About Kyle

My name is Kyle, and I'm just your average aspiring journalist who loves film and pop culture. Like, a lot. Seriously, it's unhealthy. This blog is the only thing that can make me well again.

Black Panther review

There was a time in not-so-distant film history when making a comic-based superhero movie would have been a major gamble. Think about movies like Tim Burton’s Batman, Dick Tracy or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series. But, in the span of little more than a decade, a superhero movie seems like one of the surest bets in Hollywood. Even seemingly unmarketable properties like Guardians of the Galaxy or Doctor Strange have seen incredible critical and commercial success.

The ubiquity of the superhero sub-genre is an obvious win for Hollywood studios, but a potential hazard for movie fans. After all, what quicker way is there to spoil innovation and risk then the promise that sticking to the status quo will result in mountains of money? Marvel Studios, the Disney-owned harbinger of the modern comic book film era, has found itself at this crossroads in recent years, cranking out so many sequels and mash ups that the movies start to blur together. Their projects can sometimes feel as though they were directed by committee, rather than guided by any distinct artistic vision.

Then, something, well, marvelous happened. The juggernaut studio started to give its franchises to successful independent filmmakers, the kinds of unique voices who in most circumstances probably wouldn’t step anywhere near a superhero flick. This risk has paid off handsomely, resulting in a renaissance of sorts within the Marvel brand. Think of the hallucinatory insanity of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, or Taika Waititi’s comedically subversive Thor: Ragnarok. An easy addition to that list: Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s riotous and engrossing new movie, one that takes the Marvel brand and pushes it to new heights, resulting in one of the finest comic book flicks ever made.

Part of what makes Black Panther stand out is the fact that it doesn’t really feel like a Marvel movie at all. Sure, there are some returning characters and references to the events of Captain America: Civil War, but they are in service to a story that reaches far deeper than most comic-based fare. This is one of the only Marvel flicks that feels like it takes place in the real world.

We catch up with the panther, aka T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he prepares to take the throne after the death of his father, T’Chaka in Civil War. He returns to the African kingdom of Wakanda, hidden from the outside world for centuries and filled with futuristic technology gifted to the people when a meteor containing the indestructible metal vibranium crashed to earth centuries earlier. The kingdom of Wakanda ranks with Asgard, the home of Thor, as the most fully realized and visually stunning locales in the MCU. Its deep hues of blue and purple contain a fascinating mix of high tech and African tribalism, where high-speed bullet trains and remote-controlled spaceships can exist alongside African tribal divisions, complete with colorful garb and other identifiers such as piercings, lip discs and dreadlocks.

T’Challa returns to this complex ecosystem to perform in the ceremony where he will be crowned king of Wakanda. He is joined by his grieving but proud mother (Angela Bassett), his tech wizard sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), potential love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and a royal entourage that also doubles as a who’s-who of great black actors (Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker and Florence Kasumba, to name a few).

But T’Challa’s new rule is soon thrown into chaos, as the Wakandans race to stop some of their vibranium from falling into the hands of mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, in full un-CG’d glory) and a mysterious outsider who goes by the name Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has his own reasons for wanting Wakandan technology to be unleashed upon the world. Such sentiment stirs up conflict among the Wakandans; with their people being oppressed around the globe, might it not be wise to share this wonderous technology with others of African descent and take up arms against anyone who would oppress or demean their people?

Black Panther transcends its genre trappings thanks to excellent acting and a profoundly social conscience.

The conflicts at the center of Black Panther are incredibly compelling, and they’re conflicts that director Coogler has taken an interest exploring throughout his body of work (his first two films were Fruitvale Station and Rocky franchise re-starter Creed). Tradition versus progress. Isolationism versus globalism. Peaceful, political protest versus violent revolt. The films touch deeply on subject matter that matters more to black communities than ever, and the result could not be timelier. It’s amazing that a superhero film with a predominately black cast would seem so revolutionary in 2018, but then again it we didn’t get a Wonder Woman movie until last year.

But the film is more than just a showcase for great black actors; it’s also a film that is boldly, unapologetically African. From the vibrant costume and makeup design to the pulsating tribal score and Rachel Morrison’s gorgeous cinematography, this is the very rare blockbuster that aesthetically embraces the black experience, and that makes it completely refreshing in a film universe that has been sadly lacking in diversity.

Thankfully, the film sails past simple eye candy. Like Marvel’s terrific Netflix series Luke Cage, it tackles head-on modern issues of black identity such as racial injustice and absentee fathers. I don’t know that a superhero flick has felt this necessary since The Dark Knight encapsulated America’s post-9/11 anxieties, and that potent realism helps the film to feel thrillingly current and alive.

Speaking of lively, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Black Panther features some of the finest acting seen in the sub-genre. You can tell the actors knew they were making more than a fun popcorn flick: they were making something important, and it shows. I love Danai Gurira’s work on The Walking Dead, but her ferocious warrior Okoye is a marvelous creation on a whole different level. Particular praise should also go to Letitia Wright, whose Shuri should an inspiration to black women everywhere. Here’s a gorgeous young woman who is also a super-genius, leagues ahead of, say, Tony Stark; the implication that the Wakandans are the holders of ultimate knowledge and power is a brilliant and liberating reversal of reality, when black people are often the ones in positions of vulnerability.

But the highest praise must go to the main leads. Boseman’s Panther was a highlight of Civil War, and here he’s given the depth he deserves. Boseman is an amazing actor who always seems to give his all to his work, and that shows here. T’Challa is a fascinatingly complex hero, burdened with a responsibility he doesn’t quite know how to bear, and often brought to his knees by his perceived failures. The brilliant Michael B. Jordan gives us the best villain in the MCU. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole easily side-step Marvel’s villain problem by making Killmonger equal parts ferocious and vulnerable. His motivations are complex but understandable, and he’s the victim of an egregious past wrong that ignites the central conflict and gains the character a certain amount of sympathy. There were times when I felt I sided more with Killmonger’s perspective than T’Challa’s, and that’s a remarkable step in the right direction, especially when you have an actor as good as Jordan in front of the camera.

If there’s a complaint to level at the film, it’s a minor one, and one of preference. It’s easy to see that Coogler and company put less priority the traditional superhero antics and action scenes than they did the story, characters and social parallels. In my mind, that’s an easily acceptable trade, especially because any shmuck can blow stuff up. And yet, apart from an awesome car chase sequence, the film lacks the gorgeously choreographed action of Thor: Ragnarok or the epic scale of the Captain America series. For a film with this much on its mind and heart, I can accept a downgrade when it comes to the action, but Marvel fans looking for extremely memorable fight sequences might be a tad disappointed.

Despite being based upon a decades-old property, Black Panther is very much a movie of the moment. In all the ways that count, it’s the finest example of its sub-genre since The Dark Knight. It’s vibrant, searing, and just plain fun. But even its most superfluous moments are cut with the undercurrent of profound social commentary that binds the film together. Coogler and company have crafted something special and, in some ways, groundbreaking here. There’s a new king in town, and I say “hail, hail!”

The top 10 films of 2017

In many ways, the past year was a tough one for Hollywood. Audiences felt sequel fatigue, as many would-be blockbusters tanked at the box office. And, who could forget the sexual harassment and abuse scandal that roared through the entertainment industry, taking down giants such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey (and inspiring the genuinely stirring “time’s up” movement across the industry).

And yet, look past the ugliness and disappointment and you’ll come to an irrefutable fact: 2017 was a fantastic year for quality films, ones that moved us, entertained us and pushed the art form forward in more ways than one. I, for one, prefer to focus on all the good things movies brought us over the year.

If there’s a theme to this year’s best films, it’s marginalization. Specifically, the way marginalized individuals and groups bond and find comfort and solace in one another when the world has left them behind. In a year so immensely divisive along so many different lines, the cinema was once again a place we could go to remind ourselves that we as a species have more in common with one another, then we think; all those things that touch the core of who we are: our dreams, our visions, our compassion and our ability to endure through the harshest of life’s struggles. And what a beautiful struggle it is. Without further ado, here are my favorite films released in 2017.


Finally! I’m a huge fan of comic based movies, and I’ve been itching to include one in my list for a few years now. This year, there were so many good ones I had to pick two. Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? All aces. But the best superhero movies are ones that went to some surprising places, pushing the sub-genre to new heights. Wonder Woman offered us a long-awaited great DC flick by finally giving one of the world’s best heroes her cinematic due. Part of what makes the movie great is its old-fashioned superb craftmanship. This is sold storytelling all around, from warrior Diana’s engaging origins to her incredibly compelling internal conflict as a god among mortals. Are humans, often so cruel to one another and riddled with sin, even worth saving? It’s a compelling conundrum, and one that’s given full weight. Such grand themes are bolstered by some truly jaw-dropping action sequences, along with fine supporting performances and a rich embodiment of the legendary hero courtesy of Gal Gadot. After decades of being relegated to supporting roles, young girls and women now have a leading big-screen hero that looks like them. That alone is enough for Wonder Woman to earn this spot; the fact that it’s the best superhero flick in years is the jewel in the crown. Long live the queen!

Logan, on the other hand, is anything but a traditional superhero flick. It’s right there in the title: Logan is no longer Wolverine, but a man who has seen too many lifetimes, broken and caring for an ailing Professor Xavier. This is ultimately a tale of redemption for the legendary hero, played for the supposed last time by Hugh Jackman, who embodies Logan with his trademark mix of deep existential sadness and feral rage. Tragic events lead Logan and Xavier on a road trip of sorts with a mysterious young mutant (a revelatory Dafne Keen), and immaculately staged (and incredibly bloody) chaos follows. Logan takes more than a few risks: it’s dark, violent and mostly devoid of hope. And yet, it’s a powerful tale of legacy and what it means to live a life worthy of being remembered for. Director James Mangold did an incredible job of framing Logan’s journey through the lens of the classic western Shane—the lonely gunslinger who blows into town, saves the day and disappears, never to be seen again. Connecting to such classic pedigree is a risky move in a film full of them, but Logan earns it every step of the way. And yet, it’s the performances that seal the deal here. Watch this film and tell me if Jackman or Patrick Stewart have ever been better. Certainly not in these roles, but these might be career best performances from both. Rarely are comic book flicks made with this much passion, energy and sheer ballsy storytelling.


Like a bat out of hell, Edgar Wright’s funny, thrilling, completely charming and engrossing action film comes roaring down the tracks, offering some of the finest car chases ever put to film. Wright is an impeccably detailed craftsman, and every frame here oozes his trademark attention to detail and passion: specifically, his passion for music. Baby Driver has one of the most impressive soundtracks of all time, even more so because the music is more than background noise: it’s a central character in the film. Scenes are edited to work in tandem with the music, creating something that could be called as much a musical as it could a heist flick. And, giving getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) a hearing condition that draws him even closer to music, and you have a perfect fusion of sound and image. Thankfully, the story’s good too, as is the acting from a stellar cast (Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm and Lily James, to name a few). This is a fun, crazy ride from one of cinema’s most talented and distinct voices. It should not be missed.


Man, this was a bangin’ year for science fiction. So great, in fact, that I had to call a three-way tie. Each of these films took established franchises we thought had seen their best days and injected new life into them, showing that the right mix of filmmaker and property can work wonders. Arrival director Denis Villeneuve has his second sci-fi classic for the second year in a row, as the gorgeous Blade Runner: 2049 more than lived up to its stellar pedigree, giving us a profound meditation on what it means to be human. This is one of the most stirring and visually stunning films I’ve seen on a big screen. Also, give Roger Deakins a damn Oscar already; his cinematography is so great here I feel like it should hardly be viewed with mortal eyes.

Rian Johnson did a similarly bang-up job with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, giving us a complex look at legacy and the temptations that power brings. This movie brings together the most profound themes of the storied franchise while never skipping on the crackling action and hearty humor that has always defined Star Wars. More importantly, Johnson took some huge creative risks by providing controversial answers to questions that have long plagued Star Wars fandom. Naturally, he received more than a little backlash, from many of the same folks who decried The Force Awakens for not taking enough risks. For those fans who aren’t impossible to please, this is the best film in the series since the original trilogy. While that’s not a particularly high hurdle to jump, The Last Jedi is more than that. Take a look at Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Here’s a man once filled with hope, broken by the evil he has seen and looking for a reason to care again. It’s a complex portrait, and Hamill’s best performance he’s ever given. Seeing Rey’s and Kylo’s journeys take some surprising turns is equally thrilling, as are the mind-blowing and beautifully shot action scenes, headlined by a lightsaber fight that will easily go down as a franchise great. The Last Jedi is tragic, thrilling, emotional, and completely engrossing for the majority of its lengthy 150-minute run time. The force is indeed strong with this one.

Another filmmaker who’s done an extraordinary job steering the ship of a newly revived franchise is Matt Reeves, who saved the best of this modern Apes trilogy for last. This is one of the most satisfying trilogies in sci-fi history, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a stirring conclusion. Anchored by a soulful performance from Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar, this is big-hearted blockbuster filmmaking, tackling themes like racism, poverty and war with an extremely deft hand. If that’s not the kind of finesse you’d expect from a series about talking monkeys, then you don’t know this franchise very well. Add in a great supporting cast of creatures (Steve Zahn’s “bad ape” is too damn adorable for words), groundbreaking visual effects and a sensational baddie (Woody Harrelson’s colonel) and you have yourself one heck of a capper to a pretty amazing trilogy. I’d be more than down for future films in this intriguing universe.


In a year filled with poignant studies of American race relations, Dee Rees’ sensitive, soulful drama stands out for its deeply felt characters, heartfelt emotional timbre and breathtaking visuals. Rees takes us deep inside the WWII-era south, where white and black farmers live next to each other, sharing land and socioeconomic status. This is, unsurprisingly, not always a harmonious arrangement. A standout ensemble cast breathes life into the project, including Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Jonathan Banks. But the most moving relationship is that between Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), two soldiers of different skin color who return from the war and bond over their experiences, sparking a friendship that is unlikely to thrive in such racially divisive times. Rees’ work feels like a Terrence Malick film at times, as it jumps between character perspectives to give us a complex look at the American south, a place that hardly seems like it ever existed. But, like all essential history, Mudbound reminds us that yes, indeed, people and attitudes like this were here, and not so long ago. In some ways, we haven’t come as far as we think from those dark days, and that startling and necessary realization could not come in a stronger, more soulful package.


What a profound, moving, surprising film this is. Writer-director Martin McDonagh took a rather abrupt turn from the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths to bring us a complex dark satire that deftly tackles such volatile topics as racism, police brutality, grief and the power of forgiveness. Frances McDormand gives a powerful, career-best performance as Mildred, a grieving mother who resorts to drastic measures to spur the police over their perceived inaction to catch her daughter’s rapist and killer. She soon butts heads with police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and overtly racist officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, never better). Apart from its great cast and pitch-perfect script, the film soars thanks to the way it flips so many of our biases and prejudices on their heads. There are no villains here, but there are lots of broken people. Every character makes wrong decisions that hurt others, but they are also all sympathetic. The film’s ending is perhaps the best of any film released this year; it’s unexpected, and one of the most moving looks at the power of forgiveness and the limitations of revenge I’ve seen. These characters are people I enjoy spending time with, and I didn’t want the movie to end. Like a satisfying novel, there are so many more stories I’d love to see in this richly realized world.


Of all the films in 2017 that explicitly addressed modern race relations in America, none was more brilliantly conceived or timely than Jordan Peele’s sensational directorial debut. Through the trappings of a horror film, Peele paints an insightful picture of what the black experience might look like if taken to its extreme. Centered around Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her posh liberal parents at their lavish estate, Get Out is memorable not only because it’s a sterling example of its genre, but because Peele understands so acutely that racism is not always KKK rallies and prejudiced hiring practices. Often, it’s the little things that build to something larger, the casual asides, the small preconceived notions and misconceptions. The film’s climax is genuinely disturbing, and watching it again is a joyous opportunity to recognize how almost every conversation, every glance or casual chuckle points to the dark implications of its final moments. This is a flat-out great movie, the kind so adept at entertaining its audience they’re apt to overlook the fact that it’s one of the cleverest and most sneakily subtle morality tales in modern cinema. I can’t wait to see what Peele does next, but I’m certainly strapped in for the ride.


Greta Gerwig is another actor that made the jump to directing in 2017, and her wonderful, funny, relatable comedy Lady Bird puts many more seasoned filmmakers to shame. A semi-autobiographical tale about a smart but rebellious teen (an amazing Saoirse Ronan) growing up in Catholic school in early 2000’s Sacramento, the film is one of the most piercing, funny, tragic and insightful coming-of-age tales released this decade. You can tell Gerwig knows her subject: every moment rings true. There is not a single false note in the entire film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching the movie and not finding something they can relate to. Whether it’s Christine’s boy troubles, her college aspirations or her complicated relationship with her parents (a wonderful Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf), we’re treated to a complex and fully realized portrait of adolescence every step of the way. This movie makes me so extremely happy, and it will make you happy, too.


Visionary director Guillermo del Toro has crafted, in both tone and spirit, a true follow-up to his undisputed masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a marvelous love letter not only to classic cinema, but to the outcast and marginalized who stand up for each other and find love in the most peculiar places. Sally Hawkins gives probably my favorite performance of the year as Elisa, a lonely mute woman working as a janitor at a top-secret research facility in Cold War-era Baltimore. Soon, a strange creature arrives, captured in South America by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who plans to extract secrets from the man-fish hybrid (played by Doug Jones) in hopes of using him against the Soviets. Elisa begins to sneak in to peek at the creature, and soon a friendship and eventual romance blooms between the two. She decides to break out the creature from his prison, enlisting a ragtag group of jail-breakers including her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her gay artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and aloof lab scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Its story is simple, but what makes The Shape of Water so memorable is its almost obsessive attention it pays to its visuals. Since the two main characters are incapable of speech, del Toro and cinematographer Dan Lausen tell the story through positively swoon-worthy visuals that nail both a vintage sci-fi aesthetic and a deeply romantic one. In fact, the film deftly juggles a variety of genres, including sci-fi, romance, Cold War thriller, even musical, and it never once drops the ball. But the movie is more than a beautiful oddity; it’s also a passionate cry for tolerance and compassion in a world that deeply needs more of both.


Stirring is the first word that comes to mind when I think about Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus. But that word conjures images of manufactured uplift and fuzzy history that lionizes historical heroes for maximum emotional impact. This is an especially tricky pitfall when making a war picture. But Nolan avoids every cliche this genre could throw your way. First, it’s an inspiring movie about a military failure; specifically, the retreat of Allied soldiers from the Germans on the beach of Dunkirk. Why did Nolan choose to focus on a defeat? Simply, he wasn’t concerned with what we might traditionally consider victory. In the battle of Dunkirk, the world saw humanity at its very best, as dozens of civilian vessels braved dangerous waters to rescue the troops when the military ships couldn’t get close enough.

Nolan brilliantly constructs the film in three sections and timelines, jumping back and forth between land, air and sea. This kaleidoscopic perspective allows us to see the conflict from a variety of perspectives. There’s the young shell-shocked soldier (Fionn Whitehead), the headstrong commander (Kenneth Branagh), the hyper-focused pilot (Tom Hardy) and the fearless schooner captain (Mark Rylance). The structure is sweeping and epic, without calling attention to itself.

Another wise choice was the decision to cast so many non-actors and character actors in key roles. The most well-known actors in the film are probably Tom Hardy (who hides under a pilot mask for most of the film and singer Harry Styles (making his acting debut here; he’s quite good). This helps create the illusion that we’re watching real lives, not actors pretending.

More of the film’s many strokes of genius: the Oscar-worthy, puts-you-there cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, the revolutionary sound design and the incredible score from Hans Zimmer, whose nail-biting music becomes a character in the film, driving its intensity and action. It’s hard to believe Zimmer hasn’t won an Oscar since 1994, but he’s never deserved it more.

Dunkirk is a relentlessly intense viewing experience, but it’s also an innovative, technically astonishing and deeply moving one. Nolan has crafted another masterpiece, and one of the best war films ever made.


I’m a sucker for empathetic filmmaking, the kind that puts us in the shoes and perspectives of people who are not like us and perhaps people we will never meet. There are few filmmakers more empathetic than Sean Baker, whose underrated transgender romp Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone. Baker’s The Florida Project delivers on that film’s promise and then some, resulting in one of the best movies ever made about growing up in America.

Following the struggles of a young girl (the wonderful Brooklynn Prince) and her mother (Bria Vinaite) living out of a hotel near Disneyworld, the film feels beautifully spared down and lived in. There aren’t a ton of dramatic revelations or plot twists, simply small scenes of quite desperation and sometimes joy, as young Moonee plays with her friends, viewing her squalid circumstances through the colored lens of childhood innocence. Meanwhile, her mother struggles to hold a job and deals with the consequences of increasingly bad decisions that, while well-intentioned, put her and her daughter in danger and alienate them from their friends and family.

The only one who truly seems to be on their side is hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, giving the best supporting performance of the year). But he has a boss too, and his sympathy for the family’s situation can only stretch so far. There are no villains here, only broken people trying to live life the only way they know how. This in no way excuses their poor decisions, but it does help viewers like me, so removed from this desperate world, understand why people pushed to such limits would make them.

The Florida Project is 2017’s finest example of compassionate cinema, the kind of film that helps us understand the stranger among us, that helps us see a foreign world that lives on our doorstep. It’s a beautiful, valuable work of art, one I loved and will treasure for years to come.


Runner-ups: There were so many great films this year, I could easily have a separate list. Standouts include The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories, It, Gerald’s Game, Thor: Ragnarok, Wind River, Captain Underpants, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Case for Christ, The Big Sick, Logan Lucky, The Beguiled, Their Finest, Stronger, John Wick Chapter 2, First They Killed My Father

Blind spots: Call me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, Columbus, BPM, The Post, Marjorie Prime, Coco, It Comes at Night, The Disaster Artist, I Tonya, Darkest Hour, Detroit, Mother!, Novitiate, Only the Brave, Battle of the Sexes, Wonderstruck, Nocturama, Molly’s Game, Last Flag Flying, All the Money in the World, The Greatest Showman, Marshall

Ranking the Stephen King adaptations of 2017

Legendary author Stephen King has written so many books and short stories, in such a wide variety of genres, it’s easy to see why a year rarely passes by without some form of movie or TV adaptation of his work. Hollywood’s King obsession has resulted in classic films like Carrie, The Shining Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s also given us experiences we’d rather forget; see The Langoliers, Dreamcatcher or Maximum Overdrive or, rather, don’t.

This past year was a particularly prolific one for King adaptations. We had six opportunities to get lost in King’s dark, twisted and often very entertaining world. But not everyone has the luxury of watching every King adaptation that comes into being, which is why I’ve decided to rank each adaptation from the past year, from worst to best. Which ones are most worth your time? Find out below.

* Note: I have not read much of King’s work, so (with the exception of The Dark Tower), I will be judging the work on its own terms, not in how faithful it is to its source material.* 



Spike TV’s adaptation of King’s 1980 novella (which itself received a fairly well-liked Fran Darabont-directed film in 2007) is one of the more frustrating shows I’ve seen in recent years. That’s not because it’s bad. On the contrary, quite often it’s close to riveting. It’s got solid acting, great atmosphere and decent visual effects. So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s also frequently maudlin, preachy and just…stupid.

An eerie Mist rolls into a small town, and those who remain unprotected from its fumes experience hallucinations and, soon after, a gruesome death. The Mist acts as sort of a righteous judge, one that came before as “the black spring” in the 1800s to cleanse the populace of sin. Or, so says Nathalie Raven (Frances Conroy), who proclaims she is nature’s messenger and that The Mist is telling her what must be done to appease it. The film follows several interlocking storylines: in addition to Raven’s power struggle with a priest who believes The Mist is the beginning of the divine judgment foretold in Revelations, there is the Copeland family, who is separated early in the series; an amnesiac soldier; a recovering drug addict; the manager of a local mall; and Alex Copeland’s gay BFF Adrian.

These characters range from intriguing (Adrian, played by Russell Posner, might be my favorite in the entire show, and the priest character is surprisingly complex and sympathetic) to flat-out annoying. I lost count of how many times I wanted to punch Raven in the face, yet her apocalyptic rambling might end up being the town’s only salvation.

And that’s the show in a nutshell—an intriguing mystery undone by inconsistent characters and an undeniable mean streak. I feel like The Mist often punishes the good characters while the evil ones get to continue surviving. Characters do reprehensible things to each other, and, for my money, the show views them with a much too objective lens. For this, the show fails on a fundamental moral level.

The internal logic of The Mist isn’t even consistent. Characters The Mist seems to “avoid” for unexplained reasons are later attacked by it, with no explanation of the sentient atmosphere’s change of heart. But the biggest flaw is not exactly the show’s fault; Spike cancelled the series after the first season, meaning many of the big questions (such as where The Mist came from) will not be answered anytime soon. I will say the last episode of the season is super messed up and all kinds of batshit crazy. I loved it, because it took risks and went places I didn’t expect. Sadly, you’ll have to sit through 9 sluggish episodes to get there. I might recommend this show if I knew there was another season coming, but as it stands, it’s just not worth it.


Oh man. What can I say about The Dark Tower? This long-in-gestation adaptation of King’s seminal sci-fi/fantasy/western series of novels (Ron Howard was originally attached to direct) has “troubled development” written all over it. And man, does it show. It’s hard to believe such a bad-ass epic could be reduced to such dull drivel, but here we are. The titular gunslinger, Roland Deschain, is played here by Idris Elba, which seems all around to be a smart casting choice. I love the decision to cast a black actor in this role; I don’t know if King ever envisioned Roland as black, but I sure didn’t. His paths cross with adolescent Jake (Tom Taylor), who begins having visions of a gunslinger, a large tower and a man dressed in black. Soon he finds a portal that transports him to Midworld, a sort of hub that connects different parallel universes and realities. It turns out Jake might have special abilities that will help Roland defeat the nefarious Walter, aka the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who intends to destroy the dark tower at the center of all worlds, one that holds together the very fabric of reality itself.

It’s hard to guess who this movie was made for. Fans of the books would notice vague similarities, but the film adds some strange sci-fi elements and plot points that are far removed from the world King created. Those who haven’t read the books will likely be scratching their heads, as the film attempts to squeeze in King’s complex, 7-book universe into 90 minutes. Hey, at least it’s short. 

Elba is great here, but McConaughey seems completely miscast, and I can’t think of a more phoned-in performance he’s given in recent years. He almost looks like he’s sleepwalking through most of the movie, which doesn’t make for a very menacing villain.

On the plus side, the film is nice to look at, and several of the bullet-whizzing actions sequences are impressively choreographed. But, the film’s biggest sin is not that it is bad, but that it is dull. I never really felt connected to these characters or this universe, and Roland’s mission is ultimately reduced to the most generic “save the world” plot imaginable. And, for an adaptation of such innovative, bizarre and frequently breathtaking source material, that is the biggest sin of all.

4. 1922

One of two Netflix produced King adaptations released in 2017, 1922 is a gripping, disturbing little nightmare, anchored by an excellent lead performance from Thomas Jane. Jane stars as Wilfred James, a simple farmer desperate to hold onto his land. His cold and distant wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) is intent on selling the land and moving to the city. In the center of the conflict is the couple’s son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), who is ready to side with his mother until he falls in love. Arlette, Wilfred suggests, would soon tear Henry away from her, and he thinks there’s only one thing left to do: murder Arlette and take hold of what’s rightfully theirs.

It’s a nasty little premise, and the opening minutes of the film are indeed shocking. Thankfully, the film doesn’t relent during its entire runtime. As Wilfred deals with the consequences of his decisions, he begins to devolve into a hellish nightmare that contains equal parts regret and rodents (seriously, this movie has a disturbing obsession with rats).

The film is well shot and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s nothing groundbreaking or mind blowing, and some might be disappointed at the lack of major twists in the story. But, for those looking for a gruesome little thriller, this is an easy recommendation for your Netflix watch list.


Released exclusively on the AT&T Audience Network, this TV adaptation of King’s 2014 novel likely remains underseen. Which is a shame, because it’s excellent. The always-brilliant Brendan Gleeson plays Detective Bill Hodges, who has turned to alcohol and isolation following his inability to capture the Mercedes killer, so named because he drove a Mercedes into a crowd of people, killing many. Hodges is reeling from his perceived failure when the killer begins to reach out to him, sending him sadistic messages and emails. The killer is a local nobody named Brady Hartsfield (a smarmy and creepy Harry Treadway) who lives with his addict mother (Kelly Lynch) and works a dead-end job at a regional electronics store.

He gets a reprieve from his dull life when he begins to torture Hodges. But how far is he willing to take this at the risk of potentially getting caught? And, can Hodges find the justice that has so long eluded him? The psychological interplay between these two characters is fascinating, and both actors are riveting to watch. What makes the film even better is how much attention is given to the supporting characters, including Brady’s mother, Bill’s neighbors and a new friend and possible romantic interest (the great Mary Louise-Parker).

I wouldn’t call this show “enjoyable.” It’s easily the most dark, disturbing and adult of this year’s King adaptations. But, despite some sluggish pacing in the middle, it’s well worth the time of anyone looking for a gruesome, psychologically fascinating character study. If there is a second season coming (I thought it was conceived as a limited series, but the ending suggests otherwise), I’m on board for this wild ride.

2. IT

The second adaptation of King’s infamous “killer clown” epic (the first was the memorably terrible 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry), was a smash hit at the box office, and it’s easy to see why. The movie is a total crowd pleaser, and an absolute blast from start to finish.

The film is anchored by sensational performances from a young group of actors, including Jaden Lieberher as Bill, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, Sophia Lillis as Beverly, Finn Wolfhard as Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as the frequently foul-mouthed Eddie. Together, these friends investigate the disappearance of Bill’s little brother, who’s not the only kid in town to disappear recently. Soon, they discover the terrifying monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a shape-shifting clown who lives under the sewers of Derry, Maine, abducting children and scaring them by manifesting himself as their greatest fears.

This film, which sticks to half of King’s story (the other half, following the kids as they return to Derry as adults 30 years later, is already in development for a sequel), is a well-paced and terrifying affair, but it’s best moments have nothing to do with killer clowns. At times, the film resembles King’s coming-of-age classic Stand By Me, as the kids deal with love, loss and puberty. The writing is impeccable, and the actors bring it home all the way. Derry is a strange place where every adult seems wicked, almost as if we’re viewing everything from the distorted lens of childhood. And that means that everything is a potential threat.

That’s not to say that the clown at the center is nothing to sneeze at. Skarsgard takes a very different approach to Pennywise than Curry did. He’s much more menacing and deranged, which makes him more effective. There are a couple of legitimately terrifying moments that made me jump out of my seat, but that smile of his is something that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Alas, Pennywise, like Jaws, gets less scary the more we see him. And we see too much of him at the end. The film’s horror elements rarely match the perfect pacing and haunting brutality of the opening sewer sequence, but the film’s quieter moments more than make up for its sometimes-goofy Pennywise scenes and occasionally cheesy effects. It’s a fantastic film, and an easy recommendation for anyone without too much of a clown complex.


Netflix’s other King adaptation from this year, Gerald’s Game is an astonishingly effective and nail-biting thriller based on King’s 1992 novel. From start to finish, the film grabs you and doesn’t let go. When done correctly, I’m a sucker for single-location thrillers. They often come off as gimmicky, but this one never does.

Carla Gugino gives one of her fiercest performances as Jessie, who travels to a remote lake house for a little getaway with her husband Gerald (the always great Bruce Greenwood). Their goal: to spice up their marriage with some new sexual fantasies. Gerald ties Jessie to the bed, but Jessie, feeling uncomfortable, changes her mind, much to the chagrin of her husband, who proceeds with the affair. Suddenly, in the heat of the moment, and with his wife protesting, Gerald has a heart attack and dies. Jessie, still handcuffed to the bed, is forced to attempt an escape as time runs short. How long can she survive without food and water, and will she make it out alive?

Most of the film takes place in the bedroom, and everything is perfectly manufactured to give Jessie the hardest time possible. Simple, everyday objects like a phone, a glass of water, a straw and one very memorable dog suddenly become characters in the story, items which, if used the right way, might spell salvation for Jessie. It’s a relentlessly stressful experience, and one made all the better by writer-director Mike Flanagan’s decision to view the story through the lens of a feminist psychological thriller. Both Jessie and Gerald show up as different parts of Jessie’s psyche; one speaking empowerment and one condemnation. Through this internal dialogue, we get a unique perspective into Jessie’s character and her history with Gerald. This turns a very simplistic concept into something much more memorable and engaging. Here’s a woman who’s had quite enough of felling trapped and controlled by a man, thank you very much.

Gerald’s Game is, in its own way, a pretty perfect little movie. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it nails both its thriller elements and its larger social message. I know this won’t be leaving my Netflix rotation anytime soon, and it should be on yours immediately.


The Shape of Water review

One of the many things I love about the cinema is the way it can effectively convey human longing for meaning, for connection, for passion through primarily visual means. Film is, first and foremost, a visual medium, and the best films recognize the old adage that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

Prolific director Guillermo Del Toro understands this film making rule better than most, and his new strange concoction, The Shape of Water, is perhaps his most polished and profound meditation on the power of the moving image yet.

Del Toro highlights this theme in bold font by introducing us to Eliza Esposito (played by an extraordinary Sally Hawkins), a woman incapable of speech since she was a little girl. In Cold War-era Baltimore, she spends her days in rigid routine, riding the bus to her job as a custodian at the high-tech Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends in the world seem to be her sarcastic co-worker Zelda (who talks as much as Eliza doesn’t) and her eccentric artist next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). But relationships generally don’t come easy for Eliza; no one wants to talk to a mute woman, and learning how to do so takes valuable time. Eliza seems to be drifting through life, taking pleasure and solace in masturbating and eating a borderline-unhealthy amount of hard boiled eggs.

But Eliza’s life changes when the mysterious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at the facility with a pod containing a mysterious creature (played by Doug Jones). Strickland discovered this “Asset” in the rivers of South America, where it was apparently worshiped as a god, and now the American government is eager to figure out if it can be used as a weapon to turn the tide of the Cold War against Russia. Naturally, these folks don’t care much for the creature’s opinion on all of this, but Strickland is an especially cruel captor. Humans are made in God’s image, he says, and this thing doesn’t look like any human he’s ever seen. It’s an abomination, a tool to be used and discarded, nothing more.

But Eliza and head research scientist Robert Hoffstetler (the always welcome Michael Stuhlbarg), disagree. Hoffstetler sees the creature as a thing of beauty that should be protected, and, for Eliza, the creature is something more. As she sneaks into the containment facility to see the creature, she forms an undeniable bond with it (him?). Soon, she is spending her lunch breaks feeding the Asset hard boiled eggs, introducing him to music and enjoying the quiet company of someone who finally seems to understand her. But Eliza also overhears some troubling things: it seems that Strickland’s plans for the monster might be even more nefarious, and she soon decides he must be rescued from the highly guarded facility and taken to a nearby canal, where he can swim free again. Can the silent woman, going so long unnoticed, save her friend and perhaps, in the process, find a voice of her own?

The Shape of Water is the kind of film that swims in atmosphere. This is an intoxicating world, filled with deep shades of green and dark, warm tones. Del Toro’s films have always been visually spectacular, but this is surely his best looking film to date. The director reunites with Crimson Peak cinematographer Dan Lausten, and the results are breathtaking. That film was definitely a case of style over substance, but here, the gorgeous visuals are in service of a story worthy of them.

The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema, as well as to the power of nonverbal communication and nontraditional community.

The Shape of Water could have easily been a fairly simple fable, told with visual flair and accomplished style. That could have been enough to make this work. But, much like Del Toro’s legendary fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is seeking something much deeper. At heart, this is a tale about people without a voice finding a way to make themselves heard in a world that isn’t interested in listening. Eliza and the Asset are both incapable of speech, sure, but Zelda, a black woman and Giles, a closeted gay man, often feel equally voiceless and lonely. These outsiders rally together around what they see as one of their own, a poignant take on what a non-traditional community can look like. Few films have more effectively conveyed the existential loneliness that threatens to drown those who feel marginalized. One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place in a local diner over a piece of pie, where a conversation gone wrong forces Giles to confront a heart-rending revelation. It’s soul-searing, tear-inducing stuff.

What really knocks the picture into the stratosphere are the performances. This is one of the best acting ensembles in recent memory, without a weak link in sight. I love Shannon’s perfect mix of menace and humor and Jenkins’ soulfully sad performance. But, this is Hawkins’ show, and she is amazing. It’s difficult to convey the gamut of human emotions without dialogue, but Hawkins does it all with her face and body. The joy of discovering something new exists alongside the sadness and desperation of her deep longing and loneliness. But Eliza is always, at heart, an optimistic dreamer, and somehow, we get to know all of that without her ever saying anything (not vocally at least; she often uses sign language to communicate). It’s one of the best performances in recent memory, maybe ever, and it deserves a truckload of awards.

Like he did with his undisputed masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro has once again taken a tumultuous historical period and infused it with an intriguing and wholly original sci-fi/fantasy twist. Unlike that film, The Shape of Water is not perfect. I feel that Del Toro could have easily cut out a lot of the unnecessary nudity, and the fact that the relationship between Eliza and the Asset is not exactly platonic is…odd, to say the least. And yet, even the more overtly sexual aspects of the film result in some of it’s most beautiful scenes, (keep an eye out for a scene that involves a bathroom and a lot of water–it’s stunning), so the film does a good job overall of thematically earning its more outlandish moments.

For those willing to get lost in its bizarre and beautiful vision, The Shape of Water simply cannot be missed. I’m still not sure if it can be called a fantasy, a romance or a Cold War thriller; maybe it’s a bunch of genres mashed together. Whatever it is, it’s beyond wonderful, and one of cinema’s finest examples of the mysterious cosmic rule that love is best expressed not in word, but in deed. That’s a message we all should pay attention to.

Mudbound review

I have a confession to make. I’ve grown a little weary of “racially sensitive” dramas. They’re often heavy-handed, obvious and rarely convey much of a meaningful message beyond “racism is bad.” But look at the headlines any given day and you’ll see that, in some way or another, we need these stories and these conversations. I’m all for that, but the art that spurs such conversations needs to be engaging and unique enough to continue to draw audiences. Jordan Peele showed how you can make a film about race relations in America while delivering something new and special with his breakout hit Get Out earlier this year. Now comes Mudbound, Dee Rees’ new Netflix drama based upon Hillary Jordan’s novel. Set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi during WWII, the film could have easily been another dry period piece. Instead, it’s a vibrant, moving, essential work of art, one that no fan of film or history should miss.

Mudbound is the cinematic equivalent of a great American novel—epic and sweeping in scope, yet acutely aware of how a single choice can have effects that ripple across generations. The film opens on rural farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) digging a grave for his deceased father alongside his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Tagging along for the simple wake is Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children. Through the rain-drenched mist comes a black family riding a carriage, including Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (an excellent, almost unrecognizable Mary J. Blige). Henry asks Hap to help get the coffin into the grave, and the look he responds with is ice cold. He begrudgingly assists, but Florence doesn’t move a muscle, refusing to even acknowledge the white folks’ existence.

We soon find out this intense scene is a flash forward, but thematically it echoes of things to come. This is a film of people talking past each other, often ignoring each other because to acknowledge someone else, especially someone different, often means digging up something in our own souls that we’d rather not unearth.

The remainder of the film focuses on the relationship between these two families. The Jacksons, it turns out, are (paid) servants for the McAllans, but Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, excellent as always) isn’t too thrilled about having black people anywhere near him. In his world, black folks have to use the back door, should never ride in the front seat, and sure as hell should never copulate with or even befriend a white person. Tensions continue to rise as Laura enlists Florence’s midwifing skills to help take care of her children’s’ whooping cough.

Then, of course, there’s the boys. Jamie McAllan and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both return from the war disillusioned and ill-at-ease in the America they thought they knew. Jamie soon turns to the bottle and Ronsel attempts to push down his anger over returning to a country he served faithfully whose citizens still see him as something sub-human. These boys seem to be the only two who understand each other anymore, and a friendship quickly blossoms. Such a relationship would all be well and good if they were in a different time and place than 1940s Mississippi.

Mudbound is an urgent, essential, skillfully told tale that ranks among the year’s best films.

Mudbound tells its story through layered voiceovers, creating a kaleidoscopic tapestry of voices and perspectives. It’s a technique very reminiscent of Terrence Malick, and indeed this feels like the type of film Malick used to make. Rees, who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams, seems painstakingly committed to ensuring every voice is heard. This is one of the major effects that make the film extraordinary. This isn’t a simple story of poor mistreated blacks and white villains. It’s as much about the plight of the white rural farmer as it is the black man who can’t even look at a white man sideways for fear of physical harm or death.

This is a historically important film, because it does such an incredible job at pulling us into a palpable sense of time and space. It’s hard to imagine an America like this existed, and yet it was not so long ago. Rachel Morrison’s moody cinematography along with the soulful performances draw the audience in and don’t let go. Every scene is filled with tension, because one look, one word, even one moment of silence can change everything.

Particular praise should go to Mulligan, who acts as somewhat of a neutral audience surrogate, and Hedlund and Mitchell, whose characters’ relationship anchors the film’s emotions. Their scenes together are among the most moving I’ve seen this year. A simple conversation between two men who have much in common if you can look past the color of their skin. A scandalous act of kindness, camaraderie and affection in an environment where such virtues are in short supply.

In less delicate hands, the film’s climactic eruption into violence could topple the emotional high-wire act the rest of the story so expertly balanced. But Rees’ hand is so deft, her characters so richly drawn, that I was more than willing to go with it.

Mudbound is a tough, gritty, tragic film, but its ending is unexpectedly hopeful and moving. It says that we don’t have to continue to talk past each other, that people can change. Actions are ultimately more important than words, but we tend to have an abundance of the latter and precious little of the former. In an America that is still quite far from “post racial,” it’s far past time for that to change.

Dunkirk review

It’s hard to make a good World War II movie, and even harder to make a great one. It’s easy to see what would draw a filmmaker to this storied sub-genre: ready-made dramatic conflict, easily defined heroes and villains and inspiring stories of courage and valor are often the name of the game. But everyone seems to make one at some point, and such ventures are often lacking in originality or new ideas.

With Dunkirk, however, the veteran filmmaker Christopher Nolan manages to make a war picture feel fresh again. He pulls this off with a combination of pure craftsmanship and creative storytelling and sound design, resulting in the best war film since, at least, Letters from Iwo Jima, and one that may go down as one of the best ever made.

Nolan takes no time dropping us into the heart of the conflict (at a surprisingly brief 106 minutes, it’s his shortest movie besides Following, his very first film). Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded on the beach and Dunkirk, awaiting rescue. The British troops can see their homeland across the waters, so close and yet so far away. But the conflict is not over yet: German airplanes are bombing the beaches and making it difficult for any large military vessels to get close. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is leading the effort to evacuate the troops, but time is running out, and he resigns himself to the possibility that only a handful of troops will ever leave Dunkirk.

We also spend some time with a group of young soldiers trying desperately to survive. These lads are played by some very strong unknowns, including Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney and a surprisingly good Harry Styles (yes, THAT Harry Styles).

For a while, it seems as though Nolan is going to have the audience view the conflict mostly from the perspective of Whitehead’s Tommy. This type of painfully intimate style has been used to great effect in foreign classics like Come and See and the recent holocaust film Son of Saul. But it’s soon clear that Nolan is reaching for a much grander scope, something more along the lines of The Longest Day or The Thin Red Line.

Nolan utilizes three intersecting perspectives and timelines to give us a full scope of the conflict. In addition to the soldiers on the beach, we also spend some time inside the cockpit of pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and in a schooner manned by Dawson (Mark Rylance). While Farrier tries desperately to take down the German planes bombing the beach, Dawson is one of dozens called by the military to man their personal vessels to get as many soldiers off the beach as possible.

Dunkirk is a gripping experience, and another masterpiece from director Christopher Nolan.

This twisting structure gives us bits and pieces of the full picture at a time, and allows us to see the same events, such as a plane crash and a sinking ship, from multiple perspectives. This is a risky way to structure a film, and an easy way to confuse your audience, but Nolan is a master at pulling multiple threads without letting any of them go, and his script is air tight and perfectly paced.

Speaking of masters, Hans Zimmer provides one of the film’s most memorable characters. His musical score is an active instigator in the action, providing ominous heavy bass and tight strings that slowly rise in speed and intensity until the effect is almost unbearable. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and one that contributes a great deal of the film’s emotional heft.

Along with the gripping score, the overall sound design is some of the best ever put to screen. I watched the film in IMAX, and I jumped in my seat every time a bullet was shot. Every sound element is designed to drop us directly into the conflict, and, in one unbearably tense scene in particular, I felt like an actual soldier whose escape vessel was slowly being riddled with gunfire.

This immersion extends to the cinematography, which is breathtaking. Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film with IMAX cameras, and the result is a sense of realism and scope that is unparalleled in modern cinema. The camera may have us inside the cockpit of a fighter plane one moment, and then in the air, taking in the beauty of the landscape the next. The claustrophobia underneath the decks of a sinking battleship, as water slowly rises and soldiers gasp for their final breaths, is quickly juxtaposed with sweeping shots of the beach and the vast ocean that laps its shores.

All of these elements combine to make for one relentlessly intense viewing experience. Theaters should post a warning outside conveying the risk of heart failure. The cumulative effect is almost unbearable, and I’ve never seen a war film that has done a more effective job at immersing me in its time and space.

Thankfully, Dunkirk isn’t the type of experience you endure and then forget. Like most of Nolan’s work, it reaches much farther into the guts of what it means to sacrifice. Seeing dozens of civilian boats come to the aid of desperate soldiers is inspiring, but the scenes that most grabbed me were the ones of quiet redemption. Without giving much away, a scene where Dawson decides to avoid telling a rescued soldier the most heartbreaking news imaginable reminded me of the grace and beauty of everyday acts of kindness. There is just as much honor and heroism in forgiving your enemy as there is in saving yourself from them.

Don’t let the July release fool you: Dunkirk is a powerful work of art, and Nolan’s least commercially palatable film since Memento. His contemplative, poetic approach will not be for everyone. In both scale and theme, it very much recalls Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which is my all-time favorite war film. The fact that any movie could begin to approach the brilliance of Malick’s masterpiece shows just what a rare and wonderful experience Dunkirk really is, and what a true visionary we have in Christopher Nolan.

Spider-Man: Homecoming review

Peter Parker sure has been through a lot. Since Sam Raimi’s original 2002 take on the character known to the world as Spider-Man, the wall crawler has survived two sequels and a failed two-film franchise reboot. Now, as an official part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the third take on the character in 15 years arrives on the big screen. Originally introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, this version of the hero, played by Tom Holland, is a young, inexperienced fanboy, one who doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. Holland’s cameo was a highlight, but can this new version of Spidey anchor his own film, especially since audiences seem to have grown so weary of his antics?

I’m happy to say that the answer is a big “yes.” In the competent hands of Marvel Studios, this Spidey manages to be fresh and fun, and offers a different take on the character that is compelling in its own right without copying what has come before.

One of the smartest decisions director Jon Watts and his cavalcade of writers made when re-booting this property yet again was to avoid another origin story. We’ve seen that already. Twice. It’s old, and every time a new superhero is introduced, we’re forced to weather the same old clichés, though often in very different clothing. This film, however, takes place right where Civil War left off, seeing 15-year-old Parker geeking out after returning home from that film’s epic brawl (we revisit some of this through Parker’s adorable home videos). Recruited to the battle by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Parker is now placed under the care of Happy Hogan (an always great Jon Favreau), and left with a high-tech Spidey suit. Parker returns home to his surprisingly hot Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to await his next big mission.

Alas, such a mission appears to be nowhere in sight. Peter waits for month for a call that may never come, and he has difficulty adjusting to the life of a normal high schooler after such a high (homecoming dances and Academic Decathlon tournaments don’t seem so exciting when you’ve met Captain America). Then there’s the normal teen problems, such as putting up with bullies like Flash (Tony Revolori) and nursing a crush on brainy-but-beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier).

But Peter’s alter-ego isn’t staying hidden. He’s out there being a friendly-neighborhood type of hero, busting car thieves and bank robbers alike. His humble story quickly changes, however, when he encounters dangerous explosive alien weaponry being sold on the black market. Thirsting for a truly heroic adventure, Spidey follows the breadcrumbs back to Adrien Toomes (Michael Keaton), a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur whose business took a major hit after his company was abruptly booted from the cleanup efforts of the original alien attack from The Avengers, a cosmic clash referred to as “the event.” He was shown the door by none other than The Avengers themselves, who founded their own clean-up crew in order to properly handle the foreign tech. Years later, Toomes is still holding a grudge, and taking matters (and dangerous technology) into his own hands, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Peter, with the help of his web-slinging prowess, cutting-edge suit and best friend Ned (a scene-stealing Jacob Batalon), hopes to get the guns off the streets and keep New York City safe.

Homecoming borrows as much from the John Hughes playbook as it does the world of comics, and this is a very good thing. The last thing we want is another self-serious, introspective do-gooder. This Spidey is light on his feet, fast and quippy, his voice almost cracking with pubescent, over-eager excitement. Peter is having fun, and we feel that joy of discovery, something the filmmakers smartly convey without resorting to training montages or flights of power-discovery fancy (we don’t see how Peter got his powers, no Uncle Ben or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy). We get the emotions of an origin story while being treated to something new.

Homecoming is a great spider-Man film, giving us a fun and relatable version of the classic character.

Speaking of new, while Tom Holland may not be the best actor to ever sling a web cartridge, he is certainly the most appropriate. The 21-year-old actor looks like he could past for 15 (no one ever bought Tobey McGuire as a high schooler, right?), and he brings the youthful charm and awkwardness that helped define the early days of Spider-Man’s comic exploits. Our most relatable superhero is grounded here by a relatable and charming performer, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Holland takes the character in the future.

Holland is helped by the smart writing, which grounds Peter in real-world issues. This is no billionaire or alien from another planet. This is a kid, dealing with the angst and confusion of adolescence, forced into nigh-impossible circumstances. One of the most impactful lines in the film is uttered by Ned after Peter rails against Tony Stark for treating him like a kid. “But you are a kid,” Ned replies, something that’s easy to forget when Spidey’s acrobatic antics are in full swing. This is the kind of flick that dares to offer its hero a high tech super suit before the plot’s events force him to weather the climactic battle in his homemade crime fighting undies. A ballsy move, but it’s choices like this that help to make this screen version of Spidey the most relatable and likeable we’ve yet seen.

This is still a superhero movie though, and the action here doesn’t disappoint. There may not be as much of it as some fans hope for, but the set piece moments are uniquely thrilling. In particular, a bravura sequence set aboard a Staten Island Ferry will go down as one of the most exciting in any Spidey film to date. Holland is a trained dancer, and his finesse on the battlefield gives his hero an appropriate sense of speed and fluidity.

What really knocks this film up a notch, in my mind, is its humor. This isn’t necessarily a laugh-out-loud knee-slapper (not nearly at the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, anyways), but I loved getting to know these characters, their quirks and ticks and foibles. It’s gentle, amusing and tons of fun, and the most kid-friendly version of the property yet.

The film’s flaws mostly have to do with Marvel’s multi-film world-building. This is not really a stand-alone Spidey flick; much of its plot centers on events from previous Marvel films. If you’re a franchise fan, this is no trouble, but it’s a tad less approachable for people who just want to see a Spider-Man film. It’s not that intimidating, but it is worth noting. I suppose Keaton’s Toomes/Vulture isn’t quite as well-developed as I would have liked. Keaton is marvelous (and quite terrifying), a perfect casting choice, but his motivations aren’t probed with the depth and sensitivity given to many other characters. The same can be said for Aunt May, who doesn’t hold a candle to previous screen incarnations (Tomei barely even registers in this, sadly).

Marvel had to pack a lot into this re-booted Spidey story, and you can tell they’re thrilled to have him on the team (after Sony agreed to share the rights following their own somewhat disastrous re-boot starring Andrew Garfield). Not everything works, but for the most part the result is a rousing success. As a Spidey fan, I appreciated this light-hearted and unique approach to the character. Spider-Man: Homecoming lacks the operatic grandeur of Raimi’s original trilogy, but it’s closer in spirit to the comics. It’s a fast and fun thrill ride, and proof that the ol’ web-head still has a few surprises up his web cartridge.

Baby Driver review

It’s hard to find a truly original action movie these days. The vast majority are some sort of variation on Rambo or The Fugitive. Like songs featuring the word “baby,” they all tend to start feeling the same. But, every so often, the world of cinema is blessed with a truly original and refreshing action voice. Think of Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, The Wachowskis’ The Matrix or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Add to that list writer/director Edgar Wright, who apparently didn’t get the memo when it comes to the action movie playbook. The British filmmaker has spent his career crafting wildly original and completely delightful comedy-action combos like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. His films often combine action thrills, quirky laughs and even some profound cultural commentary.

Wright’s first film in four years, Baby Driver easily overcomes its odd title by exuding Wright’s patented blend of nerdy-cool. It’s also, in all the ways that count, his most accomplished film to date, blending jaw-dropping car stunts with an infectious soundtrack, whip-smart dialogue and memorable characters.

The titular driver is one Baby (Ansel Elgort, never better), a charming street rat and music junkie who frequently indulges his penchant for fast cars. When he is caught red-handed by Doc (Kevin Spacey) during one of his escapades, he is compelled to work for Doc to pay off his debt. Unfortunately, Doc’s line of work is of the…less than legal variety. Specifically, he is the mastermind behind a series of bank heists. Nonetheless, he takes Baby under his wing, and is soon a sort of father figure to the young rascal, who, as a child, lost his parents in a car accident and suffers a hearing disorder as a result of the crash (music drowns out the humming, apparently, so Baby just keeps his earbuds in at all times).

When we meet Baby in the film, he is one score away from settling his debt with Doc and wining his freedom. But his deaf adoptive father (CJ Jones) fears for his safety, and Baby is forced to keep new love interest, Debora (Lily James) in the dark about his shady associations.

Doc employs a variety of experienced thugs to pull off these increasingly ambitious heists, including Griff (Jon Bernthal), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the murderously unhinged Bats (Jaime Foxx). But none is more important that the getaway driver. Behind the wheel, Baby is in his element, a combination of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Vin Diesel’s Dom. He pulls off his final heist in spectacular fashion, but will Doc really let his number one driver off so easy? And will the kind-hearted Baby be able to stomach Bats’ increasingly risky acts of extreme violence? He dreams of riding off into the sunset with Debora, no destination in mind, but Baby soon finds that reality is a bit messier than his sepia-toned reveries.

Baby Driver is a wildly original and completely successful action-comedy.

The thing that immediately draws you into Baby Driver’s world is just how cool it is. Effortlessly so. It feels like Wright and company barely even tried. Considering how many action flicks try and fail to be “hip,” that is no small feat. The film owes its vibe, largely, to the soundtrack. This is the kind of flick that wouldn’t be possible without its music. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie uses every opportunity to let music do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Even more so than Galaxy, it integrates the music into the story in ways both big and small. Obviously, thanks to Baby’s hearing condition, music plays a huge part in how he views the world. This dude is frankly obsessed. Who else would create mixtapes based on samplings of random conversations he has throughout the day? Who else would, after a successful heist, refuse to drive away until the song playing hits the right section?

Baby’s musical obsession also transfers over to the film’s visual style. Several scenes would feel at home in a musical, as machine guns pop to the beat during an intense shootout, or stacks of cash hit a table with rhythmic precision. It’s an editing technique unlike any I’ve ever seen, and Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss should be given major kudos (and an Oscar) for their pioneering work.

The tunes themselves are fantastic, ranging from retro R&B to the current indie scene. Baby’s tastes are eclectic, and so are Wright’s. It’s always fun to see a filmmaker geeking out about something they have passion for, and Wright is clearly the music junkie to end all music junkies.

Sure, the film has style to spare, but thankfully everything else in the film is equally impressive. These are, simply, some of the finest car chases ever put on film, and they’re only heightened by the kinetic energy of the soundtrack and energy. Seeing a sports car drive up a multi-level parking garage backwards at high speed is one for the books.

Wright also assembled an enviable cast, and everyone here is fantastic. I especially loves seeing Jon Hamm’s suave criminal turn into an unhinged psycho, but Jamie Foxx’s one-note, over-the-top baddie is also entertaining. But Elgort is the true star, and here he shows he can be a truly engaging actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his previous work, but maybe he just needed the right project to allow him to shine.

Baby Driver is a fire-on-all-cylinders thrill ride. Much like Wright’s previous films, it can be hard to recognize what a brilliant piece of craftsmanship it is when you’re having so much fun watching it. But brilliant it is. For a good chunk of the film, I was disappointed that the film didn’t feel like a signature Wright flick, but when the last third kicks in, we’re treated to the insane, balls-to-the-wall chaos we expect him to deliver.

There’s no use pretending that Baby Driver has much of a rich subtext or deep social commentary. It’s a fairly simple but engaging story told with no small amount of style. But there’s something to be said about a pure genre flick made with this much passion and artistry. This was clearly a labor of love, and it shows in every frame. From beginning to end, Baby Driver ranks with Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the finest action films of recent years. Don’t miss it.

Wonder Woman review

It’s hard to imagine why it took more than 70 years to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Certainly one of our most iconic superheroes, the Amazonian warrior known as Diana is essentially DC Comics’ female counterpart to Marvels’ Captain America. She’s patriotic, savagely intelligent and fiercely committed to the values of justice, dignity and peace. She’s also no slouch when it comes to kicking bad guy booty.

After the utter failure of female-centric superhero adaptations like Electra and Catwoman, comic fans would be forgiven for thinking that all hope of seeing Diana on the big screen was lost. But then, Marvel came with its rich female ensemble heroes like Black Widow and Gamora, and Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame ruled the box office for years.

But DC Entertainment’s road to Wonder Woman was not a smooth one. Fans began to lose hope after a series of disappointing films that betrayed basic tenets of beloved characters. Superman kills now. Batman is a gun-toting vigilante. I, along with many fans, feared that Diana would be betrayed in a similar way. No brooding, tortured Wonder Woman for me, thanks.

I’m so glad my fears were unfounded. Wonder Woman is, simply, a wonder, filled with breathtaking visuals, thought-provoking themes and a sense of fun and gravitas missing entirely from recent DC fare. Any way you slice it, this summer blockbuster is a home run.

The film takes place against the backdrop of Greek mythology, where Ares, the god of war, slaughtered the other gods in an attempt to take the throne. But Zeus defeated Ares, leaving his ultimate fate unknown. As the story goes, Zeus made man in his perfect image, but Ares corrupted the creation, turning men against each other and fostering hatred and fear. A tribe of Amazon women, living on a secluded island, was tasked by Zeus with standing at the ready in case of Ares’ return.

Into this story comes Diana (Gal Gadot), carved from clay by her mother and breathed to life by Zeus himself, or so the story goes. From a young age, Diana longs to wield the god-killer sword and hunt down Ares, or at least obtain proof of his extermination. While her mother, Hippolyta, does not want her to become a warrior, her aunt, the fierce fighter Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains her in the art of combat. These skills soon come in handy when a British spy fleeing the Germans during World War I crash lands his plane in the ocean just off the island. Soon, pursuing Germans attack the beach, and the Amazons are forced to defend it with their lives.

The man whom Diana saves from a watery grave is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an idealistic young soldier. Diana has never seen a man before, but after the German onslaught, she is convinced that Ares is behind this “Great War” of men, and sets out (much to her mother’s protestations) with Steve to return to the front and take down Ares. Steve, for his part, is happy enough to have an unstoppable badass warrior fighting on his side to hopefully eliminate the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the brilliant German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who has been testing a villainous new mustard gas that, if perfected, could turn the entire tide of the war.

There are certain tropes that almost have to be included in a superhero origin story. Thankfully, the film flies through the typical fish-out-of-water clichés (Diana trying on evening gowns, for example) to spend most of its time on the meat of the story. The film is dramatic but light on its feet and, dare I say, fun. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, DC seemed to start thinking that “gritty” and “dreary” were necessary attributes for all their films. But Nolan’s films set up an astonishing and consistent moral universe, something sorely missing from the dull Man of Steel or the tonally schizophrenic Suicide Squad. Thanks to assured direction from Patty Jenkins and veteran TV writer Allan Heinberg’s dense screenplay, Wonder Woman is the first DC film since to present the kind of stark, good-versus-evil weight that put DC on the map.

Wonder Woman nails the balance between gravitas and fun missing from so much modern comic book fare.

Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ often excellent output, but DC has always had the potential to present a weightier, more compelling universe. Marvel is brilliantly done popcorn fare, but popcorn fare nonetheless. DC, at its best, presents something more, and this is what Wonder Woman gets right where so many others got it wrong.

Diana’s central moral quandary is, what if humanity is not, on the whole, as flawless as she was raised to believe? What if it is not Ares that drives men to be wicked, but rather something deep inside humans themselves? Something that causes them to kill one another, to be dishonest or cheat and steal? Would such an inherently flawed creature still be worth protecting? This is so much more gripping than the humorous fish-out-of-water shenanigans of say, Thor, and it’s this major conflict that propels the film to a higher level than many that have come before it. Everything is given a spiritual, existential weight, but none of it feels forced. If Diana is meant to embody a messianic motif, this is apparent only in the choices she makes; the heavy-handed Jesus imagery of Batman vs. Superman is blessedly absent here.

But the film’s philosophical heft is only one of its strengths. There’s also the performances, filled with marvelous character actors (hello, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) and some of the best work Chris Pine has ever done. There’s a mix of good-humored charm and seriousness Pine possesses that few actors can rival. Then, there’s Gadot. Anyone who made it all the way through Batman vs. Superman know how good she already is in this role. She feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. This comes through in her physicality, her mischievous smile and her expressive face. She is unbelievably marvelous.

Speaking of marvelous, seeing Diana kick German ass is pretty satisfying. Armed with her glowing lasso of truth, her bullet-deflecting bracelets and her legendary shield (no invisible plane here, sadly), Diana is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. The moment where she emerges from the grimy trenches, where the soldiers have barely made any headway in a year, and busts out her shield as bullets bounce harmlessly off of it, is a moment of pure awe. A later scene where Diana leads the soldiers in a takedown of an entire village of German troops is simply astonishing, and should go down as one of the finest action scenes in superhero movie history. The action and visuals are stunning throughout, though I suppose folks who are not fans of slow-mo may tire of the effect. I think it’s used effectively throughout, and, unlike, say, 300, it’s not overdone, but it does occasionally come off as a tad cheesy.

I’m grasping to try to find things to criticize here. There are a few origin story clichés, but they’re easily overwhelmed by all of the good stuff. Wonder Woman does far more than right DC’s rickety cinematic ship. It stands tall as one of the finest superhero films to come along in some time, maybe ever. It’s also proof that the world is ready for female superheroes (and female directors!) as long as they’re attached to a quality product. I say, bring it on ladies, and long live the Queen!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 review

Given the earth-shattering success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, it can be easy to forget that the film was quite the gamble. Based upon a relatively obscure property, many wondered whether Marvel’s galactic stories about a bizarre ragtag group of selfish bounty hunters and wannabe heroes would transfer well to screen. Maybe a gun-toting squirrel and an anthropomorphic tree were just a little too strange for audiences to fully embrace.

Aren’t we all so glad we were wrong? Not only did the original film crush it at the box office, it also earned some of the strongest reviews in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was mostly thanks to the film’s colorful visuals, its likable case of characters and its hilariously irreverent and whip-smart dialogue. But lightning rarely strikes twice, and though anticipation for the inevitable sequel was high, you would be excused for being wary. I’m happy to say that, with a stellar returning cast, writer-director James Gunn’s sure guiding hand and a heartfelt story, Volume 2 is an all-around home run, one that is sure to thrill fans while living up to the pedigree established by its predecessor.

We find our original heroes a few years after the events of the original. They’ve taken their moniker to heart, guarding the galaxy from all sorts of nefarious threats and learning to work as a team after reluctantly banding together. The de-facto team leader is Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), whose happy-go lucky, retro music loving ways fail to hide his unease over never knowing who his father was. There’s also the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), with whom Quill has an “unspoken thing,” according to him, at least. They’re joined by the socially awkward warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), the foul-mouthed raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who has become relatively helpless after being reborn from the ashes of the original intimidating Groot, who sacrificed himself to save his team.

In one of the most creative openings credit sequences I’ve seen, the team is fighting off a large tentacled beast while Baby Groot dances in the foreground. This beast is there to destroy a valuable power supply created by the golden-skinned race known as the Sovereign.

The mission is an initial success, but after Rocket takes offense to the race’s haughty tone, he decides to pocket the golden batteries, which should fetch a fortune. This sets in motion a massive manhunt, with the Sovereign fleet overwhelming our heroes until a mysterious and powerful stranger saves the day. This stranger, known as Ego (Kurt Russell), claims to be Quill’s father. But, if that’s true, why did he abandon Quill to be raised by the uncouth bounty hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker)? And where has he been all these years? As Quill attempts to untangle his complex past, Gamora is dealing with family issues of her own. Her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), still smarting from her defeat in the first film, is single-mindedly obsessed with destroying her sister and everyone she loves. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to the smash-hit original.

If the plot sounds a little overstuffed, that’s because it is. The story is never confusing, but there are a lot of moving parts, and separating the team for a good chunk of the running time doesn’t help matters. The film lacks the laser-sharp focus of the original, and removing a few side characters (Sylvester Stallone’s appearance as a legendary outlaw seems almost entirely unnecessary) would have helped improve the pacing.

With many films, these inconsistencies would be a major issue. But, with a film as off-the-wall as Guardians, it really is a minor complaint. Everything else about the film is absolutely wonderful.

James Gunn proves once again why he’s one of the best writers in film. His dialogue is brilliant and beyond hilarious. I found myself laughing more than I did in the original, thanks to Rocket’s and Quill’s playfully antagonistic banter and a bevy of brilliantly conceived running gags (Taser Face stands as my personal favorite). The jokes are rapid-fire, and I couldn’t recall a one that felt flat. This is the kind of movie you’ll want to see again to catch all of the little lovingly crafted details and blink-or-you’ll-miss-it gags.

In addition to being the funniest Marvel film, Volume 2 stands with Doctor Strange as the most visually engaging. In an era where summer blockbusters feel the need to make everything drab, gray and “gritty,” there’s something so refreshing about a movie with color. From the shimmering skin of the Sovereign to Ego’s Edenic home planet, everything here feels lovingly crafted in a way that effects-heavy films rarely are. One action scene in particular, featuring Yondu’s legendary whistling red arrow, becomes a brutal light show that feels like a true work of art.

Volume 2’s humor makes it good, but what makes it great is the heart at the center of it. Like the original, the film contains characters you will care deeply about, from Star Lord to seemingly minor characters like Ego’s antennaed assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And, as Quill’s relationship to his birth father begins to reveal its layers as he ponders his relationship with his adopted father, the movie imparts a valuable lesson about the importance of family, whatever that word means. Family is blood, certainly, but it’s also whoever has your back no matter what. It’s anyone who would lay down their life for you, who would stick by you until the bitter end.

I’m grateful for this unlikely family of lovable misfits, and I imagine many moviegoers are too.  As long as the Guardians films remain this thrilling, funny, heartfelt and lovingly crafted, I’m on board to witness their exploits for years to come.