Life’s rich pageant unfurls in Afrofuturistic splendor as gifted director/co-writer Ryan Coogler showcases a mythological superhero swashbuckler that towers over recent installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (A-) accomplishes three simultaneous goals: honoring the legacy of the late Chadwick Boseman and his character as the denizens of the fictional Wakanda grieve the loss of a hero and protector, setting up an absorbing new conflict between nations and sharpening some critical characters on the precipice of critical leadership. Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o lend grace and gravitas as the women delivering emotional and intellectual superpowers to hold their kingdom together. The introduction of a new threat in the form of an underwater world called Talokan led by charismatic mer-man Namor, played brilliantly by Tenoch Huerta, advances the plotting and political intrigue. Although a little bloated in run time, Coogler’s sequel properly nourishes its characters and dazzles with wondrous world building. The below-the-line crafts are flawless, with Ruth Carter’s gorgeously ornate costumes again a standout. In many ways the film is an improvement on its predecessor with motivated action and stunts and weighty consequences. It is an epic worthy of the Marvel monicker.
Bulking up has clearly served Dwayne Johnson well, but his new entry into the DC Extended Universe, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam (C+), is weighed down by repetitive effects, extraneous characters and an overly engineered storyline. There’s plenty of good stuff in the mix including spurts of effective action, but the film rarely transcends its trek into the soggy slog. Johnson is sufficiently slick as a stoic Terminator-type character exhumed from a bygone era, and Aldis Hodge brings delightful brawn and braggadocio to his heroic winged foil tasked with keeping the title character’s powers in check. Bodhi Sabongui is strong as a surprisingly likable young supervillain whisperer, and Noah Centimeo should have been given more to do because his awkward shape shifting character is amusing. Despite some good elements, though, the film’s rarely achieves a fresh or fierce enough tone to make it stand out as an amazing entry in DC’s uneven cinematic pantheon.
The high-flying Navy heroes of a certain blockbuster sequel have competition in this year’s crowd-pleasing movie department in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s handsomely produced epic The Woman King (A). Against the backdrop of the bygone besieged West African nation of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 1820s, Viola Davis plays a fictional general from a real group of all-female warriors called the Agojie and must train the next generation of women to fight an enemy who wants to destroy their way of life. Davis is an absolute force of nature in the role, alternately executing elaborate fight choreography and exposing the emotion behind her stoic soldier stance. Thusu Mbedu is magnificent as a maverick up-and-comer in the brilliant brigade, and Lashana Lynch and Sheila Latim are superb standouts in the squad. John Boyega is wonderful as well playing the reigning monarch with a rousing final act battle speech. Prince-Bythewood depicts the crucibles and counteroffenses of the film’s women with stunning agility; this is clearly the work of women on a mission and offers strong storytelling and spectacle. Without missing a beat of the action, the story also confronts the immorality of the kingdom’s leaders selling Dahomey slaves to the Portuguese; it’s fascinating in the way it fills in some blanks from the history books. Also distinguished by Terence Blanchard’s score and frankly every element of Hollywood crafts, this film promises to be a word of mouth sensation and will please those who enjoyed adventures such as Last of the Mohicans or Gladiator. All hail the arrival of this fine film!
Don’t doubt the mind and might of an 18th century Comanche tribe healing woman or the power of the seventh installment in the Predator movie franchise – a prequel, no less – to surprise with dexterity and delight. Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (B+) turns out to be a corker of an action film set in the Northern Great Plains with fierce actress Amber Midthunder making an indelible impression as Naru, a skilled medic, warrior and tracker protecting her tribe against a highly evolved alien. Although the menace of the sometimes transparent antagonist is absurd as ever, Midthunder (accompanied by an incredibly cute dog) is wholly convincing in her oneupmanship. Trachtenberg skillfully plays with pace and suspense and keeps his eyes squarely on the central clash of Naru and the Predator, a heat-seeking hot pursuit. His tight plotting and action sequences pay off again and again, as grizzly bears and fur trappers emerge in the great wide open of the film’s gorgeous landscape. The film boils to a stunning denouement and closes the chapter of what could easily be just a great self-contained movie for those who haven’t followed the series. This installment is also notable for its representation of Indigenous Americans, with insightful themes about how a close-knit community intersects with a hearty helping of sci-fi horror on the side.
Director David Leitch builds a better mousetrap out of the snatch-and-grab genre on a modern-day Orient express in the Tokyo-set anything-goes action yarn Bullet Train (B). Fond homages to Kill Bill and The Warriors abound as a rogues’ gallery of antiheroes assembles aboard a speeding locomotive with vengeance embedded in its steam-pipe ethos. With unusual chronology and flashes of back story, it becomes clearer why the ensemble is aboard the vehicle. Brad Pitt is the zen protagonist imbued with super-chill talents of snark and imaginative stunt choreography in equal doses; it’s fun to watch a reformed assassin in progress as he quietly observes the folly of his ways to Sandra Bullock in an earpiece while clashing with the cavalcade of obstacles in his way. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Tyree Henry are among the most amusing denizens of the whistle-stop whirling dervish, a droll duo with killer banter. As an elder with manga and martial arts magnetism, Hiroyuki Sanada is another effective standout in the star-studded cast. Leitch unleashes a blood splattered bubblegum hued environment with endless invention, the kind that surprises, delights and sometimes wears out its welcome. Overall it’s gonzo action-packed fun, though, with surprises around every turn.
Director Taika Waititi’s building blocks for his latest Marvel entry include three parts Airplane! style quips and playful pratfalls, three parts romantic comedy and four parts solemn action. It’s a wonder Thor: Love and Thunder (B-) works as well as it does in spurts even though it doesn’t really hang together in a cohesive way. Chris Hemsworth is amusing and swashbuckling as the central hero, although there’s never any real action stakes as he and colleagues march through perfunctory episodes. This installment is largely about the god of thunder regaining his emotional mojo. Natalie Portman returns as a love interest with new powers and an occasionally resonant backstory; she’s good enough to warrant a bit more. As new villain Gorr The God Butcher, Christian Bale is acting in a whole different universe, menacing and maniacal under macabre prosthetics. There’s also an amusing series of sequences involving a convention of deities. The film is often a clever lark, largely inconsequential and a missed opportunity for even more fearless and frolicking fun. This one doesn’t throw down the gauntlet with quite the precision or focus necessary.
The outer space curse plaguing Disney from infinity to The Black Hole, Treasure Planet, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms and beyond has not yet been lifted. Director /co-writer Angus MacLane’s Toy Story prequel/ spinoff Lightyear (C+) stays largely grounded on an uninspiring planet and surrounds its bland titular space ranger protagonist with dubious sidekicks. It’s a missed opportunity given the daffy high jinks and emotional arcs present among Buzz’s creative fellow playthings, and the ingenuity just doesn’t carry through in this cosmos-set adventure. The story surrounds the famed space hero making amends for an unforced error, and alas the series of action set pieces and encounters with vapid villains following his fall from grace simply don’t rise to the occasion. There are several clever bursts, a cute cat from outer space and a few requisite Pixar moments of melodrama. But the film largely feels like a moribund money grab and missed opportunity never approaching the operatic canvas or ambition possible with the great wide yonder at its fingertips. Nobody’s getting a Woody over this one.
Suspend your disbelief and strap yourself in for an unexpected stunt spectacular with equally epic heart. S.S. Rajamouli’s go-for-broke bromantic adventure RRR: Rise Roar Revolt (A-) is the breakneck tale of two intertwined freedom fighters on a mission to save a little girl and discover the bounds of brotherhood and loyalty before ultimately liberating the nation of India from British Raj rule in the 1920s. Viewers must excuse some goofy special effects and cartoonish performances from some of the imperial villains and perhaps learn to relish a touch of tonal shifting and delirious dance breaks while exploring this wonderland of spicy cinematic bonbons. It’s an imaginary account of two real-life Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, played with absolute relish by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. respectively, and a deliriously inventive gonzo action showcase with parkour and pull-ups, a truckful of wild animals attacking a crowd, a defiant mid-flogging song that incites a riot and so much spectacular more. The fictional friendship between two superheroes has hints of Hindu mythology and fervent nationalism, underscored with rousing M.M. Keeravani music. The kinetic emotional arch as the protagonists emerge from strangers to brothers-in-arms ushers in an elaborate series of escapades with shades of Braveheart, Ben-Hur, Face/Off and Indiana Jones (there’s even a role for that series’ Allison Doody as a bloodthirsty baddie). Chances are you won’t see a more joyful set of performances, more delirious derring-do and a more exciting parade of panache on the screen anytime soon.
Brace your favorite wing-mates for some breathtaking ground-hugging film flights in Joseph Kosinski’s precision-guided Top Gun: Maverick (A-). The long-awaited sequel works as both a nifty nostalgia trip and also as a fully developed story in its own right, with vivid visual and emotional appeal. Set nearly four decades after the original film, this follow-up traces the arc of Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” as he returns to the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, where the brash captain must confront his past as he trains a group of younger fighter pilots, among them the son of his deceased best friend Goose. The movie is emotionally grounded with fine performances by the fully-committed Cruise, a tormented Miles Teller, an appealing Jennifer Connelly and a charismatic Glen Powell. The film soars most in its action sequences with spectacularly rendered flight maneuvers, aerial dogfights and surprise stunts deepening the adventure elements. More than the original movie, this follow-up is buoyed by clear-eyed storytelling with less reliance on catchphrases, montages and stylistic cover-ups to a sometimes simplistic core. It builds on the franchise’s might and mythology and further cements Cruise’s power as the stuff of legend. A little overstuffed with underdeveloped characters, the film still hits its dramatic beats with dexterity. As far as Hollywood blockbusters go, viewers will be hard-pressed to find a more cohesive combination of high-flying and heart.
For its singularly violent vision and attention to authentic detail, this historical epic gets a mighty round of polar ice claps. A revenge tale told with impeccable craft, The Northman (B), directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, has dreamy scope and scale but a plot that’s a touch basic. Alexander Skarsgård is in beast mode with an intense physical performance as a man of few words, a descendent of royalty hiding out in a Viking gang ready to pounce into a binge of avenging against his wronged parents (a superb Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman). Between grisly saxon smackdowns, there’s a rather prolonged period of waiting in which Eggers must tread some murky maelstrom water. It takes a pillage of pulpy possibilities as the auteur throws in signature supernatural elements and supporting bits from some of his quirky past cast members such as Willem Dafoe and Anya Taylor-Joy. Claes Bang is also a menacing antagonist. Essentially every primary character gets a really good scream into the camera, and it appears the director just told them to give it their most primal. The divergent panoply of accents, however, owe more to the House of Gucci than the Norse code. Ultimately, fans of ribald historical action will dig this adventure through lands of fjords and volcanoes. The cinematography and art direction, especially in nighttime attacks and a few climactic fights, is stunning to behold. Eggers and acclaimed writer Sjón plum some intriguing legend and lore, as there’s a lot to unpack on this journey.
This is the ultimate film fantasia for channel surfers, with something pretty, punchy or profound to discover with each push of a button. The writing and directing duo known as Daniels have crafted their choose your own adventure inspired epic Everything Everywhere All At Once (B+) as one of the most complex and absurdist mind-trips set to screen. A blissful Michelle Yeoh plays a woman being audited by the IRS who realizes she has the power to exist in multiple universes and must thwart a familiar antagonist hell-bent on destroying them all. Aside from the creators’ meticulously crafted vision, which at times is too much of a good thing, Yeoh is a revelation, alternately summoning physical comedy, familial empathy and martial arts skills like they are hard wired in the game console of her acting brain. Helping her process all the new data is former Goonie Ke Huy Quan, who showcases fancy footwork in one of the film’s big choreographed action sequences and is great fun in a spry ensemble featuring Stephanie Hsu, Harry Shum Jr. and James Hong. Jamie Lee Curtis is also on hand as a quirky clerk with some outrageous pratfalls and unusual talents of her own. Center-punched for stylized fight sequences, ornate set pieces and everyday domestic drama, Yeoh is masterful maneuvering the demands of the black comedy and sci-fi elements alike. The Daniels are gleeful in throwing in every madcap notion, and Yeoh catches each of their creative impulses like juggling balls to keep aloft. The audacity of it all and the pacing ultimately weigh the film down a bit, but it’s hard to argue viewers have seen anything like this before.
Although largely a by-the-books action comedy, Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City (B) is handsomely produced and features Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum each doing what they do best. It’s a lot like Romancing the Stone with a novelist who gets embroiled in one of the types of exotic anthropological excursions ripped from her own fiction. Bullock is appealing in both her physical humor pratfalls (she performs several sequences while tied to a chair and many in a glittery jumpsuit) and in her authorial interplay with Tatum’s dim witted character who is cover model of her elevated bodice rippers and unexpected co-adventurer. Daniel Radcliffe feels like he’s cameoing in a different movie as a caricatured villain whose best sequence involves a whirlwind of charcuterie; meanwhile Brad Pitt is a delight in his brief sequences as a charming mercenary, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph also hilariously steals her scenes as a publicist at wit’s end. This movie handily delivers on its populist fun and sometimes transcends its formula, even as its pacing sometimes misses the mark. Both the leads utter some pretty funny lines under their breath that hopefully won’t be missed in all the activity. Bullock’s character finally gets out of the house, which is an apt metaphor for movie audiences seeking escapism amidst the almost post-pandemic zeitgeist.