Review: Black Panther

Black Panther.

I need to preface this because it’s hard to be a critic and critique a movie that means so much to people. That means that this movie might be your favorite Marvel movie yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s without flaws. Below I’m going to talk about Black Panther as a film and any critiques on the film aren’t meant to dissuade you from absolutely loving this movie, because many of you will.

The gist.

This is the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We follow the soon-to-be king of an African nation called Wakanda, named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). In Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa’s father was killed and now it’s time for his reign to begin. He returns to Wakanda and reunites with an old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). The general of his female bodyguard force Okoye (Danai Gurira) assists T’Challa in tracking down a long-time enemy of Wakanda, a black market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Turns out there’s another villain in the making though, a mysterious man named Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) who has a plan to usurp the throne of Wakanda.

We also have Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Letitia Wright, and Martin Freeman.

What works?

This movie is incredibly special, especially in the lineup of the other MCU films. It manages to create a world that is absolutely alive and Wakanda feels like a real place, much more so than other locations like Asgard from Thor have been. The world is alive, the colors are vibrant, and the music is perfect. The setting for this film is the star and it absolutely takes your breath away.

The living and breathing people in the movie also do an excellent job. We’ve seen Boseman do T’Challa before but his supporting characters are all fantastic as well, including Letitia Wright as his youthful and exuberant younger sister, who is also a genius. Danai Gurira (from The Walking Dead) has the best fight scenes in the whole movie, while Lupita Nyong’o manages to balance being a love interest but also a strong and independent character. All of these women are nuanced and complicated and interesting.

We have three core villains over the course of the movie and they all deliver in different ways. The most minor of them is Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe. He’s charismatic and threatening and brings to life a character that begun in the comics as a very problematic stereotype (with the name “Man-Ape,” though that name is never uttered here). Andy Serkis returns as Ulysses Klaue, after last appearing in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s maniacal and a loose canyon and you can tell he’s having a blast playing this role. It all leads up to Michael B. Jordan though, who some people are calling Marvel’s best villain since Loki. I loved his performance here and throughout most of the movie you actually understand his motivations and might even agree with his methods. However he’s a tad underused, disappearing for a huge chunk of the movie and his absence was noticed.

In a nutshell, this movie succeeds because of its people, its setting, and its message. It’s relateable, even if the world seems so futuristic. It showcases different African cultures in a way that is celebratory and interesting and complicated, in all the right ways. In the light of our real-world struggles, its timing is perfect.

What doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks that keep Black Panther from succeeding across the board.

The most obviously apparent one is the lackluster visual effects. T’Challa spends a lot of time in his new high-tech suit and it looks horrible most of the time, like something straight from a video game. It looks unnatural when he leaps and flies across the screen. In Civil War, he had weight and presence and his fight scenes felt real. Here, his fight scenes are jumbled and full of quick cuts and toss him around like a rag doll, the whole time looking fake and distracting.

Because of this, the big climactic battle is underwhelming and disappointing, so the movie ends and we’re left with a bit of a shrug. There are fight scenes where T’Challa is not in the suit and those scenes were much much better in quality.

Overall…

Black Panther has so many strengths that it is understandable why so many people might claim this as their new favorite Marvel film. But as a critic, I can’t ignore some major visual effects hiccups and an underwhelming finish. It’s still very good but I wouldn’t rank it among the greats of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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(Review) Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

This series has a very hit or miss history with me. I really liked the original The Maze Runner, especially in comparison to most YA dystopian adventures, but its sequel The Scorch Trials was a convoluted mess. Can this finale redeem the franchise?

The gist.

We follow Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) as he tries to rescue a friend of his Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from an evil organization called WCKD. This organization, spearheaded by Patricia Clarkson and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), seeks to find a cure for a zombie apocalypse by experimenting on kids that are immune to the disease. Thomas allies himself with a group of rebels led by Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) and includes his other friends played by Rosa Salazar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Dexter Darden. Thomas also must confront a former romantic interest Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) who now works with WCKD. We also get an subplot involving Walton Goggins as the disfigured leader of another rebel group. There’s a lot going on here.

What works?

The acting here is good, despite a poor story. Dylan O’Brien shows definite potential and Aidan Gillen seems to be having a blast, delivering some incredible moments in the thrilling climax.

Some of these action sequences are also really enjoyable, including a train heist at the very beginning that is pretty great. They’re unfortunately undercut by some subpar CGI work.

What doesn’t work?

I liked the original Maze Runner because it was simple and unique, completely devoid of the cliche evil organization. It was a mystery and that totally worked. But now this franchise has devolved into every other YA franchise, feeling completely synonymous with Hunger Games and Divergent. This is bad. It feels done already, like it’s retreading the stories of these other (and better) franchises.

This movie also doesn’t ease you back into the franchise, giving zero context or explanation if you don’t remember all the details. Characters show up with cameos and reveals that could’ve benefited from some explanation. Moments that were meant to be meaningful therefore meant nothing, unless you just watched the prior two films.

The Death Cure is also too long, filled with subplots and moments that were completely unnecessary. I wanted to enjoy the action but I was so tired of sitting in that theater that I just wanted the movie to be over. Slow pacing caused me to not enjoy this experience but instead count down the minutes to when credits would roll.

Overall…

The Maze Runner should have just been a “one and done” situation but instead a unique story slowly transformed into a predictable and cliche dystopian adventure. It’s not even done well, poorly paced and with subpar CGI effects. Some decent acting redeems a few moments but overall this franchise goes out with a whimper.

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Review: Den of Thieves

Den of Thieves.

It’s January, which means we’re going to get a few months of pretty bad movies. We always get a handful of “shoot em ups” during January, usually in the vein of Taken. When I saw the trailer for Den of Thieves, I was intrigued but it also had the possibility of being entirely a cliche of the genre. How’d it turn out?

The gist.

We follow the head of LAPD’s Major Crimes division, Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler), as he stakes out a bank-robbing crew that are looking to pull off a major heist. This crew is full of former Marines, including Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black), O’Shea Jackson Jr (Straight Outta Compton), Evan Jones, and 50 Cent. This becomes a game as Butler and Schreiber try to outwit each other, with the criminals’ end goal to rob the Federal Reserve.

What works?

This movie has a lot of elements that work.

There are some intense gunfights, most notably the climax. The shots are visceral and loud and the violence packs a punch. Unfortunately there are only a few action scenes like this, but they manage to impress when they do happen. We also get an interesting heist dynamic, almost like an Inside Man or Oceans 11, where we watch the plan unfold and are constantly getting twists and turns.

Gerard Butler is almost too convincing as our protagonist. He’s complicated and unlikable, which makes it hard to root for him. They spend a lot of time on building his character and giving us looks into his family, which makes him even more unlikable and these detours detract severely from the pacing of the movie. If the intention was to make him a realistic and three-dimensional character though, they succeeded. I’ve accused Butler of “phoning it in” in several movies, this one actually feels like he’s diving into it headfirst.

What doesn’t work?

As I mentioned above, this movie tries to do something different, though I don’t know if it’s successful. This film tries to make our stars realistic and complex, but does so by taking detours into their private lives. We watch Levi (50 Cent) threaten his daughter’s prom date. We watch Nick (Butler) argue with his wife and (probably) traumatize his kids. These sequences offer nothing to the larger plot but yes, they make our characters seem real.

These detours also cause the movie to clock in at 2.5 hours, which is way too long for a popcorn flick like this. I could’ve maybe endured this length if it was full of action but this movie only has a few big action moments, meaning that the majority of the movie is dialogue and conversation. It’s slow, too slow for an action film like this.

The movie also has a very uneven ending. It has an incredible edge of your seat climax but then tries to throw you a twist, which is unearned and illogical. The ending had me scratching my head in disappointment and confusion.

Overall…

Den of Thieves could have been awesome, if it really focused on nailing the right parts of the movie. However, a focus on character development actually hurt the film, resulting in a 2.5 hour runtime and relatively little action. Butler does what he can to save it and it’s a fun ride, some of the time, but ultimately this movie misses the mark.

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Review: The Post

The Post.

The Post is getting a lot of buzz for award season, so I figured I should probably check it out if I wanted to be well-educated. Did it live up to the hype?

The gist.

In this historical true story, we watch as the Vietnam War rages on but the press has discovered top secret documents that shows that the government knew they couldn’t win this war but continued to send countless men and women to war. We follow Ben (Tom Hanks) as the executive editor at the Washington Post. The owner of the newspaper Kay (Meryl Streep) is conflicted on whether or not to publish these documents, which might cause her and her staff to go to prison. We also have other reporters at the Post, played by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross.

The movie is also directed by Steven Spielberg, which I think makes this the fifth or sixth movie that he’s teamed up with Tom Hanks.

What works?

The reason most people are talking about this movie are the performances, with everyone across the board delivering some of their best work. We’ll undoubtedly see nominations for both Streep and Hanks, though I’d also guess a supporting actor nomination for Bob Odenkirk.

As a true story, this movie is also fascinating. I wasn’t born yet during any of these events, so to see them unfold here was really interesting. It’s a slow burn though, typical of Spielberg films (most notably his other recent true story Bridge of Spies). If you have the time and patience, you’ll be rewarded here.

I also appreciated the dialogue here, almost resembling a Sorkin-style witty banter. The movie is really only focused on dialogue, so the fact that it succeeds is a good sign.

What doesn’t work?

This movie doesn’t get everything right.

It has some major pacing issues, more apparent because the movie’s central action is all a debate over whether or not to publish an article, so the movie lacks a lot of punch. It’s a slow burn and not always very exciting.

There’s also the problem of an excess of characters, which is a rare problem. There are many moments that they reference a name, but we (as an audience) don’t know or remember who that is. A lot of moments of suspense are undercut by confusion. Too many characters that could’ve been trimmed, cut, or combined.

Overall…

The Post is great but it’s not for everyone. It’s a slow journey with some great performances but it’s lacking action and relies entirely on dialogue. If you find that appealing, you’ll likely love The Post. And you’ll surely see Hanks’ and Streep’s names often in upcoming awards discussion.

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Review: Proud Mary

Proud Mary.

Here’s the thing. In the genre of “gun-fu,” we’ve had a few stellar entries lately (John Wick) and a few disappointing ones (Atomic Blonde). When the trailer came out for Proud Mary, showcasing Taraji P. Henson as a badass assassin, I wanted this movie to be stellar. Is it?

The gist.

Taraji P. Henson stars as Mary, a trained killer who finds herself in a sticky situation when she leaves a potential witness alive, a young boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) whose father was into some bad stuff. Well, the boy turns to a life of crime himself and Mary believes she’s somewhat to blame, triggering an adventure for her to defend the boy and eliminate any hostiles looking for him. We also have Mary’s former lover and also a deadly assassin, Tom (played by Billy Brown). Tom’s father (Danny Glover) runs the “business” they’re all a part of and has a stake in keeping this young boy quiet.

What works?

As the lead, Taraji P. Henson is convincing, though the script and fight choreography do her a disservice. She would have shone in a better movie, which is unfortunate. The young Jahi Di’Allo Winston also has a few great moments but is let down by the movie itself.

What didn’t work?

Yes, you read that right. There was only one paragraph for the good stuff, which unfortunately means that this movie is a huge letdown. Let me explain why.

Let’s start on the page. This movie has three credited writers and all of them are unknown and have no experience in this genre, which is obvious when you realize that this movie only has one decent action sequence and the rest is mild-mannered drama. The writers do have experience in soap operas, so I guess that makes sense.

The plot itself is formulaic and predictable, tied together with melodramatic scenes with little consequence. It’s slow and boring, for the most part. If you want Taraji’s version of John Wick, you’re going to be incredibly disappointed here. She spends more time wallowing in what she’s done, than actually doing it.

Okay, so let’s pretend that we’re shooting these fight sequences and we know that we have to make them amazing, since they’re rare in this movie. There are 48 stunt performers and I’m guessing they each got to do one action because this movie is calm and I have no idea why 48 people were needed. And the quality of these few action sequences? Not good. The cuts are quick, the fights look clumsy, and overall it’s completely unimpressive.

The editing is subpar in general, not just the fight scenes. Moments linger forever that should just be a quick shot. This movie feels long and slow because of editing that could’ve used a few extra eyes to actually trim and cut the fat.

And here’s a weird complaint that I’ve never brought up before but I know it’s an issue in other movies. It’s a special skill to properly capture a dark-skinned actor on camera and this movie did not do it at all. After seeing great examples in Moonlight and the HBO series Insecure, I’ve seen what it can do and here, we have Danny Glover against a bright open window and you can barely even make out his shape, nonetheless facial features. It happens throughout the entire movie, where overuse of natural light makes it near impossible to make out the actors, especially those with darker skin. I don’t know how they looked at those shots and thought, “Yes, that looks the way I intended.” Someone wasn’t paying attention and/or didn’t care about this movie at all.

Overall…

I wanted Proud Mary to be amazing. A woman of color in a badass action movie, I wanted this to set a new standard. However, Taraji is let down here by everyone around her. The script is predictable and bland and ultimately lacks the action necessary. The action they do have is lackluster and edited poorly. The lighting is subpar, the editing is lazy, and this movie ultimately fails on almost every front.

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Review: Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game.

This movie has a lot going for it, including Jessica Chastain with a very complicated role and giving screenwriter Aaron Sorkin his first directorial effort. If you don’t recognize Sorkin’s name, he’s responsible for writing films like The Social NetworkSteve Jobs, Moneyball, A Few Good Men, and almost the entire series The West Wing.

The gist.

Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, a former professional skier who is injured and ends up getting roped into running a high stakes poker game. This movie is the story of how she got to that place and how she ended up in a major criminal investigation involving the Russian mob. Her lawyer (Idris Elba) is the key source of exposition, asking Molly all the questions that we as an audience might have. We also have a few key poker players, played by Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, and Justin Kirk. Molly’s current day story is also paralleled by her youth and a complicated relationship with her father (Kevin Costner).

What works?

Molly’s Game is a fantastic movie and absolutely fits in with other Sorkin films.

Jessica Chastain carries the movie and she’s perfect. You absolutely believe her struggles and her performances in different time eras are very illuminating to where she is in current time. It’s nuanced and complicated and she’s great here. She’s complemented well by Idris Elba, though he mostly serves to progress the plot and trigger flashback scenes. He does have one big moment at the end that gave me goosebumps and almost made me applaud in the theater.

I also want to commend casting some relative B-list talent that get a chance to shine here. Michael Cera hasn’t done much recently, but here he’s perfect. Chris O’Dowd and Justin Kirk (Weeds) also get little moments to steal the show.

Sorkin’s strength is (unsurprisingly) his dialogue and quick exposition. This movie cuts quickly and manages to keep you entertained for its entire runtime, finding time to explain poker mechanics in ways that non-poker players would understand. He also manages to make Chastain’s constant narration seem natural, which is hard to do.

This movie manages to balance a few different tones exceptionally well. It’s funny, a lot of the time. Molly is quick and witty. The movie also manages to become really somber at times, including some intense moments revolving around Molly and her father (Kevin Costner). Costner may only have a few meaty scenes but he delivers a top-notch performance here.

Molly’s Game also manages to intrigue you, which is sometimes tough for a “true story” film. I didn’t know how it was going to twist and turn and I was (luckily) pretty uninformed about the real life story, which I think is the best way to go into this. Go in knowing nothing, then do your research when you get home on how it really might’ve gone down.

What doesn’t work?

The only complaint I can think of is that the movie nears the 2.5 hour mark, though the speed of the movie never slows down, I never once wanted to check the time. So it’s lengthy but I don’t have a problem with the pacing, it all works.

Overall…

Molly’s Game is exciting, interesting, and educational. It had me laughing throughout most of it, but it also manages some hefty emotional moments as well. Jessica Chastain delivers an award-worthy performance, as does Kevin Costner in a supporting capacity. The trailers for this movie underwhelmed me but the actual film surprised me a lot, in all the right ways.

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Review: All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World.

This movie gained some attention for its last-minute removal of Kevin Spacey amidst sexual assault allegations. They replaced Spacey with Christopher Plummer, with just weeks to reshoot every scene and remove Spacey completely. So that’s the main reason most folks will see this: curiosity.

The gist.

J. Paul Getty (Plummer) is the richest man in history, amassing estates full of relics and art. His estranged son gets married (to Michelle Williams) and they have a son (Charlie Plummer, seemingly no relation to Christopher Plummer). A group of Italian kidnappers take the young Paul and hope to get ransom money, not realizing that the elderly billionaire isn’t interested in paying the ransom. Williams’ character is assisted by a former special agent (Mark Wahlberg) who can help to get the young Getty back, hopefully in one piece.

This is based on a real-life situation though embellished a bit for the dramatic.

What works?

As a historical event, this is fascinating. I’ve been to the Getty Villa in Malibu, so it’s interesting to see the background of what led to that stockpile of art. We’re used to the concept of billionaires now but looking at the first billionaire is really intriguing.

Christopher Plummer in this role is spectacular, so I think Spacey (in his old age makeup) would’ve been a step down, even distracting. Plummer manages to convey power and fear and greed without any gimmicky makeup. This last-minute switch was a benefit to the movie.

The other outstanding lead is Michelle Williams, who is really making a comeback with her other films like The Greatest Showman and last year’s Manchester by the Sea. Here, she’s a fierce mother fighting for her child and it’s totally believable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a nomination for her and Plummer both.

What doesn’t work?

Ultimately this is kind of a boring movie. At 2 hours 12 minutes, there are a lot of long scenes and dialogue-heavy moments. There are also multiple conflicts that feel unnecessary to the story, where you feel like it might be resolved or the story might be wrapping up but it doesn’t. Some of the story beats were created for the movie, not based on reality, and they end up dragging the movie down. It’s a slow burn, with just a few suspenseful scenes.

There are also moments that you can tell Christopher Plummer was added to the scene. There are even a few where it looks like his face was superimposed onto Spacey’s body, with last-minute CGI effects looking not very polished.

The tricky thing about basing a movie on a real story is the restriction of what you can and can’t do. Or what you have to do. Here, we have a character played by Mark Wahlberg that is unnecessary, doing absolutely nothing of importance. I was expecting some badass action moments, but Wahlberg didn’t get anything like that. “Oh but maybe he chose this for the dramatic moments?” Nope, he doesn’t get anything to do with that either. He is purposeless.

Overall…

All the Money in the World is a mixed bag. It would’ve been worse off if they kept Kevin Spacey, as Christopher Plummer is the highlight of the film, though Michelle Williams holds her own too. The movie drags, featuring plenty of unnecessary scenes and characters, which makes the film too slow and too long.

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