Without Explanation

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse

by Hope Madden

Michael B. Jordan is a bona fide movie star, a butts-in-seats celebrity ready to front his own spy thriller franchise. He’s ready to Harrison Ford.

He definitely is ready, there’s no doubt he has the talent, charisma, looks and mass appeal to bring a Tom Clancy story to the big screen. But should he do it?

Jordan’s John Kelly finds himself in an unexpected operation in Aleppo. He loses a friend and nearly loses his commanding officer (Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith, wasted), much thanks to a cagey CIA operative (Jamie Bell) who’s hiding something from the team. Something Russian.

Well, those Russian secrets keep resurfacing, and they rack up a heavy body count. Next thing you know, Jordan has to take off his shirt and splash water on his bare chest because…I don’t know. It might honestly just be a contractual thing now.

I’m not saying I’m sorry it happened.

Stefano Sollima directs this espionage thriller, and he has even less luck than he did with his last feature, Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The problem this time around is not that his film suffers terribly by comparison. (Man, that was the problem last time.) The problem is that writers Will Staples and Taylor Sheridan just don’t seem to be trying very hard.

And Sheridan can be one of the finest writers working in film (Sicario, Hell or High Water). But you would not know that here.

The thrills are mediocre, the shootouts and fights are middling, and the only thing more obvious than the plot points are the performances. Worse still, the writing is sloppy and convenient. There’s an unmanned, unlocked, running vehicle right when John Kelly needs one, and don’t even ask how he gets unconscious villains from point A to point B. I guess that’s confidential.

It’s not that Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a terrible movie. It isn’t. But there’s no excuse for it to be utterly mediocre, which it is. The director’s proven to be competent and the co-writer has proven to be genius. Plus there’s a bona fide movie star at the height of his wattage leading the effort.

I blame Putin.

Presumed Guilty

Just Mercy

by George Wolf

You may have noticed there’s no shortage of films exposing the miscarriages of justice that have landed innocent people on Death Row.

Sadly, that’s because there’s no shortage of innocent people on Death Row.

So while the prevailing themes in Just Mercy are not new, the sadly ironic truth is their familiarity brings an added layer of inherent sympathy to the film, which helps offset the by-the-numbers approach taken by director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton.

Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham adapt the 2014 memoir by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, that details Stevenson’s years providing legal counsel to the poor and wrongly convicted in Alabama.

The film keeps its main focus on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who, by the time Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) comes along, has long accepted his death sentence for the murder of an 18 year-old white woman. But by winning over Walter’s extended family, Stevenson gains Walter’s trust, along with plenty of threats from the Alabama good ol’ boys once he starts exposing the outrageous violations during Walter’s “fair trial.”

It’s clear that Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) is firmly committed to respectful accuracy in his adaptation, which is commendable. The authenticity of the roadblocks, impassioned speeches or blood-boiling examples of bigotry are never in doubt, but it’s only the ferocious talents of Jordan and Foxx that keep Just Mercy from collapsing under the weight of its own unchecked righteousness.

As sympathetic as Walter’s situation is, the script never quite sees him as a real person, painting only in shades of hero. Oscar winner Brie Larson, a Cretton favorite, is wasted as EJI co-founder Eva Ansley, who seems included more out of respect than for what the character ultimately adds to the narrative.

Jordan has the most to work with here, and – no surprise – he makes the most of it. Peripheral cases help Jordan give Stevenson the needed edges of a man who is equally driven by his failures, doggedly committed to helping those he identifies with so deeply, those who, as Walter puts it, are “guilty from the moment you’re born.”

Though it comes out swinging with heavy hands, Just Mercy steadies itself in time to become an effective portrait of systemic injustice. You will be moved, but with a force that is muted by simple convention.

Family Feud

Creed II

by George Wolf

In the history of elephants and rooms, Creed II earns a special mention for its spit take-worthy moment when a boxing commentator finally deadpans,”It’s all a bit Shakespearean, isn’t it?”

Why yes, it is, in fact more than a bit.

It’s a daddy issues melodrama on steroids, one that hits every crowd pleasing note and works every manipulative angle it can pull from the long and storied history of this franchise. And true to the fighters at the heart of these films, the new Creed will not be denied.

Let’s be honest, the first Creed rebooted the Rocky warhorse so effectively, it was a surprising left hook to nearly everyone who hadn’t seen writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan’s stunning work in Fruitvale Station.

But that was pre-Black Panther, and though Coogler is missed for this sequel, promising indie director Steven Caple, Jr. displays similar instincts for slaying sentimentality with smaller moments of conviction.

And lots of great fighting.

Much of that needed conviction comes from Jordan, who returns with fervor as Adonis Creed, the newly-crowned heavyweight champ who gets an instant challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of…who else but Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’s father Apollo when Rocky wouldn’t throw the damn towel.

Drago the Younger is huge and strong (one trainer rightly dubs him “a balanced breakfast”), leading Rocky (Stallone), still haunted by Apollo’s death, to advise against the fight.

Adonis also has Bianca (Tessa Thompson, splendid as always and sharing great chemistry with Jordan) and their positive pregnancy test to consider, along with a truckload of pride and unfinished business.

Stallone, who of course started all this with the original Rocky screenplay, steps back in as co-writer, and in many ways Creed 2 becomes just as much Rocky’s story as Adonis’s. But it feels right, thanks to another award-worthy turn from Sly and a character arc that rings true enough to consider moving on without him next time.

Caple, Jr. delivers some of the same grit that made his The Land such a hardscrabble, underseen winner, while also bringing a fresh eye to the boxing choreography. Yes, each round is as unrealistically action-filled as most boxing films, but what do you want, a Pacquiao/Mayweather tap-dance?

No, you want to applaud the good guy knocking the evil Russian’s mouthpiece out while you cheer like it’s Cold War Reunion Night at TGI Fridays, and Caple, Jr. makes sure you will.

It doesn’t hurt when that original Rocky music kicks in, and it’s again weaved into a vital soundtrack subtly enough to not overstay any welcomes.

But beyond all the button pushing, sentiment and nostalgia are characters, and this all falls like a tomato can in the fist round if we don’t have reason to care about them. We still do.

Gotta fly now.

 





Say It Loud

Black Panther

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Ryan Coogler’s stunning first feature, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, proved his instincts as a storyteller. It also made apparent the force of nature that is Michael B. Jordan. That the two could go on just two years later to craft the fresh and vibrant Creed from the tired Rocky franchise showed that the blockbuster was as much in their mastery as the indie drama.

But a Marvel superhero action flagship? That’s Big. Big budgets. Big canvas. And with Black Panther, big expectations. Are Coogler and Jordan up to the challenge?

Hell yes.

Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Coogler, co-star Jordan and the stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger. And now, we need to re-think what these films are capable of.

The action—whether air battles, hand-to-hand or via car chase—is breathtaking.

Wielding a palette of colors and visuals unseen to this point inside the MCU—this set design is glorious, situating a SciFi tech metropolis easily within a world that still embraces ancient tradition, an isolated world that evolved in its own course rather than being led by the evolution of the world outside. Wakanda looks unlike anything we’ve seen in the Marvel Universe or any other.

Not a minute of the film is wasted. Coogler manages to pack each with enough backstory, breathless action, emotional heft and political weight to fill three films.

The cast shines from the top down, but there are some stand-outs.

Chadwick Boseman, all gravitas and elegance, offers the picture perfect king—one who’s respectful of tradition yet still ready to open his eyes to the plight of his brothers outside his hidden nation of Wakanda.

Side note: is there anyone more effortlessly badass than Danai Gurira? Trick question, there is no question—the answer is no. And though she has remarkable range (if you haven’t seen her 2013 indie Mother of George, give yourself that gift today), her General Okoye is here for the beat down.

Lupita Nyong’o is also characteristically excellent in the role of the conscience-driven liberal. In a scene where she expects Gurira’s general to commit what amounts to treason, Coogler expertly reinforces an amazingly well-crafted theme mirrored in other pairings: the friction between surviving by force or by conscience.

This theme is most clearly outlined by the conflict between Boseman’s King T’Challa and his new nemesis, Jordan’s Killmonger.

Michael B. Jordan, people.

Coogler hands this actor all of the most difficult lines. Why? Because it is material a lesser actor would choke on, and Jordan delivers like a perfectly placed gut punch. He sets the screen on fire, and though every single performance in this film is excellent, Jordan exposes the artifice. His castmates are in a Marvel superhero movie. Jordan is not. Instead, he is this rage-filled, broken, vengeful man and he is here to burn this world to the ground.

His scenes with Boseman provide a cunning twist on the battle between a struggling hero and his evil twin. Usually a tired staple of sequeldom, BP adds an undercurrent of Shakespearean drama to the inevitable showdown of two characters who could easily represent the dueling inner conflict of one.

Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.

Blistering social commentary, brilliant escapist fantasy, eye-popping visual wonder—Black Panther has it all.

Your move, every other superhero.

 





For Your Queue: First Time Filmmakers Demanding to be Seen

 

Available today is new filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s impressive debut Fruitvale Station, telling the tragic story of Oscar Grant with the help of an award-worthy lead turn from Michael B. Jordan. Coogler’s evenhanded telling and his cast’s spontaneity and authenticity give the tale a fitting naturalism, but the film will be remembered as a look at two phenomenal young talents.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crMTGCCui5c

Likewise, Dee Rees’s 2011 drama Pariah introduced an incisive and compelling new filmmaker with the story of an urban youth just trying to find a way to thrive. Also like Fruitvale, the film owes its power to a revelatory central performance. Adepero Oduye rings not a single false note as a 17-year-old coming out and finding her stride.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vlc0SZYnoMc





Countdown: Best Underseen Films of 2013

Today we pay tribute to the most fabulous movies that no one saw in 2013. If you, too, missed them, don’t be too hard on yourself. Some were hard to find, some had such short runs that if you blinked, you missed them in theaters. But here’s your chance to make amends. Seek these out as part of your new year’s resolution to watch something awesome. They are sometimes bloody, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, always intriguing, fresh and memorable. We give you the most tragically underseen films of 2013.

5. Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to Drive offers a nightmarish, polarizing vision of the revenge thriller. The near-silent Ryan Gosling leads a cast of misfits and miscreants (and worse) through a bloody piece of nastiness in Bangkok. It’s a visual, aural feat of wonder creating a dreamlike hellscape. The one-dimensional characters and lurid story guarantee you will either love it or hate it, but you will not forget it easily.

4. Much Ado about Nothing

Joss Whedon proves he can do basically anything as he spins the Bard’s classic comedy. Giving Shakespeare a modern-day treatment trips up many great filmmakers, but Whedon takes it in stride, employing a game cast to create a playful, satisfying romp.

3. Mud

The forever underseen filmmaker of extraordinary talent Jeff Nichols follows up his bewilderingly wonderful Take Shelter with this Huck Finn style tale. Matthew McConaughey excels as the man-child fugitive befriending a couple river rats interested in adventure. The result is a lovely journey of lost innocence and a vanishing American lifestyle.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv30J05U2nI

2. Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s impressive feature debut offers a powerful and superbly acted account of the tragic death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant. Michael B. Jordan’s revelatory lead performance deserves to be in the Oscar conversation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMrAH_rO_fM

1. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

No one saw this movie, which is a tragedy given all the film has to offer. The aching romantic drama boasts exceptional performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster as well as understated writing and exquisite photography. It’s an overlooked gem of rare beauty – one worth finding.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjR3DLatrFg





A Powerful Kick in the Gut

by George Wolf

 

If you don’t already know the true story behind Fruitvale Station, just make it a point to see this touching, powerful, superbly acted film, and read no further.

It concerns the tragic death of Oscar Grant, shot dead at the age of 22 by Bay Area transit police on the first day of 2009. A sad and needless incident, it arrives on the screen as a remarkably assured feature debut from writer/director Ryan Coogler.

Himself a native of the Bay Area, Coogler strikes the perfect tone to tell Grant’s story, eschewing easy grandstanding in favor of a personal, intensely intimate approach. Shot on location in Oakland, much of the film has a verite feel, presenting Grant as a flawed, dimensional character, a real human being living a life we just happen to drop into.

Coogler’s storytelling is so casual and free of pretension that it could have backfired, failing to hold an audience’s attention. His genius move is to open the film with (be warned) the shocking cell phone video of Grant’s actual shooting, thus giving the dramatic narrative that follows it a quiet sense of foreboding, as each minute takes us closer to the unfortunate turn of events that took Grant’s life.

In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan (The Wire) is simply a revelation. His nuanced performance shows us Grant’s soul, making it nearly impossible not to be moved by his fate. The supporting cast, most notably Melonie Diaz as Grant’s girlfriend and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as his mother, matches Jordan in equally heartbreaking fashion. The entire ensemble, top to bottom, is first rate.

A sure contender this upcoming awards season, Fruitvale Station becomes so eloquently universal precisely by remaining so personal. Though indeed an account of a young black man gunned down by a white security officer, the film’s only agenda is to tell Grant’s story, not manufacture a martyr.

In doing so, an impressive new filmmaker has delivered an important kick to the gut that you won’t shake for days.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars