Movie Review ~ The Batman

The Facts:

Synopsis: In his second year of fighting crime, Batman uncovers corruption in Gotham City that connects to his own family while facing a serial killer known as The Riddler.
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan
Director: Matt Reeves
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 175 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Across the Marvel Universe/Multiverse and throughout the DC Extended Universe, there is an enormity of strong beings, big and small, that have been integral parts of many childhood fandom origin stories. It could be through comics, video games, TV shows, or any of the numerous movies made over time. There seemed to be a set image for heroes and heroines with slight variance for a while. Over time, the vision of these crime fighters has evolved as our world has changed. Other institutions may be frustratingly stuck in a cycle of sameness, but for all the countless comic book installments we get seemingly every month in theaters, at least there are options for those looking to see themselves represented up on the big screen.

I realize I’m writing this preamble at the start of a review of another film about a white superhero. Yet it’s important to note that what The Batman represents is a significant step forward for the DC Extended Universe due to the folks involved taking a considerate step back to look at the world as a whole. In doing so, they’ve allowed the unpleasant fester of the underbelly to surface in a way that comes across as more balanced an approach than what we saw in 2019’s Joker. In that film, it felt like it sought to identify and, by coincidence, laud support to a faction that didn’t need to be given strength. Some of those same ideas bubble up in The Batman, but they’ve worked within the fantasy framework model that essentially separates Gotham City’s reality from our everyday life.

For director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and his co-writer Peter Craig (Bad Boys for Life), Gotham City is much darker than any previous incarnation we’ve seen. Barely skating by in his re-election bid, the current mayor presides over a city littered with crime and assault. Only a masked vigilante called The Batman has made an impact, emerging from the shadows to strike down those that would interfere with the good people of Gotham. The crude signal bearing his symbol created by James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die) that illuminates the night sky is both a call to action and a warning to crooks that vengeance is coming for them.

Of course, the tortured man behind the mask is Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), a wealthy orphan still haunted by the murders of his mother and father years earlier. Donning his cowl and body armor outfitted with an array of ingenious, practical gadgets and weapons, Bruce funnels his rage at his inability to save his parents into his speed at disarming criminals by any means necessary. In his second year as Batman, he already bears the body bruises and scars that reflect he’s just a man underneath it all and doesn’t possess the same type of superpowers other famous city sentinels do. Assisted by Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Black Panther), Bruce’s life is lived primarily out of the public’s view, despite his family obligations as head of his father’s company and philanthropy.

Someone else has been keeping an eye on the city and developed a plan to make people pay for their part of a high-stakes scandal years in the making and longer in the cover-up. Planting a series of deadly clues left for Batman, The Riddler (Paul Dano, 12 Years a Slave) begins laying traps for Gotham’s upstanding citizens, all tied to an event that started long ago and continues to infect the daily workings of city business to this day. Instead of simply exposing the truths and trusting justice or a court of public opinion to do their job, The Riddler takes it upon himself to escalate these shocking reveals by staging astonishing displays of his reach and capabilities as Batman, and the authorities stand by, helpless.

Somewhat amazingly, while this detailed detective story is happening, Reeves and Craig manage to work in another fully-formed B plot involving local gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, Gloria Bell) and the patrons of a popular nightclub he likes to visit. Managed by Oswald Cobblepot, nicknamed The Penguin (Colin Farrell, Voyagers), who might be conducting illicit business, it isn’t long before Batman ties The Riddler’s plot together with the Falcone/Penguin operation. Of course, Batman isn’t the only one looking into Falcone’s business. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road) is also slinking around in a catsuit and knit cap cut out just perfectly to look like a nouveau Gotham feline. The more clues received as to who the next victim is, the more intriguing the mystery gets, and soon Batman realizes that the next target might be someone extremely close to him. Someone staring back at him in the mirror when he takes off his mask.

That’s all I should mention about the film’s developments that run just shy of three hours…the same running length as The Godfather. I know; I saw both movies in the theater over several days. It should be noted that both movies may be three hours but neither feel like it. Reeves and Craig have carefully put their plot together but shaving off the best parts of a gumshoe mystery and blending in elements of Seven and braiding in a bit of Blade Runner for good measure. There’s an actual puzzle to be solved; clues are deliberately withheld so as not to allow you to get too far ahead of the action. I appreciated being led gently along this way, not dragged forth by force. It will enable you to relax and enjoy meeting these characters, letting them form fully in front of you.

It’s an unenviable task to take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I genuinely thought Pattison was excellent in the role. That sullen, distracted gaze that made all those fans swoon in the Twilight series is put to even better use here, and he’s a sounder actor now as well, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch. Saying he’s better suited up and hooded as Batman might sound like a dig, but it’s the truth; there’s a strength and a confidence that’s hard to pull off when you’re under all these layers. However, Pattinson doesn’t let that weigh him down. It certainly doesn’t hold him back from finding the chemistry with Kravitz’s Kyle character; though Kravitz is so skillfully playing the role as a femme fatale open book, it would be hard not to generate some spark with her to see what would happen if a flame took. 

If Dano is maybe just playing another variation of his psychotic doughy creep role (I won’t say what other movie that is, no spoiler!), give him credit for conveying a lot of that scary energy through a frightening mask. Like the movie itself, my main criticism is that Dano’s third act isn’t nearly as strong as his first two, but up until then, it’s a chilling bit of work. As ever, Turturro and Wright are dependable in their more seasoned roles as opposite sides of the law coin. Reeves has made several other exciting casting decisions for his more minor roles, using actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (The Guilty) as Gotham’s District Attorney, Alex Ferns (Wrath of Man) as the current police Commissioner, Con O’Neill (The Way of the Wind) as the troublesome Chief of Police, and Jayme Lawson (The Woman King) playing the challenger for the mayoral seat. 

In all honesty, though, everyone takes a backseat to Farrell whenever he is onscreen. In some ways, I was glad I knew it was Farrell underneath all that make-up, but on the other hand, it would have been fun to be surprised. I’m only mentioning it because it’s not been kept under wraps, so it isn’t considered a spoiler. You’ll be amazed at the work Mike Marino did to make the trim Irish Farrell look like an overweight, balding Jersey boy with bad skin. It’s an unbelievable transformation, and there’s not a frame where I even spotted a hint of Farrell’s natural features. On top of all that, Farrell is excellent in the role, managing to be both funny and the type of Penguin you could see yourself finding ways to cheer on. No one will beat Danny DeVito’s Penguin (or Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, for the matter) in Batman Returns, but this is a solid take on the villain.

With a fantastic production design from James Chinlund (The Lion King) and costumes from Oscar-nominated Jacqueline Durran (Cyrano), it’s the A-team behind the camera as well. I’d hope March isn’t too early to put cinematographer Greig Fraser’s (Dune) name into the hat for awards consideration at next year’s Oscars for the breathtaking shots he delivers. The topper is Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) dazzling score that gives you everything from the most haunting hint of Morricone to the slinky curve of John Barry at peak James Bond. The soundtrack for The Batman indeed might be Giacchino’s masterwork. I’ll be looking forward to hearing orchestras around the world play these tracks.

Ultimately, this is a high-water mark not just for a Batman movie but for the genre itself. It’s a superhero noir that bursts out of the gate with a brooding style and a moody tone it justifies with a complex plot that’s part pulpy mob flick and part hard-boiled detective yarn. Less origin story for Bruce Wayne and more of an engrossing look at how Gotham’s best and darkest first crossed paths, The Batman is a massive achievement for all involved in front of and behind the camera

 

Movie Review ~ Venom: Let There Be Carnage

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Eddie Brock tries to reignite his career in journalism by interviewing serial killer Cletus Kasady, who becomes the host of the alien symbiote spawn of Venom, named Carnage.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Stephen Graham, Reid Scott, Peggy Lu

Director: Andy Serkis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you’ve been a long-time reader (thank you!) you know that I like to include a small plot synopsis in The Facts section of my review to get some of the nitty gritty details out of the way.  I hate just spending ¾ of the review rehashing the story and, to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, I give it a good scrub first to make sure nothing major is given away.  Usually, it’s easy to find a summary either through an official studio press release or some other internet source and often I must trim it way down.  Only rarely do I run into problems like I did with Venom: Let There Be Carnage.  Try as I might, there was only the briefest description of the sequel to the 2018 film out there, basically saying “This is a sequel where the main character comes back.”  I scrolled through several pages looking, and this was even after the movie had screened for critics. There was no place that had a sliver of a plot description available.

This should give you some idea of the problems inherent in the follow-up film to the surprisingly divisive original which found star Tom Hardy having quite the identity crisis as an investigative reporter infected with an alien from another planet.  Hardy’s performance was the true revelation of Venom, softening an actor known for punishing roles into a more malleable bit of clay.  Thankfully, that sense of fun carries over into this sequel (Hardy is credited as a producer and creating the story, along with Cruella screenwriter Kelly Marcel) but not a lot of it makes much sense, eventually turning into a mishmash of goopy special effects and hammy performances from actors unsuccessfully trying supervillainy on for size.

With his career as a hard-news journalist dwindling, Eddie Brock (Hardy, This Means War) is called to death row by special request of convicted killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me).  The police hope Kasady is ready to reveal the location of his victims, but Kasady just plans to toy with the media again, hoping a coded message finds its way to his girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) who has been locked away in a sound-proof chamber in the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane.  Brock has Venom on his side, though, and he spots clues in Kasady’s cell which leads Brock to break the story wide open and solve the remainder of his crimes, allowing the state to proceed with executing the serial murderer.  Before they can lethally inject him though, Kasady manages to become infected with his own symbiote after biting Brock in an altercation.  As Kasady becomes Carnage, he quickly frees himself and Barris to begin a murderous rampage through the city and it’s up to Brock and Venom, two sides of the same coin locked in an ever-present battle of the wills, to stop them.

Taking over from previous director Ruben Fleischer, Andy Serkis (Breathe) knows a thing or two about actors conveying a performance through a computer-generated creation so it’s no surprise that the scenes where Brock is fully Venom (and even when the two are simply talking back and forth) land with a greater ease here.  It’s not just a stronger familiarity with the character, there’s a different understanding Hardy seems to have with his relationship with Venom and while the theories of bromance or even real romance are endless, the two are absolutely the yin to each other’s yang.  Harrelson doesn’t succeed as well but, then again, he doesn’t quite feel like he’s as committed to anything in the movie as much as Hardy is.

At 90 minutes, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is 22 minutes shorter than the original and the last fifteen minutes are chock full of action excitement, the kind you buy your popcorn for and get excited to witness.  The rest of the time leading up to that is sort of bewildering and I’m halfway convinced the film lost a huge chunk in the editing process to keep things moving along.  Why else would there be such little character development for the Barrison character apart from her having a profound scream? Harris wouldn’t bounce from being Oscar nominated to a Bond movie to this secondary, cut-rate character.  No, something was definitely omitted, and her role suffered because of that.  Audiences suffer too because Serkis is so concerned about getting to the action that anything that isn’t nailed down gets completely missed. 

I also would be willing to put money down that we hit the accelerator to get to Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World) that much faster.  As it is, Williams fans might be nervously tapping their foot around the 40-minute mark when the previous leading lady hadn’t shown up yet.  Even then, one wonders if she’s there for good or just fulfilling her sequel requirements.  (Have no fear, she’s more than participatory later.)  Aside from Williams absence at the front part of the movie, it’s hampered by some weird technical choices…like dubbing in Harrelson and Harris over the voices of younger actors playing them as teens.  Are we supposed to think a 17-year sounds like 60-year-old Harrelson?  Voices change over time…audiences will track who these characters are.  It’s just another sign of lousy editing that this dubbing occurred.  Someone along the way felt like the film moved too quickly to the adult actors and viewers wouldn’t get the connection and there was no footage that explained it well enough, so the older voices were used. 

As sequels go, Venom: Let There Be Carnage will likely please the fans of the original that craved another round with the wise-cracking, gallows-humor of the titular alien and if you stay through the closing credits, you’ll see why Marvel Studios would want to keep this character going just a tad bit longer.  I’m hoping if there is a third appearance by Hardy and company that it’s does the proverbial job of charming me because so far, it’s just passing muster when it should be slam dunking it.  The star is invested…now get a booster shot and make the rest of the Venom world feel right.

Movie Review ~ SAS: Red Notice

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An off-duty SAS soldier must thwart a terror attack on a train running through the Channel Tunnel.

Stars: Sam Heughan, Ruby Rose, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen, Noel Clarke

Director: Magnus Martens

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  Do you ever find yourself watching a movie with lauded actors and ask yourself “What are YOU doing in this movie?”  It may be a good movie, it may be a bad movie, but the question itself is valid at that moment.  What we’re really asking is: Did you do it for the money?  Plenty of actors show up in films, television shows, or commercials because of one thing: the payday.  While I’d like to net the kind of dough they make on those projects (and so do you!)  I wonder if taking on these types of roles makes them enjoy those Caribbean vacations a little less or causes them to stop a few seconds longer at the stoplight in their Tesla pondering why.  Ah…who am I kidding.  They don’t give it a second thought.  Work is work and plenty of people would give their eye teeth to do what they do.

Even though I do believe that, watching SAS: Red Notice, I would have loved to have had a direct line to stars Tom Wilkinson and Andy Serkis to ask them to level with me and admit that they made this one for the money.  Both men look positively miserable throughout; Wilknson comes off like he’s about to cry often while Serkis compensates by gritting his teeth so loudly it sounds like a rogue squeaky wheel shopping cart has become another character in the movie.  They have every right to look pained, too, because SAS: Red Notice is a total turkey, an absolute howler of film that boasts action scenes almost as flat as the acting and lots of explosions that produce more heat than the main love interests.  At one point early on, I thought the film was intended to be a farce in the vein of The Naked Gun because the tone being conveyed was so far off from the Mission: Impossible-esque mood the storyline suggested.

A family of elite assassins, The Black Swans, have been hiding out in London trying to avoid detection and capture for war crimes they were hired to commit by the highest levels of the Queen’s government.  Determined to keep their dirty business dealings under wraps, the Prime Minister (Ray Panthaki, Official Secrets) orders his top guy George Clements (Serkis, Long Shot) to take out William Lewis (Wilkinson, The Lone Ranger) and his crew, including his daughter and skilled protégé Grace (Ruby Rose, The Meg).  With assistance from SAS soldier Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan, Bloodshot) the Lewis compound is raided but when their targets slip through their fingers it only leads to more problems for Buckingham and his team.

Waiting to regroup, Buckingham and his doctor girlfriend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man and The Wasp) decide to head to Paris for a weekend away but wouldn’t you know it, they’re leaving on the wrong train at the wrong time.  Then again, perhaps it is the right train/right time because Grace has infiltrated the speeding railcar, taking the passengers hostage.  Threatening to set off a bomb as the train makes it way through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris, Buckingham is a one-man army onboard as he works his way through a deadly batch of trained killers while his fellow SAS mate Declan Smith (Tom Hopper, Terminator: Dark Fate) tries to help him from London.  At the same time, Grace has figured out someone is attempting to stop her and also found the one person on board the train that can be used as a bargaining chip…Sophie.

Based on the first of three books featuring Tom Buckingham written by Andy McNab, the adaptation by Lawrence Malkin features dialogue so silly it’s amazing none of the actors throughout to suggest changing it…or removing it.  Hearing Sophie tell a complete stranger about Buckingham carrying around her recently deceased cat might have made a good anecdote in the book but on screen it makes Buckingham look creepy and turns Sophie into one of those women in distress that can only talk about their boyfriends when they aren’t in the room and then spend every moment they are in the room fighting with them.  It’s no wonder a number of the characters she winds up talking to make a quick exit (either out of the scene or off the Earth) because who wants to hang around her for too long?  Speaking of Buckingham, McNab and Malkin seem to have made him a mixture of Ethan Hunt from M:I and Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels but, like that tins man in Oz, they forgot to give him a heart.  Wait for the scene where Buckingham attempts to emote with complete and total conviction…and try your hardest not to laugh.  Not that it helps things that Heughan is an absolute dud dud dudderson as Buckingham, displaying zero charm and negative zero charisma with John-Kamen as his supposed long-time girlfriend.

The only chemistry that is generated is between John-Kamen and Rose in a strange bit of the captive and the captor having a kind of weird unspoken romantic connection.  It’s not at all implied and neither actress is strong enough to pull those nuances out of the script or even thin air but it’s some natural instinct given off that makes it feel so.  After the action sequences where she doesn’t speak, it’s the only other good thing Rose can be noted for because her acting is frighteningly wooden here.  A flash in the pan when she debuted on Orange is the New Black years ago, she hasn’t ever really acquitted herself in the acting department.  Even though her fight scenes are well done and she has the appropriate energy and style to pull them off, anytime (absolutely anytime) she’s required to act past that the movie grinds to a dead stop.   It’s unfortunate because Rose feels like she could be a star if all the pieces lined up better — there’s a place for her but not at her current level.  Not by a long shot.

It’s just a mess of a film across so many areas that fixing one wouldn’t do the trick.  When you have none of the actors are on the same page, there can be no dynamic created. It feels like a group of strangers just showed up and were put on film.  Much of the movie depends on those pre-existing relationships and without that base, there’s nothing to go off of.  Piling about nine endings on in the last ten minutes and then making us wait for the absolute longest aerial pull in I’ve ever seen, SAS: Red Notice can’t even end the movie correctly.  Having never read the books (and now having no interest in reading the next two) I can’t know if the jokey style of the film was in response to the source material’s tone or if director Magnus Martens just couldn’t figure out how he wanted his picture to come across.  If he wanted action, he got some.  If he wanted comedy, he struck gold.

Movie Review ~ Long Shot


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unemployed journalist battered by his own misfortune endeavors to pursue his childhood crush and babysitter, who now happens to be one of the most powerful and unattainable women on the planet.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Don’t look now, but we may actually be in a small scale renaissance of the mid-range romantic comedy. There were rumblings that it was coming back when last year’s Crazy Rich Asians made a splash, only to be followed by the popular streaming releases like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Set Up. So far this year, we’ve had the modest hit Isn’t it Romantic and soon after Long Shot’s May release there’s still The Sun is Also a Star to look forward to and Last Christmas for the holidays…plus several more Netflix offerings along the way. It’s not a full scale rebirth of the genre but it definitely gets a healthy dose of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation courtesy of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot.

Originally conceived as more low-brow comedy titled Flarsky, the script from Dan Sterling attracted the attention of Seth Rogen after it got good buzz on The Blacklist, the infamous Hollywood insider-y annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Rogen brought in screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) who gave the film a good polish, making the starring female role more of real person and creating more equality between the lead protagonists. With a new title and Rogen’s friend Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) in the director’s seat all they needed was a star. And boy did they get one.

Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the real reason you should be buying a ticket to see Long Shot and is the film’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, you may be a fan of Rogen, romantic comedies, or just need a solid two hour film that is worth your time but Theron is by far the main selling point Long Shot has to offer. Already adept at playing any genre she’s thrown into, Theron dives headfirst into a role that requires the actress to convince us her gorgeous buttoned-up Secretary of State could fall for Rogen’s lumpy (but lovable) political journalist, all while keeping her composure as she plots out an environmental treaty to lay the groundwork for her presidential run.

Recently fired from his grassroots publication, Fred Flarsky (Rogen, This is the End) is drowning his sorrows with his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton) at an upscale benefit when he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron). Flarsky may have written a few popular pieces on the internet but Field has done considerably better for herself; she’s the youngest Secretary of State under a dim bulb President (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) who was elected after playing the Commander in Chief on TV for years. When the President decides not to run again and offers to endorse Field, she gets early reports (from a too-brief cameo by Lisa Kudrow, Friends with Kids) that the public doesn’t think she has a sense of humor. Running into Flarsky and reading his material gives her an idea: why not hire this guy who knew her back in the day and see if he can punch up her image?

For Field, this starts as a business proposition. For Flarsky, this is a chance to get closer to a girl he has had a crush on since he was a pre-teen. Even more than that, he believes in her as a politician and gets behind her as a potential presidential nominee. As they make their way around the globe gathering support for her environmental protection plan, the two get closer…much to the horror of her staff members (June Diane Raphael, Girl Most Likely and Ravi Patel, Master of None) until they become an unlikely item.

It really is on Theron to sell us on her character falling for Fred and Rogen and Levine help her get there (with no small assistance from Hannah’s script) by keeping Charlotte aware of their differences but following her heart anyway. That’s what makes it all work because, unlike other Rogen vehicles where he’s paired with beauties just…because, here he initially winds up with the girl by winning over her brain first before anything physical happens.

Clocking in a tad over two hours, the movie comes in just a hair too long and a wiser editor could have excised more of Jackson’s unnecessary scenes as Fred’s friend that don’t wind up informing the action on anything we don’t already know. As good as Raphael and Patel are, they only work in small doses and their business could be trimmed as well because we really want more time with Theron and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rogen.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Serkis (Black Panther) popping up in a truly bizarre role as a publishing magnate with ties to Charlotte and Fred.  It’s not that the role is bizarre, it’s that Serkis is under heavy layers of make-up to render him unrecognizable.  Why?

The film almost makes it across the finish line without resorting to gross out gags but can’t resist a fairly atrocious bit of toilet humor that cheapens things up at the wrong time. Honestly, I get why they inserted it in the grand scheme of things but it sinks the film to a different level that I thought it was rising above.  Still, that and a rather perfunctory ending can’t erase the fun of the previous 100 or so minutes and any movie that prominently features Roxette’s mega-anthem “It Must Have Been Love” on more than one occasion already scores high in my book.

Movie Review ~ Black Panther


The Facts
:

Synopsis: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Audiences growing tired of the endless slate of comic book movies can roar a sigh of relief…Black Panther is here to cure you of all that ails you. After taking a fun leap with the wacky Thor: Ragnarok in November, Marvel Studios has scored another win with this not-quite origin story that manages to function extremely well as a stand-alone adventure while establishing its characters and place within the Marvel Universe. While the movie is clearly designed to make bank for its producers, out of all the Marvel entries so far it feels the most cleverly orchestrated – giving audiences what they want in terms of special effects and spectacle and slipping in a message of social consciousness.

Popping up first in Captain America: Civil War and set to return in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Black Panther (aka T’Challa, a price turned king of fictitious African nation Wakanda) is already familiar with his gifts when the film emerges from its flashback prologue. Coming from a long line of enhanced ancestors, T’Challa understands the mantle he has to pick up when his father is killed in the terrorist attack that occurred in Captain America: Civil War. Now, returning to Wakanda to mourn his king and grieve for his father, T’Challa must face his people.

There’s problems from the get-go, though, when a long-gestating conflict between Wakanda’s tribes must be dealt with and after several of the nation’s leaders press T’Challa to share the wealth of knowledge Wakanda has protected for years. On top of all that, there’s Ulysses Klaue (played with giddy ‘roided out rage by Andy Serkis, Breathe) trying to steal the powerful Vibranium mined richly in Wakanda’s mountains and the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) who has arrived with a vendetta against T’Challa and his family.

By employing writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to sit atop the Black Panther proceedings, Marvel has opened up their universe even further. Coogler brings an intelligence and depth to the plot and character development we just haven’t seen before in these movies. Themes of social unrest, slavery, familial obligation, and correcting the mistakes of the past flow throughout Coogler’s tale without bogging it down in the slightest. Coogler has also brought along Mudbound’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Cake) to film the exciting action sequences and sure to be Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) to design the jaw-dropping costumes. On a technical level, Marvel has truly outdone themselves with this one.

All the beautiful images in the world and keen knack for plot-driven storytelling would have been for naught had Coogler not assembled one of the best casts in eons. Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) makes for a commanding T’Challa, showing the vulnerability of a well-liked son taking over for his well-respected father. Jordan is an inspired choice for Killmonger, creating one of the more memorable earth-bound villains in the Marvel canon. Serkis rips though the movie with a decent amount of glee, Martin Freeman (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to nail his American accent and his droll comic bits as State Department representative Everett Ross, and new Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a confidant of T’Challa’s with his own score to settle

Let’s face it though…though a man leads the movie it’s the ladies that steal the show out from under their male counterparts with next to no effort. The regal Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen) is Wakanda’s Queen and T’Challa’s mother; no one (NO ONE) does regal queen like Ms. Bassett. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is T’Challa’s warrior love interest and Letitia Wright (The Commuter) is a knockout as T’Challa’s mischievous sister. The MVP of the movie is surely Danai Gurira (TV’s The Walking Dead), though. As T’Challa’s army general Okoye, she’s the definition of badass and you won’t be able to take her eyes off of her each time she’s on screen. If The Academy was more adventurous, this is the kind of performance out of the box nominations for Best Supporting Actress are made of.

After a few ho-hum stumbles (sorry Doctor Strange and Ant-Man), Marvel is back on a roll at the start of 2018. Who knows what will happen when Avengers: Infinity War hits in a few months or when Ant-Man and The Wasp flies into theaters later this summer, but for now Black Panther is the king of the Marvel jungle.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

First Trailer Review: Here
Second Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If there’s one feeling that governed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was nostalgia. Fans had toiled through the dark despair of the Star Wars prequels and were holding out hope that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) would bring them salvation in the continuing story of the sci-fi fantasy epic. So when The Force Awakens opened and was actually good, if not wholly great, most audiences that received the film well left the theater floating on a cosmic wave of good feelings of the old school charm that kept the original trilogy preserved so well over the years.

I count myself as one of those fans and gobbled up the film hook, line, and sinker. However, in hindsight it’s best to admit in the spirit of friendship that I fully recognize The Force Awakens was largely a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. Sure, it wasn’t a paint-by-numbers carbon copy but the familiar themes of the original didn’t go unnoticed. I wasn’t as big a fan of 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as many were, that film didn’t have anywhere to go so it remained flatter than a pancake to this viewer. Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi the producers and filmmakers would really be put to the test. Would they continue to pull from the past to create something to please the fans, or would they dare to try something different?

Well, The Last Jedi is a little bit like walking forward while cinematically rubbernecking to spot where you were coming from. It’s immensely entertaining when it wants to be (which is most of the time) and a little lackluster in laying the groundwork for future installments and whenever it gets too cerebral. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) ably picks up the reins from his predecessor and does more than just keep his seat warm before Abrams returns for Episode 9. There’s a forward thrust but it does take time to reach warp speed.

It’s always a special thrill to hear John Williams score announce the start of the film and a bit of excitement reading the opening crawl. The first fifteen minutes are classic Star Wars, with a group of rebel fighters including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) protecting their cavalcade and fearless leader (the late, great, Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) from an attack waged by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin). It’s here were a strange comedic chord is first heard, one that made me wonder if Johnson had decided to inject his film with more Spaceballs (Mel Brooks’ brilliant send up of the Star Wars films) than was appropriate.

We last saw young orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) traveling with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service) who was in a self-imposed exile. While Poe and Leia continue to evade the monstrous Hux, Rey tries to sway Luke to return and help the resistance defeat The First Order and their leader, General Snoke (a CGI creation that looks better here than in The Force Awakens, once-again voiced by Andy Serkis, Breathe). There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha), Leia and Han Solo’s son who turned to the Dark Side and is still smarting from the butt-whooping he received from Rey and Finn (John Boyega) at the end of the previous film. He’s out for revenge…but does he have more secrets up his well-armored sleeve that will change the course of The First Order and the resistance?

Juggling several storylines at once, Johnson keeps the 2.5 hour film moving a good clip. A race against the clock rescue mission involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, an excellent addition to this male-heavy world) manages to remain engaging even when it’s broken up and interspersed with the goings-on of other characters. The movie has a few endings but manages to justify them with ease.

Aside from Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) as a code-breaking thief and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) showing up with purple hair as Leia’s second in command, it’s largely the same old gang we first sparked to in previous installments. While certain players take more of a backseat in glorified cameos (12 Years as Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o is a mere hologram here), Johnson has introduced a few memorable creatures like the cute Porg’s, Crystal Foxes, and Luke’s island-dwelling servants that one critic hilariously dubbed “the fish nuns”. They’re not going to replace Chewie or R2D2 in your heart but they do rally a convincing bid for you to make some room.

The second movie in a planned trilogy can often feel a bit flimsy as a bridge between the first and final chapters but The Last Jedi avoids those pitfalls. Depending on your knowledge of the Star Wars universe, it could easily stand on its own. It makes you look forward to the next installment rather than feel desperate for answers that you might not get by the time the credits roll. The effects are top notch, the score from Williams sounds as glorious as ever, and try not to get a little choked up every time Fisher’s on screen.

Movie Review ~ Breathe

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The inspiring true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Diana Rigg, Miranda Raison, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hugh Bonneville

Director: Andy Serkis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If Breathe seems a bit familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve also seen The Theory of Everything.  That film, about the life of Stephen Hawking, has similar themes and won star Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for his miraculous portrayal of a man whose body is failing him with a mind still sharp as a tack.  I found that movie to be filled with good performances (co-star Felicty Jones was also Oscar-nominated for Hawking’s strong-willed wife) but lacking in overall emotional heft.  While Breathe was always bound to draw comparisons, the surprising news is that it has the same memorable performances and the resonance The Theory of Everything lacked.

Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man) is a newlywed living with his pregnant wife Diana (Claire Foy) who contracts polio before he has turned 30.  Paralyzed from the neck down and given mere months to live, Robin is resigned to his fate and unable to even look at his infant son.  Not content with letting her husband fade away without a fight, Diana becomes his advocate and helps him leave the hospital ward and into their house in the English countryside.

Over the next several decades Robin will defy all expectations for those with his same affliction and become a rare voice for patients with conditions that left them unable to move or enjoy the world like everyone else.  With advancements in technology that Robin played a part in helping to design, he is able to live a full life as a husband and a father.  There are setbacks along the way and painful realties that have to be dealt with, instances that the film doesn’t totally gloss over but does treat them as speed bumps instead of potholes.

The first film directed by actor and famed motion-capture performer Andy Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Breathe looks wonderful and has grand performances as well.  Garfield is charming throughout, even when he’s at his depressive worst, and he’s balanced nicely by Foy’s stalwart acting that maintains the dignity in both her character and Garfield’s.

It would be easy to let Breathe slip through your grasp and if you happen to miss it in theaters keep your eyes, ears, and heat open for it to pop up for home consumption.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts:

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set thirty years after Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Crystal Clarke, Pip Anderson, Christina Chong, Miltos Yerolemou

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Hey all you spoiler-phobic Star Wars fans…you’ve come to the right place!  Have no fear, I’m not going to reveal any major plot points or ruin any of the surprises that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) has in store for you.  So I’m going to give you two reviews…one that is as spoiler-free as can be and another that will be slightly more descriptive (but still without any key points you aren’t already aware of).  Are you ready?  OK!

Totally spoiler-free review:

The wait was worth it and Star Wars fans finally have the sequel they’ve been waiting for since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.  The effects are marvelous, the script tight, and the score by John Williams returns the sound of the series back to its grandly epic origins.  In short, it’s a film that knows where it came from and has a vision for the future.

Now…for some more descriptive musings on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There’s a moment in the silent moments before Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins when my heart started to beat a little faster, my breath started catching a bit.  After all this time, a direct sequel to the original trilogy of the operatic space odyssey created by George Lucas was waiting mere frames away.  The time to hold grudges against the weak prequels vanished when those familiar words came up on screen… “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” and then…the logo, the music, the opening crawl that lays out what’s been going on since we last saw Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and other creatures great, small, or mechanical.  I gotta admit, I had goosebumps from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

With the Sith destroyed and the Empire fallen, a new enemy has surfaced that threatens the peace the Resistance has tried to bring to the galaxy.  The First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire with a new leader (Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a new General (Hux, Domhnall Gleeson, About Time), and a new commander (Kylo Ren, Adam Driver, Frances Ha) strong with the force with ties to Darth Vader.  The First Order is searching for a warrior gone missing, tracking an ace pilot for the Resistance (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) to a planet where he’s meeting with an elder (Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredible Close) who holds a key to the warrior’s whereabouts.

In a nice tip of the hat to the original Star Wars, this important piece of information is hidden within a droid and soon finds itself in the hands of Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), an otherwise ordinary civilian that must travel from her planet via a familiar ship long since left for junk.  Accompanied by defecting Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) before being joined by Han Solo (Harrison Ford, The Expendables 3) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), all are thrust into an adventure that hops planets and light years.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd (thereby acquiring the rights to the Star Wars franchise) for a cool $4 billion there was a general discomfort that the House of Mouse wouldn’t do right by the characters.  But Disney has delivered, and delivered in a big way.  The $200-million-dollar film looks amazing with top-notch special effects seamlessly blending with live action to create 135 minutes of thrilling sequence after thrilling sequence.  Not all thrills come from special effects though; just try to stave off the chills of hearing John Williams stirring score or deflect the rousing excitement of Han Solo reuniting with Princess (now General) Leia (a marvelously sanguine Carrie Fisher).  When Ford and Fisher are on screen together the decades absolutely melt away and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J.J. Abrams have wisely kept their banter appropriately campy and fun.  Ford in particular looks like he’s having more fun on screen then he’s had in years, reminding us why he’s a movie star.

Speaking of stars, Abrams has impeccably cast the film’s two leads with Ridley being the clear stand-out.  Reminding me of a younger Keira Knightly, Ridley ably handles the range of her arc which puts her in numerous precarious situations.  Boyega, too, is a welcome presence and while early on the actor tries a bit too hard, he’s redeemed by the end once he relaxes into the role.  Both actors bring an energetic vibrancy to the screen, we’ve just met them yet we’re on their side from the beginning.  They mesh nicely with the returning cast members and other new faces (including 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as a kind of next-gen Yoda), making this an easily accessible film for longtime fans or those new to the franchise.

If I had one gripe, it’s a small-ish one and it has to do with the Serkis’ realization of Snoke.  The one effect that comes off as too CGI, I wished that the larger than life baddie was introduced on a more practical level instead of being motion-captured to the high heavens into a shadowy evil from the Dark Side.  Still, it’s a small complaint for a film that’s overwhelmingly enjoyable.

Before seeing this seventh episode of the Star Wars saga, I was planning on re-watching all of the films (which I hadn’t seen in, gulp, nearly a decade) to bone up on the story up until this point.  Time constraints made that impossible and in a way I’m glad that I hadn’t inundated myself with previous installments because it helped me take in The Force Awakens for what it was, the beginning of the next chapter of Star Wars.  And what an impressive beginning it is.