll need Graham’s permission.

The movie certainly drags for its first third as it sets up all of the need to know details of the classified documents and attempts to establish many of its dry characters. But once it zeroes in on its main topic, The Post finds its footing and becomes an intensely gripping film. Unsurprisingly, Streep and Hanks are homeruns in their roles. Streep is compelling in the role of Graham, who navigates her difficult position of a woman in power in the 1970’s to become an iconic figure for Women’s rights. Hanks is equally brilliant and manages to brings necessary wit and drive to a film that might be a bit dull without him.

If you can make it through the sluggish beginning, The Post pays off with a smart, passionate rendering of its necessary subject matter. Like many Oscar-bate biographical films, it can feel like a drag to those who want their movies to be more entertaining than informative. But even if it does come off as something that should be shown in high school history classes, anyone watching it should come away with a greater appreciation for the media and its necessary role in our society.

FINAL GRADE: B

Proud Mary (Full Review)

It’s necessary to have some diversity in all film genres. We haven’t seen a black woman star as a no-nonsense, gun toting action hero since Pam Grier in the 70’s. In Proud Mary, award winning actress Taraji P. Henson gets to step into the shoes of a bad ass hitwoman. But just because the leading lady and the concept is good, doesn’t mean the end product will be.

Proud_Mary_posterHenson plays Mary, an assassin who takes in a young boy named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) whose father she killed in a hit. Determined to free herself and the boy from the violent world of organized crime, Mary kills the rival mob boss that Danny worked for. The move insights an underground war forcing her to turn on her boss Benny (Danny Glover) and his son/her ex-lover Tom (Billy Brown).

I love Henson as an actress. And I love crime drama. So I wanted to like Proud Mary as much as I did Salt or John Wick. But Proud Mary is a dull, forgettable mess that feels more like a TV movie. The Mary character isn’t given remotely enough to make you care about her other than the fact that she’s played by Taraji P. Henson and the plot delivers about as much nuance as my description of it. The entire story feels rushed through, with supporting characters and motives barely touched on. It almost feels like there’s about a half hour chunk of character development and exposition missing.

The action doesn’t manage to be a saving grace, except for a few scenes. Many of the sequences feel poorly edited, as if to better mask the stunt doubles. It makes for several choreographed moments where it’s obvious Taraji P. isn’t the one throwing the punches meaning her most intimidating character moments come from shooting people in the head point blank.

The soundtrack is wonderful and the mother-son chemistry with Henson’s Mary and Winston’s Danny is endearing enough to at least make you care about them and make the story not a complete waste of time. But it doesn’t change the fact that this movie is a missed opportunity. Henson is a good enough actress to warrant an action movie with a budget and story better than a BET movie you’d watch while doing laundry on a weekday afternoon.

FINAL GRADE: D

The Commuter (Full Review)

We all know the drill by now. Liam Neeson is a grizzled elder statesmen with a particular set of skills and he will do anything to seek justice or protect his family. Sometimes it makes for some pretty exhilarating entertainment. Other times, not so much. In The Commuter, Neeson reunites with Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night, Non-Stop, Unknown) for more of the same.

The_Commuter_film_posterNeeson plays Michael MacCauley, a grizzled former cop with a particular set of skills who will do anything to protect his family. After being laid off from his job in life insurance, he encounters a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) on his train ride home. She offers him $10,000 to find and execute an unknown criminal witness before the train ride can come to an end. With no phone and his family held hostage, he must decide to go through with the plan or attempt to save the witness and the rest of the passengers.

Yes, Liam Neeson is doing the same thing he always does. But, here, it’s pretty entertaining. The movie plays out more like a mystery than an action thriller, with several suspects laid out for the audience to try and sift through along with his character. And unlike in many of his previous films, Neeson’s character feels much more vulnerable both physically and emotionally, which makes for much more intriguing action.

The plot and many of the action sequences are over the top. And some of it is far too similar to Non-Stop. There is also a plot hole here and there. But the players involved make The Commuter worth the ride if you don’t take it too seriously. If you’ve grown tired of these types of films, by all means pass this one by. But if seeing Liam Neeson saddle up for another wild scenario makes you sit on the edge of your seat, the many twists and turns in this movie will definitely keep you enthralled from start to finish.

FINAL GRADE: B

Pitch Perfect 3 (Full Review)

It wasn’t just girl power that made Pitch Perfect a success back in 2012. Quirky characters, witty humor, and some melodic A Cappella singing made the breakout hit a creative and fun film for any fan of young adult comedies. But Hollywood has always had a problem at quitting while they’re ahead (*cough* Transformers). When I saw Pitch Perfect 2, I had a bad feeling that this ride may have hit its peak. After watching the third installment in the series, it’s clear that this franchise has run dry.

Pitch_Perfect_3Pitch Perfect 3 reunites Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), and Chloe (Brittany Snow) with the rest of the members of the collegiate A Cappella group the Barden Bellas (Anna Camp, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, Chrissie Fit). Despite most of them having pretty successful careers and being in their 20’s, the Bellas are going through a bit of a millennial mid-life crisis which leads them to join a USO traveling tour for one last hurrah where they must compete with bands who don’t sing covers.

The plot to this film is scraping the bottom of the barrel so much that they’re getting nothing but wooden shards. None of it, from the flat romantic arcs to the lackluster competition, is interesting or compelling. The Bellas rival, a band of unnecessarily rude women called Evermoist… yes Evermoist…  is more annoying than threatening. The subplots are even more left field. A side story involving Fat Amy’s drug smuggling father (John Lithgow using a horrible Australian accent) is downright insufferable. It unnecessarily interjects mindless action sequences and an irrelevant rescue mission into the story that seems to only succeed in making the movie long enough to qualify as a movie and not a DVD extra.

The music is enjoyable, specifically an early rendition of Sit Still, Look Pretty by Daya performed by Hailee Steinfield and the new Barden Bellas.  But the unusually off the wall antics make the musical moments far more difficult to remember. No one asked for or needed CGI explosions and stunts in a Pitch Perfect movie. It’s just dumb and distracting and it takes away from what audiences really come for which is the singing and the camaraderie between the characters. If you’re really keen on seeing this movie, you’re better off renting it and fast forwarding to the musical parts. Thus, it gets the same grade I would’ve given a film with similar sentiments: You Got Served

FINAL GRADE: D