This Panther Has Sharp Claws, Social Commentary

3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)

Black Panther poster
Photo from http://cdn.collider.com

Much like death, taxes, and meetings with your in-laws, Marvel movies are, for better or worse, unavoidable.  The studio’s intense marketing campaigns set the internet ablaze with fan theories, memes, and reaction videos from people who haven’t even seen the movie yet.  Black Panther is the newest character in Marvel’s extensive catalog to get his own solo feature, and that has brought an onslaught of anticipation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since The Avengers back in 2012.  As such, criticizing this film has been unofficially labeled as a sin against humanity by the powers that be, causing a large majority of critics to either minimize or completely ignore its flaws, something they would not do if it were another garden variety superhero flick.  I’m here to set the record straight and say that, while Black Panther makes significant strides for the genre in terms of grounded political themes, stronger female characters, and a believable lead villain (whom I will not spoil), the film also has a noticeably slow start, some shockingly lackluster action sequences, and a title character who feels like a supporting player in his own movie.  For those who haven’t thrown their keyboards or newspapers away in disgust, please continue below.

The story starts one week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, following T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman doing a fine job) as he protects the people of Wakanda, a technologically-advanced yet decidedly isolated African city powered by Vibranium, the strongest metal to ever exist.  As his father King T’Chaka was recently assassinated, T’Challa must now take up the mantel of the Black Panther, the protector of the nation.  I’m not sure why they allowed T’Challa to wear the Black Panther costume before he was officially made King, but I’ve let crazier things slide before with this Universe.

Soon after being crowned, T’Challa learns that the criminal Ulysses Klaue (An enjoyable Andy Serkis) has stolen Wakandan technology from a museum in London and plans to sell it to the highest bidder in South Korea.  Knowing that people will lose their collective minds if the technology is revealed to the world, T’Challa, aided in the field by his finest warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and braniac sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) back home, ventures to stop Klaue, running into CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) along the way.  Unbeknownst to all, these actions will bring a much greater threat to both Wakanda and (of course) the world.

Black Panther is one of Marvel’s more ambitious projects.  Ryan Coogler (the man behind Creed), uses the story to explore some timely and thought-provoking ideas while still providing a solid standalone movie.  I believe the film’s message will resonate with all audiences on some level, regardless of their race, financial background, etc. and will likely be the subject of conversation in many a global politics class in the coming weeks.

The film also differentiates itself by having battle sequences in which, and get ready for this, characters actually bleed after brutally smashing each other.  I was surprised and overjoyed to see that Coogler wasn’t shying away from the fact that these are strong African warriors, not action figures.  No one is going to come out of these fights unscathed, and I hope the same principle can be applied to the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (in which the biggest bad guy the heroes have ever faced is visiting Earth with a lust to conquer, and will probably have death on the mind).  However, in an unprecedented and head-bangingly frustrating turn of events, Coogler seriously drops the ball whenever T’Challa is in the Black Panther suit, making the crippling decision to shoot two of those scenes at night, with insultingly low lighting.  I might not have the greatest vision in the world, but a guy in a black suit fighting in the dark of night is going to be difficult to see.  The first scene is in the jungle with the only light being from flashlights and machine gun fire, and the second is a car chase shot very quickly with a ton of acrobatics with only the bright buildings of South Korea as a light source.  What’s more, these scenes lack the grittiness of the non-costumed battles, which caused me to mentally check out during them.  However, I will throw this panther a claw and applaud the thrilling climax for being shot in the daytime and, even when Black Panther is fighting the bad guy, I can see what is happening.

While it might come up short on superheroics, it excels for creating a fleshed-out villain and strong female characters.  While Marvel has often struggled to create memorable baddies, this one has understandable motivations that come from a surprisingly grounded and realistic place that ultimately made him the most interesting character, and the three primary female characters are smart, proactive, and will kick the living cheese out of anyone who challenges them.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the title character.  While Boseman is doing a fine job with the role, there isn’t as much relatability in T’Challa as with Marvel’s other heroes.  It feels as though the writers gave so much to the villain and main supporting characters that T’Challa somehow got shortchanged.  I know that we were introduced to him in Civil War, but he just wasn’t as engaging here.  Hopefully this will be remedied in Avengers: Infinity War and the sequel this will obviously receive, because Boseman deserved better than this.

Black Panther is an ambitious film with a strong villain and immensely topical themes, but its lead character doesn’t make as strong an impact as previous heroes, and the initially slow pace bogs it down.  This is still a well-made and enjoyable movie, but it’s not quite the event film Marvel wanted it to be.  Regardless of these issues, I still say See It, for the good outweighs the bad here.

Rated PG-13 for Prolonged Sequences of Action Violence, And (seriously) A Brief Rude Gesture

Marshall: Unpretentious Legal Drama Has Great Performances, Timely Message

4 out of 5 stars (one of the best of the year)

Marshall Poster
Image from imdb.com

I’ll be completely honest here: The primary reason I saw Marshall was because Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t at my local theater.  The trailer for Marshall made it look like an overly serious legal drama that would likely drown in its own self-importance (not that I’m downplaying the importance of this case, but Hollywood has a tendency to over-dramatize these “based on real events” stories to the point of hilarity).  I entered expecting a film that would get on its soap box about race issues in an attempt to be relevant in these racially divided times.  Thankfully, it avoids that nauseating trope and instead does something that far more biopics should do: Marshall is a solidly entertaining legal drama that humanizes its subject without placing him on a “higher than thou” pedestal.

The story follows Thurgood Marshall (A charming Chadwick Boseman, soon to appear as Marvel’s Black Panther), an African-American lawyer for the NAACP.  Marshall is the best at what he does, travelling around the country fighting for innocent black men to receive fair treatment under the law rather than be unjustly trampled by it.  He’s like Gandhi with a suit and a legal degree, spreading justice wherever he goes.

Marshall’s newest assignment is Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of NBC’s This is Us) a black man on trial for the rape and attempted murder of white upper-class socialite Eleanor Strubbing (a decent Kate Hudson).  However, as the judge (James Cromwell) isn’t particularly fond of out-of-towners who aren’t licensed to practice locally, Marshall is partnered with white insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (A surprisingly good Josh Gad), and forbidden to speak during the trial.  Add one sniveling poster child for upper crust aristocratic entitlement (You know, the kind that Americans despise), in opposing council Loren Willis (a delightfully hateable Dan Stevens), and Marshall is in for the case of his life, facing doubt, racism, and finding a surprising ally in Friedman along the way.

Marshall is a great movie.  It’s not as brutal as, say, 12 Years a Slave, but it still gives you an understanding of the hardships faced by African-Americans in this time period.  Much of this is due to Chadwick Boseman’s wonderful performance, imbuing Marshall with sincerity, humor, and, most importantly, a palpable belief in positive change that makes him easy to root for.  Josh Gad also turns in a great performance, believably turning from an inexperienced yet well-meaning lawyer to a man who understands the importance of what he’s fighting for in this case.  Their chemistry is one of the film’s best aspects and makes the two-hour runtime fly by.  Hudson and Brown are good if a bit unmemorable, and Stevens relishes playing the most unsubtley biased lawyer this side of Alabama.

All that said, the most surprising element of this film is its sense of humor.  It would have been all too easy to make Marshall a depressing “message of the week” film whose only purpose for existence was to tell us how awful race relations used to be.  To my immense joy, the film was able to address the subject while possessing well-placed humor to liven up the proceedings and balance out the legal drama.  It’s not a comedy by any means, but the filmmakers understand that real people are not stoic beings: they can have more emotions than angry, sad, or impassioned. Hopefully more films will follow this trend of, well, making human beings act like actual human beings instead of overly serious robots who perpetually gaze off into the distance (I’m looking right at, well, most summer movies of 2017).

My only complaint is minimal, but worth noting.  I understand the film is in a different time period, but the music sometimes makes it feel like a TV movie rather than a theatrical release.  The biggest example is in the flashback when Eleanor recounts her rape to the court.  While the acting was all well and good, the music made me think I was watching the opening to an episode of the original CSI.

Marshall is an engaging, well-acted, and empowering film that allows you to see the humanity in its subject.  Chadwick Boseman is on the track to stardom, and Josh Gad shows unexpected screen presence.  The script balances courtroom drama with occasional bits of humor, the message is clear without banging you over the head, and the story is fascinating.  See Marshall at your local theater, or on streaming when it comes.  We need more movies that inform and entertain in equal measure, and this could be that trailblazer.

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content, Sexuality, Violence, And Some Strong Language

This title is available on Amazon here

12 Years a Slave is available on Amazon here

Thor: Ragnarok is available on Amazon here

This is Us is available on Amazon here

Season 2 available here

 

The Commuter: Newest Liam Neeson Thriller Derails from Plot Contrivances

2 out of 5 stars (has some good moments, but is overall bad)

Commuter Poster
Image from https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/

Liam Neeson’s newest action-thriller, The Commuter, brings together everything we’ve come to expect from the acclaimed actor’s crop of action films: a seemingly average guy gets himself entangled into a deep conspiracy while attempting to maintain his sanity, not sure who to trust or how to escape said conspiracy, with the life of his family in danger.  If that sounds like Taken, Unknown, or Non-Stop, that’s because it essentially is.  The Commuter is nothing but a hodge-podge of elements stolen from better Liam Neeson movies that fails to find its own identity.  But I guess I should have expected that, as this is a film released in the second week of January (often deemed “dump month”, where studios will release mediocre films quickly so they will be long forgotten by next Oscar season).

Neeson this time plays Michael, a family man who has just lost his job as an insurance agent (yes, they actually want us to buy Liam Neeson as an insurance agent).  Despite his son’s college tuition being due next week as well as having taken out two mortgages on his house, Michael decides not to tell his wife about the firing because we wouldn’t have a movie if he did.

Riding the train home, Michael is approached by the mysterious Joanna (an eclectically-dressed Vera Farmiga), who tells him that a large amount of money is located in the restroom, and he can have it in exchange for identifying a person on the train who does not belong.  Against his better judgement, Michael decides to take the money, initiating a series of events that put him and the other passengers at risk, and me through a test not to fall asleep in my comfy theater seat.

This movie is riddled with problems, the first being two devastating miscasts: Neeson, and Patrick Wilson as his cop friend and ex-partner on the force.  Neeson simply doesn’t possess the demeanor to be an average guy, and Wilson is far too young for me to believe they would have worked together in the distant past.  The second issue comes with the tone.  My initial feeling of tense anticipation was shattered by the writer’s need to insert forced humor into the situation that served only to dampen the suspense, leading to me giving up halfway through and waiting for it to end.

This movie wants so badly to be like Alfred Hitchcock’s old films, but doesn’t understand why they worked.  Hitchcock movies (Psycho, The Birds for some examples) were good because they made their worlds and characters feel as realistic as possible before throwing implausibles at us.  This movie seems like it will do that, but then has Michael behaving like a lunatic when communicating with the other passengers, eliminating any believability.  All of this being said, I the 23-year-old college grad, am not the target audience for this film, so I might not be the best judge of its merits.  The adults in my theater (mostly 50-year-olds) seemed to have a good time.

The Commuter is only a pale imitation of Liam Neeson’s other action-thrillers that is confused on how seriously to take itself.  Unrealistic characters and a plot stuffed to the gills with contrivances ultimately make this an overlong and boring time at the movies in my eyes.  Skip it and go watch Taken again.

Rated PG-13 Some Intense Action/Violence, and Language

The Circle: Techno-Thriller Spins its Wheels into Unintentional Comedy

2 out of 5 stars (has some good moments, but is overall bad)

The Commuter Poster
Image from https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com

Watching The Circle is like listening to someone who believes they are extremely knowledgeable about a certain subject, but in reality are spouting arguments that are as obvious as the sun.  They think you’ve never heard their points before, and you will thus be blown away by their statements.  You listen as a courtesy, deep down just wanting to see how insane the discussion can get.  The Circle is the living embodiment of that person, a film with several fascinating ideas that has no idea of how to cohesively explore them.  Add in some laughable dialogue, a sprinkling of less-then-stellar acting, and an ending that completely undermines what little story was there to begin with, and you have what is in my opinion the best comedy of 2017 (if unintentionally).

What little narrative we have follows Mae (a continuously accent-swapping Emma Watson), a woman searching for a job with better health benefits so that she may pay for her father’s MS medical bills (Bill Paxton in his final role).  When she’s not working at what I assume is an accounting firm, she either hangs out with her childhood friend Mercer (a knee-slappingly bad Ellar Coltrane) or goes kayaking.  And I hope you find those traits endearing, because that’s all the “development” we get on Mae before the plot starts.  Joy.

Mae’s luck changes when her workaholic friend Annie (Karen Gillian just biding her time until a better movie offer comes her way) suggests she apply for “The Circle”, a Facebookesque company run by the charismatic Bailey (Tom Hanks doing his best Steve Jobs impression).  Mae lands the job, but is soon unsettled by the odd (and frankly intrusive) behavior of her coworkers.  This includes: asking why she didn’t post about going kayaking last weekend, the company somehow knowing about her father’s medical problems without her telling them, and Bailey somehow being allowed to post several cameras at random locations around the state so the company can remain “connected” to everyone.  Only Ty Lafitte (a miscast John Boyega) seems to realize how bad this company is, and warns Mae of its (thinly veiled) nefarious intentions.  However, Mae is being tempted by Bailey and others around her, forcing to choose between compromising her moral compass or going along with the pack.

This movie is an absolute riot.  Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and Karen Gillian do what they can with the material, but simply cannot make it work.  As well, characters come in and out of the film randomly, making it impossible to tell who we’re supposed to be invested in.  I won’t care about your characters if I don’t get to know them.  In writing this review, I honestly had to Google most of the character’s names due to how forgettable they were.

I could forgive the scant characterization if the plot was any good, but it feels like vital parts of the movie have been cut out, leading to nonsensical developments and a laughably on-the-nose message about the dangers of technology.  There are four or five TEDTalk-like scenes where Tom Hanks informs an audience of “innovations” that would have him arrested if this film existed in anything resembling the real world.  I understand it’s meant to be a warning to us, but the film is only preaching to the choir.  Now more than ever we are aware of how intrusive technology is, and this movie could have said something new to make us really think about whether or not we want that intrusiveness.  However, it chooses to simply make points we already know in ways that make after school specials look deep or intelligent.

The Circle is a well-intentioned, but horrendously executed film that becomes the funniest unintentional comedy since The Room.  Its points are painfully obvious, its acting stale, and its dialogue flat-out hilarious in its pretentiousness.  However, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good laugh with some friends.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

Rated PG-13 for a Sexual Situation, Brief Strong Language and some Thematic Elements including Drug Use

This title is available on Amazon here

 

These “Angry Birds” Should Have Flown Straight to DVD

1 out of 5 stars (one of the worst of the year)

Angry Birds movie poster
Image from https://ia.media-imdb.com/

The Angry Birds Movie is what happens when a studio takes an outdated property, finds some half-decent actors, and inserts unnecessary adult humor into a premise devoid of any cinematic potential.  The film is loud, overlong, and dull, with voice actors who alternate between trying way too hard and not trying at all.  That’s not to say that young kids won’t enjoy it: the film is extremely colorful and the characters are always moving around, but the dialogue is immature and overly childish.  Again, I understand this is a movie targeted at young children, but in a postInside Out landscape, animated films like this are insulting to children’s intelligence as well as their parents’ tolerance.  In short, The Angry Birds Movie is the worst animated film I’ve seen this year, its single star gained out of the 5 honest laughs in its 97-minute runtime.

It concerns Red (Voiced by a wholly unlikable Jason Sudeikis), an angry bird on an island where every other inhabitant is a happy one. While people like you and me might see the glass as half-full, Red doesn’t see any water in the glass at all.  His latest angry outburst lands him in anger management class with some other angry birds: Bomb (Voiced by Danny McBride), who literally explodes when he gets angry, and Chuck (voiced by an extremely irritating Josh Gad), who possesses a pathological need for lawbreaking.  This class is taught by the eternally perky Matilda (voiced by an energetic Maya Rudolph), the only character I liked in the film.  This is Red’s worst nightmare, but for us, it’s only the beginning.

The feathers really hit the fan when green pigs, led by Leonard (Voiced by a boring Bill Hader) arrive unexpectedly. While the rest of the island is taken by these mysterious invaders, Red senses something is amiss and, after some investigation, discovers the pigs are imperialists who will take the island resources and leave it for dead.  This causes him, Chuck, and Bomb to set out on a quest for the legendary Mighty Eagle (Voiced by a paycheck-seeking Peter Dinklage) to help save their home.

This film annoyed me. Some critics have praised the animation for its detail on the bird feathers.  I don’t think the birds were much to look at, but some of the backgrounds were relatively pretty (in some cases they were more involving than the events transpiring with the characters).  However, the pig characters were ugly to me and seemed creepy when they moved around (which they do a great deal).  As well, I found the main characters to be unoriginal, unlikable, and somewhat grating.  I was never invested in these characters or cared about their adventure.  I honestly considered walking out at a couple of points (something I never do).  However, I thought it might improve in the end or have a message about the danger of imperialism. Unfortunately, what I got for my hard-earned-time was an anticlimactic 20 minutes of angry birds being flown at a pig castle via convenient slingshot (as in the mobile app, as far as I know).

The Angry Birds Movie is loud, obnoxious, and irritating to no end. Fans of the app may enjoy it, but for everyone else, I would suggest seeing Zootopia again.

Rated PG for Rude Humor and Action

Read my review for Zootopia Here

Read my review for Inside Out Here