Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler best known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station and 2015’s Creed, Black Panther is not your typical superhero movie and surpasses the innumerable installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a result of its empowering story, terrific acting, and dazzling visual effects. Significant for being a Hollywood blockbuster with an almost all black cast, the plot revolves around the titular superhero character Black Panther whose real name is T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman who has portrayed such African American icons as Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, returns home to the fictional African country of Wakanda to become king after the death of his father T’Chaka. Posing as a Third World country that does not receive foreign aid, Wakanda is mostly hidden from the rest of the world and is actually a very technologically advanced civilization powered by a magical metallic substance known as vibranium that is only present in the nation. To become ruler and continue to have the powers of the Black Panther, T’Challa must ingest a special flower filled with vibranium and undergo an ancient ritual to connect with his ancestors, overseen by the spiritual leader Zuri who is played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. The CGI visual effects underscore a modern society complete with futuristic skyscrapers and flying cars that also incorporate a traditional sense of African style and heritage focused on a connection with nature and animals. Eventually, the new young king is faced with an enemy force led by a white South African arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue, played by a wonderfully wicked Andy Serkis, who wants to get his hands on the powerful vibranium and expose Wakanda. The evil Klaue is partnered with former black ops solider Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by the terrific Michael B. Jordan, who wants to overthrow T’Challa for reasons we do not find out about until later. T’Challa must confront these outsiders with the help of Nakia, his ex-lover and spy known as a War Dog and played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, and Okoye, the strong leader of an all-female special forces unit and played by Danai Gurira. Rounding out the empowered female cast of characters, he receives many of his technological powers from his sister and brilliant inventor Shuri, played by the charismatic Letitia Wright. The Wakandans are later assisted by the only other white character CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman, whose life is saved after being treated in Wakanda with the healing powers of vibranium. By having a white character saved by the black characters, the stereotypical white savior archetype is reversed with the black society helping others with their more advanced technology and intellect. Overall, I thought it was a brilliant film that will definitely thrill fans of the superhero comic book movie genre with its gorgeous CGI and well-choreographed fight sequences, and it also will appeal to those looking for a thought-provoking cinematic experience that is filled with powerful messages for black culture and women.

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The 15:17 to Paris

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris is a well-intentioned movie remarkable for its use of the actual people that the true story is based upon but ultimately fails fairly miserably as a result of its poor writing and risky casting choices. The story revolves around a group of three American friends who unexpectedly become heroes while on a European vacation after they prevent a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015. We first meet Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler as troublesome middle schoolers at a Christian school in California where they become close friends interested in the United States military. The movie fast forwards several years later when the men, all played by themselves, are in their 20s still friends but living separate lives. It primarily focuses on Spencer who decides to join the Air Force in the Pararescue division and Alek who is deployed to Afghanistan as a soldier in the Oregon Army National Guard. In a rather lackluster build-up to the incident, we see all three friends join together on a stereotypical American vacation across Europe filled with drunken nights and sightseeing. The stilted dialogue does not really add much to a greater understanding of the moments leading up to their heroics. Also, the movie sometimes inexplicably switches back and forth between snippets of the action-packed train sequence and the rather mundane activities of their trip. Finally, towards the end, the movie reaches its climax when it details the men boarding a high-speed train from Amsterdam, the interlude as typical passengers, and the remarkable moments when they face off against a radical Islamic terrorist set on killing everyone aboard the train. Spencer makes the quick-fire decision to tackle the terrorist whose gun luckily jams, and a bloody fight ensues between the two men with Spencer sustaining injuries. At the same time, Alek and Anthony along with other brave passengers help to subdue the gunman until the train reaches its next stop where the police can take him into custody. Unquestionably an amazing story of courage, the creative use of the real people in a dramatized motion picture unfortunately backfires and does not really do justice to what happened. Overall, I found it to be a wasted opportunity to pay tribute to three American heroes who undoubtedly saved many lives; therefore, the story would have been better served by a documentary or a more conventional movie with real professional actors.

Call Me by Your Name

Nominated for the 2018 Oscar for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Call Me by Your Name is a beautifully crafted film flowing with powerful emotions about forbidden love between a teenager and a young graduate student during the summer of 1983 in the Italian countryside. Elio Perlman, played wonderfully by Timothée Chalamet who is nominated for an Oscar for his performance, is a seventeen-year-old Jewish American-Italian who lives in a rural Italian villa during the summers with his Italian mother and American father who is an archaeology professor, played by the always terrific Golden Globe nominee Michael Stuhlbarg. A very bright young man, Elio spends most of his time alone idyllically reading books and transcribing classical music until the arrival of American graduate student Oliver, played by Armie Hammer who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, who lives with the family for six weeks to help Professor Perlman with his academic work. While in a quasi-romantic relationship with a girl his age named Marzia, Elio is still exploring his love life and embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he becomes closer and closer to the older and handsome Oliver. Initially, the two are rather distant, but, over the course of the slow yet mesmerizing plotline, they begin to fall in love as they leisurely spend time together cycling through the countryside or swimming while engaged in intellectual conversations. Although at first he is somewhat confused by his emotions and homosexual attraction to Oliver, the remarkably mature Elio embraces his romantic and sexual desires by subtly making advances on the carefree and flirtatious Oliver. Through the use of gorgeous cinematography, beautifully subdued music, and immersion in very emotional moments, the acclaimed Italian director Luca Guadagnino expertly portrays an evocative romance, complete with the typical ups and downs experienced by any heterosexual couple. In one of the most poignant scenes, Elio’s compassionate father tries to comfort Elio as he grapples with the heartbreak of the inevitable conclusion to his time with Oliver as Oliver returns home where it would be extremely difficult to continue their amorous relationship. His father displays a complete understanding of Elio’s touching romance with another man and tells him that he too experienced pain over forbidden love. His advice to his son is to cherish the fact that he was lucky enough to share such great joy with Oliver. Overall, I found it to be a truly remarkable movie made possible by stellar acting performances and a heartwarming story with a powerful message about love set against the breathtaking beauty of Italy.

The Insult

Nominated for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Insult is a riveting and emotionally evocative Lebanese drama about the complicated nature of the Middle Eastern debate over the Palestinians, particularly those living as refugees in neighboring countries such as Lebanon. The plot revolves around a seemingly trivial argument between a Lebanese Christian nationalist and a Palestinian refugee living in Beirut that rapidly escalates into a nasty legal fight resulting in mass demonstrations across Lebanon. The Christian nationalist Tony is upset when the Palestinian construction foreman Yasser attempts to repair Tony’s illegal drainage pipe after which Yasser uses profanity to insult Tony. Coming from different backgrounds in which both were victimized by religious and political hatred in both Lebanon and Israel, the two men never back down and Tony takes Yasser to court for Yasser not apologizing for the insult and assaulting Tony after he makes inflammatory remarks about Palestinians. Eventually, it becomes a sensationalized court case between two stubborn individuals and the issues being fought over spark outrage among the many different factions in Lebanon who either sympathize with the Palestinian cause or consider the Palestinian refugees a drain on Lebanese society. The filmmaker does an excellent job of developing a gripping courtroom drama that becomes even more intriguing after we learn that the powerful right-wing lawyer representing Tony is actually the father of the more liberal female lawyer representing Yasser. Throughout the course of the story, we also witness that the personal lives of the men and their loved ones are adversely affected by the drawn-out dispute, especially Tony’s wife who has a complicated pregnancy. The real power of the film is that it vividly represents the real animosity between certain religious and ethnic groups in the Middle East and how small matters can reveal complicated issues of pride and victimization. Overall, I found it to be a terrific movie with powerful performances that somehow expounds upon a relatively small argument to delve into the central matters surrounding the still heated Palestinian conflict.

In the Fade

Winner of the 2018 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and directed by acclaimed Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, In the Fade is a terrific dramatic thriller remarkable for the superb acting performance from German actress Diane Kruger. The tragic story follows a German woman named Katja Sekerci, played by Kruger who is best known for her performance in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds, whose Kurdish husband Nuri and son Rocco are killed by a bomb placed outside her husband’s office in a predominantly Turkish neighborhood of Hamburg, Germany. Clearly ravaged by grief and anger, she all but gives up on her own life immediately following her family’s deaths and turns to using illicit drugs after the police insinuate that her convicted felon husband may have been murdered as part of his prior connection to the drug underworld. She also feels alienated from her parents and her in-laws who never really approved of their marriage as a result of their very different backgrounds. When the two young suspects with connections to the neo-Nazi movement are apprehended and put on trial, Katja who is represented by her lawyer friend Danilo becomes very involved with the trial in order to seek justice for her husband and son. She is promised several times by prosecutors and her lawyer and becomes convinced herself that the trial will end with easy murder convictions and possible life imprisonment for the racist couple. Towards the end of the movie, Katja heartbreakingly realizes that she may have to take her own revenge at a high cost outside the judicial system. Overall, the film through mesmerizing acting did an excellent job of portraying grief and loss and the emotional tumult and sheer anger experienced by those whose loved ones die through violent means. Diane Kruger’s emotionally raw and heartfelt performance really brings to life what it must be like to undergo incomprehensible heartbreak caused by the hands of those filled with hatred.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

The final installment in The Maze Runner trilogy that was first released in 2014, Maze Runner: The Death Cure is a fairly typical action movie based on a series of young adult books about a dystopian future, reminiscent of the wildly successful Hunger Games franchise. The plot follows a group of young people led by Thomas, played by Dylan O’Brien, who are immune to a virus that has killed off much of humanity and become members of The Right Arm rebellion against the all-powerful organization known as WCKD who experiment and torture those who are immune to find a cure. Thomas along with characters Frypan and Newt, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, go against the orders of The Right Arm leaders Vince, played by Barry Pepper, and Jorge, played by Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame, by breaking into the heavily fortified Last City, one of the few remaining uninfected cities and home to the headquarters of WCKD led by Patricia Clarkson’s character, to rescue one of their immune friends Minho. After meeting up with the resistance forces outside the city walls led by Lawrence, played by Walton Goggins, the group are reunited with their friend Gally, played by Will Poulter, who can help them fight their way in against the vicious leader of WCKD troops Janson, played by Aidan Gillen of Game of Thrones fame. They must also convince a previous member of the group Teresa who now works for WCKD to align with the rebels to undermine the malevolent organization. However, things get more complicated after Teresa discovers that Thomas may help lead to a cure for the deadly virus. Overall, I found it to be a somewhat entertaining film that helps pass the time but ultimately does not add much to the already bloated genre of young adult dystopian movies.

12 Strong

Based on the 2009 non-fiction book Horse Soldiers written by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong is a fairly typical war movie whose main strength is telling a fascinating true story about one of the first military operations in Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks. It follows a group of twelve United States Army Special Forces soldiers who are sent to Afghanistan on a covert mission known as Task Force Dagger in October 2001 to combat the Taliban harboring the al-Qaeda terrorist group responsible for the deadliest attack on American soil. The group known as Operational Detachment Alpha 595 within the elite 5th Special Forces Group are commanded by Captain Mitch Nelson, played by Chris Hemsworth, on his first leadership role in combat and is tasked with joining Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Northern Alliance fighters. Their mission is to recapture the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, a Northern Afghan city strategically vital to the Americans in the forthcoming war, and eliminate Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers in the region. Once they arrive in Afghanistan, the American troops, including soldiers played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and Michael Peña, discover they are outnumbered by the Taliban heavily armored with tanks and rocket launchers. Earning their nickname the Horse Soldiers, the men are surprised to learn they must ride horses into combat due to the rough terrain. As to be expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the film contains several well-coordinated and thrilling action sequences involving the Special Forces on horseback firing machine guns at the relentless Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Overall, despite the talented cast and spectacular scenes of modern warfare, the movie never transcends the generic formula of an action flick as a result of the lack of character development and the bloated runtime. Unfortunately, it does not really do justice to the truly remarkable story of one of the first military responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an operation that up until recently was classified.