War for the Planet of the Apes

I’m usually not a fan of reboots, because most of the time they tarnish the good name of the original. Sometimes we don’t need to bring a film/franchise to a new generation. Sometimes the younger generation should just refer back to the original and learn to appreciate cinematic history. But before you knock me off my high horse as another millennial hater, I can admit that the Planet of the Apes reboot has been pretty solid. The original 1968 film contained a powerful over-arching metaphor in which apes were a proxy for Black and other oppressed people. This latest addition to the rebooted franchise hearkens back to the original with its symbolism and allusion to the darker undercurrents of society.

When we last saw Caesar (Andy Serkis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), he defeated his nemesis Koba after a bitter act of betrayal. War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the reboot, finds the apes under siege from the military, which is thoroughly outmatched by their simian adversary. I was reminded of some of the better battle scenes in recent memory, and the CGI was A-plus. Throughout the movie I truly cared more about the apes than the humans, all of who displayed abject cruelty and duplicity, save for one child. I appreciated that the plot was completely linear, a straightforward tale of pursuit, of hunter vs. hunted. The apes’ morality was a central theme, and there was a clear dichotomy between man and animal.

Caesar is merciful and just, resorting to violence only when provoked and in defense of his fellow primates. He represents a superior moral archetype, compassionately sparing the lives of captured human hostages, an act of mercy that would have devastating consequences for his family. While the apes traverse the Pacific Northwest in search of a new home, they are hotly pursued by a military faction helmed by a psychotic Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) as The Colonel.

The movie was characterized by a somber, heavy tone, as the director eschewed any emphasis on the human element, instead focusing on the relationships and survival of Caesar and his brethren. While Caesar plots against The Colonel, his fellow apes “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn, Captain Fantastic), Maurice, and Rocket travel to their new home. The powerful character narrative and emotional quotient of the movie made it well worth watching, and my only criticism is that it was surprisingly tragic and bleak. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes was a compelling movie that drew me in with an emotional storyline and a thought-provoking depiction of humankind’s inherent, persistent tendency towards savagery and oppression of those whom we marginalize as different. Grade: A


Baby Driver

I expect fun movies this time of year, and Baby Driver was a great way to beat the heat for two hours. At first blush the movie looked like it was trying too hard, but after checking it out last weekend, I can say that it’s worth the hype: every bit as cool as it looks, a rhythmic and stylish ride. Think Kingsman: The Secret Service meets Drive.

Jamie Foxx (Sleepless) and Kevin Spacey (Nine Lives) are featured alongside newcomer Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) as a criminal outfit of bank robbers. Spacey calls the shots behind the scenes, while the field team executes. He never works with the same team more than once, save for Baby, the one constant, always the getaway driver. So nicknamed for his limited speaking, Baby is a reluctant wheelman, indebted to Doc (Spacey) until he works off what he owes.

Sometimes the best way to introduce a character is to throw the audience right into their world. Baby Driver begins with Baby behind the wheel, waiting animatedly while his three cohorts (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez) pull a heist. I’m not saying this opening scene should be considered alongside the great car chases/escapes like those in Ronin or The Italian Job, but Baby’s wheelwork was breathtaking. I was on the edge of my seat as he took turns at ridiculous speeds, cutting his wheel on a dime, his skills a virtual thing of beauty.

I hadn’t figured this cinematic outing would make for a lesson in filmmaking, but I gained a deeper appreciation for score and musicality. Elgort glided effortlessly across the screen like a hipster Gene Kelly, adding a whimsical flair to an otherwise dangerous business. The movie pulsated with sound and music, nearly elevating the aural component on par with the characters. Music was an integral part of the movie, as Baby listens 24/7 to drown out the noise in his ears. We might affectionately dub a tune part of the soundtrack of our life, but Baby really means it, carefully mining his iPod for the perfect song for even the most mundane tasks.

Baby made for an interesting protagonist, a sort of criminal prodigy impervious to the provocations of others. His demeanor is irksome to the rest of the team, as they mistake his unassuming aloofness for superiority, but Baby is just good at what he does. Another highlight of the movie was the burgeoning relationship between Baby and Debora (Lily James, Burnt, Downton Abbey), a waitress at the local diner who catches both his eye and his ears with her own musicality. Their earnest and pure love story had its own mini-soundtrack, endearing in its own right.

I was on Twitter today and saw that Anthony Bourdain bizarrely tweeted ‘Fuck Baby Driver.’ I don’t understand the vitriol. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean it is without merit. Like most of its ilk, it became mired in absurdity by the third act, but overall I still found it enjoyable. Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey’s considerable talents were not utilized here, as both actors were constrained by their characters, turning in less than memorable performances. The real stars of the film are its star-crossed leads Elgort and James, and director Edgar Wright (The World’s End). Wright’s direction, his timing and physical placement of action to coincide with the rhythm of the score, was brilliant. He created an interesting character and put a fresh spin on familiar themes by relying on the magnetism and chemistry of the two leads. Purists can scoff away, but Baby Driver didn’t disappoint. Grade: B+

Rough Night

If I want to see a movie, I’m going to see it no matter what – I’m not dissuaded by negative word of mouth. I’ve gone to see movies that I knew would be awful, like Soul Plane. When I saw the trailer for Rough Night, it struck me as a knock-off of Bridesmaids and very similar to the forthcoming Girls Trip. However, I still wanted to see it despite it seeming derivative. Moreover, I like Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell) and Zoe Kravitz, (Mad Max: Fury Road), who star alongside Jillian Bell (Fist Fight), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), and Ilana Glazer (The Night Before) as a group of girlfriends reuniting for their friend Jess’ (Johansson) bachelorette party in Miami.

Once a hard-partying co-ed, Jess is now an uptight political candidate, a far cry from former beer pong champion. Alice is a teacher, Blair is a wealthy divorcee and mother, and Frankie has become one of those “crunchy,” annoying social justice warrior types. Jess’ fiancé Peter (Paul Downs, Broad City) is a nice guy, but he is about as exciting as a jar of mayonnaise. Alice is especially close with Jess, spearheading their weekend shenanigans. Rounding out the bunch is Jess’ Aussie pal Pippa, amusingly played by Kate McKinnon.

Writer Lucia Aniello borrowed a page from Bridesmaids, with Alice as the friend who is jealous of her best friend’s new buddy, in a familiar subplot. The crew gets wasted throughout the weekend, as emotions bubble to the surface. Frankie is secretly in love with one of the gang, while Alice and Jess have some unresolved issues that have cropped up in recent years. Friendships evolve, they wax and wane as we mature and dynamics change. The movie touched on the ways in which friends can become distant, but find their way home to each other in the end. The camaraderie and bond of friendship strengthened the movie, but make no mistake: this movie is best viewed at home on the sofa in the absence of sobriety.

Rough Night is not a movie to be taken seriously. It’s probably a good move for the likes of McKinnon, but I imagine Johansson was just bored and maybe thought this would be a fun movie to make. The movie’s major plot point involving a would-be stripper was nothing short of ridiculous. Like, Weekend at Bernie’s levels of stupidity – but without the charm. Demi Moore (Margin Call) makes a cameo, but it only serves to heighten the absurdity of it all. I knew it wouldn’t be good, but I didn’t mind paying the five. You’ve been warned! Grade: C

Wonder Woman

When a film is highly anticipated, it can become bigger than itself. Wonder Woman is more than just another comic blockbuster. It offers a rare opportunity for women to become fangirls for something besides a clichéd rom-com or chick flick like 50 Shades or Magic Mike. There’s a comic book movie for US and it feels legit, not like a placating watered-down gimmick. Marvel is more consistent, but score one for DC Comics, because Wonder Woman is a winner.

Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince was born Diana, Princess of Themyscira. Themyscira is home to the Amazon people, a class of warrior women created by Zeus. Not quite human, but not exactly gods, the Amazons are superior physical and intellectual beings. Diana is chief among them, portrayed wonderfully by Gal Gadot (Triple 9). It was refreshing to watch these warrior women train in hand-to-hand combat with nary a man in sight. So much of what we as women do (consciously and subconsciously) is for the male gaze, but Amazons had no such constraints. Diana’s isolation from ordinary society rendered her immune from the trappings of conventional patriarchy and paternalism. The iconic character is the brainchild of writer and psychiatrist William Marston, who wanted to craft a hero modeled after feminists of the day. Diana is compelling, an inadvertent feminist, a woman who doesn’t know she’s supposed to be inferior. Equal to a man? She doesn’t even know any men; they are not within her frame of reference. When she finally meets a man in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond), he’s the one who needs saving – not her.

As a child, Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson, The Runner) regaled her with tales of the gods, particularly Zeus and Ares, god of war. She knew that Ares would return to avenge his defeat at Zeus’ hands, and that wherever Ares was found; conflict and war were sure to follow. So when Steve crashes on Themyscira after being shot down by German fighter pilots (the movie is set largely during WWII), Diana feels compelled to join him in battle, as surely Ares is to blame. Diana leaves “paradise island,” never to return. In this iconic moment she sets on the path that would give her to the world, a hero for all. Steve explains that they must stop one General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, Big Eyes) from unleashing poison gas on the populous, and by all appearances it sounds like Ludendorff and Ares are one and the same. The movie follows Diana, Steve and a ragtag group he cobbles together, as they hunt Ludendorff and his accomplice, the sinister Dr. Maru.

Diana is a feminist, not by design but by nature. When she accompanies Steve to plead his case to his superiors for military action, it never occurs to her that she literally doesn’t belong in the room. She’s not a trailblazer; she simply knows no other way of being. The fish-out-of-water trope is a familiar one, but it didn’t seem like a hackneyed device here, rather it was a vehicle by which the character challenged convention. Likewise, Diana is beautiful, but oblivious to whatever that means. She doesn’t need to rely on her beauty to disarm a man, because she can just kick his ass without all the pretense. It’s always a good psychological exercise to question oneself, and I liked the way the character challenged our default ways of thinking with refreshing sensibilities.

Few films are flawless, and neither is Wonder Woman. Most superhero movies have a degree of predictability and campiness, so there’s that. I also thought some of the dialogue was a bit cringe-worthy at times, especially the obligatory scene where Diana gets a glimpse of Steve’s anatomy *insert size joke here* Furthermore, the action scenes were effective, but I could’ve done without all the slow-mo freeze frame type of shots. It’s like the director wanted to signal to the audience that something cool was about to happen instead of just letting it happen.

I don’t usually do the whole “Girl Power” thing because more often than not it reads as corny. But this movie made me feel strong and inspired, and I was not alone. The women next to me in the theater were on their second showing. The movie marks the highest grossing film with a woman director, and I think that’s just great. Maybe one day these types of accomplishments won’t be considered noteworthy, but for now I’m just glad girls have a hero to call their own. Grade: A


There are two approaches to comic storytelling, in my humble opinion. On the one hand there’s the campy, corny perspective popularized in the 1980s and exemplified by the Superman franchise. These kid-friendly tales espouse the virtues of truth, sacrifice and justice. There’s always a ‘moral’ to the story, and the protagonist always strives to do the right thing. However, if you examine some of these other heroes’ backstories, you’ll see that they have rich, dark, troubled pasts that lend themselves to more layered, complex storytelling.

I admit that I was ignorant about Wolverine’s super powers. I thought Logan, the venerable X-Man, was invincible and immortal, but I was mistaken. He has healing powers, which have significantly slowed his aging process – but he is not ageless. This was readily apparent when the film opens and I see Hugh Jackman’s weary, lined face and salt & pepper hair. In his sixth reprisal of Wolverine, Jackman (Pan) is at his hulking, menacing best. Set in the near future, Logan is a far cry from previous X-Men movies. The tone is bleak, with director James Mangold (The Wolverine) depicting a dystopian future for mutants. Logan is off the grid, living in the shadows. His health is ailing, each step a lumbering effort.

Logan works as a chauffeur of sorts, if you could imagine Ray Donovan as an Uber driver. He’s fine flying under the radar until a woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez, The Drop) approaches him asking that he drive her and her little girl Laura (Dafne Keen) a few states over. He’s reluctant, but there are some nefarious corporate types in pursuit of the wayward pair. Gabriela and Laura are privy to some damning information that could prove costly for an international pharmaceutical company. The company’s actions have deadly ramifications for mutants, who have been driven underground. It turns out Laura is not your average kid, inheriting special abilities from her long lost father, none other than Logan.

Logan’s plot was a solid one, not overly complicated or nonsensical, as is oft the case with comic book movies (see the last Avengers installment). X-Men’s mutants and the response to them have always served as a proxy for our own societal ills, and that theme remains present in Logan. To that end, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, Christmas Eve) makes an appearance, but in keeping with the bleaker tone, this time his benevolence is couched in grizzled cynicism. Like Logan, he’s seen better days, as he deals with his own failing health and the emotional aftermath of a catastrophic mutant event to which he and Logan allude. Their bond is unwavering though, and together they try to get Laura to safety while evading her pursuant goons.

I have no real criticism of Logan. The plot was simple yet effective, and the role is a familiar one for Jackman, the quintessential embodiment of Wolverine. As he sliced and eviscerated his way through foe after foe, I was reminded of why I go to the movies. To feel this rush of excitement. Laura made for an even more impressive adversary than Logan, and their scenes together were amazing. This movie is not for the faint of heart, and it would be a mistake for parents to ignore its R rating. Comic book movies are best when they depart from the cheesy mass appeal and opt for a darker turn, as Marvel has done here with Logan. You won’t feel happy after this movie, but you sure will have enjoyed it. Grade: A.

Get Out

Watching horror films requires a certain degree of masochism, if you think about it. Why would anyone want to experience pure fear and terror? Yet something about that sensation is so deliciously awful. The first horror movie was released in 1896, and we’ve been paying people to scare the crap out of us ever since. When I saw the trailer for Get Out I wasn’t sold, but eventually the collective groundswell of enthusiasm swayed me and I began to look forward to it. Comedian/actor Jordan Peele (Keanu) does not disappoint, crafting a smart, unsettling film that taps into an undercurrent of fear unique to the Black experience.

Get Out features a young interracial couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, Sicario) and Rose (Allison Williams, Girls). They are still in the honeymoon phase, and their differences haven’t caused any problems…yet. However, trouble looms when Rose decides it’s time to introduce Chris to her family, who is unaware that he is Black. Chris is sort of an everyman figure for Black audiences. His fears and vulnerabilities are our own. His experiences are relatable, both on a small and large scale. In one scene he is peppered with ignorant questions from Rose’s family and friends, as they expect him to speak on the entire Black experience rather than for himself. It’s clear that he is on display, regarded like an animal in a cage in one moment and like wild game in another. An insidious air of foreboding hangs over the film, creating a palpable sense of tension only heightened by the realism of Chris’ dread.

Why does this movie work? Quite frankly because White people can be scary. There are still parts of the country where the color of your skin can be a deadly liability. I know that Black men still have to be cognizant of their surroundings if they are in certain areas with a mate of a different race. I like that Get Out depicted many of the micro-aggressions with which we have to contend so often. Whenever Black folks attempt to engage in thoughtful discourse on such topics, we are often accused of playing the “race card,” and I think Peele deftly avoids this charge with tight, cogent writing, dramatizing these situations in a palatable yet jarring fashion. I hope that White audiences’ curiosity is piqued, as some are perhaps taken aback at the notion that they are the scary ones!

Horror isn’t my favorite genre, but good writing transcends category. Get Out didn’t resort to cheap thrills; instead Peele expertly tapped into the realism of his setting and subject matter. It reminded me of the classic horror films of the 70s and 80s, very atmospheric, complete with a perfectly disturbing score. At one point the film had notably garnered an astounding 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is well deserved. I say that not because Get Out is the Movie of the Year, but because it works extremely well as a cinematic experience, and its structure and pacing were flawless. I’ve been fortunate over the past several months to have seen many diverse representations of Black film, and I hope the trend continues. The strength of any great movie starts with the story, and Peele’s got a winner on his hands. Grade: A.


I Am Not Your Negro

Politics are an inescapable aspect of our lives, now more than ever. It would be rather difficult not to have an opinion on any number of prevailing issues. Therefore, when celebrities weigh in on social and political topics, I don’t begrudge them their opinion. The collective public response is often an admonishment to “stay out of politics” or “stick to acting,” etc., but do art and politics mix? I Am Not Your Negro answers yes, and quite beautifully.

James Baldwin – for the uninitiated – was a 20th century luminary noted for his writings and political activism. He rose to prominence in the 1950’s, espousing a political consciousness that captivated the White intelligentsia and paragons of Black history alike. Baldwin did not separate artistry from politics; they were part and parcel of his very being. I Am Not Your Negro begins with Samuel L. Jackson’s resonant baritone, his familiar voice a befitting conduit for Baldwin’s poignant musings. Awash in color, the film had an uncommon beauty not typically found in documentaries. Its rich aesthetic was a provocative contradiction of the brutality it depicted, as the film highlights the abject cruelty of a not-so bygone era.

Baldwin’s consciousness was awakened on foreign soil, as he observed the violence visited upon Black Americans from afar while living in France. Disenchanted with a racist America, he’d long since fled to Paris where he found the same artistic refuge as fellow wayward expatriates Josephine Baker and Nina Simone. While he missed nothing about America, he longed for his mother and siblings, and he missed the soul of Harlem. Ultimately it was a photo that brought Baldwin home, the image of a young Black woman being heckled mercilessly as she integrated a school in North Carolina. We can see why the photo struck Baldwin so powerfully: the girl’s face is pained but stoic, her slight frame surrounded by a sea of faces seething with rage and hate. This theme is the foundation of I Am Not Your Negro, an unabashed revelation that hypocrisy is as American as apple pie.

The film is loosely intended to carry forth Baldwin’s untold artistic vision intertwining the stories of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medger Evers. The film dances around these three narratives in disjointed fashion, splicing current events throughout the film. Director Roul Peck brilliantly draws a parallel between the police brutality of the Jim Crow era and the impetus of the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Baldwin was Black and he was proud, but he was accessible to White America because he did not hate them. He explored the way Blackness had to be packaged to make it palatable, and Peck masterfully uses cinematic examples to underscore Baldwin’s profound speech. Hollywood is rife with the stereotyping and marginalization of which Baldwin spoke, and the film was comprehensive in its discussion of film and media’s effect on the collective psyche of Black and White Americans alike.

Art inspires, but at times it can make us uncomfortable. Let me state the obvious that this film is not for everyone, and the title alone is enough to keep some viewers away. It is not a call to arms, but rather an attempt to rouse the consciousness and to demand that White America to take an unflinching look in the mirror. Powerful and provocative, I Am Not Your Negro is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen. Grade: A.