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 ~ Creed


The Facts:

Synopsis: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Back in July when I posted my thoughts on the preview for Creed I made an admission…that I’d only seen the first and fifth Rocky films.  It was a tough thing to say, not because the other Rocky films were classics but being The MN Movie Man, I just should have had those locked down years ago.  In my trailer review I also mentioned that before Creed was released I would go back and catch up…but alas, I only made it as far as buying the Rocky collection on BluRay.  So, like the books made into movies that I never finished before the release date arrived, I went into Creed only knowing a brief history of the boxing franchise that inspired it.

As most reviews will state, Creed is really Rocky 7 masquerading under a different name.  And that’s an OK thing because like the titular character, it needed to stand on its own and succeed on its own merits.  And succeed it does.  You won’t believe it, but let me assure you that this drama is an undisputed winner filled with knockout performances, dynamite filmmaking, and enough electrifyingly crowd pleasing sequences to keep the lights on in small city for months.

This is first and foremost a story about fathers/father figures/mentors, and the sons/young men that look up to them.  A pre-credits scene shows a teenage Adonis Johnson fighting his way through a stay in a juvenile correctional facility.  The illegitimate son of world famous boxer Apollo Creed, he’s a ward of the state when Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays him a visit.  Interested in the boy her late husband never knew, she takes him in and provides for him while keeping him on the right path…and away from the sport that she believes killed her husband.

Flash forward a decade to an adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) fighting in a Tijuana boxing ring before heading back to his 9-5 job, his boss and Mary Ann none the wiser.  Turning down a promotion in favor of making a go as a professional boxer without Mary Ann’s support, Adonis finds his way to Philadelphia intending to track down the famous friend of his late father.

Of course, the man is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 3) and at first he’s not interested in returning to his boxing roots, preferring a quiet life running his restaurant and paying visits to the graves of his late wife and best friend.  But Adonis is persistent and eventually the men are working together toward getting Adonis prepped for a big time fight with a towering rival…leading, as all of these movies do, to a showdown finale that ends the film on an emotional uppercut.

There’s a formula to any sports related film and Creed isn’t unique in its overall construction.  It’s the execution of said formula that makes the film work like gangbusters.  On one side of the ring we have Adonis desperate to prove something not only to himself but his father’s memory.  On the other side we have a faded fighter that sees a younger version of his friend (and himself) unaware of the effects the boxing life will have on his body and the sacrifices he’ll be making.

Director Ryan Coogler reteams with his Fruitvale Station star Jordan and has written a thoughtful extension of the Rocky franchise that honors Stallone’s original creation while crafting a new underdog hero story that’s more than just another entry in a long line of sequels.  Not only does Coogler break down the sport to make it less about jabs and blocks, he shows the commitment it takes to be the best of the best.  You really come to understand a boxer’s life, swollen eyes, bruised bones and all that goes with it.  Each punch lands with such force that by the end it’s possible you could forget you’re just watching a movie — I found that several times I had to fight the urge to stand up and cheer along with the film extras.

Whenever a romantic subplot is introduced in a sports centered picture, it can sometimes feel shoe-horned in but Coogler has given Adonis (and the film) an equal partner in Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma).  A singer with her own struggles, the film takes its time in showing their courtship…a courtship that winds up as tenderly authentic as the boxing scenes are brutally realistic.  Jordan and Thompson have excellent chemistry and you’ll be rooting for their relationship as much as you’ll root for Adonis to deliver a knockout blow to his final opponent.

Though Coogler’s use of real athletes more than a little stiff in the acting department can take you out of the picture, it somehow winds up lending a strange authenticity to the film.  Jordan trained so much for his role that the line between real fighter and actor is a thin one indeed, shown to great effect in one continuous take that seemingly lasts for three minutes.  Taking you from the locker room to the ring and through several rounds of a fight, the camera never cuts or stops moving — it’s a thrilling sequence, expertly accomplished by Maryse Alberti (already represented in 2015 with The Visit and Freeheld).  Alberti’s camerawork is so strong that I think you could watch the movie with the sound off and still be bowled over.  With the sound off, though, you’ll miss Ludwig Göransson’s (We’re The Millers) stirring score.  Interlacing the famous Rocky theme with unexpected an unexpectedly effective instrumentals, the music only adds to the excitement on top of Alberti’s visuals.  When Göransson’s perfectly timed reworked Rocky theme is introduced, just try to keep those goosebumps at bay.

Jordan’s star continues to rise and he’s delivered an award-caliber performance here, along with Stallone doing his best work in three decades.  Both men, along with Coogler and the picture itself, should be recognized by the Academy when they announce the Oscar nominations in January.  Based on the previews, I figured I would like Creed but I never thought it would be as moving and inspiring as it is.  Audiences are in for a true TKO with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Creed


Synopsis: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Creed, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Release Date:  November 25, 2015

Thoughts:  I’ve only seen the first Rocky.  OK.  Now that I have that secret off my chest can we move forward as friends?  Here’s the first look at a spin-off that’s several decades in the making…and it looks like it could be a heavyweight champ this season.  Rising star Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) reteams with his Fruitvale Station director for this new chapter of the Rocky franchise that focuses on the son of Rocky Balboa’s friend/competition Apollo Creed.  Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables 3) directed and starred in many of the Rocky sequels and I’ve a feeling that had he also taking directing chores here, the film might not come across with as warm a welcome.  Looks like I have some catching up to do before this gets released in November…

Movie Review ~ Fruitvale Station


The Facts:

Synopsis: The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: There’s little doubt as to how December 31, 2008 will end for Oscar Grant…we’re shown the actual footage of the shooting at the hands of a police officer that led to his death before the first five minutes of Fruitvale Station have elapsed.  For a movie that starts and ends with death it says something that you come away with powerful thoughts on your own life and the path that we’re all on.

One of the most buzzed about films at the recent Sundance Film Festival, I’d already read a lot about Fruitvale Station, the family that the film was based on, and the journey the movie took to the screen.  Being released at the tail end of a very busy but not totally memorable summer movie season was a bold move of counter-programming and I think that the film was timed right for audiences that were ready to put aside overblown superheroes and frat boy comedies for a more serious movie-going experience.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler favors efficiency over showmanship with a script filled with scenes that pull no punches and a reserved directing hand that guides his actors to strong performances.  It would have been easy to paint Oscar Grant as a tragic hero but Coogler and Michael B. Jordan let the flaws show…giving  way to a leading performance that’s honest and grounded.  Oscar had run-ins with the law and dealt with problems that many inner-city youth face and if he had lived maybe things would have changed or maybe they would have stayed the same…but the tragedy of it all was that we’ll never know what could have been.

As a young father, the movie really crackles when Jordan and the mother of his daughter (Melonie Diaz…another vastly underrated actor) have moments of anger and intimacy over the course of the day.  Their relationship may have had its ups and downs but these two people understand each other…which makes the disappointments hurt that much more.  Same goes for Oscar’s relationship with his mother (stoic Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer).  In a powerhouse flashback, Oscar’s mother visits him in jail and delivers a galvanizing tough love speech, proving that Spencer’s Academy Award was no fluke.

If I had to quibble with the film (and, let’s face it, I have to quibble with something) it’s that perhaps the 24 hours we spend with Oscar Grant seem a bit too packed with forward-motion developments.  By the time he boards the train that will lead him to the Fruitvale Station platform he seems to have figured out a lot of things like work, love, and future plans.  It makes the tragedy to come that much more painful but also seems like a small manipulation in a film that has eschewed any easy outs until that point.

I was surprised that when the reenactment of those final moments came how much of a gut-punch it actually was to watch.  We know what’s going to happen…we’ve seen the camera footage 80 minutes prior…yet by this time we’ve gotten to know the man who died that day.  We’ve met his daughter, visited his mother for her birthday, watched him care for a wounded dog….so to see him cut down in such a way is chilling and numbing.

Aside from any award recognition this will garner (expect Oscar nominations for Jordan and Spencer), the movie is a testament to the influence of restrained direction and committed performances.  It’s a motion picture that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater and had the chance to hug your loved ones.  When you do, chances are you’ll be like me and remember Oscar Grant, his death, and the family that misses him.