REVIEW: “Black Panther”


Over the last several months my thoughts on “Black Panther” went from cautious to optimistic; lukewarm to generally excited. What nearly dampened my enthusiasm was the rabid, unbridled praise from early viewers who were quick to throw out words like “masterpiece” and “the greatest superhero movie ever made”. My personal favorite may be that the film will be “taught in school” and “debated among intellectuals”. Director Ryan Coogler has even been heralded as “the new Spielberg”.

All of this does more to fuel my skepticism than stoke excitement. After all, there are some legitimate reasons to want a film like this to succeed and it seems many are doing their part to ensure the hype is through the roof. But here’s the thing, I don’t need prodding in order to find reasons to be excited: Coogler is a fantastic young filmmaker. I absolutely love the cast. I couldn’t wait to see how cinematographer Rachel Morrison follows up her Oscar-nominated work in “Mudbound”. Ultimately all of the fawning puts undeserved pressure on “Black Panther” which when brought down to reality is an extraordinary genre picture that stands strong on its own merits.


With two feature films under his belt (the good “Fruitvale Station” and the even better “Creed”) Ryan Coogler has shown himself to be an astute director with a fresh cinematic perspective. He brings all of that to “Black Panther” which he also co-writes with Joe Robert Cole. His venture into the superhero genre feels epic in scale yet maintains an intimacy that some of Marvel’s other efforts lack. It’s a careful balance that helps the movie excel in a variety of ways.

The wonderfully cast Chadwick Boseman returns as T’Challa, a character first introduced in Marvel’s “Civil War”. In that film his father, the king of the small African country of Wakanda, is killed during a terrorist attack in Vienna. “Black Panther” begins shortly after with T’Challa set to take his father’s place as Wakanda’s king as well as its super-powered protector. He’s quickly faced with a host of challenges both from inside and outside of his nation’s secret borders.


Much like “Wonder Woman” a year ago, “Black Panther” reinvigorates its genre in a number of ways and the two movies share similarities. In that film it was the mythical island of Themyscira that remained hidden and untainted by the outside world. Here it’s Wakanda posing as a poor third-world country but actually rich in energy and technology thanks to a powerful alien mineral known as vibranium which they keep hidden from the rest of the world. Isolationism is one of the many subjects explored as the leaders of Wakanda’s five tribes debate their traditional stance versus a more open-world position. There is no easy answer as I’m sure the inevitable sequels will prove.

While T’Challa is the centerpiece you could say it’s the supporting characters who make this such a rich and full experience. First you have his allies, a delightful collection of powerful and personality-rich women. Lupita Nyong’o is fabulous as T’Challa’s principled ex-flame and Wakandan secret agent Nakia who’s guided by conscience over crown. Danai Gurira is lights-out as Okoye, leader of the female special forces unit known as the Dora Milaje. Letitia Wright plays T’Challa’s live-wire younger sister Shuri. She’s to her brother what Q is to James Bond. We also get great names like Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker.


In the bad guys corner is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who knows Wakanda’s big secret and has a sweet tooth for vibranium. There’s something I love about Serkis’ performance that I can’t quite put my finger on. Klaue is as bizarre as he is brutal and you can tell Serkis is having a ball portraying him.

But the name most people will be talking about (and rightly so) is Michael B. Jordan who plays Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. His story is setup in the film’s prologue and comes more into focus as the movie moves forward. As his name denotes, Killmonger has been raised in violence and therefore acts through violence. He is an essential piece to Coogler’s story and offers more complexity than the bulk of Marvel villains we’ve seen. In many ways Killmonger is the product of choices made by others and he is driven by a whirlwind of internal chaos, much of it aimed at Wakanda.

Jordan is an absolute scene-stealer and you get the sense Coogler wants him to be. The two have collaborated on both “Fruitvale” and “Creed” and they definitely operate on the same wavelength. Here the charismatic Jordan brings a swagger to Killmonger as well as a palpable rage which fuels his every move. Ultimately he is a misguided soul yet at the same time a sympathetic one with much more driving him than the generic quest for ‘world domination’.


In each of his films Coogler has shown a big interest in his characters and it’s no different here. He also gives a lot of attention to visualizing Wakanda as a majestic place full of cultural beauty and aesthetic diversity. Production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter make the most with their chunk of the film’s $200 million budget. And it’s all captured through Rachel Morrison’s vibrant camera.

As much as I loved “Black Panther” it isn’t without a few nagging issues. There are plenty of action scenes, several of which are fabulous. But the ending is the only time the movie falls in with the traditional Marvel formula – a massive final battle with a ton of CGI. While some of it is exhilarating, the effects aren’t what you would expect and sometimes come off as a little cartoony. There are also a handful of unanswered questions and a couple of relationships that felt underserved. Minor quibbles in light of what all the movie manages to do right.


“Black Panther” is indeed a socially relevant movie as many have said and it is so without depending on obvious narrative crutches or hammer-to-the-head sermonizing. It’s socially relevant because it simply is. That may sound a bit tripe, but it’s the best way to state it. The film’s setting, its characters, its conflicts all feel natural and authentic within the world Coogler and company create. The story’s message and underlying themes are rooted in conviction and earnestly explored within the flow of the narrative itself. Really good filmmakers can do that.

In the end “Black Panther” is a rousing success not because critics propped it up or commentators screamed its importance. It’s a success because of the people who made it – immense talents in front and behind the camera who are hopefully opening the eyes of moviegoers and moviemakers. But “Black Panther” isn’t just a cultural statement. It’s a terrific film that energizes a genre as it has a community. Not many movies can say that.



REVIEW: “Blade Runner 2049”

BLADE poster

Green-lighting “Blade Runner 2049” could be considered one of the gutsiest movie moves in recent years. Ridley Scott’s 1982 original landed with mixed reactions both from critics and moviegoers. It’s unique and unconventional approach to practically everything pushed many viewers away and it failed to bring in the money Warner Brothers was banking on. Yet over time perceptions have changed and the film is widely regarded as a science fiction classic.

Now, 39 year later, along comes “Blade Runner 2049” and you could say it has followed the same path as its predecessor. While critics weren’t as divided, audiences didn’t come out for it and the movie fell well short of what it needed at the box office to break even. Yet just like the ’82 film, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect a re-evaluation over time and a greater appreciation for what “2049” is doing.


Talks of a “Blade Runner” sequel had been ongoing for years with names like Christopher Nolan and a returning Ridley Scott attached. Denis Villeneuve eventually signed on to direct and with him came long-time collaborator and top-tier cinematographer Roger Deakins (fourteen Oscar nominations without a win and counting). What quickly became obvious was Villeneuve’s intention to keep certain things very close to the original. The look, the tone, even the deliberate storytelling all hearken back to Scott’s picture.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a Blade Runner for the LAPD. In case you need a refresher, Blade Runners are tasked with hunting down and “retiring” bioengineered humans known as replicants. K’s superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) puts him on the trail of a rogue replicant of interest (Dave Bautista) who needs to be put down. In his encounter with his target K discovers evidence of a child born possibly from two replicants. Joshi believes this startling knowledge that replicants can reproduce could start a war so she orders K to hunt down the child and erase any evidence of its existence.


The devilish Tyrell Corporation from the first film is no more and the even more nefarious Wallace Corporation has risen to take its place. It’s ran by a mannered, milky-eyed Jared Leto who has also learned of the miracle child’s possible existence. And as you can probably guess, he wants it for his own reasons. He sends his personal strong-arm Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to tail Agent K and capture the child for the company.

The writing team of Hampton Francher (co-writer of the original film) and Michael Green (who contributed to four 2017 screenplays) wisely steer clear of altering the “Blade Runner” formula. Much like its predecessor, 2049 is a methodically structured puzzle, solved through slow but persistent drips of revelation. Surrounding that central mystery is a visually jaw-dropping world – a consistent evocation of the original film’s unforgettable aesthetic. Production designer Dennis Gassner deserves a ton of credit for visualizing such a stimulating dystopia, from the exquisitely dank and dreary Los Angeles to the glowing orange hue of the sandy and barren Las Vegas. Then Deakins elegantly shoots the world in a way that amplifies the moody sci-fi/neo-noir vibe and immerses the audience.


Gosling (known for often acting in a perpetual state of lethargy) is a perfect fit for his role. K is a character hungry to feel and there is a surprising emotional resonance in Gosling’s portrayal. K is a tragic figure, mutually disliked or dismissed by both humans and replicants. He attempts to fill that void with a holographic companion called Joi (Ana de Armas). But ultimately it’s his mission to hunt down the child that puts the pieces together for him. One of those pieces is a returning Harrison Ford who brings an unexpected subtlety and nuance to the now older and wiser Rick Deckard.

“Blade Runner 2049” isn’t the first movie to pose the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Ridley Scott has long been fascinated with variations of that question and Villeneuve’s movie is no different. It’s an idea that lies under the surface of “2049” and its entire two hours and forty-five minute runtime. It is a bit long which certainly contributed to the lower box office. And viewers attuned to more action-packed rhythms have undoubtedly had a hard time with the picture. That’s a shame. “2049” has more to say, has more visual ingenuity and takes more risks than the bulk of the genre films we get today.

So for now it appears the gutsy call hasn’t paid off. But I can’t help but believe that over time “2049” will be reassessed by many who dismissed it and I can honestly see it someday being heralded as a new science fiction classic just like its predecessor. Sure, those are bold words but some people were saying the same thing in 1982.



REVIEW: “The Bachelors”


Kurt Voelker’s “The Bachelors” opens with a father walking into his son’s bedroom in the middle of the night. He sits on the edge of the bed and says to his groggy son “I can’t stay here anymore.” Even without context this simple line of dialogue packs the emotional heft that is threaded throughout this entire film.

“The Bachelors” is a movie about grief which is nothing spectacular or especially new. But Voelker (who both wrote and directed the picture) does something many of these explorations miss. He never loses sight of the human element or the importance of conveying truth in every relationship. Whether he’s juggling drama or comedy, his characters and their emotions always feel genuine.


The father is Bill (J.K. Simmons) who recently lost his wife to cancer after 33 years of marriage. It’s an extraordinary performance by Simmons who maintains a steady heartbreaking tenderness. It’s not nearly as flamboyant or showy as his Oscar-winning performance in “Whiplash” but just as impressive in a much more measured way.

Bill packs up and moves with his son Wes (Josh Wiggins) to southern California where he hopes a change of scenery will do him good. Wes is equally sympathetic as a teenager who not only loses his mother but also his father to a worsening state of depression. On top of that he’s forced to move to a new town and a new school with new friends. There is an almost natural shyness to Wiggins that comes through in his acting. We saw in “Walking Out” from earlier this year and now here. His understated approach is serves his character which make later scenes when his emotions boil over more effective.

The coming-of-age side of Voelker’s two-headed story has its moments. Many of them are between Wes and a beautiful but troubled wild-child named Lacy. She’s portrayed by Odeya Rush who played a similar role in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”. The two are designated homework partners which allows their unconventional relationship to take form. Wes’ time with his two new outsider friends is a little more hit-or-miss. Some of their banter is funny but other times seems too contrived for the moment.


The other side of Voelker’s story consistently surprised me especially in how deep it was willing to dive into the area of depression. I wasn’t expecting it. There are no soft perspectives or dulled edges. Simmons doesn’t ‘go big’ to add a dominating dramatic effect to the issue. His performance is mannered yet emotionally rich and always believable. There are some wonderful and revealing scenes between Simmons and Harold Perrineau who plays his therapist. And also with Julie Delpy who plays a math teacher who takes an interest in Bill.

The film’s ending could be misconstrued as too tidy, but I was never left with that impression. I think the struggles still ahead of this father and son are implied but Voelker offers us hope. And we want that for these characters. We want it to work out. We want them to heal. We want all of this because Voelker does such a good job making us care for them. That sympathetic and emotional connection he creates is more than enough to carry us through this delightful yet poignant story.



REVIEW: “The Beguiled”

beguiled poster

There are so many benefits to going into a movie blind. Such was the case for me and Sofia Coppola’s latest film “The Beguiled”, a movie that made her the second (ever) female to win the Best Director award at Cannes. I had no real reference point. I haven’t read Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. I’ve never seen the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie. I didn’t read a plot synopsis or a single review prior to seeing it. I’m glad for it and I’m sure it fed into the film’s hypnotic effect.

Set in 1864 Alabama and three years into the Civil War, Coppola’s vision for the aptly titled “The Beguiled” is far more focused and contained than expected. The war and its side-effects linger in the background mostly reminding us of its presence through the booming cannon fire in the distance. Instead the entirety of Coppola’s film is restricted to a remote girls school and the drama that unfolds there.


The film’s Southern Gothic vibe is almost immediately noticeable. Both look and tone convey a subtle sense of isolation and unease. From the very start everything feels a bit off-kilter and Coppola’s management of her tight, tense little world keeps it that way.

The characters drive this deftly conceived drama. Nicole Kidman is the right actress to play the school’s wary and stoic matriarch. Kidman’s portrayal reveals someone firmly dedicated yet clearly drained by her responsibilities. Kirsten Dunst is equally good as the school’s doleful teacher who struggles to maintain a sense of belonging. Elle Fanning plays a young free-spirited Southern belle who is as cunning as she is charming. Each, along with four young girls under their care, go about their melancholy day following their same melancholy routine.

But oh how things change when one of the young girls (wonderfully played by Oona Laurence) stumbles across a wounded Union soldier and helps him back to the school. He’s played by Colin Farrell and his presence in the house immediately causes a stir as each woman is forced to deal with their own pent-up frustrations. As he is slowly nursed back to health the character dynamics between him and each individual woman takes their own sensuously wicked turns.


Farrell fits his part well – a good-looking charmer aimed at survival. But despite being a key plot piece, he quickly becomes secondary to Coppola’s greater interest – the female perspective. It’s the women who are the most fascinating as they maneuver between empowerment and outright self-destruction. Coppola’s approach, both as writer and director, handles their emotions more through suggestion than laying things bare. And the slow-burning dramatic fuse makes it all the more compelling.

There are several other pivotal ingredients that Coppola utilizes to great effect. There is the haunting minimalist score from the French band Phoenix. Exquisite costume design from Coppola favorite Stacey Battet. And perhaps the biggest find, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Every frame he shoots features some interesting angle or technique. All of these talents join a stellar cast in realizing Coppola’s tense, simmering vision.


I suppose I should mention the backlash from some who have problems with the film’s avoidance of the slavery issue and subsequent absence of any African-American cast members. There are certainly films where this is a valid gripe. This isn’t one of them. Not every Civil War era movie needs to address the slavery issue especially when the scope of the story being told is so precise. And if Coppola did try and wedge in the slavery issue would it be given the attention it deserves?  Truth is the subtly brewing war inside the walls of the school is far more in focus than the war outside. In fact the isolation of these women is a key point.

Serving as a refuge from the blockbuster-thick summer movie schedule, “The Beguiled” is a refreshing change of pace. Isolation, sexual repression, jealousy, and several other themes are handled with smarts, and Coppola’s understated approach makes it hard to take your eyes off of the film’s steady boil. The slow pace may not work for everyone (there was a moment when I wondered myself), but it never spins its wheels. It keeps moving forward to its fabulous finale which was just icing on the proverbial cake.



REVIEW: “Blue Jay”


Mark Duplass has found himself in an enviable position. He’s making the films he wants to make with complete creative control. And he’s doing so not by making it big in Hollywood. Instead he signed a four-picture deal with Netflix that offers him artistic freedom while also ensuring the financial backing that many independent filmmakers struggle with.

For the most part Duplass has steered clear of Hollywood’s courting, instead making small intimate films with miniscule budgets. His first movie for Netflix certainly fits that description. “Blue Jay” is Duplass completely in his element and it gives us a good idea of the creative leeway he has been given. It’s shot in black-and-white, it stars essentially a two-person cast, it took only seven days to film, and it was green-lit by Netflix without seeing a script. That’s a trusting partnership.


Duplass not only writes the screenplay but stars in “Blue Jay”. He plays Jim, a 40-ish bachelor who returns to his small California hometown to renovate the house left behind by his late mother. While in the grocery store Jim bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Paulson) who happens to be back in town to visit her sister. Their meeting is bit awkward but a cup of coffee at the town’s diner loosens things up and before long they are reminiscing about the good old days.

We learn all we need to know about these two characters through their conversations and recollections. As we slowly piece together their deep connection it becomes clear that their entire lives have been effected by the past they shared. There’s also this neat bit of early 90s nostalgia that shows itself in the scenes where Jim and Amanda cast aside their present-day cares and playfully immerse themselves in their history together. But their memories aren’t wound-free which becomes evident the more time we spend with them.


Director Alex Lehmann wisely keeps himself in the background and allows his two actors to carry the load. Duplass and Paulson have a convincing chemistry and there is an organic flowing rhythm to their dialogue. Much of it is due to a considerable amount of improvisation in place of a conventional script. While Duplass is a natural fit for his character, Paulson is the true highlight. Watching her navigate her character’s many emotional layers left me wondering why she doesn’t get more of these roles.

“Blue Jay” manages to be funny and playful while also taking an honest look at the insecurity and fragility of its characters. Later on it does get a touch melodramatic but it always remains truthful and feels plucked from real life experiences. The wonderful choice to soak the film in black and white adds a wonderful layer of nostalgia and melancholy. It’s a bold choice for a 2016 character drama, but again it demonstrates the audacity filmmakers can show when given creative liberties. That’s why I’m excited for what else this Duplass/Netflix partnership will deliver.



REVIEW: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)


I’m not sure if any 2016 movie has drawn a more complex range of discussion than Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”. Right out of Sundance, many instantly christened it the next Best Picture Oscar winner and a direct answer to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Some have placed the entire weight of the Hollywood diversity cause on its shoulders. Such high expectations are hardly fair.

Adding another layer was the resurfacing of a 1999 Penn State rape charge. Parker and close friend Jean McGianni Celestin (who is given a story credit in the film) were accused of raping a fellow student. Charges against Parker were dropped but information about his defense (namely his definition of “consent”) and acts of intimidation towards the victim haven’t shed him in the most positive light. Celestin was convicted but the charges were eventually dropped on a technicality. The victim committed suicide in 2012.

Essentially this renews the age-old debate of separating the art from the artist, something I’m usually able to do (Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” remains a favorite of mine). But I don’t dismiss those who struggle with Parker and his film mainly because a brutal rape plays a big part in the story. Ultimately your experience with “The Birth of a Nation” could very well be influenced by how these events speak to you.


Personally I feel better equipped to examine the movie on its own merits. Controversy aside, there is a powerful story at the center of Parker’s film – a melding of fact and fiction. It’s based on the life of Nat Turner, a slave in Southhampton County, Virginia who led an uprising against white slave owners in 1831. Many have viewed Turner’s rebellion as a heroic and justified act which is clearly the perspective Parker takes. But in doing so he softens the edges of Turner’s actions which misses out on some of the more fascinating complexities of his story.

Parker (who wrote, directed, and starred in the film) first reveals Nat Turner as a young boy. A self-taught reader, Nat is given a Bible by the matriarch of his slave owning family (Penelope Ann Miller). Years pass and Nat becomes a preacher to his fellow slaves on the plantation which is now ran by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). When a local white minister (played in a near cartoonish fashion by Mark Boone Junior) notices Samuel’s slaves are “well behaved”, he suggests that Samuel take Nate to other plantations to preach calming messages to their slaves (for a price of course).

As Nat visits other plantations the true brutality of slavery is brought into focus and he realizes he is simply a tool of the slave owners. This directly challenges his view of Scripture and soon causes him read the Bible in a new way. Feeling inspiration from God, Nat puts together a violent rebellion in hopes of freeing his people and pouring out judgement on their oppressors.


“The Birth of a Nation” is told almost exclusivity from the slave’s perspective (mainly Nat’s) which offers some truly powerful moments. This allows for the ugliness to be seen without any (intentional or unintentional) gloss. At the same time Parker’s direction and storytelling is all over the map.

The early parts feel as though Parker is simply checking off plot points. There is little narrative flow. Once the film gets to where Parker wants it to be, he slows it down and more thoughtfully maneuvers from scene to scene. There are also these unusual bursts of otherworldly imagery which seem to be portraying Nat as a mythological spiritual figure of sorts. It’s an interesting idea but Parker doesn’t let it flow naturally from the story. It’s more or less forced upon us through much more conventional techniques.

There are several compelling things Parker touches on that I wish had been explored more. There is an undeniable spiritual element particularly when Nat begins to see Scripture through a different lens. I would have loved to see more of his struggle with interpretation since it eventually birthed his inspiration for the rebellion. Instead it (and several other story threads) feels terribly shortchanged.


Then there is the rebellion itself. The uprising began with a surprise killing of 50+ slave owners. Parker doesn’t hold back on the graphic brutality, but in his version Nat and his fellow slaves targeted the male slavers who we see throughout the film doing all sorts of vile acts. In reality women and children were also killed. This fact could have subverted what Parker is going for, but the inner moral conflict it surely brought would have been fascinating to explore.

While several things would have made this better, that in no way means this film is without value. Again, there is a powerful story at its core, and while sometimes conventional, several of Parker’s images and scenes are indelibly etched in my mind. But perhaps its biggest strength is how it serves as a profound reminder of a nation’s past transgressions. From start to finish “Birth” keeps you locked in and focused. Parker never loses the potency of his subject matter.

It’s no accident Parker chose “The Birth of a Nation” as his title. It’s taken directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic – a film praised for its groundbreaking approach to filmmaking and excoriated for its depictions of African Americans and the KKK. Parker has “reclaimed” the title and attached it to a much different picture – not a perfect one, for sure. Its uneven direction, messy script, and some heavy-handedness of its own are legitimate frustrations and while “The Birth of a Nation” strives for greatness it falls just short. Yet despite its shortcomings, there is still important and thought-provoking material here, material that deserves to be seen and talked about.


3 Stars