Tag Archives: Michael B. Jordan

“BLACK PANTHER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Long live the king.

Black Panther represents a watershed moment for African-American superheroes and Hollywood: a chance to really redefine what an action hero means to people and how they’re represented in mass media. It has all of the elements that makes any Marvel film a great one. It has passionate performances from its talented cast members. Smart character development that makes our heroes’ choices meaningful and consequential. Not to mention its spectacular action sequences that pretty much guarantees it an Oscar nomination year-in-and-year-out. But what makes Black Panther particularly special is the significance of its diversity; its emboldening of marginalized communities by giving them a platform to say what they’ve been trying to say all of these years. It’s one thing to be simply entertained by a superhero movie. It’s another thing entirely to be impacted by the experience and take it with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. Or in this case, Wakanda.

Taking place after the character’s debut in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther now finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as King of Wakanda, a hidden African nation housing the Earth’s largest deposit of a rare metal called Vibranium. After losing his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and sparing his killer at the end of Civil War, T’Challa believes that the worst is behind him and he can now focus solely on governing his people.

He is sorely mistaken.

For one thing, M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the Jabari tribe are in strong opposition to T’Challa’s rule, and he’s committed to challenging him for the throne at all costs. Weapons smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) rears his ugly head once again, as he has an violent history with Wakanda for constantly stealing plots of Vibranium from them. And a shady assassin who goes by “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) has an eerie obsession with the Black Panther and a hidden agenda he has regarding Wakanda and its people.

Black Panther achieves so much on so many levels that it’s hard to pick where exactly to start. I’ll begin with the writer and director Ryan Coogler, who has achieved ground-breaking strides here both visually and aesthetically for this film. Coogler, who gained attention in his earlier years for helming the biographical picture Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed, creates a technically immaculate world in Wakanda, a highly-advanced society that feels removed and secluded from the rest of the world, but also possesses its own breath and heartbeat in the same sentence. The costumes and makeup evoke the feel and tribalism of the ancient Congo tribes from Africa, a culture which at least partially helped inspire the “Black Panther” comic books, while the production design evokes an Afro-futuristic setting that feels like its evolved years beyond any Western civilization could have in a hundred years. And the action? Spectacular. Whether Black Panther is fighting without his armor in a Wakandan waterfall, or pursuing Klaue through one speeding car to another, the action is fast-paced, enthralling, and engaging. I haven’t felt this excited in a superhero film since The Dark Knight in 2007. Yes, I am saying this with The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War in mind as well.

But it’s not just the production itself that’s so impressive: it’s also the story that Coogler crafts here, a humble fable about a king wanting to do the right thing, but is haunted by the sins of his ancestor’s past. One of my concerns going into this movie was how Coogler was going to handle the race element of the picture. Was he going to ignore it altogether and focus solely on the superhero aspect? Or was he going to put so heavy an emphasis on it that the movie became a social statement instead of an action blockbuster? The answer is neither. Like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Civil War, there are heavy themes underlying the film’s subtext, but it is not what compels the film itself forward. What makes this film a great one is that it is a character drama first, and a social allegory second. The themes of institutional racism and prejudice is as a consequence of the character’s actions throughout the film. It is not the action itself. In making its point humbly, it allows the message to be seen at its most transparently, while at the same time not distracting from all of the superhero spectacle going on.

It would be a crime if I did not mention the film’s outstanding cast. They are the best of any MCU movie so far, hands down. Everyone is so spectacular in their roles, so humane and believable in their interaction with each other that I could dedicate an entire article to talking about each performer individually. I would easily campaign for the film to receive a Screen Actor’s Guild Outstanding Cast nomination, if the SAG Awards didn’t play so much to their bases to begin with.

Boseman, of course, kills it as T’Challa. He was great in Civil War a few years ago, and he’s just as great as he is now. Yet interestingly enough, my favorite characters from the movie are its antagonists, which serve as a sort of remedy to the villain problem Marvel has been facing for a long time now. Duke, for instance, succeeds in playing a dryly charismatic bear in M’Baku, and he’s so boorish that I would love to just give the guy a big hug, were it not that he could crush me in one muscle reflex. Serkis is so wild and over-the-top as Klaue, yet that just makes him all the more fun and fascinating of a character to watch. We usually have the most fun in Marvel movies seeing the heroes and villains duke it out over highly-rendered green screen action sequences. I find it interesting that Serkis was just as fun to watch ranting in an interrogation room as much as he was firing his arm cannon at his enemies.

The best of these performers, however, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Part of what makes his performance so mesmerizing is that you don’t really expect a villainous performance out of the guy to begin with. He was one of the super-powered teenagers in Chronicle, Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in Creed. He’s not really known for playing cruel or malicious characters. Yet, that’s exactly what makes his performance as Killmonger so compelling. It’s the fact that he’s coming from a very human place with it, and his motivations against the Panther make sense and are relatable on a personal level. He is easily one of my favorite villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He would have been number one, if Tom Hiddleston’s Loki didn’t occupy my top spot.

Black Panther is a surprising masterpiece. It’s a stylish action movie, an important social commentary, and a theatrical character drama that hits all of the right notes that it needs to all at once. I’ve given four-star reviews for multiple MCU movies in the past, including Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. I would recommend all of these movies solely based on how fun they were alone. Black Panther is the first to be truly profound outside of its Blockbuster value. It is the bridge where art meets entertainment.

No, Black Panther is not the first black superhero to be adapted to the big screen. That title belongs to Todd McFarlane’s Spawn in 1997. Like the Wakandan king himself, however, it seems destined to become the most significant from a long line of predecessors. And rightfully so.

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Oscar Predictions 2015

“The Oscars: the white BET awards.”

                                           – Chris Rock

I think we can unanimously agree that the single biggest snub the Academy made in this year’s nominations was not with a motion picture, but with entire communities. 20 white actors were nominated for their performances this year. All eight best picture nominees featured white protagonists. All the screenplay nominees are white. The only major category to have slight diversity in its nominations is best director, where it has four white directors and one Mexican. To have 42 out of those 43 nominees belonging to a single diversity is just plain sad, and shows that in its own way, we still live in a segregated society.

A strong statement, I know, but the situation warrants it. How many wonderful stories were told this year by actors, filmmakers, and storytellers of color that the Academy chose to skip over? There was no best picture nomination for Straight Outta Compton. No acting nominations for Idris Elba or Jason Mitchell in Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton. No best screenplay nomination for Ryan Coogler for Creed. No acting, directing, or writing nominations for Sicario. No best picture nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The worst part about these snubs is that it isn’t just entire communities that were disregarded: it’s that the year’s best films and performances weren’t recognized at all, period. And it’s not like the Academy’s hands were tied either: they literally had two open slots to include two more nominees for best picture, and they chose not to use them. Tell me, would it have really hurt to include Creed or Straight Outta Compton in there just to ease people’s nerves? It’s not like those pictures are undeserving, and I think people would be more excited for their nominations rather than they were for Brooklyn or Bridge of Spies.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first stupid mistake the Academy has made, and it won’t be their last either. We can only hope that with time and initiative, the Academy will be more fair and considerate of their nominations in the future. From my experience, though, they probably won’t be for quite some time.

In either case, the Oscars are still a few days away, and I still have to predict which movies are going to take home the gold. These are my predictions:

Best Picture: I’ll be honest here: I’m stumped. I’m absolutely stumped. Normally, this is one of the easiest categories to predict from the ceremony, but this year, I’m faced with three strong candidates in the running for best picture. What can I say? It’s been a close race this awards season. The Revenant won the Golden Globe and the DGA award. The Big Short won the PGA award for best feature film. Spotlight won best overall cast at the SAG awards. These accolades place each of them on equal footing in their reach for the night’s top honor. Who’s going to get it?

Considering the other accolades that it’s expected to get that night, my best guess is going to be The Revenant. Read on to find my reasoning.

Best Director: So nine times out of 10, the winner of the DGA award also wins the best directing Oscar at the Academy Awards. Call it movie science. There was only one time this decade where the DGA winner wasn’t even nominated for best director, and that was Ben Affleck for Argo in 2012. Every other winner this decade matches up with the Academy Award winner. Since this year’s DGA winner was Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu for The Revenant, he’s the most likely to win this year’s Oscar.

If he does win both best picture and best director, that will not only make him a five-time Academy Award-winner, but also the first director in film history to win best picture and directing Oscars in consecutive years. It’s an honor Inarritu deserves. The Revenant was not the most action-packed film of the year, but it is easily the most contemplative, compelling, and impactful. It would have been the best film of 2015, if it wasn’t released in January.

Best Actor: It’s already sickening enough that Johnny Depp wasn’t nominated for his mesmerizingly evil performance in Black Mass. If Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for The Revenant, then all it truly lost for this prestigious category.

Best Actress: Ever since Room premiered in Telluride, Brie Larson has been racking it in for her portrayal as a traumatized mother seeking peace and understanding in a new world her and her son are only beginning to adjust to. To take the honor from her now would just seem ludicrous, as she seems locked for the award after winning the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice award, and the SAG award. Brie Larson is primed and ready to receive her Oscar. Root for her come Oscar night.

Best Supporting Actor: Did you know Rocky Balboa himself never won an Academy Award? It’s true that his movie did, with the first Rocky picture taking home best picture, best director, and best film editing at the 1976 Academy Awards. But Sly Stallone himself never won an Oscar as an actor or screenwriter, despite his career taking off due to the Italian Stallion. His time has finally come. Not only was Creed one of the best pictures out of the franchise, but Stallone himself gives one of the most pure and honest performances out of any other actor from the year. Give Sly his Oscar, guys. You could argue he’s just as overdue for it as Leo is.

Best Supporting Actress: I’ve flipped-flopped a ridiculous amount of times on this category, as there are once again three deserving candidates who have good chances at taking home the award. Kate Winslet was concerned and caring as an almost sisterly figure in Steve Jobs, while Rooney Mara was equally compelling in Carol as this star-crossed 1950’s teenager who was hopelessly lost and heartbroken by her love. There’s no denying, however, the outstanding year Alicia Vikander had, who besides starring in The Danish Girl had breakout roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Ex Machina. To make a decision between these three actresses is nearly impossible, but since the SAG award is on Vikander’s side, I’m going with her.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out. It’s not only the best animated film of the year, but also arguably one of the best films of the year, period. Don’t bet against it.

Best Documentary Feature: I think it’s safe to say that Amy is going to take home the award for best documentary feature. Not only has its acclaim on the late British singer Amy Winehouse’s life been top-notch, but it was also a massive financial success, grossing over $22 million at the box office, a rarity for documentary films. Now even though box office numbers have never been a good indicator on how the Academy will vote, it does accurately show the public’s reaction to a film. Since it has fared so well with American audiences, it’s doubtful that Academy voters will vote against their preferences. It’s wise to go with Amy.

Best Foreign-language Feature: Son of Saul won this year’s Golden Globe for best foreign-language feature. Since the Golden Globe winners for best foreign-language films have been mostly consistent with the Academy Award for the past five years, it would be best to bet on that one too.

Best Original Screenplay: If we’re being really picky, I think we can all agree that the best screenplay out of all of the nominees here is Pixar’s Inside Out. However, since we’ve already decided that it’s going to win best animated feature, I don’t think that would be fair to the other nominees if it won in this category too, now would it?

My bet, then, goes to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which is not only the best live-action nominee out of the list, but also the most relevant. Sexual assault is a big problem in today’s country, and one that often gets overlooked. But McCarthy handles the subject with respect and urgency in Spotlight, ushering a call to action to end sexual violence wherever we may find it, whether it be in a neighborhood or a church pew. It is one of the most important films you could see in 2015. To not recognize it for its credibility would be an absolute sham.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Here’s the best thing I can say about The Big Short: it knows exactly what it is. It is an irreverent, funny, obscene, smirking, yet tragic adaptation of one of America’s biggest financial crises. It knows it’s based off of real events and people, and it uses that to its advantage in moments of self-awareness and quirky comedy. While it is debatable whether it is the “best” adapted screenplay of the year, it is without a doubt the most clever. For that reason, I’m going with The Big Short.

Best Film Editing: In order to correctly predict this category, you need to replace “best” with “most.” The movie with the “most” editing is The Big Short, as editor Hank Corwin cuts in between multiple perspectives, cameos, explainers, and B-roll footage that will make your head spin. Does that make his work the best out of the year, though? I would contest that it doesn’t, and I would put Spotlight in its place as the superior. While it had a steady pace and took time to build up big ideas, Spotlight followed through its story with precision and clarity. There was no wasted space in this movie, as we understood everything we needed to know at the exact moment we needed to know it. Such editing is difficult to do skillfully, and Tom McArdle balances pace excellently with this complex, sensitive story.

But I don’t think McArdle is going to get it. Corwin will for his spasm editing on The Big Short, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not much of a good thing either though.

Best Cinematography: Poor Roger Deakins. He’s been nominated for the Academy Award for best cinematography 13 times now, ever since he was nominated for The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 (Which was the year he should have won, by the way). He’s going to have to wait even longer. Sicario looked great, but the best-looking film of the year by far is The Revenant, and that’s due to the pure ambition of Emanuel Lubeski’s scope of filming, with the adding challenge of shooting completely in natural light. If he wins the Oscar this year (which he will), it will be very well-earned. Sorry Roger. You know I’ll be rooting for you next year.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: I don’t see how shaving Charlize Theron’s head and by throwing white powder on a bunch of set extras constitutes a best makeup and hairstyling nomination for Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet, that movie is so far the most popular choice for this award. Why? Because a bunch of desert maniacs spray their faces with silver paint? Yeah, that’s award-worthy.

The Revenant, in comparison, had thrusted extensive effort to make Hugh Glass look like a battered, bruised, bloodied, and stitched-up mess after he barely survived an encounter against a grizzly bear. I would like to say The Revenant is going to take home this award, but considering the legwork Mad Max already has behind it, I doubt that will be the case. Mad Max is going to win best makeup, although I hope I am wrong.

Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell has been nominated too many times for best costume design at the Academy Awards. Yes, I know her work is amazing; that doesn’t change the fact that she has become the Meryl Streep for costume design at the Oscars. This year she has not one, but two nominations: one for Carol, and another for Cinderella. It’s safe to assume that the Shakespeare In Love, The Avaitor, and The Young Victoria designer is going to win her fourth Academy Award from this ceremony. The question is for which movie? I flipped a coin, and I’m going with Cinderella. Don’t make me flip again.

Best Production Design: There’s a difference between the best production design and the most obvious production design. The best from this year was The Revenant, as its set design was not only authentic and gritty, but it was also (and this is the important part) invisible. It blended with its environment. You didn’t notice it as much as the other elements in the film, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to provide the illusion that we are in a different place without making it too obvious that that’s the case. Everything in The Revenant breathed of realism and practicality. That is why it’s the best of the year.

The most obvious is… well, duh. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road. And while I applaud the design of its cars and its scenery, it is not the most skilled art direction from the year. Mad Max made great production work and blew it up. The Revenant made great production work and sat on it, reflected on it, and let it breathe in its own space. One such work should obviously be more celebrated than the other, but since the Academy has a history of naming the most obvious production design over the quote-unquote “best”, I’m going with Mad Max: Fury Road. 

On a side note, Academy members should be frustrated at themselves for not nominating Rick Carter and Darren Gilford’s amazing work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A film hasn’t had such an effect on me since the original Star Wars. To not recognize their work with even a nomination is just plain stupid.

Best Original Song: Well, let’s start with the obvious: the fact that The Weeknd’s “Earned It” got an Oscar nomination over Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” is just plain B.S. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s focus the discussion towards music that’s actually good, shall we? Lady Gaga is undeniably a powerhouse in the music world, but what gives her song “Til It Happens To You” an edge over the competition is how engrained it is in the tragedy of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s combined beauty and sadness creates an urgency of how much of a problem it is we need to fix, and Gaga’s musical influence only doubles its chances of winning. There is a slight chance that Sam Smith can sneak in a win there for Spectre’s “Writing’s On The Wall,” but with only a Golden Globe behind it, that isn’t likely. Go for Gaga.

Best Musical Score: I’m a die-hard John Williams fan. His music is not only the greatest film scores you can listen to, but some of the greatest music, period. He won his first original score Oscar 40 years ago with Jaws, and he’s nominated again for updating his own music in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nostalgic and beautiful as his music is, however, he won’t win this time, and he shouldn’t either. The most likely and the most deserving winner is Ennio Morricone for his unsettlingly sinister soundtrack for The Hateful Eight. His career has spanned over 60 years, writing scores for The Dollars trilogy, being first nominated for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and finally winning an honorary Oscar in 2006. It’s his year to shine. The Hateful Eight’s hauntingly ominous soundtrack still plays in my mind, just as much as Williams’ own wonderful music does.

Best Sound Editing: How do you predict the winner for the Academy Award for best sound editing? By picking the loudest, most obnoxious action picture out of the nominees, that’s how. What nominee is more loud, obnoxious, and action-packed than Mad Max: Fury Road? The answer is none of them. So that’s the one I’m going with.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road, for the same reasons as above. 

Best Visual Effects: Before I make my prediction, can I take a second to applaud all of the nominees? Year after year, the best visual effects goes to the movie with the best CGI. With this year, however, all of the nominees had a greater emphasis on practical effects as opposed to computer generated ones. Rotoscoping was used in the place of green screen for Ex Machina. Ridley Scott grew real plants to illustrate photosynthesis during The Martian. Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu filmed The Revenant in natural lighting. 90% of the stunts and visual effects of Mad Max: Fury Road were practical. J.J. Abrams built a real BB-8 droid for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This was a great year for visual effects in film, and that is because of the pioneers in the industry opting for real special effects as opposed to digitally artificial ones. A big salute to all of the nominees, as all of them have pushed the boundaries for what we could achieve visually for films this year.

Now then, predictions. I’m biased towards Star Wars: The Force Awakens for its innovation and invention, but since a Star Wars film hasn’t won an Oscar in over 30 years, I don’t expect the Academy to break the chain now. No, the award will go to Mad Max: Fury Road for its incredible stunt work and ambitious scope of destruction. I guess it pays to be a little mad after all, huh?

And finally, the dreaded short categories. I never have the opportunity to see the shorts, so I’m always completely in the dark on these nominations. I’m just going to throw out the first three titles that I see: Sanjay’s Super Team for animation, Body Team 12 for documentary, and Shok for live action. Good luck to anyone on getting these right.

And those are my predictions. I’ll see you on Oscar night when Chris Rock rips the Academy a new one. If that does happen, at least there’s one good thing that came out of #OscarsSoWhite.

– David Dunn

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Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

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“CREED” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Donnie’s, not Apollo’s, legacy.

I find it interesting how much Creed lives in the shadows of its predecessors, just like its main subject does. Creed is not trying to be a movie like Rocky, and likewise, Donnie Johnson-Creed (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t trying to be a boxer like Rocky. Creed really isn’t even a movie about Rocky’s rival, Apollo Creed, and it’s just as well because Donnie doesn’t want to be remembered as Apollo Creed’s son. Both the movie and the character are aspiring to leave their own marks on a world where pretty big marks have already been left by key figures from their past. The fact that the movie is trying to do this with Sylvester Stallone reprising the role of Rocky Balboa makes its challenge all the more difficult, but Creed pulls it off with plenty of emotion and style to spare.

You know exactly how Creed is going to play out. Or do you? When the movie begins, you think this is going to be another rags-to-riches story similar to Rocky or The Fighter, and indeed, the opening scenes makes it look like it’s going to play out that way. But Donnie starts his story with the riches, then backtracks to the rags in order to train and become a pro boxer. Why would he sacrifice all of his money and his high-class lifestyle in order to become a fighter? His motivation is not explained until much later, but when it is, it’s nonetheless heartbreaking.

He moves to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky for training, who as you remember from his last film quit boxing and now owns an Italian restaurant. He insists to Donnie that he doesn’t do that anymore, and he doesn’t even want to be involved with fighting from the ringside. Yet, he eventually suspends his discontent and commits to training this new kid for the ring. Why? He never says why in the movie, although I suspect it’s for the same reasons that Micky decided to train an Italian nobody in the original Rocky.

Creed is a hot-blooded sports drama, ripe with all of the adrenaline, action, and emotion that you’d come to expect in boxing movies. Like its main character, it works independently from its inspirations, despite having very deep ties with the rest of the Rocky franchise. When I first heard that this movie was coming out, the one thing I did not want it to be was another Rocky picture. Of course, it’s going to sell itself as a spinoff, but as a film, I did not want it to focus on Rocky, nor did I want it to try and mimic the franchise formula. It’s called Creed. I wanted its emphasis on that character’s story specifically.

Luckily, so did writer-director Ryan Coogler, who approached in telling this story not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Does the movie fall for some of the genre conventions? Of course it does, but the conventions don’t matter as much as the intentions behind them. When Donnie steps into the ring, you don’t want him to win the fight because he’s the main character, but because of all of the hurt and pain he’s gone through up until this point. When he and Rocky talk, you don’t want the conversations to be meaningful because he’s talking to the Italian Stallion, but because the words they’re exchanging are genuine, honest, and real to each other. Coogler succeeds in not only making a powerful fighting drama, but a powerful drama period. He throws quite a few emotional punches in there that I wasn’t expecting.

Of course, for this dynamic to work, Jordan and Stallone need to have the chemistry to make these characters feel real. They have it in spades, and I would even challenge this dynamic to be as likeable as the one between Rocky and Mick in the original. Jordan is electric as Creed, a young rebellious sort who is full of energy, vigor, and passion, not letting any punk young or old telling him what he can or can’t do as a fighter. Do we need to go into Stallone? He’s done the character for years now, and he’s just as great now as he was nearly 40 years ago. Again, he throws a few emotional jabs I wasn’t expecting, but I’ll stop there so that you can experience it for yourself in the theater.

This is simply one of the most motivating films of the year, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. It takes its characters and their emotions seriously. The actors service their roles well and make them believable and real. My only complaint is that this movie has to suffer for being called a “franchise film”, but what do you expect? Let’s face it: the title wouldn’t have been as interesting if it was called Johnson.

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Not so fantastic.

That’s it. I give up. We will never have a good Fantastic Four movie in this lifetime that will do Marvel’s first superhero family justice. We have had four live-action bouts with the Fantastic Four now. The first one was never theatrically released. The next two installments was campy melodrama that should have premiered on SyFy. Now we have the newest reboot, and it’s safe to say this movie deserved the fate that the first movie suffered from.

The Fantastic Four team consists of Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and his adopted sister Sue (Kate Mara), with the third wheel being Latverian computer whiz Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who is an anti-social douchebag that is spoiled, rotten, selfish, privileged, and self-obsessed. King Joffrey from “Game of Thrones” is more well-mannered than this POS.

If you know anything ever about Marvel movies, you know the formula. Person X gets caught in an accident. Person X gains super powers. Person X struggles with said powers. Person X eventually learns to control them, fight the obviously-labeled baddie, and then commits himself to a life of fighting crime. The only difference between Fantastic Four and the other Marvel formula movies is that it’s more obvious with this film. And it’s persons instead of person.

In hindsight, Fantastic Four is not easy to adapt into film. For one thing, their powers are so complacent. A rubber man, an invisible woman, a human torch, and a rocky troll is not the ideal superhero team I would line up to see. The other problem, though, is their comic book origins. Compared to other heroes such as Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, and Captain America, the tone with the Fantastic Four comics is much more lighthearted and even comical. Be honest: can you even keep a straight face with a name as silly as “Fantastic Four”?

All the same though, the concept doesn’t matter as much as the payoff. This movie could have worked. The members of the Fantastic Four have vibrant personalities and character traits that make them both memorable and likable. That’s the reason why Marvel’s first family has survived all these years: it’s because they’re enduring. People relate to them, and despite their meta-human circumstances, their problems and emotions with each other are all human.

We didn’t relate to them as superheroes. We related to them as characters.

That’s a problem for this movie, though, because this movie neither has personality or character. Good lord, where do I begin? When the lineup for this movie’s cast was announced, I was skeptical at first, and I was right to be. Not only can none of the actors hold the screen presence on their own: their chemistry with each other was disastrously non-existent. The cast didn’t even seem to really care about their roles. Every half-hearted expression, every line of dialogue and every motion seems disinterested and bland. Nothing works when these actors are on the screen together.

Teller, for instance, is an atypical and complacent scientist character, a step down from his bravado performance full of passion and drive in last year’s Whiplash. Kebbell is just as forgettable as Teller is, except he’s more of an asshole about it. Mara is beautiful but witless, her character cluelessly wandering about as if she’s there just so the studio can say they’re gender diverse. Michael B. Jordan, who is a standout in movies like Chronicle and Fruitvale Station, appears here just so the studio can say they’re racial diverse.

Side-note: I’m all about racial diversity in movies, but if you’re going to cast two actors as siblings, at least have them be the same race. Saying Mara’s character is adopted doesn’t count as being diverse. It’s an obviously cheap effort to be labeled “racially diverse.” If you genuinely want to be racially diverse, recast everyone as African Americans. Don’t put in a half effort.

But out of all of the actors, I feel the most bad for Jamie Bell. He’s not even on the screen for most of the film: he’s replaced with this ugly gargoyle reject that looks like a combination of John Cena with a pile of rocks. I’m not even kidding, he looks freggin’ horrendous. What were the visual effects artists thinking with this? I get that Ben Grimm is supposed to be this big, ugly figure, but not this ugly. Not the kind of ugly that makes your vomit turn inside out, then go back into your stomach. It offends me to think that Bell was basically thrown into the tracking suit and have his performance replaced by this ugly CGI creation. With the other cast members, they at least have the opportunity to give a convincing performance before they fail. Bell isn’t even given the opportunity to fail. His performance is canned the minute the visual effects artists placed a 3D model over him. You could have cast a stunt double in this same role and get the same result from it: a big, bulky figure that just stiffly sits and stands like he has to go to the bathroom really bad. I haven’t seen a CGI creation this putrid since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from last year.

The movie’s flimsy, indistinct plot is just as bad as anything else is. What is the plot of this movie? Four people get superpowers, mope about it for a few hours, then have their final battle 20 minutes before the movie ends. That’s it. There’s no character building here, no heart, no humor, no unique elements or surprises to this film that makes it stand out from the standard superhero fare. The Avengers was just as fun, if not more so, for its characterizations and dialogue as it was with its action. Guardians of the Galaxy was wacky, clever, in-cheek fun that had a blast roasting itself. Shoot, even the original Fantastic Four movies had more charisma than this. This movie was so downtrodden, so serious, and so stupidly depressing that I felt like I was watching gothic fan fiction of the Fantastic Four. If you thought Man of Steel was too dark for a superhero movie, you haven’t seen Fantastic Four.

This is a disinteresting, joyless, illogical, poorly acted, written, produced, and directed experience. The cast must have heard the film’s whimsical title and wondered if they were on the wrong set.

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