REVIEW: “Bird Box”

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Arguably the weirdest titled movie of 2018 has debuted on Netflix and with quite a bit of attention. According to the streaming giant “Bird Box” has been watched by 45 million accounts making it the “best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film.” Skeptics notwithstanding, those are pretty impressive numbers especially for a usually tight-lipped company.

“Bird Box” is a genre stew featuring slices of horror, psychological drama, science-fiction, and end-of-the-world thrillers. It’s based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 debut novel of the same name and adapted to screen by Oscar nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”). Danish director Susanne Bier is tasked with corralling it all together and she manages it with a satisfying effectiveness.

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The film opens with a mother named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) giving strict instructions to two children as they prep for a dangerous trek up a river. The three blindfold themselves before feeling their way to a fiberglass rowboat. After a few more pointed warnings they begin the treacherous journey upstream.

Flashback to five years earlier. A terrifying unknown presence surfaces causing anyone who lays eyes on it to suddenly kill themselves. Malorie, now pregnant and a soon to be single mother, finds herself holed up in a house with an assortment of strangers all trying to make sense of the rampant death and chaos.

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“Bird Box” bounces back-and-forth between the present day river scenes and the flashbacks which reveal what led Malorie to that point. Most of that time is spent in the house where survivors battle fear and uncertainty as supplies begin to run out and new survivors show up. A talent-rich supporting cast fill out the group. There’s Tom (Trevante Rhodes), Douglas (John Malkovich), Cheryl (Jackie Weaver), Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), and Charlie (Lil Rey Howery) among others.

Parenting is a central theme and we see it from both literal and metaphorical angles. When it works it’s mostly due to a stellar performance from Bullock who hasn’t lost a step and shows she can still navigate an intense range of emotions. But it’s not always easy to keep the theme in focus especially when the film stumbles into some familiar genre trappings. There is clearly a thematic throughline, but you never lose sight that this is very much a genre(s) movie.

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The film’s opening 20 minutes are its best, introducing its terrifying unseen threat that is undeniably menacing yet intentionally undefined. It turns society upside-down much like the killer first scenes of 2013’s “World War Z” yet on a smaller scale. Bier builds plenty of suspense and then carries it over to the film’s more character-focused house segment. Some of the characters work better than others. Rhodes is a standout. Malkovich is very John Malkovich-like. Weaver is sadly lost in the crowd.

“Bird Box” runs the gambit from riveting to predictable to kinda silly. At the same time it’s never boring and the performances are always worth watching. The convergence of survival and motherhood within such a sinister setting is a cool concept and Bullock wonderfully fleshes it out for us. She’s the movie’s backbone and even when the story sputters at times she puts it on her back and carries it to finish line.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Bumblebee”

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If you’re like me the very notion of a “Bumblebee” movie was easy to dismiss. I have been numb to the Transformers movie franchise since its second installment 2009. For me the movies spiraled into the kind of blockbuster I generally push back on – tons of CGI-fueled spectacle but barely a shred of story or character substance to sink your teeth into.

Then along comes “Bumblebee” and several things automatically grab your attention. For starters it’s the first Transformers film not directed by Michael Bay. Second, it stars a really good young actress in Hailee Steinfeld. Lastly, the movie is currently sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. That was just enough to lure me into letting my guard down and actually going to the theater.

“Bumblebee” is both interesting and surprising – a prequel to the 2007 original film and far more intimate and clear-eyed than any of Michael Bay’s concoctions. It’s the second film from director Travis Knight, his first being the exceptional “Kubo and the Two Strings”. He and screenwriter Christina Hodson place a heavy emphasis on character which gives “Bumblebee” an emotional pulse missing from the franchise’s other installments.

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As civil war rages on his home planet, Autobot soldier B-127 (later named Bumblebee) is sent to earth by leader Optimus Prime. His mission is to covertly establish a resistance base while protecting the planet if their enemies the Decepticons happen to show up. Bumblebee lands in 1987 California but has to fend off a testy government agency captained by John Cena and even worse a Decepticon who tailed him to Earth. Bumblebee survives the encounter but ends up seriously damaged, unable to speak and with a broken memory core. As a result he helplessly takes the form of a Volkswagen Beetle and shuts down.

Steinfeld’s Charlie is a bit of an outcast only days away from her 18th birthday. She still grieves the loss of her father and has been unable to move on like her mother (Pamela Adlon) who has since remarried. Charlie’s life is a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration whether it’s her downer job at a local carnival or she’s trying to fix up an old car she and her dad worked on together. She finds a glimmer of purpose in a dusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle (guess who) she discovers in her uncle’s junkyard.

While working on her new ride Charlie inadvertently wakes Bumblebee and in the process emits a signal quickly picked up by the Decepticons. The two quickly form a bond which Knight smartly spends a lot of time on. Both characters share a similar lostness but find a much-needed comfort in their relationship. This could have been an easy misfire but Hodson’s script has a legitimate heartbeat. It’s sweet and surprisingly tender without ever turning to mush. And Steinfeld is such a good actress either in the film’s softer moments or once the inevitable threat eventually arrives.

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Other things that work – the movie’s sense of humor. Most of the Transformers films have tried to incorporate some level of humor. Here it comes from a better and more digestible place. It’s far from the crude and obnoxious nonsense several of Bay’s movies would peddle. “Bumblebee” also leans heavy into its 80’s setting. There are fun little 80’s nuggets spread throughout the film (who else remembers Mr. T cereal?) and the soundtrack is a blast.

As for what doesn’t quite work – while I did fall for the 80’s vibe there are moments where it is glaringly on-the-nose especially with the music. This is most noticeable in the first half (admittedly I still got a kick out of it). And then there is John Cena who inevitably pops back up as the misguided government antagonist. The character isn’t well written to begin with, but Cena doesn’t really help matters. He’s a bit is stiff, cheesy and often too cartoony to be taken seriously.

I realize calling “Bumblebee” the best film in the Transformers franchise isn’t much of a compliment. So let me try this – “Bumblebee” is a good spin-off that easily stands on its own unique merits. It’s able to dodge nearly every comparison to the more abyssmal of Michael Bay’s efforts while also giving us hope that the franchise can offer something worthwhile. The question becomes is it a case of too little too late?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “BlacKkKlansman”

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Spike Lee has been called an angry filmmaker and it’s hard to argue otherwise. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Throughout his career it’s that anger that has fueled some of his very best scenes. At the same time it’s that very anger that can sometimes drive his movies to be too preachy for their own good. But to his credit I don’t think Lee really cares. He makes the movies he wants and he makes them his way.

“BlacKkKlansman” is his latest hard-nosed socio-political movie and it sports many of the same strengths and frustrations of his past pictures. But what’s most interesting is how “BlacKkKlansman” feels very much its own thing. It’s a bit uneven, yet Lee’s storytelling is thoroughly compelling both in its audacity and its messiness.

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“BlacKkKlansman” is loosely based on a hard to believe true story taken from Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. Stallworth was the first African American police officer at the Colorado Springs police department. But his claim to fame was infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan over the phone. Stallworth duped a local KKK recruiter into not only meeting him but offering him Klan membership. He did all his work over the phone posing as a racist white man. A wired white officer stood in for him during any actual meetings.

Lee dolls up this incredible true story with a ton of dramatic dressing which gives him a bigger space to say whatever he wants. His first change was in shifting the time to 1972 (the actual events took place in 1979). This is where we meet Ron Stallworth (played with confidence and gusto by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). He is hired to be what one character calls “the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force”.

Lee zips through Ron’s early days on the force, quickly elevating him to detective and soon intelligence with barely a hint of struggle or resistance. It feels rushed, even a little sloppy, and leaves behind a lot that could have been explored. One key player we do meet in this segment is Patrice (a very good Laura Harrier), the president of Colorado College’s black student union who Ron meets while undercover. Their playfully combative relationship highlights a great chemistry between Washington and Harrier.

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When Ron notices a KKK recruitment ad in the newspaper he calls the number pretending to be white man looking for membership. Chapter prez Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) buys the ruse and sets up a meeting. Ron recruits a Jewish narcotics officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to join the investigation and build a case against the Klan. Flip stands in as Ron at the in-person meetings burrowing deeper into “The Organization” and eventually meeting the Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a wonderfully calibrated Topher Grace).

The finally act features Lee going full fiction and letting his creative and dramatic imaginations run wild. Most of it (and the movie as a whole) works and offers a bruising indictment of anyone even remotely sympathetic to the disgusting hate-mongering we see. Lee likes stirring the pot and provoking conversation. His piercing portrait of unbridled racism is rightfully uncomfortable and offers up plenty to talk about.

Other parts don’t quite work as well. Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the ever suspicious and always maniacal Klansman Felix. He is the movie’s epitome of evil and comes across more as a cartoonish caricature than a thought-out character (perhaps by design?). Also, while the trailer highlights the film’s sense of humor, much of it is lost when slapped against the darker stinging reality which makes up most of the movie. There are a handful of really funny moments, but others don’t land as firmly. You also get a few pretty lazy Trump slams that will resonate with some despite their on-the-nose delivery and some pointlessly crude dialogue which isn’t unusual for a Lee picture.

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Yet despite these shortcomings “BlacKkKlansman” is still strikingly magnetic and a fascinating bit of filmmaking. Never a slacker behind the camera, Lee has a fantastic sense of time and space. Every frame drips with early 70’s style and personality. And it’s fed by a stellar soundtrack and Terence Blanchard’s wonderfully jazzy score. Some of my favorite scenes are when Lee sits us down for more personal moments. Take when Ron and Patrice meet up at a predominantly black nightclub. Their sweet ‘get to know you’ conversation ends with a wonderful dance floor sequence to “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. It’s a soulful and joyous moment and for them a brief respite from the turmoil of the era.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a skillfully guised epic, far grander in scale than it may appear on the surface. It’s a film rich with metaphors and juxtapositions which we experience through the two main characters, both of whom are carving out their own identities. The entire cast is top-notch led by Washington and Driver who perfectly sink into their multi-layered roles. Lee knows they’re good and utilizes them to the fullest. Of course it’s preachy and at times too on-the-nose. After all it’s Spike Lee we’re talking about. Yet there are still plenty of gray areas which give us room to think for ourselves and reckon with what we see. For me that’s when “BlacKkKlansman” is at its best. “All Power to All People”

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

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One of the most exciting yet baffling movies of 2018 is none other than “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. Exciting in that it’s the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, a filmmaking tandem that always has me champing at the bit for what they have up their collective sleeves. Baffling in trying to figure out what this movie intended to be (it’s said that it was originally written as an episodic television series). Also Netflix’s promotional model didn’t exactly help things.

Now the movie is out and we have a clearer vision of what “Buster Scruggs” is all about. It’s far from what you would consider a conventional movie. Instead it is a collection of six unrelated short stories, each telling its own tale “of the American frontier”. Each has its own unique flavor and each highlight different aspects of the Coen’s filmmaking brilliance which has long cemented them among the very best in modern cinema.

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The first is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a tale of a sharpshooting singing cowboy hysterically played by Tim Blake Nelson. Think Gene Autry with a violent edge. It’s followed by “Near Algodones” where James Franco can’t seem to keep his head out of a noose. Third is “Meal Ticket” featuring Liam Neeson as a struggling traveling showman and his lone atraction – a limbless thespian orator played by Harry Melling.

“All Gold Canyon” starts the second half with Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector mining for gold in a pristine mountain valley. It’s the slowest of the six yarns but it meanders in the best possible way. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most surprising and bittersweet tale of the bunch. Zoe Kazan plays a young woman traveling by wagon train to Oregon. And the film ends with “The Mortal Remains”, a gothic tale with a tilt about five people on a late evening stagecoach ride. Think of an offbeat Western episode of The Twilight Zone.

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While each tale is completely distinct they still feel cut from the same cloth. Each find the Coens tipping their wide-brimmed hats to a genre they clearly love, embracing classic tropes and paying homage along the way. Yet the tones from story to story couldn’t be more different. They bounce from whimsical to heartbreaking, hysterical to tragic, violent to serene.

If there is one throughline connecting all of these stories it would be the theme of death. It’s something familiar to Coen brothers movies and here they explore in a variety of ways. Their handling of it is sometimes bloody and downright gruesome. Other times it lingers in the distance and we see more of its effect. And in typical Coen brothers fashion they’ll have you laughing at it in one scene and shocked by it in the next.

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From start to finish “Buster Scruggs” flaunts the stamps of its creators. It’s rich with their signature dense wordplay and bursts of rib-splitting absurdity. Yet there are moments of tenderness and heart that are sure to catch people by surprise. Toss in Bruno Delbonnel’s dazzling cinematography and yet another fabulous score from Carter Burwell (a composer who has never had a problem operating on the Coen brothers’ quirky wavelength).

“Buster Scruggs” is sure to leave some people scratching their heads and may not satisfy those hungry for a full-length feature. But for those willing to get onboard, it is a sparkling example of an anthology done right. From the opening credits to the final scroll the Coens lean into their creative freedom and show off an undeniable joy of filmmaking. And whether they are honoring or satirizing the Western genre, they adoringly navigate their brilliant ensemble cast through the violence of the ‘Old West‘ and through the indelible complexities of the human spirit. It ends up being a truly delightful romp.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Bad Times at the El Royale”

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It’s hard to watch Drew Goddard’s new neo-noir crime-thriller and not think of Quentin Tarantino. For better or for worse “Bad Times at the El Royale” plays like a Tarantino picture. It leans heavily on its style, its characters are a shady lot, violence comes in bloody bursts, and the whole thing is a bit gonzo. But while QT’s unshakable dedication to his brand can often push things over the top, Goddard dials it back. It turns out to be both a strength of the film and perhaps a weakness.

“El Royale” is built almost entirely around secrets and revelation. Goddard (serving as both writer and director) crafts a story thick with plot and every person we encounter is a mystery to be unpacked. He does that through a series of chapters, each focused on a particular character, that tells their backstory and connects them to the main narrative.

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The film is set in 1969 at the El Royale Hotel, a once hopping motor lodge not far from Lake Tahoe. The end-of-the-road property straddles the California/Nevada border with a set of rooms in each state. Upon checking in, the guest can choose between the “warmth and sunshine” of a California room or the “hope and opportunity” on the Nevada side. The lone employee is a less-than-motivated concierge named Miles (Lewis Pullman). But don’t let the bright welcoming neon sign fool you. The El Royale has just as many secrets as the characters we encounter.

The first person we meet is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) a struggling nightclub singer on her way to a show in Reno. There is also Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest from Indiana heading to visit his brother. In the lobby they both meet an obnoxious and prattling vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm). The final piece of this twisted human puzzle to arrive is an attitude-rich hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).

Miles is caught off guard by actual guests and after listening to his scripted spiel they all head off to their rooms. Revealing much more past that would be doing a disservice especially considering how dependent the film is on twists and surprises. What was most surprising was Goddard’s patience before showing all his cards. There are far more dialogue-driven character moments than I ever expected. This undeniably adds to the rather long 141-minute running time (which many have criticized). In some instances they slow things down, but I found these moments worked far more often than not.

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It’s hard to say anything bad about Goddard’s presentation. “El Royale” looks fantastic and the camera is constantly doing cool things with angles, shadows and perspectives. Almost every frame is showing off some level of pulpy noir style. Goddard’s past work (“Cloverfield” and “The Cabin in the Woods”) has shown a flair for utilizing evocative imagery. He pushes it further here, really digging into his setting. And he never passes up an opportunity to slip in some 60’s tunes (from Motown to Deep Purple).

“El Royale” is a movie I found to be kind of fascinating. Goddard deftly maneuvers his unconventional narrative while playing with time, tinkering with points of view, and tossing in a MacGuffin or two. At the same time he constantly offers his ensemble cast plenty of meaty moments. And things only get crazier once Chris Hemsworth shows up (I’ll let you figure him out on your own). There is no doubt the movie has a couple of slow spots and its best scenes are during its early ambiguity. But I still had a ton of fun with this weirdly delicious concoction.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Black Panther”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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“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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars