Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.

Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.

Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.

When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.

T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.

As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.

And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?

The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.

Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?

If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies

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Samson

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 5:10 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and battle sequences
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, murder, torture, battle scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

The Biblical story of the Jewish man who still stands as the exemplar of strength has been brought to the screen by Pure Flix, a sober, sincere retelling of the story that is intended for both religious and secular audiences. As Hollywood has recognized several times in the past, including a big-budget studio epic from Cecil B. De Mille, the story has all of the essentials for drama, a hero of extraordinary power who suffered loss and betrayal and ultimately sacrificed himself to defeat the Philistine leaders who were oppressing his people.

Copyright 2018 Pure Flix

Samson is played by Taylor James, a British actor who had a small part in the “Justice League” movie. In the beginning of the film he is confident and impetuous. He has pledged a life of piety, which means no drinking and never cutting his hair. In return, he has been gifted with great strength. He is not afraid to fight. But he does not consider that it may not be he who pays the consequences. King Balek (an icy Billy Zane) commands a powerful army and does not hesitate to murder the Jews who object, even in the mildest terms, to his brutal demands.

And then Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. His parents (Lindsay Wagner as Zealphonis and Rutger Hauer as Manoah) know that a marriage would create great risk for the couple and for the Jewish community. But Samson is sure he can make it work. It is a tragic mistake.

The screenwriters made some good choices in expanding the story, creating parallels between the two fathers, Manoah and Balek, and their sons. Balek is as cruel and demanding with his son, Rallah (Jackson Rathbone, in one of the film’s strongest performances) as he is with the Jews. Rallah’s struggle to find his own way gives more texture to the story.

The ambitions of the filmmakers are admirable, but a bit beyond their capacity and it has an amateurish quality that makes this more like the movies you see in Sunday school than the movies you see in theaters. Pure Flix is not Cecil B. De Mille, and director Bruce MacDonald’s staging of the big fight scenes and the literally crashing climax lacks intensity. But it is a respectful and heartfelt portrayal of a story whose power is undimmed over the millennia.

Note: Other movie versions of this story include 2013’s Samson, 1984’s Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. De Mille’s 1948 Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature, and the animated Keep the Trust: The Story of Samson and Delilah

Parents should know that this film includes extended violence including murder and battle scenes with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: How does Samson change over the course of the film? Why does he change? Why does Delilah cut his hair?

If you like this, try: “The Ten Commandments” and “The Nativity Story”

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The Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Posted on January 24, 2018 at 2:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medical tests
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, zombies, guns, chases, crashes, and explosions, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

These dystopian teen sagas generally run out of steam after the high concept of the first one. While this third and final chapter of “The Maze Runner” series is better than the muddled second one, it does not rise to the level of the existential drama original concept of teenage boys (and finally one girl), their memories wiped, forced to try to get through a booby-trapped maze.

Once they get out of the maze, thanks to the leadership of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), then there’s just a “Hunger Games”/”Divergent”-style race to the center of operations for the evil and corrupt regime (sometimes involving a lab with white-coated scientists torturing people) to rescue characters we know, some who make it and some who don’t, and also rescue the whole world.

The Jeremy Bentham/Trolley Problem issue of having to decide between the greatest good for the greatest number versus saving the people you care about is raised, which is intriguing, but not in a particularly thoughtful way. It also briefly raises the intriguing issue of how you can reboot a civilization to prevent the mistakes of the past, but spends most of its time on chases, explosions, zombies, evil scientists, and, as in all movies of this genre, the idea that hot teens are all that can save us. “If there’s even the slightest chance to save him, we have to take it, no matter what the cost,” Thomas says, which sounds great, but can that really be true? Doesn’t it mean risking the lives of many to save one? You can’t count on the movie-standard running through the bullets to work every time. But we cannot expect too much from a movie where the bad guys work for a corporation called WCKD.

The action scenes are dynamic and exciting, but there are too many of them and as the film edges past two hours it all gets numbing. There isn’t much help from the grim dialogue, which has a numbing effect as well: “We started this thing together. Maybe we’ll end it that way, too.” “They can only poke the hornet’s nest do long before they get stung.” “It’s amazing what people can accomplish when their survival is at risk.” This movie plays less like their survival is at risk than that they were just trying to make it to the end.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images involving zombies, guns, chases, explosions, and medical torture, as well as some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide whether a few get sacrificed to save the rest? What is important about the way Thomas is different from the others? In these films, “Hunger Games,” and “Divergent,” how did well-intentioned efforts to solve past problems create bigger problems?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Maze Runner” films and “The Hunger Games”

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12 Strong

Posted on January 18, 2018 at 11:22 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Portrayal of misogynistic regime
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 19, 2018

Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
If it was fiction, you’d dismiss it as too far-fetched. But this recently declassified military mission following 9/11, with a tiny Special Forces group, just twelve men, led by an officer who had never been in combat, were sent to Afghanistan to take out a Taliban outpost. They were vastly overmatched in terms of men and weapons. And, most improbable of all, they had to travel by horseback. Men trained to use the very latest of technology were riding the mode transportation used by knights and cowboys. These guys are the best of the best, nothing but courage, patriotism, skill, and determination all the way through. Think of them as The Clean or rather Sandy Dozen.

This film begins with a brief reminder of the terrorist attacks leading up to the airplanes that flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. And then, as in all films of men about to go into danger, we see happy families, just enough to make sure we care about these loving husbands and fathers. We know that Captain Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, back to being mortal after “Thor: Ragnarok” but no less heroic) is not going to be able to keep his promise to pick that adorable ladybug-drawing daughter after school, and pretty soon he knows it, too.

There are wives who bravely say that this is what they signed up for. One says, “Some wives cry; I clean,” as she scrubs her oven. Another looks at her husband grimly, insisting he give their son the bad news himself. Nelson has to undo his plans for a desk job to go back to his team. He also has to prove himself to his commanding officer, who selects him over five other teams because he seems to have the best understanding of the challenges, especially the weather that will make their mission impossible if they don’t complete it before winter makes the route impassable.

And then the twelve are on their way with just the briefest and sketchiest debrief from a CIA officer. There are three warlords in the area who all oppose the Taliban but otherwise are in mortal combat with each other. One of the challenges for the American team will be to keep that fragile alliance in place as they need the support of all of them to reach the outpost, liberating several locations along the way.

It is hard to follow at times. There are so many “the whole world depends on this next impossible thing” moments, so much bro talk, so much tech talk, so many reminders of how many days “in country,” so many similar-looking explosions and shoot-outs. But Hemsworth, Shannon, and Pena create real, relatable and yet heroic characters, and seeing them ride into battle on horseback against daunting odds is genuinely moving and inspiring. The most intriguing part is the developing relationship between Nelson and his local counterpart, General Dostum (Navid Negahban). The outcome revealed before the credits is appropriately both reassuring and disturbing.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive wartime peril and violence including guns and explosions with many characters injured and killed, some grisly and disturbing images, references to child abuse, strong language, and some sexual references.

Family discussion: What is the difference between a soldier, a warrior, and a warlord? How did Nelson and Dostum learn to trust one another? What can we tell about the man by the way they said goodbye to their families?

If you like this, try: the book by Doug Stanton and the movies “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”

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The Commuter

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 1:56 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language
Profanity: Brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including drinking to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, guns, knife, fights, explosions, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 12, 2018

Copyright LionsGate 2017
Sigh. Another January, another dumb Liam Neeson action movie. This one is on a train.

Liam Neeson is The Commuter, a devoted husband and father named Michael who reads every book his teenage son is assigned in school. Every day he wakes up at 6, cuddles with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), and gets on the same train at the same time to go to his job selling insurance. Until one day is different.

First, he gets laid off with no notice and no cash severance. He has a few drinks with his former partner from the days when he was a cop, and then gets on his usual commuter train for the ride home. After ten years, he is very familiar with the routine, the conductors, and the passengers, greeting many of them by name. But this time, something is different. A woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga, magnetic and disturbing) offers him a hypothetical proposition that quickly turns real: for $100,000. Michael needs money badly. And Joanna says all he has to do is “one small thing” — identify a passenger on the train carrying a bag and known only as “Prynne.”

This isn’t one of those “it makes no sense but it doesn’t matter” movies. This is one of those, “it makes no sense and that is really annoying” movies. The twist/revelation of the bad guy is ridiculously obvious. The premise that a commuter on a New York train, no matter how regular, would be on a first-name basis with the other passengers is more ridiculous. The premise that someone like “Joanna” would be able to exert complete control over every element of the situation and yet still need Michael to figure out which passenger is Prynne, much less that he would have the capacity to do so based on the limited information he has is even more ridiculous. And then we get to the really “you’ve got to be kidding” section, basically the whole last half hour.

Remember “Non-Stop?” Same director. It’s pretty much the same movie, and it wasn’t so good the first time out. Both puts Neeson in what is essentially a locked room in motion and force him to solve a puzzle from an omniscient villain while also risking his life a dozen times in crazy fights and stunts. The fights are okay, the stunts are pretty good, the camera work makes good use of the claustrophobic setting, with only one gratuitous Speilbergian dolly zoom. But if Michael was as observant as he is supposed to be, he would have noticed right away that this script goes off the rails long before the train does.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed including murders, fights, knives, guns, some disturbing images, corruption, some strong language, and alcohol, including drinking to deal with stress.

Family discussion: What would you want to know before accepting Joanna’s offer? Would you claim to be Prynne?

If you like this, try: “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” (original version), “Speed,” “Source Code,” and “Runaway Train”

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