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Movie Review: Us [SXSW]


Jordan Peele‘s newest movie Us is a haunting horror film by a director with a lot to say. Premiering at the SXSW film festival, Peele was in attendance to introduce the thriller which presents the Wilson family, lead by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke). They return to a summer vacation at her parents’ home near Santa Cruz.

As we find out, she had some sort of traumatic experience getting lost in a creepy boardwalk attraction while there as a child, and after returning to the same beach near there while on vacation she begins to experience a lot of anxiety and wants to leave. At that point a family of shadowy figures appears in their driveway–murderous doppelgangers–and if you know anything more than that it is literally a spoiler.

What comes after is one of the scariest and most fun thrillers in recent memory. Peele shows that his visual sense and pacing and director’s eye is incredibly sophisticated.

But it’s Nyong’o who really sets herself apart here. She should immediately be the top of everyone’s Oscar list for Best Actress. We’ve seen her be great before, but what she does here is beyond any of that. What she does here on screen is indescribable without spoiling the film, but it is so nuanced and layered, it will take multiple viewings to fully get the depths of how good she truly is. There are seeds planted early on that blossom late in the third act. There are some just straight up intense moments that are an immediate gut punch. And there are moments you will want to revisit once you know the entire scope of the film to watch the additional bits she is adding to her performance to appreciate what she (and Peele) have done.

Also, completely forget everything you thought you knew from Get Out. Don’t let your views or expectations from that film color in any way your ideas about this film or what it is. First, let’s just go to Peele’s own words in how he describes his works:

While Peele tweeted this in response to Get Out being nominated for the Golden Globe as a “Comedy or Musical,” and this was a sort of puckish response to the “controversy” over its classification, he’s very clearly saying something important: that film was about real life.

Us is just a straight-up horror/thriller, unapologetically so, because there literally isn’t anything wrong with that. Peele’s point is well, taken, though: while many horror films have at their base some sort of social commentary (Romero’s zombie movies, The Purge films, etc) that’s not necessarily a needed ingredient.

I kept waiting for there to be something more. I wanted the social commentary. I wanted to know what the said about our moment in 2019, or more about what it meant to be black in America. But this isn’t that film and going in with such expectations and trying to put Peele into that same box is as much of a folly as expecting Get Out to be funny because of Peele’s previous success in comedy.

If anything, the social commentary of Us is not in the film at all (although there are a few lines and bits worth deconstructing). But just because the actors are black, and the director and writer is black, it doesn’t mean that we are going to get a movie about black identity with social justice themes. (Although, it’s hard to imagine many other films being able to get away with violent murder sprees set to NWA’s “F@#$ Tha Police”) Sometimes a thriller is just a thriller.

The social commentary of Us may also simply be that isn’t a true meritocracy in Hollywood. Duke and Nyong’o are so. good. here. but are often relegated to supporting roles in other films. Not that we didn’t love them in Black Panther, and it’s not like we didn’t recognize how amazing Nyong’o was in her breakthrough role in Twelve Years a Slave, and we’ve loved her in Star Wars, but it’s clear that their acting chops go for miles beyond this.

What we get is a film could have been cast with anyone. Any other director might have filled this with white actors, approved by Hollywood bean counters who have decided that that met the requisite amount of star power for the film. Two decades ago, this would’ve been Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfieffer in What Lies Beneath.

Instead the casting of black actors is a testament to the universality of the film and that in a truly colorblind society, the complexion of the actors would matter so incredibly little. Let’s hope the box office agrees, showing that black-led films are a great investment for the big studios (not sure why there’s any doubt after recent dominance by Marvel, Star Wars, but yet, here we are)

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s close. It’s not Get Out levels of genius with layered social commentary, nor does it need to be. But like Get Out, which hit the top of my best films of 2017, it serves as an early high water mark for greatness for the year. It’s a great film and one of the scariest things you’ll see in theaters anytime soon.

4.25 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Black Panther

Lets get this out of the way, Marvel films are rather formulaic. We get the origin of the hero in the first third of the film, the second third is the set up where they are beaten down, then the last third turns into a fist fight. This is generally what we can expect and as more films are released, that formula grows a bit old. So, the question is, with each new release, can Marvel Studios deliver enough “new” to keep the audience engaged and interested. Black Panther delivers a lot new and then some, though suffers in that last third due to the formula.

The story is a bit James Bond as Black Panther must bring to justice a man who stole the country’s precious Vibranium decades earlier. Cool gadgets are plenty as illegal deals are attempted to be broken up all as we learn more about these cast of characters.

While we know some of Black Panther and the Dora Milaje (his elite bodyguards/warriors) from Captain America: Civil War where they debuted, the world of Wakanda is mainly unknown and this film is far more than the few that debuted in what seems forever ago. In a sense, this is an origin story like so many other Marvel Studios releases as T’Challa takes up the mantle of King as well as Black Panther. But, where Black Panther stands heads and above what’s come before is how it does that origin story and it’s focus on not just one man.

Played by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa is conservative in many ways. There’s not as much ego or brashness, instead Boseman plays the character as the leader of a nation but also one who is clearly learning. He doesn’t go it alone or “have to learn,” he seeks council and relies on those around him. This is a very different superhero and the movie does an excellent job of recognizing that. Where it really stands out from those before is the supporting cast which is large and in charge. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Letitia Wright as Shuri, it’s the women (especially the Dora Milaje) who steal the show. Wonder Woman showed us kick-ass women, this film takes it to the next level in so many ways. And, while they definitely kicked ass, their presences was a statement too. The Dora Milaje are not one size fits all. While all members are athletic, the heights, build, and skin tone differ for each. While I expected a general uniform look (something more like the Amazons in Wonder Woman), I was surprised at the vast differences. In one scene in particular one rather tall member is next to a shorter member and I can only think this was done on purpose to emphasize this. Wright especially stands out for her enthusiasm and Q like character. She delivers the tech that makes Black Panther (and Wakanda) function. As T’Challa’s sister, there’s also a healthy relationship that feels fresh and like it’s been missing from movie screens.

But, it’s not just the young brilliant and kick-ass women who add to the film. Angela Bassett as Ramonda and Forest Whitaker as Zuri add a gravitas in a way and feel like they’re passing the baton to a new generation of Black actors.

But, what is a Marvel film without its villains? Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue and Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger step into those roles in what may be the best Marvel villains to date. We’ve seen Serkis’ briefly in a previous Marvel film, but here he’s able to amp up the sleaze to the next level both having fun with it all and making the audience feel dirty. But, it’s Jordan’s Killmonger that delivers a character that’s complicated at at times sympathetic. It’s difficult to truly dissect everything without spoilers but he’s an American whose goal is to take over the throne of Wakanda. His Western Imperialism embodied but one whose past and history makes him sympathetic.

And that complicated nature is what also makes Black Panther stand out as one of Marvel’s best films. This is a film, that in numerous scenes, debates the isolationist policy of Wakanda. It debates how this wealthy African nation leaves other nations and specifically Black individuals to suffer. While it prospers it does not provide aid, instead pretending it too is a Third World Nation. It directly addresses the concept of Black individuals “making it” then leaving others, the debate about supporting one’s own community. While the film takes place in Wakanda, it’s a debate that’s had right here in American communities, about supporting Black owned businesses or creators. It’s that sort of layering and detail that again makes the film stand out and the films’ writers Ryan Coogler (who also directed) and Joe Robert Cole deserve accolades for that.

Coogler’s direction, while good, falls a bit short of my expectations. Coogler is known for Fruitvale Station and Creed (both starring Michael B. Jordan). When it comes to direction, both of those films surpass Black Panther. But, visually, the film is amazing delivering us something that would make Jack Kirby cry. This is Afrofuturism on screen and through all the wonders of the city, when we get to the streets it feels lived in and real. Visually the film is stunning and you do see Coogler’s touches with small looks and moments that create a story that feels natural and how individuals actually interact.

As I said, the film does stumble a bit towards the end with a typical battle that has become standard in Marvel Studio films. This one feels like a bit of escalation with the amount of individuals involved so it does shake things up in some ways. It’s not just the usual hero fighting bad guy. But, the film does stumble in typical Marvel fashion. If it had come out earlier, before the pattern of stories was clear, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. But, the pattern and formula is pretty clear now.

Black Panther feels fresh though. The women steal the show. The first 2/3s feels more like a James Bond film than typical superhero movie, and there’s a healthy dose of exploring real world issues. There’s an enthusiasm and enough freshness about the film to make it stand out from the pack as one of Marvel’s best. The fact that everyone on screen doesn’t look like me is a large portion of that. Hopefully the film is as much of a success as I expect it to be and we see much more of this to come.

Overall Rating: 8.75

Movie Review: Black Panther

Black-Panther-posterBelieve the hype.

Marvel’s Black Panther not only continues the studio’s tradition for making fun, accessible comic book movies, but also propels it into something almost wholly different. One major complaint about Marvel Studios work is their relative sameness and unwillingness to mess with a winning formula.

This movie is anything but the same as everything that came before it. It presents a character-driven story (and, yes, a social message– appropriate for both the history of this character and our current political state) and is more focused on character and world-building than its action sequences, which may leave some fans feeling a little bored in the first act. But just hang around for the last twenty minutes.

Director Ryan Coogler’s visual style is given the budget and canvass it deserves, and he directs a cast of black luminaries in a way that is balanced and thoughtful. He successfully channels — and possibly even outshines — Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers in the way other Marvel franchise movies have managed to give each character their due.

Chief among these is Chadwick Boseman, who as the title character T’Challa must take the throne of his country of Wakanda after the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. This is ultimately a story of his internal conflict — whether to reveal Wakanda’s true capabilities to the world and help it, or to continue to be isolated.

His struggle is made real in the rise of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), working with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). You may remember Klaue from Age of Ultron as the arms dealer who was able to steal vibranium from Wakanda. Killmonger, an American mercenary who seems to have a connection to Wakanda, certainly has a grudge. No spoilers, but the way his story intertwines with T’Challa’s is masterful in that it helps tie the concerns of the streets of America to the fate of Wakanda and their precious vibranium.

Even better, Killmonger has a point, and is one of those great, classic villains who doesn’t believe he’s the bad guy. In many ways, he isn’t. He represents real outrage and militarism that is wholly justified. Just as T’Challa has to grapple with him, so too do we as an audience face a real challenge to heed and internalize his critique. But perhaps what is most amazing (and a credit to Coogler’s script and directing) is the commentary never feels heavy-handed, and Jordan delivers his commentary on the US military-industrial complex and systemic, cyclical, oppressive poverty, mass incarceration, drugs with the crispness, charisma, and intensity of an early 1990s Denzel Washington.

Another frequent criticism of Marvel Studios’ films is their general lack of good on-screen villains. A dozen and a half films, and across all of those you have. . .  Loki? And that’s basically it as truly memorable villains.

Black Panther by some counts may have as many as four different antagonists, including an appearance by regular comics series villain M’Baku. And all of them have a character arc, are fully developed, and work within the narrative to enhance T’Challa’s growth as a character. Most other movies suffering from too many villains (hello multiple Batman movies!) will collapse under their bloated weight. Coogler here perfectly balances everything.

Coogler also brings to bear a balanced supporting cast, all of whom get their moments to shine. Daniel Kaluyya, fresh off his success in Get Out, plays W’Kabi, one of T’Challa’s closest friends and advisors who is pushing him to be more militant and seek justice for what Klaue did to them. And Martin Freeman shows up again as Everett Ross, playing a much bigger role than we’d be led to believe.

But the real stars are the women. Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-romantic interest and a foreign operative for Wakanda. She and Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female royal guard, help keep T’Challa grounded, as well as watching his back and proving themselves just as much his equal in combat. A fight scene in a casino about halfway in show them t be T’Challa’s equals in combat, but the scene is also a master class in fight scene choreography.

Also perhaps most importantly, Angela Bassett plays the Queen mother and provides perhaps the most important line of the film. While T’Challa engages in ritual combat to claim the throne, he loses focus. She screams from the sidelines, “Show them who you are!” So much of this film is about the search for modern black identity, with multiple people asking T’Challa through the film who he is. Upon hearing the encouragement from his mother, he replies, “I am T’Challa! Son of T’Chaka!” and is able to summon the inner strength needed to vanquish his rival.

Speaking of the Wakanda royal family, T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), basically acts as Q giving James Bond his toys in an early scene, and is technically adept enough that she could easily give Tony Stark some lessons. Oh, by the way, she’s a teenager, and in one of the few missteps n the film makes an immediately dated reference to an internet meme made popular on the now-defunct social media site Vine.  Despite her meming, Shuri is the breakout star of this movie, delivering one of the other best lines of the film when she refers to Everett Ross by a particularly on-the-nose epithet. She’s also an amazing role model– not just a princess, but the mind behind so much of Wakanda’s technology.

This leads me to my next point, which is the impressive tech and gadgetry of this film. Basically Wakanda says to anything we’ve seen from Stark or SHIELD in previous movies, “Anything you can do, I can do better!” Opening scenes show just how advanced they are.

And yet, for all this futuristic technology, the design and aesthetics of the film remain so firmly rooted in Africa and traditional clothes and weapons. The costume design on this film is phenomenal. Beyond that, Wakandan warriors and Dora Milaje wielding spears, knives, and scythes belie a deeper tech core, one which you can see as the weapons sparkle in the sun– one of those spears can take down a helicopter, or SUV, no problem. It’s incredibly fascinating from a basic design perspective, and asking a very basic question: What might have happened to Africa if these nations hadn’t been carved up, colonized, plundered and exploited for resources? If defended, as Wakanda was because of its vibranium, we wonder how close we would be to this vision of afro-futurism the film so effortlessly shows. But, instead, Wakanda plays to the vanity and ignorance of the rest of the world by pretending to be poor and less developed. That says more about us than it does about them.

The costumes, the weapon design all pale in comparison to a broader visual aesthetic Coogler presents. This film is gorgeous in many places. During a dream sequence we see Wakanda with purple skies in a sort of magical twilight. We also get several scenes played at or near sunset in that “magic hour” that they either beautifully captured (or more likely, digitally re-created). It’s just gorgeous, and characters even remark how spectacular the Wakandan sunsets are in a moment that will break your heart. A car chase through the streets of Busan, Korea also provide some spectacular visuals, as well as one of the best action sequences of the film.

Speaking of, hold on until the final act of this movie. It’s really talky and thinky through much of its first two hours, but its final action sequence will have you wanting more– and really looking forward to seeing Wakanda face off against Thanos and his armies in Avengers: Infinity War (What?!?! That’s only three months away?!? We live in a golden age of entertainment).

Black Panther is going to be a little less accessible to some audiences, which is a shame. Some will shun it because of bias or racism, and that’s simply too bad for them that they won’t enjoy the best movie of 2018 so far. Some will be bored by its character and world-building and wish there was more action. That’s also a shame, as we deserve more smarts in our blockbusters.

But bottom line? Go see this movie. Several times. Perhaps then after major success of this, Get Out, and Star Wars, Hollywood will stop pretending that movies led by black actors don’t appeal to mainstream (read: white) audiences. We vote with our dollars, so vote loudly, and vote often.

And stick around through the credits. The first after-credits scene (minor spoiler, but not really) of T’Challa speaking at the UN is a speech that should be printed on posters and hanging in your office. You will want it playing on a loop as motivation for us as humans to do better. And the end credit scene. . .  fans should be happy for another tease towards Infinity War.

Wakanda Forever.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Lupita Nyong’o in Talks to Join Black Panther

Lupita_NyongoTIFF2013_(cropped)The Hollywood Reporter is claiming that Lupita Nyong’o is in talks to join Marvel‘s Black Panther. Nyong’o won an Oscar for her performance in 12 Years a Slave and her character has not been revealed, though THR says it is Black Panther’s love interest. We’re hoping instead it’s T’Challa’s sister Shuri who eventually dons the mantle of Black Panther herself.

Nyong’o was most recently the voice of Raksha in The Jungle Book and is Maz Katana in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and will repeat the role in Star Wars: Episode VIII.

The film is being directed by Ryan Coogler and stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. Coogler is known for writing and directly Fruitvale Station as well as Creed. He will be doing both for Black Panther as well. After a career mostly in television, Boseman broke through with his portrayal as Jackie Robinson in the film 42 and will be depicting Thurgood Marshall in Marshall which comes to theaters in 2016.

The film is set to release February 2, 2018 and begins filming in early 2017.

Black Panther debuted in Captain America: Civil War is the warrior king of the African kingdom of Wakanda. A teaser scene at the end of Civil War sets up the possible conflict of the film.

Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie Join Star Wars Episode VII

BpIyky3IIAADbNxTwo more women have joined the cast of Star Wars Episode VII. Lupita Nyong’o and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie have both accepted roles in Star Wars: Episode VII.

From the studio:

Lupita Nyong’o joins the recently announced cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. This year, her breakthrough performance in 12 Years a Slave earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Gwendoline Christie, currently starring in the hit television series Game of Thrones as Brienne of Tarth, has also been cast in the production. She can next be seen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. “I could not be more excited about Lupita and Gwendoline joining the cast of Episode VII,” says Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. “It’s thrilling to see this extraordinarily talented ensemble taking shape.”

When the initial casting was announced, the series came under fire for the lack of diversity, though it was also mentioned there were still roles to be cast, and hinted that one would be a minority woman. I hope all of those who lashed out, without the facts, and in usual kneejerk reaction, not only apologize, but praise this latest news.