Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther

We can be honest with each other right? You are going to see this movie regardless of what my comments on it happen to be. Hell, everyone seems to be on their way to see this. There is a huge anticipation that it will set new box office records for an opening weekend and the early reports are promising so it's likely you don't need my perspective. As friends though [even if it is just virtually] it is right to spend some time talking about our impressions of the movie and maybe providing a more tempered view or an alternative perspective. That is essentially what this is going to be. I liked the film quite well and there are characters and aspects that are very rewarding and nicely put together. It is however not the second coming, not a cultural revolution and not the best film in the MCU.

Chadwick Boseman is an actor that I have raved about for a couple of years now. I thought he was great in '42 and while "Get On Up" had some issues, he was a perfect James Brown. I missed "Marshall" last year but I certainly hope that while he might be good in it, he needs to be careful about getting pigeon holed as the go to guy for black biopics. These days you need to be able to do a lot of different things to keep a career going and too many checks in one column might make you seem limited. His being cast in "Captain America: Civil War" as T'Challa, King of Wakanda and the hero known as Black Panther is a great opportunity for him. He can build some action credentials to go along with his chameleon impersonations. This film however took a while to get his character in sync. The story calls for him to be a bit tentative taking on the role of his late father, but he still needs that persona to shine through and it does not really happen until the third act. For the first two thirds of the movie he is overshadowed by the antagonist, who has far less screen time than Boseman does.

The reason that it takes so long for us to see the true hero that Black Panther should be is that the villain of the piece is played by Michael B. Jordan, an actor who is rapidly turning his charisma into big screen gold. He may not be Johnny Storm but he is definitely Adonis Creed. He dances through an opening heist like the featured player, although in this scene he is mostly a by-stander. When he makes his way to Wakanda, he struts in like Errol Flynn with a deer over his shoulders and drops a big dead bird on the party. By the time we notice that his personality and goals are warped, we are more than halfway to agreeing with him in his assessment of T'Challa as King. The part is written well and he runs with it.

Another reason this film succeeds is that the supporting cast is composed primarily of women who strike the right note of independence but also partnership with the nation. Wakanda has it's own version of the C.I.A. running ops in Africa, that spy may be the future Queen. . The General of the capital army is an Amazon style warrior who would fit right in on Themyscira with Diana Prince and her family of warrior women. T'Challa's little sister is basically the Wakanda version of MI6 Q Branch. All of these characters and more are part of elaborate rituals, cultural practices and grand battles that climax the film.

So, having said that about the characters in the film, let's talk about the world building of this culture. One of the reasons that this movie is being touted as a cultural touchstone is it's emphasis on strong African characters who define the world in which they exist without conceding to the non-African world. Director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler is attempting something admirable with this film, but he fails in a couple of important elements.Excuse me for pointing out a stereotype of these communities in films made by non-Africans in the past, does an African kingdom really need to pass it's royal heritage from one group to the next through mortal combat? This sounds like the Lions in "The Lion King" or Celtic clans from a millennia ago. It does not seem like a system that would still be followed by a society capable of the technological advances this film gives to them. Maybe part of the story is to confront the tribes that make up the kingdom that "Game of Thrones" style succession is perhaps past its' time.

I'm also a bit flummoxed by all the technology and cultural magic standing side by side. Shuri, T'Challa's sister and the chief engineer of the hidden society, pooh poohs  the suggestion that magic had anything to do with the recovery of a C.I.A. operative from a near fatal wound. She proudly proclaims that Wakanda is built on technology. At the same time, people are commiserating with the dead over the past and the future of the country. The spirit of the Black Panther is added and removed through rituals that certainly are not technological in their presentation. I like the idea that the people of this nation are spiritual, but to try to play both sides without acknowledging an inconsistency seems like a story weakness to me.

The visualization of the hidden nation of Wakanda is another thing that bothers me about the film. Take away the dirt streets and the graffiti, and the capital city of the country could be Asgard, home of Thor and his family. It is as if everyone in the comic book world looked at pictures of modern London, superimposed a cultural patina over it and then laid on some technology that works for no apparent reason. I know these are comic book films, but there needs to be a bit more grounding to reality. Billionaire genius Tony Stark, or Bruce Wayne have nothing on King T'Challa, except that they do have limitations of science holding them back. All the magic that Dr. Strange, Loki and the Scarlet Witch are bringing in to the universe is beginning to make it a little less urgent. This movie is pushing for the same kind of agenda. I know that when the Infinity  War gets here, something needs to give our planet an edge, I just what something more tangible than a miracle tool that is going to show up in the last minute. The  Rube Goldberg look of the cities of the world remind me of several scenes from the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Maybe a little less "Wow" factor in the home-worlds would help make us care about them more.

I hope this has not rained on anyone's enjoyment of the film too much. I like the character of Black Panther and I like his people. The part of the world they live in is so beautiful that it seems a shame to try and top that with some CGI polish. The film is a juggernaut that earns some respect for trying to expand the horizons of the comic book universe it occupies. Let's just not pretend that it is perfect simply because of those aspirations.  

Friday, February 9, 2018

50 Shades Freed

I'm sure your mother told you at some time or other, "if you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing at all".

OK, made you look.

There are a couple of nice things to say about this film, although they are not really compliments on the cinema of the story. "Fifty Shades Freed" is bookened with two quite lovely montages. The opening of the film sweeps us through a wedding and honeymoon that could only exist in the rarefied world of billionaires with too much time on their hands. Anastasia and Christian fly on his private jet to European romance spots and ride bicycles, eat at cafes and run through the rain. Then they jet off to a tropical local and spend time on a gigantic yacht and topless beach. An environment that brings out the puritan in our perverted hero. He feels uncomfortable with his bodyguard and chauffeur being able to ogle his new brides boobs.

Then we get an hour and a half of domestic adjustment, bondage, and a kidnapping plot that feels as if it was transplanted onto this story from another film.

At the climax of the movie [we will talk about the marketing tag line in a moment], there is another montage, but this time of events that took place in all three films. These sequences include some spectacular shots of yachts, gliders and more BDSM. The depth of these characters and the story could be covered quite easily with a PowerPoint slide show of their vacations and sex play. There is literally nothing more interesting in any of the three movies. OK, that's not quite true, there is one car chase sequence that was nicely staged in this film, although it makes no sense at all.

There, having said something nice, I feel free to say some other things that are not so nice. This movie is boring. There are a half dozen sex scenes, a couple of violent moments and the aforementioned car chase, and still it is dull as can be. The plot is creaky and would probably have seemed old fashioned in 1958 much less sixty years later. It basically involves two people who are fairly selfish, learning to think more of their partner than themselves, and one way to do that is to throw in a random revenge plot. The antagonist is a character who was in the first movie for all of a minute and a half. I don't think there was a mention of him in the second film at all. In this movie he seems at first to be a criminal mastermind who has somehow outwitted the security of the "Grey" Corporation. Then he turns into a salivating maniac who basically makes every stupid mistake possible at the culmination of his plan. Oh, and by the way, the character who is kidnapped is not the female lead, but a secondary character who was in the second film for maybe a minute and then this one for two minutes before the big plan is sprung. It's barely clear that she is the other of the two other female characters that have more than thirty seconds on screen.

Admittedly most people are not coming to these films for the plot. They are here for the sex. The problem is that for the most part it is joyless and non erotic. In spite of all the handcuffs and special whips and chains, most of what happens just looks like people playing at enjoying sex. The closest the two leads come to having a truly erotic moment comes when they share a midnight snack of ice cream in a kitchen. Unfortunately, instead of sustaining the long build up to a moment of arousal, the director lets them jump quickly back to the old in out and then on to the next scene.

The first of these films was not any great experience, but it was not nearly as bad as so many people said. " Fifty Shades Darker" is mostly just not memorable. This film tries to titillate us in the marketing with a catch phrase designed to appeal to the prurient interests of the series fans. " Don't Miss the Climax". Sorry to disappoint all of you fans of the Mommy porn. This movie is limp. Drop a Viagra and move on to something else. There was a trailer for a film clearly aimed at an older audience that played before this screening. "Book Club" features a plot involving older women reading "Fifty Shades of Grey". It looks much more entertaining than this movie was, and it doesn't look good.

I saw this in an IMAX presentation, and I really hoped there would be 3D glasses involved. That might have added something to the experience that would make it more memorable. Here at the end, that probably would not have helped. There is one last good thing about "Fifty Shades Freed".  We are now Freed from ever having to think of this film series again.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The LAMB Devours the Oscars 2018: Best Picture Nominee: Dunkirk

Once again, I have made a contribution to the LAMB Devours the Oscars series over on the Large Association of Movie Blogs. I was lucky enough to get my favorite film of the year to write about. You can check out the results in the link below.

The LAMB Devours the Oscars 2018: Best Picture Nominee: Dunkirk: Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far: Today, Richard Kirkham from Kirk…

Saturday, February 3, 2018

60 Years of Watching Movies

This site is always personal. I inventory every film I see in a theater, I share my history with films, and every review is always based on MY reaction, and expressed in my voice. So having achieved the milestone of reaching six decades of life, I want to share a little nostalgia from sitting in a movie theater. I had a different plan originally, but I chose to tighten it up, which may sound odd when you see what comes.

Scary Movies

I am a horror fan, though maybe not deeply enough for all those Gallo fans out there. The first time I remember being scared at a movie was seeing "The Time Machine".  My Mom's friend that we always called Aunt Ginny, took us to a summer series of films at the Rialto in South Pasadena, maybe four blocks from where I lived at the time. Morlocks gave me nightmares.

The scariest movie I ever saw however, continues to this day to be the Exorcist. I was fifteen when it came out and I wanted to see it because my Dad and his adult friend Rusty had gone to see it, and Rusty was so freaked out about it that he stayed at our house that night and slept on the couch. He actually took me to see it and I remember feeling the sweat on my back as the tension built up. Every time they went up to that bedroom, I sank into my seat a little more.


I miss the genre as a regular theme at the movies. When I was a kid, there were Westerns everywhere. Now, we get them only occasionally. I sat through several Sergio Leone films. I remember seeing "Duck You Sucker" at the El Rey in Alhambra. John Wayne is the ultimate western hero, but I grew up in the age of Clint. My Dad took me for one of my Birthdays to see "Two Mules for Sister Sara". I still stop and watch "Unforgiven" whenever I run across it. 

And of course if it has this guy in it, that is almost certainly going to be a great western. 


Who doesn't love to laugh? Over the years I have been entertained by a series of movies that I would recommend to tickle the funny bone. Not all are politically correct or family friendly but you will enjoy yourself anyway. 

Absolutely the funniest film I ever saw was "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", it is also one of the film moments that I shared with my father, that I would never have expected and tells you why I love movies. You can read about it by clicking the title in the above sentence.

The Seventies

I grew up in the sixties and seventies. The period between 1967 and 1977 is often referred to as the second golden age of movies. If you have been a reader here before, you know this project started as an examination of that time. The original project ran for a hundred and five days and if you go to the archives, look up the posts from 2010 and enjoy.

I'm going to give you a few links to some of my favorite films of that era below. I hope you can take some time to look around and see what I thought of these classics.

Favorite Films

Everyone always asks you what your favorite movie is. I have a link on the page to tell you that, but I have never compiled a top ten list. It would be hard to do, making tough choices and always remembering something later and needing to adjust. So instead of such a list, here is a grab bag of the films I would probably put on the list. I'm sure there are a couple that have momentarily slipped my aging mind, but if any of these was on right now, I'd watch in an instant. 

James Bond

If there is a drug that I am addicted to, it is 007. I can't get enough. I even re-watch the ones that are outright bad. If you look on the site, there is plenty of 007 content. So I'll just give you the theme songs from my three favorites. Listen in good health, maybe while sipping a martini, made with Vodka of course.

Guilty Pleasures

They say you should not feel guilty about what you enjoy, and that may be true but people still judge you for those things. Blogging is an act of self disclosure. You willingly let people know your thoughts, and some of those thoughts may be odd, counter intuitive or off putting to others. 

Here are some bits to let you know things that might leave you less impressed with me as a person.

The violence is brutal, and Kick Ass celebrates it, as do I.

Sharon Stone in a Western, yeah, I love it. 

Bad Movie but great two hours. Drive Angry

NSFW.  Watch the language

Ok, I'm going to hit a stop for now. I may make my 60th an ongoing list of posts. For now, this is what I felt like celebrating today. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Den of Thieves

If it's time for your weekly testosterone injection, here it is in a two hour-twenty minute dosage. This film has maybe three or for women with lines, and only one of them has more than a couple, and she is peripheral to the story. So this film will not be passing the Bechdel test this week. Instead, it will be filling the screen with about two hours of macho scumbags comparing the size of their members by the load carried in their modified AR.

This story is about how the good guys are the ones who kidnap and torture people to get information from them. That should tell you that the bad guys are even worse. This is the nightmare visualization of a major crimes unit in the L.A. Sheriff's Department, led by "Big Nick" a bad man with a badge. They square off against Merriman and his crew of mostly former Marines who apparently are not interested in a regular form of employment. Seemingly stuck between them is "Donnie" a bartender with a criminal record for holding the fastest speeding ticket in California. He may be demeaned by the members of the outlaw crew, and teased about his penis size by the cops, but there is more here going on than anyone know.

Gerald Butler is one of the producers on this film, a role that has allowed him to be featured in several of these kinds of movies in the last ten years. As Nick, he comes across as arrogant, dangerous and full of the masculinity that would be referred to as "toxic" by some members of our culture.  Pablo Schreiber is Merriman, the master mind with ice water in his veins. He is curt, judgmental and playing the angles. Nick and Merriman become a thing that drives the whole second act of the film.

Imagine that scene from "Heat" where cop and criminal take ten minutes to converse like people. This film is sort of the same idea, only instead of courtesy and plain spoken honesty, we get a game of one upsmanship. They trade insults in a restaurant, match skill at a shooting range and score with the same girl. All this is in a effort to show who is the biggest dog in the pound. This is a long slog with a lot of side routes. We get back story on each character, we learn of their weaknesses, but mostly we build tension because the release is what the last section of the film is all about.

Like all heist films, we are not let in on all the machinations that the master criminal has planned. There will be twists and turns and events that we can't figure out at first. For example, I can't figure out how the criminal crew got from Montebello to Downtown Los Angeles in five minutes on a Friday afternoon. The cops are also unpredictable, they start trying to apprehend the fleeing suspects in a traffic jam [the most realistic scene in the movie] where everyone will be in the killing fields between the cops and the robbers. The truth is once the fireworks start, it doesn't matter if anything makes sense, because the adrenaline rush you've been waiting for is kicking in and you just want to sit back and take it all in. 

At the close of the film there is a reveal that has been hinted at in a few places but was not particularly well set up. The flashbacks establish a little bit of background but it still feels like a cheap exit to the plot. It is enjoyable, but it takes all the grittiness of the film and turns it into a "Fast and Furious " moment that just seems out of place. The thought is not a bad one, but like a lot of these complex double agenda films, it depends on one character knowing ahead of time what every other character is going to do. It is simply more ambitious than it has any right to be, it does not feel earned.

The action is bookend in the film. The opening shootout is brutal and the final chase and gunfight is pretty exciting. Since none of the characters are very much emotionally invested, there is not much satisfaction in how things finally wind up. As stupid as all of it ultimately is, it runs the same amount of time as a couple of widely acclaimed films [The Tree of Life/Call Me By Your Name] and I was never bored by this the way I was by those pretentious pieces of art. Maybe there is nothing about this movie that is worth remembering, but it would not be something I'd avoid if it comes across the radar down the road. At least at the end I would know that I was being entertained momentarily. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

12 Strong

For a number of years, films about the War on Terror seemed to be cursed under a shroud of bad box office.  "The Hurt Locker" award for Best Picture not withstanding, these films were relegated to a pile of failure and artistic disappointment. Matt Damon could not bring people into "Green Zone" The combined talents of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford actually kept audiences at bay in "Lions for Lambs". The less said about "Stop Loss", Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah" the better. It seemed for some reason, Americans in particular were not interested in the subject. It turns out that what they were not interested in was being told what a failure military action is, and that the War on Terror is not worth fighting.

Two films, "American Sniper" and "Lone Survivor"  dispelled the notion that Americans were indifferent to the subject or worn out by the themes. It was the viewpoint that seemed to alter the trajectory of films set in the War on Terror. We were not disinterested in seeing films about this war, we were turned off by the negative tenor these movies took toward the political decisions being made. When the movies focus on the hard work and sacrifice made by Americans in fighting the war, rather that fighting the politics, the movies seemed to succeed. "13 Hours" set up a military disaster but showed it from a perspective of respect for the men involved. Today's film also features a number, it is also based on declassified information and it shows the heroism of our soldiers rather than their faults. Look, no one wants to live in a world where we can't see flawed people and decisions. But we certainly should not be limited to them and a movie like "12 Strong" tells us why.

The threats from Al Qaeda and the Taliban were real. 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 but the people of Afghanistan had been suffering for years under torturous conditions imposed by fervent believers in the interpretation of Islam that had taken control of their country.  The Taliban shelter Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda forces, and they carried out their own form of totalitarian domestic terrorism under the guise of a Nation. This film focuses on the initial military incursion by the U.S. into that territory after the 9/11 attacks. It is a complex world where alliances come together and fall apart on a weekly basis. There is tribalism that makes diplomatic matters difficult to manage. Into that situation, America sent a dozen soldiers to begin the fight and attempt to create a unified opposition to the ruling Taliban.

This movie has a few of the touchstones of a sentimental war story. There is a family at home, there is a band of brothers, and there are heroic acts by most of the men involved. There is a difference however. This story is really focused on the details of the confrontation and the difficulties of finding and keeping allies. There are only a couple of scenes where home comes up as a subject. The characters are not defined by quirks or ethnic identity or by particular personality types. This is a procedural film where the process is the real star and the men involved, while critical, are not the hook that the story hangs by. Chris Hemsworth is fine in the role as Captain Nelson, but the character is muted for much of the film. With the exception of the opening, and a moment of frustration with inconsistent allies, he is never a commanding central figure. He is the leader of the team, but it is not his personality, history or family that causes us to follow him, it is his professionalism in trying to carry out a complex assignment. His character had not been combat tested before this mission, and even though there is a small reference to his baptism under fire, the story is not about him personally. Michael Shannon plays his second in command and he always comes across as a serious and thoughtful soldier, a man who knows what his job is. There are a dozen Special Forces troops on this team, and we do meet them but rarely get to know them. We know what they job is, we know what their capabilities are but as I said, this is not really a character piece.

The director of this movie is Nicolai Fuglsig. I have not heard of him before and there is not much on his IMDB page. He does a very credible job keeping the battle sequences riveting and coherent. This is a war where they really are not uniforms and the battle lines are not drawn as clearly as we might like. He made a helicopter ride into the territories pretty exciting, even though there is no gunfire or enemy action involved. The horseback combat is also done well and is shot form plenty of angles, including from above, which helps keep the events straight in our heads.

As with most of these stories where ther is an actual historical record, the truth turns out to be as involving as the movie. The twelve men on the mission are accounted for with the real life counter parts. Several text cars at the end tell us the information we need about the after the story story. There continue to be political elements with some of the characters. Navid Negahban has had a prolific career in the last two decades playing variations of Middle Eastern characters. He is General Dostrum in this film, a man who remained part of the Afghanistan rebuilding as the war continues to this day. Negahban is impressive in the scenes he has with Hemsworth, where he conveys a cagey warrior who is suspicious and potentially duplicitous for his own purposes.

Clearly, a movie that celebrates an important victory is going to resonate more with American audiences than one that dwells on a failure. This is an efficient summary of the early part of the War in Afghanistan and maybe it can show a bit more clearly what problems the U.S. faced. Inclement weather, mountainous terrain, uncertainty about the forces you are working with and a vicious enemy. We sent good, well trained men into this situation and they came out with what might have been the greatest defeat for Al Qaeda short of killing Bin Laden. I'm willing to let the tense music, visual fireworks and the story details pull me in. If it is less than emotionally manipulative, I don't see that as a fault, here it is it's virtue.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Commuter

Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I'm willing to give him credit for "A Monster Calls" where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That's too long and I don't like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson's character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don't really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson's character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn't think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It's not important, it's just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson's wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn't require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I'm just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year.