BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

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PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

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THE STRANGE ONES (2018)

January 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having been well received at film festivals throughout 2017, this film is journey of patience for both the characters and its viewers. Co-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein have expanded their 2011 short film into their first feature length film, and though some evidence of ‘stretching’ is present, so is a somber, moody style that provides an interesting look and feel.

It’s more mysterious and atmospheric than it is thriller, and at times it even has a “Twilight Zone” vibe. Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) are traveling together as brothers, though we never really believe they are related. An impending dread hovers around each move they make, and the film tortures/teases us with unspecified relationships and connections. Nick and Sam are semi-desperate and clearly on the run, yet it’s not until the end when things somewhat come together.

Young Freedson-Jackson is the key to the film, and his facial reactions are critical. His astounding blank stares seem to hold meaning. It’s a bleak film with a gloomy tone, and while I’m all for slow and deliberate story-telling, the technique is usually more effective when there is a reason for it. This is a deep cut indie that lacks mass appeal, but for those patient enough to commit, the supernatural aura will likely keep you engaged for the run time.

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COCO (2017)

December 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my two-decades long worshipping at the animated alter of Pixar, the trailer for this one just never struck a chord with me. Thank goodness there was a late night showing aboard my recent Disney cruise, or I might still not have caught this gem that ranks among Pixar’s best … and this is the studio that has gifted us the TOY STORY franchise, THE INCREDIBLES, UP, and INSIDE OUT – instant classics, each and every one.

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina team up as co-writers and co-directors for the 19th feature film from Pixar Studios. It’s the second Pixar film this year (CARS 3), but the first original (non-sequel) since 2015 (THE GOOD DINOSAUR, INSIDE OUT). This latest not only offers the most advanced visuals to date, it also features a complex story that touches on numerous topics: Mexican culture, family legacy, religious traditions, loyalty, following one’s own path, respect for the elderly, and remembrance of those deceased. If all of that sounds a bit too heavy-handed and deep for kids, keep in mind that Pixar charmed us with UP, the story of a man whose wife dies – yet, they kept us laughing with one word …”squirrel!”

The story focuses on young Miguel and his desire to sing and play guitar despite his long-standing family ban on music. Miguel is convinced he is related to the most famous Mexican performer in history, Ernesto de la Cruz, and he concocts a plan that corresponds to Dia de Muertos to convince his family that he must be allowed to play music. The film is respectful to this tradition as the living pay tribute to those who have passed. The deceased are invited back for this one night with beautiful flowers guiding them from the Land of the Dead to that of the living.

Miguel’s adventure is quite a wild ride as he navigates the path between the living and the dead. Somehow the film is even a visual step up from the colorful beauty of UP and INSIDE OUT, with the city and the unique flying creature being exceptionally stunning. The Pixar charm and personality are evident throughout – even in Dante, the ever-present dog. Many Mexican celebrities and historical figures (including Frida Kahlo) are noted, but at its core, this is the story of a boy pursuing his dream, no matter the obstacles.

Pixar fans will be relieved to know that the Pizza Planet truck makes an appearance, as does A113, and numerous other Easter eggs. John Ratzenberger keeps his Pixar streak alive, and though Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector) and Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz) all do fine work, this one is not so much about the voice acting as it is about the tremendous story and art work. Remarkably, Pixar has done it again … an animated masterpiece that is among its finest yet. Parents should note that the film is rated PG, rather than G. There are talking skeletons and a couple of scenes that could frighten young kids.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

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THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Anna Murphy is Tara, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

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