“Black Panther” movie review

A groundbreaking new perspective on the typical high concept superhero movie. Marvel’s Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler is the type of movie that began with the desire to make a bold statement and then a narrative was built around the message. If you’ve heard it’s unlike any superhero movie you’ve seen before, then you’ve heard correctly. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Marvel universe (and DC by the same token) is the diversity of the characters. There are characters from a variety of backgrounds, creeds, cultures, ethnicities, etc that are represented in the characters. However, just because the characters were there does not mean they received reasonable screentime (or page time in comics). Up to this point, X-Men’s Storm (my favorite Marvel character) seems to be the only black character who receives comparable screen and page time to that of her white male or female counterparts. In a world that should teach us that our universe is a diverse place, filled with incredible people from a variety of backgrounds and origins, the representation of black heroes lagged behind. The beauty of Black Panther is not that is was simply created to finally give a predominantly black cast in a superhero universe the spotlight, the beauty is that the movie has something to teach everyone. There is a particularly strong message for young black boys and girls that their mythology is as fascinating as the Greeks and Romans, and that they can achieve greatness through teamwork, education, and loyalty.

Chadwick Boseman plays King T’Challa, of Wakanda, the fictional African nation housing secret sci-fi technology, who must step up and embrace the weighty responsibility of his birthright after the assassination of his father. When T’Challa returns home Wakanda to take his rightful place as king, a powerful enemy suddenly reappears and challenges T’Challa’s claim to the throne — and as Black Panther — T’Challa gets tested when he’s drawn into a conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people. (IMDb)

Although there is a lot of technology in Wakanda (and by extension, in the film), the focus is not on gadgetry or superpowers but on how T’Challa can be a better king than his father who made a poor judgment call that ultimately cost him his life and put the land of Wakanda at risk of rape, pillage, and plunder. That is a message that resonates with everyone–we all want to strive to be better as we go through life. Perhaps we are trying to be better than we were as kids or maybe you are trying to be a better parent than yours were. Whatever the case, we can all place ourselves in T’Challe’s boots. There is also a powerful message regarding how isolation can be detrimental to society at large. Not that the film is advocating the loss of sovereignty–Wakanda is highly sovereign–but there is the message that a country with so much to offer should return some of that to the world in order to help create a better society, more opportunities for growth, and the sharing knowledge that can heal and protect.

The cast is incredible! So many talented performers who truly bring their respective characters to life. My only negative critique regarding the cast is the underused Michael B Jordan as the main opposition character. His charisma shines brightly on screen! But sadly, he does not get much screen time. He is the type of opposition character that you love to see, but unfortunately, you don’t get that much time with him. Although many may be quick to liken Black Panther to Captain America—and for good reason, both shoot straight and almost piously righteous–there is a big difference between the two–and it’s a good one. Black Panther is humanized by his endearing relationship with his brilliant sister Shuri portrayed by the delightful Letitia Wright. Honestly, she was my favorite character in the entire movie. Every moment she was on screen was outstanding. She was the only one who wasn’t bruting–always positive–and has the BEST lines. Just her character alone is enough to give the movie rewatchabiity. On the topic of dialogue, I would like to have seen a powerful monologue that embodied the message of the film and evoked strong emotion. There are emotional parts, but I think an acute moment would have done the film well.

The film opens with a beautiful long tracking shot of exquisite editing that has a mystical feel to it. The opening alone is enough to hook your attention for the remainder of the narrative. No surprise here that all the technical elements were exemplary. There were only a few times that the visual effects felt artificial. For all the action movie tropes in the film, it plays as more of a character-driven story than action-driven. And that’s the brilliance of Black Panther. Simple plot, complex characters–that’s what I tell my screenwriting students at the University of Tampa.

Intensely riveting, Black Panther is clearly a standout Marvel film distinguished from the others in the MCU. All the elements that give it the fresh take on the superhero movie genre work to its advantage. You’ll certainly be left with a lasting impression.

“Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” movie review

rogueoneJust when all hope was lost, the force has awakened this time. After the disappointingly stale installment last year, I did not have high hopes for Rogue One. To my surprise, the first standalone Star Wars franchise film exceeded expectations. Although the public is accustomed to Star Wars films coming in threes, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Studios took a risk in creating an original single story to successfully setup A New Hope. Unlike when the force tried to awaken last year, THIS feels like a new Star Wars film. With twenty-some-odd years to fill between Revenge of the Sith and the original movie, how was one film going to do it? Focus on what was ultimately important. Not that the development of the Empire would be uninteresting, but the white elephant in the room was “how did the rebels get the plans that setup the events at the beginning of A New Hope“? And that is precisely what director Gareth Edwards did, and it paid off! Rogue One is as exciting as the original film; and furthermore, is built upon a solid plot that is mostly new with a little nostalgia and Easter Eggs (visual references to A New Hope) in the form of locations, props, shots/frames, and familiar featured characters and a surprising cameo. One of the elements that plagued Episode VII was the simple fact that it was little more than a remix and mashup of everything that had been done before, including main plot points, subplots, and predictable behavior. Rogue One feels fresh and new. Yes, there are obviously appearances and references to characters and settings from A New Hope, but that is to be expected since this film ends where the original film begins. Thematically darker than the original film but not as dark as Empire Strikes Back, this installment strikes a balance in the force that makes it interesting to watch. We all know that the rebels get the plans in the end, but this film makes the adventure worth watching as it unfolds.

With the old republic in ruins and the senate all but disbanded, the Galactic Empire has  its eyes set on a feat of engineering never seen before. But they need to attach the right scientific talent in order to create that which would become known as the Death Star. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist and former Imperial officer, devoted husband, and loving father. Director Krennic, head of the secret Death Star project, arrives at Erso’s home to forcibly recruit him to head up the science and engineering divisions. When recruitment does not go as planned, Erso is separated from his family and taken away. Escaping to the caves, his daughter evades capture. Many years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself a criminal and angry that her father never came back for her. When an Imperial pilot allegedly defects and claims to have a message from Galen for the Rebel Alliance, Jyn is recruited by the rebels to lead them to a former rebel turned rogue and ultimately to her father. With Captain Cassian Adnor (Diego Luna) at the helm and lead of the small band of rebels accompanying Jyn to her father, they uncover a secret that thousands will die for in order to attempt to make things right in the galaxy. All the while, they have no idea that this clandestine mission will spark events that they could have never imagined.

Already, this film seems to have sparked arguments among fans of the franchise and those who enjoy them but may not be fanboys. Even this morning, I noticed many comments on social media that commented on the film positively or negatively. Interestingly, at first glance, it seems as those who liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not like Rogue One, and those–like me and the friends I went with last night–who thought The Force Awakens was garbage but found Rogue One to be exciting, dynamic, and refreshing. Of course, there are plenty of people who like both films released under the Disney banner, either because the Big D can’t possibly do anything wrong or because they are true fans for better or worse of the nearly forty-year-old franchise and staple in the future fantasy genre (notice I did not say science-fiction–no real science here). At this point, I am unsure why those who liked last year’s film may not have liked this weekend’s installment; however, it appears to be clear from multiple comments and reviews that the reason why those who did not like Episode VII enjoyed Rogue One is the newness of a film that embodies the spirit of the original but provides audiences with a new adventure that connects well without redundancy. One of the reasons for the success of the original film–aside from a great cast–is the focus on the drama between characters and camps. There is the drama between Rebels and the Empire but also drama within the camps themselves. Rogue One borrows from A New Hope in that the focus is more on the drama than resting its laurels on the technical elements. Not that this film lacks in the technical category. Rogue One comes complete with great direction, color grading, cinematography, and impressive editing (especially with some rather surprising CGI that will definitely cause you to do a double take utter delight).

For all that this installment did well, the beginning of the film following the prologue was dreadfully ill-conceived and mostly unnecessary. Unlike all the other Star Wars films, this one did not open with the trademark scrolling written prologue offering exposition to setup the movie. Instead, after the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” the film cuts to the opening scene of Krennic recruiting Galen. Following the prologue and rather PowerPoint-looking Rogue One title card, is a rapid, incoherent, and confusing sequence of montages. Honestly, I am still unsure why that whole sequence was necessary. Between the PowerPointy title card and this sequence of montages, I did not have hope for the film at all. Obviously, I ended up enjoying it immensely, but I look back and feel strongly that it could have been left out. The settings/planets that were depicted did not play into the plot at any level of significance. Felt like filler. Thankfully, the scenes following the prologue are but a small portion of the film and the film really begins to take off after Captain Cassian and his team rescue Jyn from a prison transport vehicle. After Jyn’s rescue covert operation, the rest of the film is nicely paced and developed. Other than knowing the ending, the majority of the film was unpredictable. Unpredictable in that you know the direction it’s going and ultimately what’s going to happen but you don’t know HOW it all happens and works together to setup A New Hope.

Just the right amount of nostalgia and Easter Eggs. For those who are fans of or simply familiar with the movies, there are cameos, references, and shots taken from the chronologically preceding films (mostly A New Hope). Just enough nods to and direct connections to provide the audience with a film that IS as much a part of the Star Wars saga as the official Star Wars cannon. It’s no surprise that the Death Star is a big part of Rogue One, Senator Mon Mothma is seen leading the rebels, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) makes several brief appearances, and a couple other nostalgic cameos; but there are some characters who are included in the diegesis of this film who will delight old and new fans alike–one in particular that will incite an eruption of cheers! Beyond the human characters, there are other appearances by iconic ships and war machines that aid in cementing this story in with the rest of the franchise. While the film contains some lighthearted, witty dialog between the core group of principle and supporting characters, the film also contains some dark moments. Personally, I think the film should have been a little darker since it sets up the installment all about hope reborn; but, the atrocities of war are definitely not hidden from the audience and events transpire that are atypical of future fantasy films between heroes and villains. In a manner of speaking, and as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film’s diegesis strikes a balance in the force in terms of the light and dark content.

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is an exciting narrative that successfully sets up the film that started it all. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy but did not enjoy Episode VII, you will most likely enjoy this installment. If you are a fan of the original trilogy and liked Episode VII, then there is moderate chance that you may not like this story. It will be interesting to see how this film plays out amongst mild, moderate, and hard core Star Wars fans from both the Disney and Fox camps. I had my doubts of Disney taking the reigns of the franchise after last year; but this film gives me a new hope that Disney may be able to successfully navigate the rest of the franchise.

“Arrival” movie review

arrivalposterYou’ll want to see it again. Prepare yourself for an extraordinary cinematic journey in this science-fiction thriller complete with commentary on the human condition. From the exhilarating cinematography to the incredible awe-inspiring visual effects, Arrival will have you hooked from the very beginning. Based on the book Story of Your Life and Directed by Denis Villeneuve (SicarioPrisoners), Arrival boasts an outstanding cinematic experience that is as much cerebral as it is visceral. Your very perceptions of time and memory will be questioned and force you to open your mind to endless possibilities. Poignantly, this film takes you on a journey that will show you that we need to change and that we can change. On the verge of avant-garde, Arrival pushes the limits of traditional visual storytelling and creates an innovative method for conveying social commentary within the science-fiction genre. Following the final fade to black, you’ll want to discuss this film with your friends. Reignite your sense of wonder. Arrival is more than a story; it’s an experience!

After twelve egg-like unidentified objects land on earth, the U.S. Government calls upon expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to crack the mystery and develop a means of communication with the homogenous alien species. While much of the world is on the brink of an all-out assault on the aliens, Banks is determined to establish a rapport and open communications with the species. Starting with basic words and working up to complex sentences, Banks knows she has to learn the aliens’ language in order to better understand why they have come. When things take a turn for the worst, Banks and Donnelly have precious little time to stop countries from engaging in battle with risk of war. With so little time to unravel the mystery of why the aliens are here and what they want, Banks will find herself on a mind-blowing journey of her own.

You’ve just got to see it. There is so much that I want to talk about, but it would spoil so much of the film. I’ve mentioned before that there are great ‘movies’ that are mediocre ‘films,’ but this is a prime example of an excellent movie AND brilliant film. The brilliance of this film is not in the stunning visuals, although that is certainly part of it; the brilliance lies within the cinematic and experiential storytelling. During the big reveal at the end of the film, your mind will be blown. You’ll find yourself wanting to watch it again to more clearly understand the strategic placement of the pieces of the puzzle. During a time in which the country appears so incredibly fractured, this film will provide audiences with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for that which one may not fully understand. Making the tough calls and putting one’s life at risk of what is right is also woven throughout this story. The theme of Arrival is not fully realized until the latter half of the film. More than a surface-level story about that which I cannot mention without giving it away, this film possesses a dynamic range of themes just beckoning for interpretation. As this film bares much similarity to avant-garde cinema in the reimagining of traditional storytelling, it will evoke a powerful emotional response.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver outstanding performances in the lead roles. Taking center stage for most of the film, Adams breaks new ground as an actor in this role that is nearly a complete departure from most of her other roles. Both Adams and Renner display excellent chemistry in their respective characters. Although Adams is the central character and responsible for the drive of the plot, Renner is strategically placed to reinforce the affects Adams’ character has upon the plot. Forest Whitaker also plays a strong colonel and was an excellent choice for his role as well. The success of the cast can be attributed to both the outstanding direction from Villeneuve and the incredible screenplay by Eric Heisserer. Bradford Young’s cinematography is so simple but yet so beautiful and profound. It is of no surprise that this film is being touted as one of the best movies of the year and has a nearly unprecedented 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whether you are a linguist yourself or just enjoy an exhilarating cinematic journey, Arrival is definitely the film to catch this weekend. For the Star Trek TNG or Voyager fans out there, you will find that Arrival possesses some of the same great content that sets Star Trek apart from other science-fiction shows due to the human condition being central to the overall plot. If you enjoy movies that prompt you to revisit how you perceive your life, time, or space, then you will not be disappointed. There are so many levels to this film. You’ll likely find yourself wanting to see it again after fully realizing the innovative plot. Hopefully this film receives some Oscar noms in the upcoming award season.

“Southpaw” movie review

SouthpawA ‘champion’ of a movie! Move over Cinderella Man, and make way for an incredible story of prestige, loss, overcoming challenges, and triumph. Southpaw is a surprisingly fantastic movie with dynamic characters and an incredible story. Follow one man from being on top of the world to self-destructive behavior that costs him nearly everything. Ordinarily, I do not give sports-related movies a second thought because I don’t follow any particular sporting event; however, had I let this one pass me by, I would not have had such a great cinematic experience. To be honest, it’s not screaming ‘early Oscar nom contender,’ but there is the off chance it could get the recognition. Never having attended a boxing match before, I am unsure of the adrenaline that rushes through the bodies of the audience. But, if it is anything like what I experienced during the third act of the movie, then I can totally understand why sporting events, such as boxing, can be quite the visceral thrill.

Southpaw is about champion boxer Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his triumphs and tragedies. Holding the Light Heavyweight title, he is on top of the world in his professional boxing career. Furthermore, he has a beautiful and loving wife Maurine (Rachel McAdams) and an adoring daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence). After he decides–well, after being urged–to take time off from the boxing circuit, his agent is hell-bent on getting him back in the ring and sign a contract with HBO. Finding it difficult to ignore the fame and emotional high of the eyes of the world being on him, Billy turns down the opportunity to focus on his family. Following a speaking engagement at a New York City children’s home (the home both he and his wife grew up in), a brawl breaks out in the lobby and Maurine is shot. Devastated, Billy takes out his anger on nearly everyone except Leila. But, one drunken night, after he crashes his car in the front yard of his palatial estate, the court finds him unfit to be a parent and sentences him to rehab. Having lost his wife, and now his daughter, and all of his possessions, he must rebuild his name and career in order to win back his daughter despite the odds being against him.

The movie opens on a gritty scene during the championship for the boxing light heavyweight title. This intense opening is quite indicative of the entire movie. This is the type of movie that will rock you down to the very core. In many ways, the story is told through various perspectives. Believe me, it’s mostly objectively shot; but, there are definitely times that the camera gives us a subjective or point-of-view perspectives and other times the subjectivity is implied. This is an important element to the narrative because, from what little I know about boxing, it is a sport that is personally intense and highly affects the boxer physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unlike other sports which are not nearly as violating or invasive, the boxing ring is one that requires amazing stamina, discipline, and courage. Unfortunately, throughout his career, Billy was never one to focus on his defense. And this is a character flaw that transcends the ring into his life. On the subject of the coverage of the boxing matches, the cinematography is crafted so that it truly feels like you have been transported from the cinema into a great ring-side seat. This greatly increases the realism of the movie and grittiness of the plot.

Not surprising, the main focus of the plot is on Billy’s character development. But, not unlike Billy, both his daughter and his new trainer Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker) also go through their own respective developments. In many ways, Leila and Titus embody some of the very same struggles and challenges that Billy is going through. Although Billy made decisions that lead to his fall from fame and glory, the tragic death of his wife affected him in ways in which no one is ever prepared emotionally. The writers and director of this movie were very successful is transferring the pain of Billy, Leila, and Titus from the screen into the minds of the audience. However, despite the fact that there are many elements that I appreciate about the movie, I do feel the Billy’s recovery time should have been a little bit longer and taken him to darker places in order to truly get to the very core of what his character must have been feeling and to better support the more inspirational aspects to the narrative. He went from rock bottom back to the top a little too quickly.

One of the refreshing parts to the movie was the inclusion of humor here and there. Due to the dark nature of the subject and the mental anguish experienced by Billy, it would have been all too easy to allow the low places of the film to be filled with utter despair and anger, but I was quite pleased that the writers included a little bit of humor sprinkled throughout the narrative. Wasn’t over the top, or tasteless, or thrown in there, it felt very natural and added to the believability of the story. In fact, the dialog as a whole, was well-crafted and allowed the characters to become real for the audience.

If you enjoy movies about overcoming obstacles, metaphorically returning from the dead, and the feeling of being on the edge of your seat, then you should definitely check out Southpaw. Even if you’re like me, in that you don’t typically watch sports-related movies, you should still see this fantastic story with excellent acting and character development.