BLACK PANTHER: Wakanda Forever

Black Panther is so freaking cool.

Captain America: Civil War was one of my favorite movies of 2016, and one of my favorite things about it was Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, aka Black Panther, making his big-screen debut. I had heard of the character but didn’t know much about him until I saw Civil War, and the movie’s portrayal of him was so good that I immediately wanted to learn more about him.

I’ve since read some Black Panther comics and enjoyed them a lot, and like many people I had been eagerly anticipating Black Panther’s first solo movie. The hype leading up to the film’s release was huge, and it didn’t disappoint. Black Panther is one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Images: Marvel/Disney

One of the biggest complaints I hear about films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is that they tend to be formulaic. It’s hard to dispute this, since many superhero films do tend to share similar story elements. This doesn’t bother me because I love superhero movies, but I can see why some people call them formulaic.

Black Panther is one of the least formulaic films in the MCU, partly because it’s central character is the exact opposite of formulaic.
Black Panther made his first appearance in an issue of the Fantastic Four in 1966 and was the first African superhero in mainstream American comics. He is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the only source of the ultra-valuable metal vibranium. Vibranium has allowed Wakanda to create technology far more advanced than anything in the rest of the world. Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced country in the world in the Marvel universe, and I couldn’t wait to see it portrayed onscreen.

The new movie takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka, T’Challa returns home to Wakanda to become the new king. The title of Black Panther is hereditary and passed down from generation to generation, and T’Challa is the current Black Panther, who serves as the protector of Wakanda. The Black Panther is entitled to use the sacred heart-shaped herbs, which give him superhuman strength and reflexes.

I love the way the movie portrays Wakanda. It looks amazing. The sets, special effects, and costumes are top-notch and make Wakanda feel vibrant and alive. It’s the kind of place you want to visit as soon as the movie is over. We meet T’Challa’s inner circle, most of which are badass women. These include Okoye (played by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan special forces (described by one character early in the film as “Grace Jones-looking chicks”). There’s also Nakia, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, an undercover spy and former Dora Milaje member who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and his younger sister, teenage Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is the smartest person in Wakanda and keeps T’Challa supplied with cutting-edge vibranium tech.

All these characters are great, as are the actors who portray them. The cast also includes Forest Whitaker (another Oscar winner) and recent Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Shuri is my favorite character in the movie. She’s just great. She’s lively and smart and funny, and gets some of the movie’s best lines. The great thing about these characters is that they feel like a family. They don’t exist just to fill certain roles in the story, like love interest or comic relief or whatever. They love and support one another, and the actors have great chemistry. Martin Freeman is also very likable as a CIA agent who gets to be the fish-out-of-water in Wakanda.

And oh, yes. Of course, there has to be a bad guy. And this one is a doozy. He goes by the name Erik Killmonger, and with a name like that you know he’s serious. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan and is one of the MCU’s best and most well-rounded villains. The extraordinary thing about Killmonger is that you can understand his point of view. He’s the bad guy, but he’s the furthest thing from two-dimensional. Another common criticism of MCU movies is that the villains tend to be forgettable, although there are notable exceptions. Killmonger belongs firmly in the “exception” category.

Killmonger first appeared in 1973 in a seminal story arc called Panther’s Rage. The entire Panther’s Rage story is available in a single paperback, and if you want to get into Black Panther comics and are wondering where to start, Panther’s Rage is the perfect entry point. It’s not perfect, since writer Don McGregor’s captions and dialogue tend to be overstuffed and can be long-winded, but the artwork is fantastic and the stories and characters are socially and emotionally resonant. Also, the story of Panther’s Rage was very influential on the story of the film and the portrayal of the characters. There’s even a part in the book where Killmonger kicks T’Challa off a waterfall, which probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen the movie.

Seriously, read Panther’s Rage. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It tells a serious story that is still relevant today, while also delivering great moments of over-the-top comic book action. There’s a scene where T’Challa rides a pterodactyl and jumps off its back to kick a bad guy in the face while the bad guy is in the process of shooting an explosive arrow at him which then hits the pterodactyl, which then blows up. Panther’s Rage is a serious and contemplative story, but don’t think it gets too serious because it still features an exploding pterodactyl.

The movie is similar in the way it tells a serious and meaningful story while still delivering on the action, as well as goofy comic book elements. For example, Andy “Gollum” Serkis plays a character named Ulysses Klaue (simply called Klaw in the comics, in which he is a recurring Black Panther nemesis). Serkis previously played the character in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he lost an arm. Klaue has since replaced that arm with a cybernetic attachment that turns into a laser cannon that can flip cars and blow holes in walls and that sort of thing. Serkis has fun hamming it up and speaking with an over-the-top South African accent, but Killmonger is the main villain, make no mistake.

And Michael B. Jordan plays him extremely well. He’s a badass who is T’Challa’s equal in terms of physical strength and mental cunning, which makes the two very evenly-matched. He’s also had a tough upbringing and a genuine beef with T’Challa. I won’t spoil the details, but Killmonger’s gripe with T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda makes a lot of sense. It makes so much sense in fact that it even leads T’Challa to question himself, and to wonder if maybe Killmonger does have a point. The central conflict of the film is much more nuanced than many other superhero movies, and the line between good guy and bad guy gets blurred in a way that is uncommon to big-budget blockbusters.

Director Ryan Coogler is only 31 years old, and Black Panther is only his third film. He’s clearly a talent to watch and his previous two films were also critically acclaimed (and Michael B. Jordan starred in both of them, so he and Coogler clearly have a well-established rapport). He has deftly crafted a blockbuster that is fun and entertaining, while also culturally relevant and thought-provoking. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and I’m super happy that the film is already a massive success. It deserves to be.


Liam Neeson IS The Commuter

So you’re a guy who has a routine. You commute to work on the same commuter train every day and have been for the last ten years. You know the folks who regularly use the train and are friendly with them. One day, you get fired from your job as an insurance salesman. Not having the heart to tell your wife about it over the phone, you sit on the train by yourself and decide to read a book while you ponder how to break the bad news to your wife.

Then, a woman you’ve never seen before sits in the seat opposite you and strikes up a conversation. You’d like to be alone with your thoughts but don’t want to be rude. The woman tells you her name is Joanna and that this is the first time she’s been on this train. You tell her you’ve been taking this train every day for the last ten years. She says you probably know a lot of the other regulars, to which you agree. She then asks a somewhat unusual question.

Suppose, hypothetically, that she asked you to do something. Something that would not affect you personally, but would have a profound effect on someone you didn’t know. In return for this small favor, you would receive a hundred thousand dollars. Keeping in mind that you’ve just lost your job and have a kid who will be going to college soon, you can’t help but ask yourself…

…Would you do it?

Such is the dilemma faced by Michael MacCauley, played by the great Liam Neeson in his new film, The Commuter. It’s the fourth collaboration between Neeson and wonderfully-named Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in the thrillers Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. I’m a big fan of all three of those movies. They’re not perfect and the first two are very implausible, but they’re a heck of a lot of fun. They’re unabashedly entertaining B-movies which are tightly constructed and technically proficient. Collet-Serra’s shark attack thriller The Shallows is also quite a bit of fun, and features what may be Blake Lively’s best performance. Just throwing that out there.

Image: Lionsgate

Has Liam Neeson made movies like The Commuter before? Yes. Non-Stop in particular has a number of striking similarities to The Commuter, in that they both take place mostly in a single location and Neeson’s character has to unravel a mystery in that location while a larger conspiracy begins to unfold. In Non-Stop Neeson played an air marshal, and in The Commuter his character was a cop before he became an insurance salesman, so it’s safe to say that he knows a few things most of us wouldn’t when it comes to solving crimes and kicking ass.

But his characters in both films are vastly out of their depth. His character in Non-Stop is an alcoholic and in The Commuter he’s a responsible husband and father, but he hasn’t been a cop in a decade so his skills are a little rusty. Another similarity the two films share is that they both have scenes of Neeson accosting his fellow passengers and driving people crazy as he attempts to figure out which one among them is not who they appear to be. The Commuter is a lot like Murder on the Orient Express, only with more fistfights.

I like the idea of setting an exciting, fast-paced action movie in a single location. It increases the tension because the hero has limited options and must be more strategic. The blueprint for this kind of movie is of course Die Hard, which has yet to be outdone. But The Commuter makes a damn good try. It must be very difficult to set an entire movie in a single location, especially a cramped location like a train or plane. The Commuter is a very well-directed movie, and has one of the best fight scenes of any of Neeson’s action films.

Image: Lionsgate

The mysterious Joanna is played by the always great Vera Farmiga, although she’s sadly underused. She makes an impression with her limited screen time, though. I just wish the movie found more use for her. Patrick Wilson, her co-star from The Conjuring movies, is also in the movie as Neeson’s former partner. Sam Neill of all people is also in the movie as a police captain. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wilson and Neill are also underused. Underutilized supporting characters are a common flaw shared by Neeson and Collet-Serra’s collaborations. Poor Lupita Nyong’o had almost nothing to do in Non-Stop.

In an action movie set on a train, it should also not come as a surprise that the train eventually derails and goes tumbling end over end. I’ve heard some complaints about the CGI in this sequence, but to me it looked fine. What did surprise me was that the train crash was not the end of the film, there was quite a bit more to the story that happens after the train crashes.

A month or so ago, there was an awful train derailment that happened in my home state of Washington that made national news. It was nothing more than a weird coincidence that that happened so close to the release of this movie, but after the train crash scene I couldn’t help but be reminded of the pictures of the real train crash that I saw in the newspaper. Anyone who is sensitive to such things might want to skip this movie, although the timing was just a coincidence.

If one wanted to, one could easily pick holes in the movie’s plot. It gets a little farfetched, and the timing of certain events is perhaps questionable. But why bother to pick holes in the plot when the movie is this entertaining? The only thing you would accomplish is sabotaging your enjoyment of a very fun movie. Just suspend disbelief and have a good time. Life is too short to complain about everything.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Commuter. It’s not very original but it’s well-executed, fast-paced, and exciting. It also has a brisk running time of 105 minutes, which is exactly as long as it needs to be. If you like fast-paced thrillers and don’t mind suspending your disbelief, you should have a good time with it.

2017: The Year in Villainy

It’s time once again for the annual roundup of cinematic scumbaggery. Strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of the best the year had to offer in sheer evil. Beware of spoilers.

The Skullcrawlers in Kong: Skull Island

The Skullcrawlers are basically giant snakes with arms sticking out the front of their bodies. They’re hideous, and provide a fearsome enemy for Kong to battle. You could also argue that Kong himself is the villain, since he does kill quite a few people, or that Samuel L. Jackson’s increasingly-deranged Colonel Preston Packard shows that MAN is the real villain. But in my opinion, the Skullcrawlers are the most straightforward antagonist of the film, so we’re going to go with them.

Image: Warner Bros.

Gaston in Beauty and the Beast

Gaston was always one of my favorite classic Disney villains, and Luke Evans did a wonderful job of bringing him to life. Everything you remember from the animated version of Gaston is present and accounted for in the live-action version. The massive ego, the determination to marry Belle, and the bloodlust that reveals itself when he sets out to kill the beast. Bravo to Disney and Luke Evans for such a faithful recreation of an iconic villain.

Image: Disney

The Joker etc. in The Lego Batman Movie

The Joker was the main villain in the extremely fun Lego Batman Movie, but I have to give a shoutout to the many other villains packed in to the movie, not all of them Batman villains. From Egghead, King Tut and Condiment King to Sauron, King Kong, and Voldemort, the gang’s all here. Zach Galifianakis did great work voicing the Joker and giving him a mix of scary and funny that was just right for the film’s tone. I didn’t get around to writing about Lego Batman last year, but it was a ton of fun and the filmmakers did an amazing job of packing it full of Easter eggs and references that are fun to look for on repeat viewings. It’s the kind of kids movie that both kids and adults can enjoy.

Image:Warner Bros.

Donald Pierce in Logan

Logan was my favorite film of the year and an emotional rollercoaster that I still don’t think I’ve quite recovered from. It also featured some of the most despicable villains, led by jackass-in-chief Donald Pierce and his robotic hand. Pierce and his cronies are not only responsible for ending the mutant gene, but they also created their own pet mutants using DNA from various X-Men, and raised the mutant kids in captivity and trained them to be weapons. Dastardly. Pierce’s comeuppance at the hands of the mutant children he helped create was one of the most satisfying and appropriate villain deaths of 2017.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Assassins in John Wick: Chapter 2

The most accurate way to describe the villains of the sequel to John Wick is “everyone other than John Wick.” It seems like everyone and their mother is out to kill this guy, from the woman playing the violin in the subway to the bodyguards of one of the targets he assassinates. By the end of the film, John is more alone than ever, with the implication that basically the entire world is out to get him, so he’ll have his hands full (and then some) in John Wick 3, which I hope comes soon. The picture I included with this entry does not depict any particular one of these assassins, but is still very representative of the crap John has to put up with throughout the film. His exasperated face says it all.

Image: Lionsgate

Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized for having somewhat weak villains (aside from standouts like Loki and the Red Skull). But 2017 was a strong year for MCU villains, getting off to a good start with Kurt Russell’s Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Ego is a central character to the film’s plot and an important part of the main character’s identity, so he doesn’t feel like a villain who’s there simply because the film needs a villain. His plan for galactic domination is thoroughly evil and even though he’s a bit too talky during the middle portion of the film, it’s still quite satisfying to see Peter Quill overcome his evil father’s influence and realize that his true family was right in front of him all along.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Vortigern in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie’s utterly insane King Arthur romp is not what I would call a good movie, but it’s a movie I kind of like simply because of how deranged it is. Given the insanity of the rest of the film, Jude Law’s commitment to his role as the evil king Vortigern is admirable. Vortigern is power-crazed and willing to sacrifice anything to maintain his power, including the lives of his own family. Despite the film’s weirdness, there’s a surprising sense of poignancy when Arthur defeats his evil uncle Vortigern and the look on Law’s face as Vortigern dies conveys the sense that he realizes all his actions, including sacrificing his own wife and daughter, have been for nothing.

Image: Warner Bros.

David and the Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant

Xenomorphs have been scary ever since they first appeared on cinema screens in 1979, and after nearly four decades they are still every bit as scary. Some fans had issues with Covenant’s Xenomorph origin story, since apparently the slithery monstrosities were created by David, the wayward android from 2013’s Prometheus. Story issues aside, Michael Fassbender is terrific in a dual role and it’s a testament to the strength of the original Xenomorph design by H.R. Giger that the slimy creatures are as scary now as they were at the beginning, despite their appearance and behavior having changed very little over the years.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Cypher in The Fate of the Furious

I had a lot of issues with the plot of the massively-successful eighth film in the Fast and Furious franchise, so much so that I dedicated an entire post to it a couple of months ago. But I still give a lot of credit to Charlize Theron, who clearly has a lot of fun playing the blond-dreadlocked superhacker Cypher. Despite her generic name, Cypher is a cunning adversary who creates all kinds of trouble for Dom Toretto and his crew. She survives the movie and, given the series’ tendency to turn former adversaries into allies, it wouldn’t surprise me if she joined Dom’s team in future installments. But seeing how much fun Theron has in the role, it wouldn’t bother me too much if that turned out to be the case.

Image: Universal

Capitan Salazar and the Ghost Pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I liked the most recent Pirates adventure a lot more than apparently everyone else who saw it. A big part of my enjoyment of the film was due to its excellent villains, the leader of which is played by the always-scary Javier Bardem. The special effects that created Bardem’s Capitan Salazar and his ghostly crew of undead marauders were fantastic. I loved the designs of the ghost pirates, some of them were missing body parts and their hair and clothing were always floating, as if they were constantly suspended underwater. The movie had plenty of flaws, but the badass villains were not one of them. Also, zombie sharks.

Image: Disney

Ahmanet in The Mummy

The Mummy was not a good film, but by far the best thing about it was the performance of Sofia Boutella as the titular antagonist, Ahmanet. I like the idea of a female antagonist in a Mummy movie, and Boutella did great work bringing Ahmanet to undead life. It’s too bad that the rest of the film couldn’t live up to the standard of Boutella’s performance, and flopped so hard it may have torpedoed Universal’s hopes to build an interconnected universe of monster movies. The film may have been a failure, but its lack of success can’t be placed at the feet of the actress who was easily the movie’s biggest strong suit.

Image: Universal

Ares, General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman’s trifecta of villains was probably the weakest aspect of an otherwise excellent film. They weren’t terrible, just kind of generic. But it speaks to the awesomeness of the film’s heroine that an evil German scientist, an evil German general, and the God of War himself never stood a chance against Diana of Themyscira (I keep wanting to call the scientist and the general Nazis but they weren’t Nazis because the film takes place during World War I). They’re fun villains in a 1940’s movie serial way, even if they lack the heroine’s three-dimensional personality.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Michael Keaton was excellent as Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, in Spider-Man’s first solo entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The reveal of Toomes as the father of Peter Parker’s high school crush and homecoming date Liz was extremely well done, and the subsequent scene of Peter, Liz, and Toomes in the car on the way to the homecoming dance dripped with tension. The Vulture is one of the MCU’s best villains, and the filmmakers did a great job of making him somewhat sympathetic, as well as connecting his origin to the larger cinematic universe of which he is a part. Bravo, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Bats, Buddy and Doc in Baby Driver

The titular character of Edgar Wright’s hugely entertaining Baby Driver lives a life surrounded by dangerous and unpredictable people. Doc is the mastermind of the heist crew, and Jon Hamm’s Buddy and Jamie Foxx’s Bats are the muscle. Buddy appears to be the more mentally stable of the two, while Bats is a lunatic who can barely control his lust for mayhem. Wright does a brilliant turnaround by killing off Bats during the climactic failed heist and making Buddy the last antagonist Ansel Elgort’s Baby must overcome before being able to be with Lily James’ Debora, the waitress he’s fallen in love with. Buddy proves to be quite tenacious, and Jon Hamm is menacing as hell. I loved Baby Driver, and can’t wait to see what Edgar Wright does next.

Image: Sony Pictures

Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

Cate Blanchett’s Hela was my favorite villain, or in this case villainess, of the year. She was absolutely kick-ass. Ragnarok was a blast from start to finish, and Hela was mesmerizing to watch. Blanchett clearly had a ton of fun playing her (how could she not?) and whenever she wasn’t on screen I wished she was. She’s a much more three-dimensional villain than the rather dull Dark Elves from Thor’s previous solo outing, and I can’t be the only person out there who thought she was, I dunno, kinda hot in a weird way (please tell me I’m not the only one). She appears to get killed at the end of the movie, which makes me sad that we probably won’t be seeing her again. One can only hope.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Steppenwolf in Justice League

A lot of people hated Justice League, but I wasn’t one of them. Sure, it had its share of issues, but I don’t think it deserved as much hate as it got. I will admit that its villain was weak, though. Steppenwolf was an intergalactic harbinger of doom that was just not very interesting. He looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album (wasn’t there a band called Steppenwolf at some point?) and spouts a lot of crap about conquering the world and whatnot. Yawn. Still, give him some credit for being able to take on six superheroes and give them all a run for their money, and Ciaran Hinds does a good job voicing him.

Image: Warner Bros.

Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Oh, boy. Where to even start with The Last Jedi? The issues I had with this film could fill their own post (and they will soon), but I did like Adam Driver’s performance as the tormented Kylo Ren, formerly known as Ben Solo, and motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis was pretty great as Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order. I have issues with these characters (more on that in an upcoming post), and Snoke is kind of a dumb name, but the performances were solid and I loved Snoke’s crimson-bedecked throne room.

Image: Lucasfilm

Pennywise in IT

One of horror maestro Stephen King’s most terrifying creations, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has been traumatizing readers since the book’s publication in 1986. Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise scared the pants off an entire generation in the 1990 TV movie of IT, and Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying portrayal of Pennywise in the smash-hit new movie was absolutely chilling. Skarsgard nailed the character, who basically is the ultimate embodiment of pure, unfiltered, malicious evil. Hela may have been my favorite villain of the year, but Pennywise was by far the scariest.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Man in Black in The Dark Tower

The film adaptation of another Stephen King story, The Dark Tower did not enjoy the same warm reception that IT did. I thought The Dark Tower was a fun adventure, albeit one that didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the source material. But the lead characters are played by two of my favorite actors, and it is fun to watch Idris Elba as the heroic gunslinger Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the diabolical Man in Black butt heads. McConaughey does great work bringing one of King’s most prolific villains to life (the character has appeared in multiple iterations across several of King’s books) and I’m glad that we got see these characters onscreen, even if only the one time, since the film’s underwhelming box-office performance makes a sequel unlikely.

Image: Columbia Pictures

Poppy Adams in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn’s overstuffed Kingsman sequel may have been a mess, but at least it was a fun mess. While Pennywise was the year’s scariest villain, Julianne Moore’s Poppy was without a doubt the most cheerful. She has a radiant smile for most of the film, even when commanding one of her henchmen to toss another one of her followers into a meat grinder and making a burger out of him. She also had one of the most unique hideouts, dwelling in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. Or at least I think it was Cambodia. Poppy also kept Elton John captive and had robotic guard dogs named Bennie and Jet, so give her points for originality.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And there you have it! See you again in a year or so for another roundup of cinematic evil.

Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ attempts to emulate Marvel and Disney’s success with an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes has met with mixed results, to say the least. They started off reasonably well with Man of Steel in 2013, before stumbling with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. They scored their first major hit with Wonder Woman earlier this year, and were hoping for another big hit with Justice League, the superhero team-up movie that is DC Comics’ version of the Avengers.

Image: Warner Bros.

Well, they’re back to the mixed results, since Justice League earned middling reviews and underwhelming box-office returns. It’s still a fun action-packed romp, but behind-the-scenes drama may have prevented it from being an Avengers-sized hit.

The movie is a flat two hours long, apparently a result of a Warner Bros. mandate that the film not exceed two hours in length, after Batman V Superman was criticized for being overlong at two and a half hours. The shorter running time of Justice League means that the pacing is better and the movie has a good sense of momentum, but the downside is that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they might have been given more time to develop them.

The movie was also subject to extensive reshoots, which were directed by Avengers maestro Joss Whedon after original director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film for a time for personal reasons. This means that Justice League was essentially directed by two different directors, although only Snyder is credited. Fortunately, the new scenes are integrated well enough that it didn’t seem to me that parts of the film were directed by different people, although I’m sure fans will have fun trying to figure out which scenes were shot by Whedon. I think Whedon was brought in to film mostly new dialogue scenes to help flesh out the characters and their relationships a bit, since “relationships” are not exactly one of Zack Snyder’s strong suits.

Snyder gets a lot of hate, much of which I think is undeserved. People just love to hate the guy for whatever reason. I think that he has a talent for eye-catching visuals and is a good director of kinetic action sequences, but the characters in his films don’t resonate as strongly as the visuals and action scenes. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Snyder’s work is that his films are full of great moments and memorable images, but good individual moments don’t necessarily add up to a great movie. This is a good description of Justice League as well, regardless of which director directed which scenes.

Image: Warner Bros.

But who are the characters in Justice League? There are six, and the identity of one of them could be considered a spoiler, since Warner Bros. kept him out of the film’s marketing materials. So, spoiler alert, I guess, although this character’s appearance will not come as much of a surprise for anyone familiar with comic books. When we last Superman, he was dead, killed by the monster called Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman. He gets resurrected in Justice League, and I’ll keep the details of his resurrection a secret, although I will say that I thought it was handled pretty well, and that it was well-integrated with the rest of the film’s plot.

The other five characters, and the ones that the marketing focused on, are Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We already know Batman and Wonder Woman, but the other three are making their big-screen debuts (not counting their brief introductory cameos in earlier films). The movie has a lot of weight on its shoulders, since it has to establish these characters and set up a villain that will take their combined efforts to defeat, especially with the truncated two-hour running time.

When the first Avengers movie came out back in 2012, it had a distinct advantage over the Justice League movie. In that film, we were already familiar with the characters, since we had seen them in previous movies. Even the film’s villain, Loki, was someone we already knew well. In Justice League, three of the main characters are essentially new to the film’s universe (again, not counting those earlier cameos), as is the film’s villain.

That villain is named Steppenwolf, and he’s…underwhelming. He’s basically a harbinger of interdimensional doom who wants to unleash hell on earth and looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album. He has an army of flying bug-eyed creatures called parademons and, look, the whole thing is pretty silly. The plot feels very compressed and viewers who aren’t familiar with the comic-book lore may very well wonder what the hell is going on. And while the big picture is clear (good guys must defeat bad guy before he unleashes hell on earth) the details are hazy.

Fortunately, I did like the good-guy characters. The movie has a better grasp of Batman (played again by Ben Affleck) than Batman V Superman did (Batman doesn’t kill anyone this time around), and Wonder Woman (the excellent Gal Gadot) is great. Aquaman (played by Conan the Barbarian Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) are fun characters, and the movie pokes fun at Aquaman’s much-mocked ability to communicate with fish. But the character who steals the movie is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, played by Ezra Miller.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Flash is easily the funniest character, and Miller steals every scene he’s in. Barry is a guy who really wants to do good in the world and is super excited to hang out with Batman and Wonder Woman and the gang, but he’s the first person to admit he may be in a bit over his head. “It’s great that you guys are ready to go in and do battle, but I’ve never done battle before,” he tells Batman. “I’ve just pushed people and run away.” The movie’s best lines all belong to him, and I’m looking forward to his solo film, although it’s still a few years away.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch, which isn’t too surprising since Zack Snyder always delivers films that look and sound great, even if he struggles in other areas. There are a lot of fun superhero battles, and the movie has a much brighter color palette than previous DC Comics movies, which is nice to see. The characters look great and the costumes, weapons, vehicles and the like are badass, especially Batman’s awesome vehicles and Bat-tech. I also loved Barry’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the Batcave for the first time: “It’s like a cave…a…bat-cave!”

The movie is much lighter in tone than Snyder’s previous DC films, which were heavily criticized for being too dark. There are a lot of jokes and funny moments (most of which belong to Barry) as well as a very funny scene involving Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. I also got a kick out of Barry’s first meeting with Wonder Woman. “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana,” she says to him. Clearly smitten, he says to her, “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana. Wait, that’s not right.” It’s good to see Snyder having more fun with these characters.

Image: Warner Bros.

Justice League may not be up to the high standard set by the rest of this year’s comic-book superhero films, but I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much the behind-the-scenes shakeups impacted the movie (there are several scenes in the trailers that aren’t in the film), but I still had fun with it. Maybe the Blu-ray release will include the director’s cut or something and we’ll be able to see some of the stuff that was left out. I still enjoyed Justice League overall, and while Wonder Woman remains the best movie in DC’s interconnected superhero universe, Justice League is quite a bit of fun, and 2017 was a much better year for DC movies than 2016 was, which is a relief.

Coming up next is something a bit different. For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s a game full of Nazi-killing and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans, but underneath all that is a game that cares deeply about its story and characters, and has a surprising amount of real-world relevance, despite the ludicrous robot-laser-space Nazis. Join me next week for a discussion of one of the most provocative video games to come around in quite some time. See you then.

The Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s Version of Taken

Martin Campbell is a director who seems to specialize in revitalizing old warhorses. He did it in 1995 with GoldenEye, which was the first James Bond film since 1989’s License to Kill and was also Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut. Campbell did it again in 1998 with The Mask of Zorro. He revitalized James Bond again in 2006 with Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie (and still my number-one favorite Bond film). Campbell did it yet again in 2010 with Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson’s first starring role after a long absence (and several well-publicized offscreen meltdowns). In 2011 Campbell made Green Lantern, which…well, the less said about that one the better. But with The Foreigner, Campbell has made a return to form.

Image: STX Entertainment

This time it’s Jackie Chan getting the Martin Campbell Old Warhorse Revitalization Treatment. An alternative name for this phenomenon would be Taken Syndrome, referring to Liam Neeson’s 2008 surprise megahit which proved that people will go see movies starring aging action stars.

The circumstances are a bit different, since before Taken Neeson was not known as an action star. The same cannot be said for Jackie Chan, whose willingness to perform fearless and death-defying stunts in his films has rightly become the Stuff of Legend. The Foreigner also stars Pierce Brosnan in a villainous role. The combination of Campbell, Chan and Brosnan feels just right, and I quite enjoyed The Foreigner.
The film’s plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie. Chan plays Quan, a restaurant owner living in London whose teenage daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening. Killing Quan’s daughter will of course turn out to be the worst (and last) mistake the culprits ever make, since like Liam Neeson’s character Bryan Mills in Taken, Quan turns out to have a very particular set of skills, as well as a tragic backstory that both serve as strong motivation to find and punish his daughter’s killers.

It’s a familiar plot (the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage had nearly the exact same setup) but an effective one. Pierce Brosnan plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a man who, let’s just say, has fingers in many pies. After seeing Hennessy on TV and learning that he is a former IRA member, and since a group calling itself the Authentic IRA claimed responsibility for the attack that killed his daughter, Quan becomes convinced that Hennessy knows more than he is letting on.
Long story short (and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler): Quan is exactly right, and Hennessy is up to his ears in it. I won’t go into more detail than that, but it doesn’t take long before Quan has Hennessy running scared and hiding out in the countryside. This does not deter Quan and he takes up residence in the surrounding woods and wages a guerrilla war against Hennessy, which includes setting Rambo-esque traps in the woods that come in quite handy when Hennessy sends his henchmen into the woods after him.

Image: STX Entertainment

Jackie Chan is great in this movie. He’s 63 years old but is still pretty spry, and the fight scenes are excellent. The trailers for the movie would have you believe that the movie is a non-stop action thrill ride, but the truth is that it’s more of a political/conspiracy thriller with some really great action scenes. The plot gets a bit muddled at times but I was still able to follow it without too much difficulty. In addition to a strong physical performance, Chan also does a great job at nailing the more introspective and emotional aspects of his character. The scenes of him mourning his slain daughter are genuinely affecting.

The movie also knows how to make the most of Chan’s presence, and keeps him offscreen for much of the movie. While Quan wages his guerrilla war against Hennessy, we spend most of that time following Hennessy as he becomes increasingly paranoid, so when Quan makes his move it comes as a surprise to the audience as well as to Hennessy and his men. Even when Chan isn’t onscreen, his character’s presence is strongly felt. It’s very effective filmmaking.

Brosnan is also excellent as the duplicitous Hennessy, and speaks with an Irish accent that feels genuine. I mention this because Irish accents are easy to overdo, but Brosnan and the rest of the actors who play Irishmen speak with Irish accents that sound real, so the film never comes across as campy or exploitative. And yes, I realize that Pierce Brosnan is himself Irish, but I thought it was still a point worth mentioning.

The Foreigner is undeniably similar to other thrillers, but the strength of the performances and strong sense of realism raise it above the level of other campier films. I thought that Martin Campbell’s 2010 movie Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson was ok, but the pacing of that film was sluggish and the plot was hard to follow. The Foreigner is much better in both of these areas and to me feels like a more complete and well-rounded experience. The villains in Edge of Darkness were members of a shady evil corporation, whereas The Foreigner’s villains are shady evil politicians. The movies are similar but The Foreigner ultimately comes out on top. It’s not perfect but I really liked it.

It’s October, which means that I have to write about at least one scary movie. Fortunately for me (I think), there’s one coming out this Friday which looks like it will fit the bill. That movie is The Snowman, a twisted Scandinavian crime thriller starring Michael Fassbender and based on a bestselling novel. The early buzz for the movie has been mostly bad, but I’m going to check it out anyway. I guess I’m still feeling brave after surviving IT. Tune in next week for a review.

Blade Runner 2049 is as Good as Belated Sequels Get

Confession time: the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, I didn’t much care for it. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

This could be because I saw it on TV and it was probably edited to some extent. This could also be because the version I saw was the original theatrical version, which most fans of the film agree to be inferior to later versions. But I think the most likely reason of all was that it did not conform to my expectations. I expected a rollicking, action-packed thrill ride. What I got instead was a dark, moody, slow-burning sci-fi noir. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Scott’s Blade Runner is a stone-cold classic and has been hugely influential on generations of filmmakers and writers.

The idea of a sequel coming out some 35 years after the release of the original film could lead to understandable skepticism. We all know what happened with that last Indiana Jones movie, after all. But I am happy to say that the new film, Blade Runner 2049, is an excellent sequel. People have called it one of the best sequels ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.

Image: Warner Bros.

The new movie was directed by the brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I haven’t seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival) were all excellent. Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today, and he has delivered another near-masterpiece with Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve’s film stays true to Scott’s beloved original in tone, style, and content. The cinematographer was the great Roger Deakins, and the movie looks amazing. It brilliantly recaptures the iconic look of the original movie while also providing new environments and landscapes that fit right in with the world these films have created. If Deakins doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, then the Academy Awards are officially Dead To Me.

Image: Warner Bros.

But aside from the eye-popping visuals, the film is rich in ideas and emotion. One of the main questions the original film presented was: what does it mean to be human? If it becomes possible to one day create synthetic beings so lifelike they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people, who’s to say those synthetic beings aren’t human? HBO’s Westworld recently pondered similar questions, and they’re as relevant and intriguing now as they were when the first movie was released in 1982.

Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to the world he helped create, although (this could be considered a minor spoiler) he doesn’t actually appear in the new movie until it is more than half over. Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling, and he is more than up to the task of carrying the film. Gosling’s performance here is superb and absolutely Oscar-worthy.

Image: Warner Bros.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap. The original movie took place in 2019, and followed Ford’s character Rick Deckard as he attempted to track down four rogue replicants. Replicants were created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve as off-world slave labor, but after a series of violent rebellions, they became outlawed. Blade Runners such as Deckard were cops who specialized in tracking down and “retiring” replicants.

Gosling’s character, known simply as K for most of the movie, is a Blade Runner hunting down replicants in 2049, thirty years after the events of the original film. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, since I really want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that K’s background is complex and is an integral part of the film’s plot. It becomes necessary for him to track down Deckard, who hasn’t been seen for thirty years. When we do finally meet Deckard, he’s tired and worn out. It’s some of the best acting Ford has done in recent years. He does a great job capturing Deckard’s cynicism and world-weariness, and is soulful and sympathetic.

Image: Warner Bros.

In addition to Deckard and K, the rest of the characters are equally fascinating. Robin Wright plays K’s no-bullshit boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto plays a creepy evil industrialist named Niander Wallace (who now owns the company that makes replicants and has made a fortune producing a new, more obedient series of replicants), and an actress named Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace’s main henchwoman, disarmingly named Luv. Despite her name, she is not to be messed with, and provides a fierce adversary for K as he attempts to locate Deckard.

There’s also the lovely Cuban actress Ana de Armas as a character named Joi (pronounced like the word joy), who is, for lack of a better word, K’s companion. No, not that kind of companion. She offers him support and guidance despite, let’s just say, not being entirely human. I found the relationship between K and Joi to be quite fascinating, and genuinely moving at times.

There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but I’m not going to because this is a movie you should experience for yourself. I will say that I loved the film’s plot. The filmmakers did an incredible job of telling a story that feels like a logical evolution of the original film, instead of just a flimsy excuse to make another movie and make more money. Blade Runner 2049 is a movie made with immense care and attention to detail. It feels completely faithful to the original.

I wouldn’t call either Blade Runner movie an action movie. Both movies are deliberately paced, and while there are fights and chases, the emphasis isn’t on the action scenes. Both films have a long way to go and are in no particular hurry to get there. The new movie is nearly three hours long, but it didn’t feel that long to me. It immediately sweeps the viewer up into the vivid world it creates, and it’s the kind of world that is thrilling to explore, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in it.

Every aspect of this movie is Oscar-worthy, from the production design to the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects to the cinematography. Every one of those things from the first movie became iconic, and it’s easy to see the same thing happening with the new movie. Denis Villeneuve and his team did an incredible job crafting this film, and they have made Blade Runner 2049 every bit as emotionally resonant and thematically rich as its esteemed predecessor, which is no small feat.

Coming up next, in The Foreigner Jackie Chan will show us that it doesn’t matter if you’re in your sixties, you can still kick ass.

Gentlemen Are Still Badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn is one of the best action directors working today. His films Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service have some of the most exciting, well-shot and well-choreographed action sequences in years. His latest film, the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, has all the kinetic action of his previous films, but his flaws as a storyteller have never been more apparent.

The first Kingsman movie introduced the titular spy agency, a clandestine group of gentlemen badasses who wore finely-tailored suits and also just so happened to be lethal killing machines. The first film showed the training of Eggsy, a Kingsman recruit with a lot of potential. Eggsy eventually became a full-fledged Kingsman agent and helped save the world from a megalomaniac bent on cleansing the world by killing most of its population.

It was a very fun movie that was a big hit when it was released in 2014. Now the sequel is here, and it’s a mess. Mind you, it’s a fun mess. But it is still a mess.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Let’s start with the characters. There are too many of them, and the movie has no idea what to do with most of them. There are returning characters from the movie. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly kills many of them off. There are new characters. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly shunts many of them off to the side for most of the overlong 141-minute running time.

Colin Firth was the star of the first Kingsman movie, and watching the debonair, Oscar-winning English actor kick ass was an unexpected joy. Sadly, his character was killed off. But what do you know, he’s back for the sequel! This isn’t a spoiler, he’s in all the trailers. How did he survive? I won’t spoil it, but I found the method of his survival to be awfully…well…convenient. My guess is that the filmmakers weren’t expecting Firth’s character to be such a hit, so they scrambled for a way to resurrect him in the sequel. It’s great to see Firth again, he’s great, but the new movie’s writing is sloppy.

Director Matthew Vaughn has no one but himself to blame for the movie’s sloppiness, since he co-wrote the screenplay. The movie’s marketing made a big deal out of the new characters, played by well-known actors such as Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry. But these characters have very little to do. Tatum in particular is barely in the movie. He has one big scene, then disappears until the end. I wondered if his role was supposed to be bigger but there were scheduling issues or something which prevented it. The movie initially positions him as an American version of hero Eggsy, then promptly drops him for most of the movie. Tatum’s character, heavily featured in the film’s marketing, is an afterthought.

As for the plot, it’s far-fetched to say the least. If the first Kingsman movie strained the limits of credibility, the second one obliterates them and it is impossible to take anything in the movie seriously. Case in point: the villain, Poppy Adams, played by Julianne Moore. Poppy easily takes home the title of “Most Cheerful Villain of the Year.” She has her own plan for world domination, which involves contaminating recreational drugs such as marijuana and heroin so that they paralyze and eventually kill people who use them. She’s obsessed with the 1950’s and lives in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. She’s completely ridiculous. She’s quirky but not scary, no offense to Julianne Moore, who does what she can with a weirdly-written role. Poppy spends literally the entire movie in her jungle utopia, and never registers as a credible threat. Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the first Kingsman movie was much more intimidating and memorable.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Still, early in the movie Poppy does manage to obliterate most of the Kingsman organization in one fell swoop. Surviving members Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) and Merlin (played by Mark Strong) realize that they need help, and this leads them to the discovery of the Statesmen, the American cousins of the Kingsmen. Where the Kingsmen are exaggerated versions of everything British, with their finely-tailored suits and impeccable manners, the Statesmen are exaggerated versions of all things ‘Murican.

You know, ‘Murican, like “American” with a thick southern drawl? The Statesmen are headquartered in Kentucky and are fond of lassos, revolvers, and cowboy hats and boots. Most of them have southern accents and all their agents are named after alcoholic beverages. Channing Tatum is Tequila, Halle Berry is Ginger Ale, and Jeff Bridges, the boss, is Champagne, or just Champ for short. There’s also Agent Whiskey, played by Pedro Pascal, a Game of Thrones alumnus whose character only lasted for one season before being killed in one of the most infamously gruesome deaths on a show known for killing main characters in grisly ways.

This movie is insane. It’s hard to put into words the sheer insanity that this movie puts on the screen. It has to be seen to be believed. The movie has an all-star cast, but there is one man who steals the entire movie. This is a bit of a spoiler, since this person’s involvement was kept pretty minimal in the film’s marketing.

Two words:



Yes, Sir Elton steals the movie. It turns out that Poppy has kidnapped him and forces him to perform songs for her at her jungle lair. He’s not very happy about it and yells a lot of f-words. Also, Poppy’s hideout is guarded by two robotic dogs named Bennie and Jet, who are programmed not to kill Elton John.

It’s hilarious.

It’s also utterly absurd.

And did I mention Poppy’ rather bizarre way of indoctrinating new henchmen? It involves making them eat hamburgers made out of, uh, other henchmen.

So, yeah.

This movie is batshit. It’s the most batshit movie I’ve seen all year. The plot is a ridiculous mess, most of the characters are underused, and it’s a good twenty minutes too long.

But at the end of the day, I still had fun with it. Was I entertained? You bet I was. Matthew Vaughn’s screenwriting and storytelling could use some work, but his direction of the action scenes is top-notch. The first scene of the movie is a ten-minute car chase through the middle of London involving cars armed with miniguns and a bad guy with a robotic arm, and it only gets crazier from there.

The climactic battle at Poppy’s jungle hideout is one of the most joyously fun action scenes I’ve seen all year. It’s set to Elton John’s classic song Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has always been a favorite of mine. Watching two Englishmen in bespoke suits battling an army of henchmen in a 50’s-inspired jungle utopia while Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting plays in the background is something I didn’t know how badly I needed until I saw it. Thank you, movie, for giving me back a piece of myself that I didn’t even know I was missing.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Look, this movie is a clusterf*ck on an epic scale, but hot damn if it isn’t still fun. Its flaws are legion but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a guilty pleasure, for sure. I hope Matthew Vaughn keeps making movies this fun, although it would be nice if he sharpened up the writing a bit.

Coming up next is a movie that’s a bit obscure, but it’s one that I really like. I’m not seeing any new movies this weekend, so I’m going to take a look at a film from last year that it is an underseen gem. It’s a movie called Anthropoid. If you’ve never heard of it I’m not surprised. It’s a World War II film about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust. There’s going to be some dark stuff, but hopefully I can convince you to check out this underappreciated movie. See you next week.