Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Selecting Ryan Coogler to helm Black Panther is a major triumph: His entry into the Marvel universe is a majestic, full-bodied, exhilarating treatment of the African-king title character (Chadwick Boseman) with the crazy-cool suit. Marvel has yet another big success with a grand future.

Coogler has three feature films to his credit now—one masterpiece (Fruitvale Station) and two very good movies (Black Panther and Creed). He’s officially one of the best directors currently calling the shots. This is also his third collaboration with actor Michael B. Jordan, who brings a fleshed-out, complicated villain to the screen in Erik Killmonger. Man, you need to be bad with that last name.

The pre-opening-credit scenes involves Black Panther’s dad and predecessor having a confrontation in 1992, in Oakland, Calif. A major event takes place as some kids playing basketball look on. It turns out to be one of the more brilliant and heart-wrenching setups for a Marvel-movie character yet.

The action cuts to present day, where Black Panther/T’Challa is dealing with the death of his father due to an event that took place in Captain America: Civil War. (The producers and screenwriters linked these films together very well.) He’s set to become king, but must pass through a ritual with some risk involved. He overcomes the obstacles, gets his throne and prepares for his rule. However, his kingdom doesn’t get a moment to breathe before trouble ensues.

Elsewhere, Killmonger has come across an ancient weapon forged in Wakanda (the Black Panther’s homeland), made from vibranium, a precious resource that fuels much of Wakanda’s advanced technology, including the Black Panther suits. With the help of Wakanda enemy Klaue (Andy Serkis, acting with his real face as opposed to a motion capture suit), Killmonger obtains the weapon, threatening world stability.

The story is told with a stunning level of social relevance for a superhero film, especially when it comes to Killmonger’s motives. He’s not just some guy looking to enrich himself for selfish purposes; he’s got some big reasons for having gone bad, and they make him a far more sympathetic character than, say, Loki from Thor.

As good as Boseman is, and he’s really good, Black Panther is a big success thanks very much to the cast around him. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the possible love interest in Nakia, getting her finest post-Oscar role yet. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira makes a confident graduation to big-screen action hero, while Letitia Wright gets a lot of laughs as T’Challa’s mischievous and extremely smart sister, Shuri.

There are so many great performers in this movie that there isn’t enough room here to give them all praise, but here are a few more: Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all play formidable roles. It’s early in the year, but this will surely stand as one of 2018’s best ensemble casts.

Coogler proves he can handle a big-action blockbuster. His action scenes mostly snap with precise energy and efficiency, but some of them are a bit jumbled and hard to follow due to low light or ill-advised camera angles. I saw the film in IMAX 2-D, so perhaps some of what I was seeing played better in 3-D. There was nothing too sloppy, but some moments were not as tight as the rest of the film.

Black Panther is a superhero saga rich with culture and gravitas, and yet it does not skimp on the good humor and action thrills we’ve come to expect from Marvel. DC’s recent offerings (Justice League, Suicide Squad) make everyone involved with them look like goofballs in comparison (with Wonder Woman being the lone recent exception). Black Panther and Marvel show us that big-screen superhero entertainment can be about much more than suits and explosions.

Black Panther is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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About two decades ago, Contact ticked me off when Jodie Foster supposedly traveled to some distant place in the universe—merely to have a chat with her dead dad. It was a trite storytelling letdown.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival also approaches the subjects of aliens, parentage and everlasting love, but it’s a much, much better movie.

Villeneuve is emerging as one of the best visual and pacing directors in the medium today. Arrival follows Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the vastly underrated Enemy (2013) as another movie of definitive vision, style and grace. No doubt about it: This man knows how to make a movie.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics teacher crippled by visions of a daughter who died of a rare illness. She lives a life of seclusion; the only things she really does are teach her class and mope around her lakefront home. (Man, that must be one abnormally high-paying teacher’s gig.) During class, a bunch of phones go off; a student instructs her to turn on the TV; and—bam, that’s how she discovers the planet is seemingly getting visited by an alien force.

Strange giant pods have parked themselves all over the planet, and nobody knows the intent. A solemn military man (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office and informs her that the world needs her. She has a sense of purpose again.

It isn’t long before she’s inside an alien ship trying to talk to the “Heptapods,” large elephant-like aliens with seven legs. She’s joined by a science officer played by a surprisingly low-key Jeremy Renner.

The aliens communicate visually with symbols that look like coffee-ring stains. They seem to say a few words that get parts of the world a little worried—and it looks like Earth might find itself at war. It’s up to Louise to decipher the code-like language and find out if the Heptapods want to harvest us, War of the Worlds-style, or give us a helping hand.

Adams could find herself in the Oscar race for this one. This is one of the year’s best performances thus far. (She’ll appear in another highly touted film, Nocturnal Animals, this month.) Louise doesn’t have many happy moments in this film, and other actresses could’ve made her a drag, but Adams makes her shine, even when she’s in despair. It’s some of Adams’ very best work.

Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is profound in a way similar to Interstellar: This is another science-fiction film taking a theme like universal love and making that aspect just as interesting as the gadgets and alien creatures. The movie, while challenging on a scientific level, definitely scores major emotional points.

The film was budgeted around $50 million, so it’s not a special-effects extravaganza. The scenes with the aliens are engrossing, but there’s nothing whiz-bang about them. Dare I say: The movie is rather laid back. I must give high props to cinematographer Bradford Young for shooting a movie that never seems anything short of very real. Those visuals are assisted by often Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson’s excellent score.

The movie is drawing comparisons to films like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, if you are looking for some sort of action pic, you will not find that with Arrival. It’s a movie that gives itself time to breathe, and while it does have a few action scenes, it is, for the most part, intellectual fare.

Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the Ridley Scott classic and another sci-fi effort. Based on his work with Arrival, I’m really looking forward to the Blade Runner sequel.

Arrival is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Southpaw is one of the better boxing movies I’ve seen in recent years. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself as Billy Hope, a boxer at the top of the world with a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Oona Laurence). He loses everything, Rocky V-style, and must fight for redemption and the custody of his child.

Forest Whitaker plays Billy’s unorthodox trainer; it’s reminiscent of the role Burgess Meredith played in the Rocky films. Yes, I’m comparing this movie to Rocky in many ways, because it is clear director Antoine Fuqua drew much of his inspiration from that series.

Gyllenhaal put himself through a rigorous training process to become a convincing fighter, and he certainly looks the part in the ring. Outside of the ring, Billy mumbles a lot, which makes sense considering the number of blows he’s taken to the head. It’s a typically great performance from Gyllenhaal, who rises above the moments where the script becomes a little too conventional.

Laurence, who reminds of a young Natalie Wood, does strong work as the daughter who has to put up with a dad who can’t seem to get his act together.

Southpaw is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Director Lee Daniels—prominently mentioned in The Butler’s title (officially Lee Daniels’ The Butler) after a much publicized lawsuit—delivers a fine emotional wallop with this historical epic loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler at the White House for 34 years.

The character based on Allen is renamed Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker), and the character is given a fictional older son in order to depict a family conflict regarding the Civil Rights Movement. In other words: This film, which shows the butler interacting with presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) through Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), is mostly made up. That doesn’t hurt the film’s dramatic significance; it’s an ultimately moving experience.

What does hurt the film a bit is the horrible makeup, especially a goofy fake nose for John Cusack as Richard Nixon. The makeup is so bad that the film turns into unintentional comedy when some characters are onscreen.

Whitaker holds the whole thing together, and Oprah Winfrey—in her first starring role since her excellent turn in Beloved—does strong work as Cecil’s wife. Other stars playing presidents include a relatively makeup-free James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, and an absolutely covered Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson.

This one gathered some early Oscar buzz, but that seems to have died off. That’s OK; the movie is decent, but its flaws keep it far from greatness.

I tried, but I simply couldn’t accept Cusack as Nixon, and Rickman as Reagan. That’s just some silly casting right there.

Special Features: A making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and a music video are all you get. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a holiday-season film designed to send you home smiling.

Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill. He looks out for his military-vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro—even paying off Rodney’s gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy).

Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail, while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and his brother is in bad shape. Rodney’s debts have gotten too big, so he starts bare-knuckle boxing. He eventually finds himself in a situation in which he should be taking a dive for a nasty criminal (Woody Harrelson, playing one of the year’s most memorable and lecherous movie villains).

Rodney disappears, and Russell takes matters into his own hands when a local authority (Forest Whitaker) appears to be dragging his feet. At this point, the movie starts to really heat up, thanks to an added element involving the Whitaker character that I won’t give away.

In some ways, Out of the Furnace is a typical revenge thriller, with semi-predictable plot points. However, what makes the movie so worthy of your time is that it commits to a dark, despairing mode—and all of the performers revel in it. It’s a downbeat movie for sure, but Bale and company give it a steady, dark pulse.

Affleck has had a good year with this and the little-seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His Rodney is the sort of tragic figure who feels all too real. You pull for him, but there’s a sinking feeling he can’t be helped. He has a brief face-to-face showdown with Harrelson that counts as one of his career highlights.

Harrelson is pure, unadulterated evil here. His Harlan DeGroat is established in the very first scene as an entity not to be messed with; he’s terrifying. Harrelson is such a good performer that he never falls into caricature. You ultimately get a sense that a moral code may’ve once existed within DeGroat, but that core was decimated by meth, hatred and violence.

Out of the Furnace features one of the more sublime and understated recent Bale performances. (I was reminded of his subtle, brilliant work in Terrence Malick’s The New World.) After every emotional blow, Russell seemingly remains a good man, convinced things can all work out in the end. He has an optimism that is heartbreaking to behold.

Cooper prominently uses Pearl Jam’s “Release” at the film’s start and finish. It’s a powerful song choice that sets a mood that is both triumphant and somber—a lot like the movie itself. He further adds to the mood by casting Sam Shepard in a small but crucial part. Shepard’s presence adds gravitas.

Out of the Furnace doesn’t try to make any grand statements in its two hours. It tells a sad story of two brothers who love each other, the hardships they face, the bad hits they take, and their somewhat regrettable coping choices. The film is no happy party—but it is a showcase for three actors who nail it.

Out of the Furnace is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Lee Daniels (mentioned in the film’s title after a much-publicized lawsuit) delivers a fine emotional wallop with this historical epic that is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler at the White House for 34 years. Those going to this film for its historical significance, take note: The film contains much fiction.

Allen is renamed Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker), and is given a fictional older son to depict a family conflict during the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, this film, which shows the butler interacting with presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) through Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), is mostly made up. That doesn’t hurt the film’s dramatic significance; it’s a moving experience. What does damage the film a bit is horrible makeup, especially a goofy fake nose for John Cusack as Richard Nixon. The makeup is sometimes so bad that the film turns into unintentional comedy when some characters are onscreen.

Still, Whitaker holds the whole thing together, and Oprah Winfrey, in her first starring role since her excellent turn in Beloved, does strong work as Cecil’s wife. Other stars playing presidents include a relatively makeup-free James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, and an absolutely covered Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to movies as a headliner not only bombed domestically; The Last Stand was a massive international bomb. It didn’t make back its relatively meager $45 million budget during its theatrical run—a big fall for the man who used to be the world’s biggest movie star.

In truth, this is not the greatest of surprises, because the movie is not very good.

Arnie plays a sheriff in a border town who finds himself squaring off with a drug-cartel baddie and his cronies. Johnny Knoxville shows up as the kooky sidekick (again), and Luis Guzman shows up and does his normal thing.

Arnie is in good form; it’s the film that seems stale. It feels like 12 movies you’ve seen before cobbled together as a warm-up for a guy who has been out of the game for a few years. It’s too bad; Arnie should’ve made his comeback vehicle a film in which he was fighting aliens or trading quips with Danny DeVito.

This mediocre rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t do him justice.

Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker plays an FBI agent who spends most of the film yelling into telephones and staring at computer screens.

Special Features: There are deleted and extended scenes, along with some behind-the-scenes docs.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to a starring role with The Last Stand, a film that falls somewhere in the middle of the Arnie canon. It’s not a terrible effort—but it’s not anything to get all that excited about, either.

Arnie is back, murdering the English language with his own special brand of finesse—but he’s refusing to take his top off. He needs a little more time with the HGH so he can take off his shirt, Stallone style! Yep, Stallone is 66 and has no problem showing off his gloriously fake old-guy pecs.

Arnie plays Ray Owens, sheriff of a small town near the Mexican border. When stopping at a local diner to have some coffee, he notices one of the patrons is played by Peter “Where is pancakes house?” Stormare (the actor who put Steve Buscemi through the wood-chipper in Fargo). Ray correctly assesses that this guy means trouble—and bad things begin to happen.

A drug-cartel baddie named Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has busted out of a U.S. prison and is racing toward Ray’s town in an incredibly fast Corvette in an attempt to cross the border. The Stormare character is part of a team sent in advance to make sure conditions are clear for crossing—which means shooting a farmer brandishing a shotgun and demanding he get off the land. The angry farmer is played by, of course, Harry Dean Stanton.

Ray has “seen things,” thanks to his prior L.A. cop days, so he’s prepared for a good fight. His deputies include wet-behind-the-ears newbie Jerry (Zach Gilford), the hot-girl deputy (Jaimie Alexander) and another cop played by Luis Guzmán, who, like Stanton, always seems to show up in movies like this.

The same can be said about Johnny Knoxville, who once again finds himself playing wily comic relief in a sheriff-takes-a-stand” movie (something he did, with little success, with The Rock in Walking Tall). He’s basically around to wear kooky hats and make funny faces. I have come to the conclusion that I do not enjoy Knoxville onscreen unless he’s being struck in the gonads by a charging bull.

A subplot involves an FBI guy (Forest Whitaker) tracking Gabriel. He makes a couple of crucial phone calls to Ray, and spends much of the movie staring at computer screens and acting antsy. Didn’t this guy once win an Oscar?

Director Jee-woon Kim offers up some great car chases (including an especially good one in a dried-out corn field), some decent explosions and lots of cartoon violence. The film is never boring, and gets good grades for its action content. However, it is not on par with Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters, one of the best horror films of the past 10 years.

As for the plot, it feels like a movie you have seen before, like the aforementioned Walking Tall, or even Cop Land, which starred a somber Sly Stallone as a lonely sheriff taking a stand against corruption. Stallone played that role when his career was in the midst of a dip, and he was looking to change up his image. As we know, Stallone didn’t get things swinging again until he played Rocky and Rambo as old guys. Similarly, Schwarzenegger probably won’t see his career spark up quite yet. Fortunately for him, his future slate includes a new Terminator; a shirtless, older Conan the Barbarian with saggy man tits; and a sequel to Twins. The meager first-weekend box office for The Last Stand proves that the general public could care less about Schwarzenegger emoting in a sheriff’s uniform.

Surprisingly, this probably contains Arnie’s best acting yet. He has a few moments when it almost seems like he knows how to actually act. I guess nearly two decades in politics gave him a chance to hone his bullshitting skills.

Mediocre movie aside, it’s good to see Arnold back on the big screen in a central role. Next time out, I’m hoping his movie is a little better. 

The Last Stand is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews