Movie Review ~ Black Panther


The Facts
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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 ~ London Has Fallen

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The Facts
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Synopsis: In London for the Prime Minister’s funeral, Mike Banning discovers a plot to assassinate all the attending world leaders.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Charlotte Riley, Waleed F. Zuaiter

Director: Babak Najafi

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Those looking to fill up on their xenophobia quotient for the year should look no further than London Has Fallen, an ugly, tacky sequel to 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen which prided itself on being merely tacky.

It’s been three years since Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, How To Train Your Dragon 2) single handedly saved the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart, Erin Brockovich) and an assortment of White House staffers (Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Sean O’Bryan) from a troop of North Korean militants that descended upon 1600 Penn Ave. Now older (and looking it), wiser, and about to be a dad, Banning is considering hanging up his gun and nesting with his wife (an underused Radha Mitchell) and new arrival.

Before he can send his resignation e-mail, though, Britain’s Prime Minister unexpectedly dies and his funeral calls many heads of state to the forefront to pay their respects in London. Before you can say bangers and mash, Banning and the President find themselves under siege again…this time by a Middle Eastern arms dealer out for revenge in a most public fashion. So begins a chase film where an unending bevy of bad guys pursue POTUS and his security man through the deserted streets of London.

There’s a serious lack of taste to the film. I guess I just get really skeeved out when the central topic of an American-made movie is a terrorist plot to capture and execute (by beheading) the leader of our country live on the Internet. Does it hit to close too home when we see/hear about these brutal murders broadcast for wartime propaganda? Sure does and it doesn’t mean I take any pleasure in seeing a movie about it. It’s also pretty sickening in terms of the Islamic panic created by the screenwriters and director who don’t waste any opportunity to have Butler graphically murder a terrorist while delivering a “America, F**K yeah!” quip. Hearing audience members applaud and cheer this on definitely made my stomach turn.

I’ve yet to quite figure out what makes Butler such a draw for audiences and studios. Though in demand much less these days, he’s still managing to get work despite his acting chops that are on par with the Segals and VanDammes of similar films. He looks terrible here, appearing as if he hasn’t slept in the years since the last film opened. Eckhart also is quickly taking a nosedive on the reliability department. Though saddled with some severely awful dialogue, a smarter actor would have found a way to make his performance interesting, if not at least consistent. Poor Bassett (Chi-Raq) is treated rather terribly by the writers and Leo (Prisoners), so astoundingly bad in the original, is featured in over a dozen scenes but has but two lines. She looks positively in pain to be appearing here…obviously contractually obligated to do so. I’ll love Morgan Freeman (Lucy) forever but to say he’s phoning it in here would be insinuating he even bothered to dial in. Actually, Freeman and Leo appear mostly in one boardroom set…it’s clear they filmed their scenes in one or two days. The only bright spots in the darkness (literally, most of the film is hard to see thanks to poor lighting designed to hide the cardboard sets) are Mitchell and Charlotte Riley (In the Heart of the Sea) as a MI-6 agent. Sadly, neither lady gets much to do.

Special mention must be made to the bargain basement level special effects that unfortunately feature heavily into the picture. Explosions look like they were lifted directly off of a Nintendo DS and the only time that Butler and Freeman are on screen together it’s clear that neither actor was in the same room. Poor green screen backdrops are the icing on the cake and make me wonder if the entire film wasn’t shot in a warehouse in Glendale.

Olympus Has Fallen was a hunk of cheese left on the kitchen countertop for a few hours but its sequel is positively rancid. Reveling in ugly American nastiness, cheaply made, and badly acted it’s a film likely to be positively received only at a Donald Trump rally.

Movie Review ~ Chi-Raq

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I can’t remember the last Spike Lee movie I saw…I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of gave up on the director about a decade ago after a series of heavy-handed offerings that got bogged down in their own messages.  And I hadn’t even heard about Chi-Raq until a screening popped up on my list so I stayed away from any previews, put away my pre-conceived notions of the director’s past work, and knowing only that it was Lee’s update to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, I let the film speak for itself.

And speak it does…with a strong, loud, clear voice.  It’s Lee’s voice and it’s familiar in its tone and delivery, but wrapped in a timely package about guns, violence, diversity, and peace.  Lee has brought forth his most focused film in quite some time and while it has its interminable sections, there are moments of sheer brilliance that’s as good as anything else I saw in 2015.

In Chicago, violence is at an all-time high. People are gunned down on the streets, in their homes…the innocent and the guilty are indistinguishable. Into this mix we meet Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, giving a star-making performance), the girlfriend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who has had it with the violence always right outside of her doorstep.  Moving in with a neighbor hardened by violence in her past (Angela Bassett), her eyes are opened to the power she holds to help effect change in her neighborhood.

After a child is gunned down in broad daylight, Lysistrata and her girlfriends band together to attempt to force their males to put down the weapons and make peace.  How do they do it?  Well, those familiar with Lysistrata will know but for newcomers, I’ll let that be something you discover on your own.  It proves to be a method that brings international attention to the war on street violence, a happening that moves Lysistrata to the front lines of the battlefield.

Lee expertly brings Lysistrata forward to the new millennium and has created a movie arriving when gun violence is at an all-time high and questions about police action and neighborhood activism is front page news.  Using Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) as a hilarious Greek chorus, Lee gets his message across in a more commercial way but its nonetheless powerful in how it’s received.

There are some parts of Chi-Raq that bristle with firepower and moments that seem to stretch on forever, thankfully in the end there’s more that crackles than strains and the end result is a movie that’s important to see with a message imperative to heed.

The Silver Bullet ~ White Bird in a Blizzard

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Synopsis: In 1988, a teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears.

Release Date:  September 25, 2014

Thoughts: Star Shailene Woodley has been on a roll ever since making an impressive bid for stardom opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.  In 2014 alone she’s been an action star (in the otherwise forgettable Divergent), broke YA hearts (as a cancer teen in The Fault in Our Stars) and now takes on another dramatic role in Gregg Araki’s coming of age tale White Bird in a Blizzard.  With Araki’s history of putting the squeaky clean youth of Hollywood through his adult blender, expect Woodley to mine new ground and bare all (literally) as a teen affected by the disappearance of her unbalanced mother (Eva Green, Cracks) in the late 80s. 

Movie Review ~ Olympus Has Fallen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s been said that timing is everything and if that’s true then the producing team behind Olympus Has Fallen should have listened to that wise old saying when it came time to release their film concerning a hostile takeover of the White House.  Released back in March at the height of tensions between North Korea and the US, the film did respectable business but was nowhere near the type of pre-summer hit that everyone involved must have hoped for.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that the final product would have ever really caught on regardless of when it was released because it’s a largely goofy affair that scores highly on the tension scale but exhausts itself and the audience with melodramatic acting and far too many extraneous plot happenings.  Opening in the shadow of July’s similarly themed White House Down, Olympus never really rises from the ashes of a been-there, done-that vibe that would have seemed more at home in a season of 24.  Oh wait…24 DID do nearly the exact same plot in its second to last season.

Poor Gerard Butler just can’t catch a break when it comes to films.  Though critics may make you think otherwise, he’s never been a true box office draw and a parade of stinkers in the last two years hasn’t helped his clout in Hollywood.  Olympus Has Fallen is probably his best film of the bunch, mostly because it allows Butler’s more macho/muscular streak to emerge rather than bear the weight of the romantic comedy nightmares he’s been stuck in recently.

Here Butler is a former guard to the President, a role he loses after an iffy opening sequence set on an icy bridge involving the First Family.  It’s never adequately explained how/why he gets bumped down a few notches on the Secret Service totem pole but it helps set up his redemption later in the film.  Now he’s a paper pusher with a nice view of his former office from his standard D.C. digs.

When a terrorist attack leaves the White House in shambles and the President and his staff held hostage in an underground bunker, it’s up to Butler to perform a one-man rescue mission by any means necessary.  The bulk of the first half of the film is taken up by the seemingly endless infiltration on 1600 Penn Ave by Korean militants that want the US to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  To do so would surely mean the fall of South Korea but with the fate of our nation’s leaders at hands what choice do we have.

These kinds of films where US governments are held hostage by a foreign entity always make me squirm because the movies always go the same.  It’s clearly stated that we do not negotiate with terrorists but when you flash a loved one in danger everyone always buckles.  The body count in this one is high which adds some extra suspense in who truly will survive by the time the credits roll.

Working in what must have been left over set pieces from The West Wing, director Antoine Fuqua moves the action around with ease even though most of it takes place in shadowy darkness.  It becomes hard to tell who is who…but when it’s just one man against the bad guys…you just need to focus on Butler and his bone-crushing methods of extracting information about the head villain in charge.

The big bad wolf is Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as one of the least intimidating villains in recent memory.  Though he doesn’t hesitate to put a bullet into more than a few people, Yune’s calm delivery seems more sleepy that sociopathic.  On the opposite side of the hero coin, Aaron Eckhart’s (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) President Asher is underused and not called on to do much but play on his All-American looks to cut a believable presence as the Commander in Chief.

Filling out the cast are several overly earnest performances that never seem to gel with each other.  Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) is the Speaker of the House that’s thrust in charge when both the President and Vice President become indisposed.  Freeman’s played the President before (in 1998’s Deep Impact) and he’s largely recreating that role here.  Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd pop up in pivotal roles and poor Radha Mitchell is the victim of overstuffing the turkey as Butler’s wife.  This whole storyline between Butler and Mitchell has nothing to do with the plot and bogs the film down.

Two respected actresses are also on hand and both are fairly disappointing.  Angela Bassett (This Means War) has little to do but give off of looks of both horrified terror and ballsy determination as the Secret Service Director.  With each passing role Bassett seems more determined to simply toe the line and not step out of her comfort zone.  Even worse is Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) in an atrocious wig offering line deliverers that seem to be coming via satellite based on the way she pauses before each one.  Leo growls and howls through most of the film…culminating in her unintentionally hilarious recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in pained agony.  For my money, the actresses should have swapped roles…I’m slightly convinced they mistakenly were given the wrong roles and no one noticed until it was too late.

Even with its silly plot contrivances and less than stellar special effects the film does truck along with reckless abandon that entertains more often than not.  You absolutely have to check your brain at the door and be prepared for some slightly tacky moments near the end when people start cracking jokes while standing in the middle of a sea of dead bodies.    A rental at best, Olympus Has Fallen may eventually get the job done but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s really worth it at the end of the day.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Music of the Heart

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Story of a schoolteacher’s struggle to teach violin to inner-city Harlem kids.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Gloria Estefan, Angela Bassett, Cloris Leachman

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  In 1999, most movie-goers who heard that Streep was starring in a new Wes Craven film might have thought she was taking the lead in a Scream sequel but they would be surprised to see that it was Craven stepping outside of his comfort zone. 

The Oscar nominated documentary Small Wonders was the inspiration for the feature length story of single mom in NYC who takes a job as a music teacher with an inner-city school.   At first her unorthodox ways and strict program don’t sit well with the students, parents, and school officials but faster than you can say To Sir, With Love she changes minds and hearts one bow string at a time. 

Though Streep (who earned her 12th Oscar nomination for the role) is excellent as always, the movie seems a bit too easy for the actress.  Now, I enjoy it when Streep colors outside the lines in films like She-Devil, Still of the Night, Death Becomes Her, etc but I just can’t help but feel there wasn’t a huge challenge in the work being done here.  Maybe it’s because the role was originally written for Madonna (don’t cry for her, Argentina…she nabbed Evita, a role Streep had wanted to play for a decade) or maybe it’s that the story is light as a feather.

Craven directs the drama with a cursory style…he had long wanted the chance to direct a serious picture and negotiated the option to helm this in exchange for a few more blood and guts films for the studio.  It’s a serviceable effort that undoubtedly got more notice because of Streep’s presence.  Bringing up the supporting roles are a surprisingly strong turn for singer Estefan and less surprising work from Quinn and Bassett as characters that only pop up to slow things down.

I’d strongly recommend the documentary this is based on (if you rent the DVD the doc is included as a valued extra) and see how the feature film compares to the real life people that made Music of the Heart possible.