Review of “Black Panther”

The latest Black Panther and newly crowned king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is faced with a challenge right after taking the throne: The ruthless arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is meeting a buyer in an underground casino in South Korea with a Wakandan artifact made from vibranium. T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) urges him to capture Klaue and bring him back to Wakanda to face trial for his crimes including W’Kabi’s parents’ murder. T’Challa, his former lover and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and head of the all-female bodyguards for Wakandan kings known as the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira) go to South Korea in an effort to capture Klaue. There they discover the buyer of the artifact is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). After a violent car chase through the streets of Busan, Klaue is finally captured; however, not long after he is broken out of agent Ross’ custody by Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). During his time serving with US Special Forces he picked up the nickname Killmonger due to the ease and efficiency with which he took enemy lives. There is a connection between T’Challa and Killmonger that could upset the peace and security of Wakanda and the rest of the world.

The pressure on writer and director Ryan Coogler to make a great “Black Panther” movie must have been intense. Not only is this the biggest budget film of his career, it also is the first superhero film to feature a lead character (and most of the cast) that is a person of color. “Black Panther” also has the added burden of being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) where audiences expect the movies to not only be good but fit in with the rest of the continuity established by the 17 previous films. It is a responsibility that must have kept Coogler up at night. All that lost sleep and stress was worth it as “Black Panther” is a great addition to the MCU. It also gives a level of legitimacy to a film genre that is often looked at as being of lesser importance when compared to dramas that usually don’t involve super powered people.

The world of “Black Panther” is one of the best and most fully developed of all the MCU. The film provides a quick history of the mythical African nation of Wakanda before showing us why and how the rest of the world is unaware of the technological marvels the country has produced. The reason for the secrecy is to protect Wakanda’s people from those that would try to invade the country and steal its natural resources, namely the magical metal called vibranium. There’s a scene in the film that supports the idea of foreigners taking from other cultures what doesn’t belong to them. The Wakandan city that is shown is a mixture of modern structures with natural elements incorporated within them. There are also people that live outside the city in a natural setting in homes made from the surrounding elements. The scenic design of Wakanda is a nice mixture of slick modern buildings and modest homes along with a high-tech mining operation that appears to be mostly automated. There is obviously a great deal of care taken to give the fictional country a fantastic but believable appearance.

“Black Panther” also finds the right mix of drama and humor. The interplay between characters never feels forced. While we are told these characters have known each other for years, it actually seems they have. There is an ease to the interactions between T’Challa and his sister, the technical genius Shuri (Leticia Wright). It’s playfulness with a tinge of competitiveness that often comes out in gentle teasing and the occasional obscene gesture. Danai Gurira’s Okoye and T’Challa have a friendly but professional relationship that feels rooted in deep respect. Okoye is a proud warrior and willing to lay down her life to protect the King. There’s a fierceness to Gurira’s performance that makes her electric to watch. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia has a deep emotional connection to T’Challa despite their love affair having ended. She also has a commitment to fight injustice no matter where that may be found and believes Wakanda should do more to fight for freedom of the oppressed.

Fighting oppression is a theme that runs through “Black Panther” and is part of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. What method to take is the main issue. I believe this, along with the groundbreaking nature of the film, is why it is so strongly resonating with audiences across racial and economic lines. The crowd in the showing I watched was incredibly diverse in terms of color and age. I’ve never seen more elderly people at a movie and certainly never at a superhero film. Families of various ethnicities were sitting together and enjoying the film. It was an amazing sight. I hope the success of the film will help diminish the idea that movies featuring primarily people of color don’t make money at the box office. It doesn’t hurt that “Black Panther” is part of the massive MCU; however, the wide age range of the audience shows if the movie is seen as treating its audience with respect and honesty, a broad cross-section of people will come to see it.

Clearly I loved the movie but there is one complaint I have regarding Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue: He wasn’t used enough. This is the second MCU film he’s been a part of, the first being “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In “Black Panther” Serkis has been let off the leash. Klaue is a maniac with little to no fear when face to face with T’Challa as Black Panther. He’s a whirling dervish of evil and one-liners. His personality is much more upbeat and he clearly enjoys being a bad guy. Serkis is of course best known for his motion capture work as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and as Supreme Leader Snoke in the last two “Star Wars” movies. His use in the MCU has been brief and unsatisfying until the out-of-control Klaue was set loose to create havoc. That said, we need more Klaue and it seems unlikely we’re going to get him. Without spoiling anything it appears, short of some kind of special Wakandan magic that Klaue is not coming back for any more appearances. This makes me more than a little sad. I’m sure Serkis who recently released his first directorial effort called “Breathe” and is putting the finishing touches on his take of The Jungle Book called “Mowgli” to be released later this year has plenty on his plate to keep him busy; but I will miss him chewing the scenery as Klaue.

“Black Panther” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture. There is a car chase where several vehicles are destroyed. We see a couple of people get shot. A couple of flying vehicles are blown up. Black Panther and Killmonger engage in hand-to-hand combat on a couple of occasions. T’Challa also fights another person in ritual combat to take the throne. He is stabbed a couple of times and gets thrown off a very high waterfall. Another character is stabbed in the chest. The rude gesture is a middle finger raised. Foul language is scattered and mild.

The stakes are raised in “Black Panther” in a way that feels more honest and satisfying than in other MCU films. While the safety and security of the world are at stake as in most MCU films this time it seems far more important and real. Perhaps the real oppression of ethnic and religious minorities in the US and around the world make this story hit home a bit more realistically. Whatever the reason, “Black Panther” has raised the bar for the superhero genre and for film in general. It’s time to open our eyes to movies from and about people of color the same way we do with films from and about people that look like me.

“Black Panther” gets five stars.

This week there are three new films coming to a multiplex near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:


Every Day—

Game Night—

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Reviews of “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed”

This week, I saw two very different movies; however, if you look at them a bit more closely, it becomes clear these two films have a fairly similar theme: Sons trying to live up to the example and expectations of their fathers. “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed” approach their subjects from wildly different perspectives with one being aimed at children while the other is purely for adults. That said, each features a main character that is trying to be his best because of the loss (or lack) of a father. Each succeeds because the filmmakers avoid falling into the trap of depending on sentimentality to sell their tales and use great characters and compelling stories to make us cheer and weep.

The Good Dinosaur

The asteroid, which 65 million years ago put the nail in their coffin, missed and the most intelligent form of life on Earth is the dinosaur. Born on his family’s farm, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ocha) is the runt of the litter. His sister and brother are both bigger and neither seems to fear anything while Arlo is afraid of his own shadow. His poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and momma (voiced by Frances McDormand) love Arlo and do what they can to help him past his fear. Something is getting in their corn silo and eating up the crops they will depend on in the winter for food. In an effort to give him confidence, poppa puts Arlo in charge of capturing and killing the pest. The trap is sprung and Arlo sees it is a feral human boy. Attempting to escape, the boy gets tangled up in the trap lines and is being choked to death. Arlo releases the lines and the boy runs away. Poppa makes Arlo join him in tracking the boy through the woods and along the river. A storm builds up causing a flash flood and poppa is swept away and dies. Arlo feels responsible for his father’s death as well as angry at the boy. When he sees the boy in the silo again, Arlo chases him down by the river where the pair falls in. Arlo hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious. Waking up far from home and without the familiar landmarks he’s seen all his life, Arlo is scared and doesn’t know what to do. Unprepared for life in the wild, Arlo is sometimes helped by the boy. He protects him from predators and brings him food. Despite his feelings of anger, Arlo begins to like and depend on the boy he eventually names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright). Together, Arlo and Spot try to find their way back to Arlo’s family farm. Along the way, they encounter a tyrannosaurus family of ranchers, velociraptor cattle rustlers and a group of murderous pterodactyls.

The story of “The Good Dinosaur” is a familiar one with a protagonist in a situation for which he is wholly unprepared and teamed with a partner he initially dislikes that then begins to learn about survival and himself while learning to love his former enemy. “Cars,” “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out” and “Toy Story” among others have similar plots. While those films may be aimed at a slightly older audience, “The Good Dinosaur” manages to adapt the story for younger eyes and ears and keep their parents entertained as well.

Visually, “The Good Dinosaur” is a wonder to behold. There are times the wilderness scenery looks like something from a travelogue. Rivers flow, trees bend in the wind, grasses sway, dust clouds billow all in ways that look like they were filmed, not drawn in a computer. While the dinosaurs and humans are rather stylized and somewhat simplistic in their appearance, the way they move and how they interact with their environment feels and looks real. Pixar constantly works on their software to make CGI look and react in line with the laws of nature. It is a feast for the eyes.

“The Good Dinosaur” isn’t as emotionally complex as “Inside Out” but it still delivers a powerful message of love and acceptance. Arlo doubts himself and that he can ever measure up to his father; but his father never puts him down or belittles him and works to instill a sense of purpose and pride in his son. Arlo is a bit of an outcast within his own family. His brother and sister are both bigger and strong than Arlo. While he tries, Arlo is timid and afraid he isn’t up to the task. It is a powerful message for young viewers to see a character that isn’t able to succeed at everything he tries and still receives the support of his family. It doesn’t take much searching to find stories of real children that aren’t so lucky.

The characters of Arlo and Spot spend a great deal of time on screen together without other characters. Spot only speaks in grunts and howls leaving the majority of the voice work to Raymond Ochoa. The teenager is terrific as the young Arlo, running through a full range of emotions. The movie lives or dies based on his performance and he is more than up to the task. Another standout in the cast is Sam Elliott as Butch, the leader of the T-Rex family. Elliott has an instantly recognizable voice and seemed to have been coached into turning up the drawl and the growl. It could have come off like parody but considering he is voicing a T-Rex it actually works. As poppa, Jeffrey Wright delivers a warm and earnest performance that at first feels almost too soft and cuddly. Later, when Arlo lets Spot out of the trap, he flares up in anger and makes his dinosaur all too human. While it is brief, Wright’s performance is effective.

“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG for action, thematic elements and peril. Arlo has confrontations with various characters along his journey home. Some involve mild violence and the threat of injury of death. The loss of a parent and the desire to take revenge are parts of the story. There is no foul language.

While it may not be a masterpiece like “Inside Out” or “Toy Story,” “The Good Dinosaur” is still a moving adventure of self-discovery. It has characters with which it is easy to identify and a message that even the youngest of viewers should have no trouble grasping. And, as with nearly all Pixar films, have a tissue handy for the last 10 minutes or so as you will likely need it.

“The Good Dinosaur” gets five stars.


Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Don or Donny to his friends, has had a troubled upbringing. His father was nowhere to be found and his mother died when he was young. Bounced from one foster home to another, Donny is an angry kid who gets in fights. He winds up in a juvenile detention facility when he is visited by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). She invites Donny to live with her because he is the son of her late husband, championship boxer Apollo Creed, the product of an affair he had. Now an adult, Donny works at a securities firm but heads to Tijuana on the weekends to compete in bar fights. He has won 15 in a row and approaches a trainer in his home town of Los Angeles to take him on but he refuses. Donny quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and convince him to be his trainer. At first reluctant, Rocky decides to take on the persistent young man. Donny also begins a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring singer who lives in his building. After winning his first professional fight, word of his parentage is leaked. Meanwhile, the light heavyweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking at a jail sentence for a gun charge in his native UK. Looking for one final payday before he goes to prison for possibly seven years, Conlan’s trainer Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) contacts Rocky about pairing Donny and the champ in a fight on the condition that Donny changes his last name to Creed. Let the training montage commence.

I’ll admit I didn’t want to like “Creed.” It seemed like an unnecessary rehash of a well-worn franchise; however, the story and performances beat down my objections like a Golden Gloves boxer taking on a world champion pro. “Creed” is a knockout.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a performance that should eliminate the bad memory of the “Fantastic Four” reboot from everyone’s minds. Jordan is electric as Adonis Creed. He captures a troubled young man that is trying to make the father he never knew proud. It is a fruitless pursuit that is made moving and dynamic by Jordan’s nuanced and riveting performance. There’s far more going on in “Creed” than just a boxing movie and Jordan is the primary reason why. Donny is driven, stubborn, volatile, passionate, determined and still manages to be caring and empathetic. His relationship with Bianca, which could have been played as a distraction and in many lesser movies it would have, merely makes Donny a more interesting character.

While Donny is the focus of the story, the character that will draw many people to the movie is the aging champ, Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone gives a subtle and restrained performance. Often acting as a father to young Creed, Rocky treats Donny with tough love and respect. It is the kind of relationship many sons would love to have with their fathers. It is playful at times as well as instructional. Stallone is obviously passing the torch to the next generation.

If the film has a weakness, it is the predictability of the story. It follows the familiar path of countless movies before with the hero facing numerous challenges, becoming disillusioned with his path and separated from his friends and mentors, then finding his way back. It is a tried and true story arc that could have lessened the impact of the film; however, “Creed” succeeds in spite of its familiar tale. The performances and the soundtrack combine to drag the audience along kicking and screaming. It is a rousing, feel-good film that dares you not to be moved by Donny’s struggle.

“Creed” is rated PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and language. Naturally, there are numerous fights both in the ring and out. There is some blood from various cuts and pools of bloody water. There is a brief sex scene that has no nudity. Foul language is scattered but the film does have on “F-Bomb.”

“Creed” is essentially a remake of the original “Rocky.” While it throws in a few more story elements, if you’ve seen the original you’ve basically seen “Creed.” Please don’t let that stop you as “Creed” is a crowd-pleasing tale of hard work and dogged determination performed by a gifted main cast. It might even make you consider running up the stairs at your local museum and pumping your fists in the air when you reach the top.

“Creed” gets five stars.

This week, only one new film opens in wide release but there are others playing in my town that could have potential Oscar chances. I’ll see and review at least one of these.




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Review of “Fantastic Four”

A troubled past doesn’t guarantee failure. Films like “Titanic,” “Jaws” and perhaps most famously “Apocalypse Now” are just a few films that were created in turbulent environments. Whether the trouble was a conflict between the cast and the director, the director and the studio, between cast members or some other configuration, good work still came from what could have potentially been a disaster; however, some productions, like “Alien 3,” “Cop Out” and “Waterworld” are doomed to failure when egos and power struggles get in the way of making an enjoyable bit of entertainment. The latter appears to be what happened to Fox Studios’ “Fantastic Four” reboot.

As a child, Reed Richards (played as an adult by Miles Teller) dreamed of building a matter transporter…and he actually succeeded thanks to parts provided by his friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) from his family’s junk and salvage yard. Reed considers Ben his best friend and good luck charm. Reed is discovered at a high school science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to attend is institute of gifted young people in the Baxter Tower in New York City. Ben stays home to work in the family business. Dr. Storm also has a son named Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) who is a brilliant mechanic that prefers to spend his time tinkering with his car and running in illegal street races than in a lab. A crash that totals his car forces him to work for his father in the lab. Dr. Storm is working on an interdimensional transporter and believes Reed can push his research over the edge. The project was started by Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a brilliant but troubled scientist who has some less than pleasant history with Dr. Storm and they no longer work together. Dr. Storm gets his funding from a shadowy board of directors with ties to the government led by Harvey Elder (Tim Blake Nelson). With Reed on board and Victor back in the fold largely because he loves Sue, the interdimensional transporter is perfected. Elder wants to turn the project over the NASA and the government but Dr. Storm wants to keep the project in house and under his control. After a few rounds of drinks, Reed, Victor and Johnny decide to take the transporter for a test spin on their own and Reed calls Ben because he was there for the earliest experiments in the garage and wants his good luck charm to come along. Ben agrees and they are soon teleported to another dimension. It’s a barren world with storm clouds overhead and pools of glowing green liquid. Victor puts his hand in the fluid and can feel the energy coursing through it; but it also causes a chain reaction that is causing the ground beneath their feet to come apart. Victor is engulfed in green flames and falls down a cliff. The others run to the transporter pod to go home where Sue is trying to initiate the return sequence. Fire engulfs Johnny, Ben is encased in rock, Reed is bathed in unknown energy and Sue is hit with a blast from the other dimension when the pod reappears. Each is endowed with unique powers and abilities.

While far from being a great movie “Fantastic Four” isn’t as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score of 9% might imply. The introduction to the group, their transformation and dealing with their powers is actually pretty good. You get a good idea of the personality of each main player and the conflict between Victor and Reed gets an understandable foundation. It is the part of the story where the four put their powers to use where the train goes off the rails.

The whole structure of the film feels flimsy and unfinished. The set up to what should be the super showdown is incredibly long when compared to the finale which feels like it plays out in about 10 minutes, if that. What appears to have been planned as a two hour plus film is over in an hour-40. While many comic book movies are too long, “Fantastic Four” isn’t long enough as we are shown huge amounts of history and preparation leading to an ending that is anti-climactic. Granted, I think everyone knows the good guys are always going to win in the end of a superhero movie but it shouldn’t feel like the kind of role-playing game I used to participate in as a child with my friends when, after one of us had been shot with the death ray or whatever the evil scheme entailed, we popped right up, saved the damsel in distress and put the villain in his place.

“Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank made an impressive debut with his first studio film “Chronicle.” The story of three high school kids who gain powers from a mysterious alien artifact was a low-budget, found-footage gem. The story was great, the effects were good and the whole thing worked together for a wonderfully enjoyable time at the movies. That film got him the “Fantastic Four” gig but something happened that turned what should have been a dream into a nightmare. Trank can be heard on the Kevin Smith podcast “Fatman on Batman” giving a thorough history of his early life, how he became a filmmaker and the process of making “Fantastic Four.” It takes, coincidentally, four episodes to tell the whole story. Nowhere in those four episodes, about six hours of content, does Trank complain about the making of “Fantastic Four” or Fox executives; however, on Thursday, August 6, Trank tweeted the following: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Trank quickly deleted the tweet but it was of course screen captured. While vague, this tweet seems to be saying the film was interfered with by Fox executives and turned into something other than his original vision. There is of course another side to the story that suggests Trank may have been in over his head and/or was difficult to work with. The truth lies somewhere in the middle with enough blame to go around for both sides. The product of this middle ground is a movie with an odd structure, average at best special effects, a villain that doesn’t make much sense, has odd motivations for his evil plan and a story that starts out fine then turns into a mess at the conclusion.

“Fantastic Four” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and language. We see a couple of characters engulfed in flames. One character causes people’s heads to kind of explode. We see a splash of blood on the wall behind them. There is a fight where giant boulders are used as weapons. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Josh Trank’s tweet, the troubled production and the poor box office showing of “Fantastic Four” may put the director in movie jail for a period of time. Movie jail is when filmmakers can’t get a job after what is perceived to be a failure on their part. Trank will likely survive just fine in the wilderness of independent filmmaking where he can be fully in charge of the production with little to no interference. But that leaves us to wonder just what kind of “Fantastic Four” the director had in mind. Will we ever see it? Will there ever be an entertaining version of Marvel’s first super team that isn’t a cartoon? Are Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing just too tough a nut to crack? Should Fox make a deal with Marvel like Sony did with Spider-Man and share the movie rights? Speculating about all this is far more entertaining than watching the movie, as this “Fantastic Four” may actually be worse than the dayglow colored version we got a decade ago.

“Fantastic Four” gets one star out of five.

The music that spoke to one generation and frightened another and a TV to film crossover open in theatres this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—

Straight Outta Compton—

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