Friday, February 3, 2023

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever - A Beautiful Send-Off


Streaming on Disney+

    In 2018, Marvel Studios released their most outstanding achievement in superhero movies (and the world of cinema in general), Black Panther! The story of a secret nation led by a noble king who was handed the emotionally charged task of facing the mistakes of his ancestors and setting out to right the wrongs of the past. Under the watchful eye of co-writer & director Ryan Cooglier, along with the powerful performance of legendary actor Chadwick Boseman as the main character T'Chialla (aka the titular Black Panther), the first Black Panther film became a cultural touchstone in more ways than one can realistically count. 

    Many fans, myself included, eagerly awaited the follow-up to this sensational story. Then, in late August 2020, Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away. 

    Shortly after his untimely passing, debates swelled over how to proceed with the next chapter. Do they recast T'Chialla with a new actor, deep fake Chadwick Boseman's face onto a double, or write off his disappearance as being away on some distant mission somewhere? All these thoughts cluttered the minds of both fans and the creative team in charge. 

    Finally, after a few announcements and detailed riddled trailers revealing the story and direction of the next film, it became clear that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever would serve three purposes: provide a loving send-off to a dear friend, tell a socially relevant story, and solemnly promise to continue the legacy of what made the first film so impactful. While the next chapter in the story of the Black Panther delivers all of this in spades, despite not entirely living up to the incredible awesomeness of the first film, it is hands down the best possible way to move forward. Mr. Boseman would have been proud. 

    The story opens with the unfortunate passing of King T'Chialla, leaving the kingdom of Wakanda vulnerable and without a primary protector in the Black Panther. T'Chialla's mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been reinstated as Queen and has done her best to maintain Wakanda's security. Primarily in retaining sole ownership of the rare metal known as Vibranium, a powerful resource that powers their technology and society and is the envy of many other nations.

    Efforts by other nations to forcefully secure Vibranium from Wakanda or find any outside their borders have left many efforts empty-handed. Until one such discovery also reveals the existence of a secret nation deep within the ocean, led by a powerful ruler named Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who will stop at nothing to protect his people and homeland. His efforts lead him to an attempt to negotiate a partnership with Wakanda, asking for their help in wiping out the entire surface world for their past aggressions towards their ancestors and their potential aggressions towards their resources. 

    Meanwhile, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), brother of T'Chialla and heir to the throne & mantle of Black Panther, continues to mourn her brother's death and struggles with how best to handle the many conflicts around and inside of her. The weight of the many piles on her shoulders as she attempts to come to terms with her future. As tensions between both nations rise, can she find a solution to bring peace, or will she fall into the same dark pit of vengeful anger as Namor? 

    Right off the bat, the film takes a brutal hit toward the horrors of colonialism and the serpent's tail dangers of the ever-so-tiresome "sins of the father" mentality that can easily plague one's heart and mind. The film also does not shy away from the unfortunate passing of its previous star. It makes the right choice to openly acknowledge his passing and plan the story accordingly. Like the first film, it holds no punches. 

    Director Ryan Cooglier brings out his creative voice with more extraordinary passion and energy than before. His emphasis on performance, witty dialogue and the occasional long take make this feel more like his film, further demonstrating his talent as a storyteller. 

    The film's overall story can sometimes feel like something that's been done before. While stories of past transgressions and present anger have been told many times before, it becomes more relevant here than in any other time, past or present. With the social and political climate being the way it is now, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever uses its cultural relevance to remind audiences why these stories are always important and worth being reminded of.

    Namor's motivations and reasonings are relatable and sympathetic, even though you likely disagree with his choices in addressing the conflicts he faces. Furthermore, like the first film, it provides an antagonistic force that isn't evil but understandable. It is yet another fantastic effort by the storytellers to remind audiences of the importance of more excellent thought beyond one's base motivations. Because choosing to fight fire with fire at all times will only make you as cynical and heartless as those who wronged you before. 

    While this film doesn't have quite the same energy and impactfulness as its predecessor, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever stands strong as another triumph in its own right. It may not be the film we expected, but it is the film we needed. 

    Absolutely worth checking out! 

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Wakanda Forever! 

Friday, January 20, 2023

Fixing Elijah Stone -or- How to Resist A Rookie Mistake


    One of my favorite Network TV shows is The Rookie starring the ever-reliable Nathan Fillion. It's the story of a former contractor who, after a near-death experience facing down the gun barrel of a would-be bank robber, decides to take his life in a new direction by becoming a police officer. The show features a wide array of primarily textured characters and relatable stories, along with occasionally well-timed commentary about the necessity of proper policing and cop culture reform. While it may not get to be as gritty or as down-to-earth as it might otherwise like to be (it is owned by Disney, after all), it's still an entertaining and enjoyable show to this day. It has the prestige of lasting five seasons without jumping the shark, at least not yet. A rare accomplishment for many a Network TV shows.

    Like all good things, it has some flaws. There's the occasionally less-than-stellar writing and reoccurring supporting characters who do nothing but remind you how much you hate them. Then there are the characters who are the most frustrating, the ones with the most wasted potential. 

    Case in point, Mr. Elijah Stone! 

    Diligently portrayed by Brandon Jay McLaren (late of The Killing and Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil), Elijah Stone is a crime boss with, sadly, not much personality beyond any given typical evil & sociopathic crime lord seen in almost any cop drama ever devised. That's not to say that the character is pointless or doesn't bring anything substantial to the table; instead, what he does bring is insultingly overused and undermines many of the otherwise boundary-breaking (somewhat) narrative choices made in the show. 

    Allow me to provide some context for those who do not regularly watch The Rookie. SPOILERS from here on out.  

    In the show's fourth season, one of the supporting characters, Detective Angela Lopez (Alyssa Diaz), was kidnapped and spirited away across the border by a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. Her husband, attorney-at-law Wesley Evers (Shawn Ashmore), sought a means of finding his kidnapped love. His efforts lead him to a meeting with notorious crime boss Elijah Stone, who agrees to help him find his wife in exchange for a "favor." After a successful rescue mission, Elijah moves on Wesley to cash in on their agreement. 

    This setup, in and of itself, is a good one. It's an excellent way of building new stories and adding texture to the characters and overall narrative. 

    Instead, we end up with the typical and insanely overdone crime-boss-milking-a-favor schtick for far too long! 

    Don't get me wrong, it is highly likely, and even expected, for any given criminal overlord to take advantage of the innocent and exploit the vulnerable. But there, my beautiful readers, lies the problem; it was expected

    Part of the show's appeal, at least to me, is that it does its best to avoid (within reason for Network TV) things typically found in most cop shows. The overall narrative of a middle-aged man trying to pull a 180 on his life dictates that notion. And a stereotypical crime boss continuously milking the efforts out of a reluctant victim of circumstances, while realistic, does not fit with the spirit of the show. At least, not in my opinion. 

    What would have made Elijah's character more interesting and more likely to maintain audience engagement is if he was more of an "old-fashoned" crime boss, not unlike Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather. He helps Wesley as a favor (singular) in exchange for another favor (also singular). Any exchange after that would be brand new and cause additional engaging storylines. Maybe Elijah could be more of a practicalist and finds benefits in maintaining a "working" relationship with the police, creating opportune stories for commentary on the moral grey areas between law and criminal. 

    While I still enjoy the show to this day, a grand opportunity was missed for no sound reason other than the writers & producers either needed more creative freedom, talent, or courage to subvert expectations and offer bold narrative choices. This subplot, as it stands, may annoy me, but with a bit of hope, it can be done better in another show in the future. Only time will tell. 

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Last of Us: Pilot - Worth the HBO Max Subscription (so far)


    Tonight marks the release of the first episode of the HBO Max original series, an adaptation of the acclaimed video game The Last of Us. Those who regularly follow my blog will recall my reaction to the show's announcement via their first trailer, which dropped back in September. My initial reactions mostly centered on my concern for the history of video game adaptations and the intriguing casting choice for one of the stories' protagonists. Since then, I have made many efforts to avoid any other mentions or discussions of the series, preferring to begin my experience with as much of a clean slate as possible. So far, my patience has been well worth it. 

    This adaptation begins with an auspicious and edge-of-your-seat thrilling introduction. Within the first fifteen minutes, the show promises an accurate adaptation of the source material with the same level of commitment and verisimilitude as its game counterpart. While fans of the game will notice sections of different and seemingly (at first) unnecessary story moments and scenes, they all serve the greater purpose of introducing the critical story and character elements. Thanks in no small part to the original games creator and writer, Neil Drukman, acting as producer and co-writer for the series.  

    On its own merits as a show, the overall presentation is fascinating. Successfully capturing the same tone and style of the original game while still feeling more or less like its own entity. For once, a video game adaptation does more than copy/paste the game's visual style without effort. 

    The cinematography by Nadim Carlsen is on par with the game's original presentation while still retaining its own personality. The lighting and color styles fit the broken world depicted in both iterations. 

    Unsurprisingly, and much to my delight, Pedro Pascal is the right choice for this role. He has been granted the opportunity to stretch his range and shows he can possess the kind of screen presence this role demands. I am excited and terrified (in the best way possible) to see where it will go from here. 

    Suppose you've been interested in this fantastic game series's story but are interested in something other than playing video games. In that case, this is the best non-game presentation of this story. At least it's off to a fantastic start. As the episodes are released, a complete and comprehensive review of this series will be forthcoming. Until then, this is a perfect time to consider an HBO Max subscription or try out whatever free trial they have. 

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Double Feature Review


    That's right, my beautiful readers! We're kicking off the new year with a two-review special! 

    First, I hope you all had a delightful holiday and a safe & satisfying new year. I apologize for my unexpected absence, but life has a nasty habit of sometimes getting in the way of things. You may be glad to hear that I am still in the process of writing another book and a script to eventually adapt Come See The Light into a graphic novel. Here's hoping that eventually transitions into a movie. 

    Anyway, I've got two big movies to review for you today. Both are excellent in their own way and offer something fresh to the table. Let's start with the more recent release. 

Streaming on Netflix 

    Back in 2019, writer & director Rian Johnson (late of Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) graced the silver screen with an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery film titled Knives Out: the story of a prestigious and classy detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who uses his Sherlock-like powers of deductive reasoning, keen observation, and his southern drawl, to solve the murder of a wealthy novelist, and in doing so, determine who of his family will inherit his considerable estate. 

    Like most of Rian Johnson's films, it was witty, beautifully structured, and delivered a clever mystery along with some delightful subversions of expectations. While some may criticize aspects of Johnson's writing (understandably so), there is no denying that it was a pleasant watch all the way through. 

    A few years later, Rian Johnson returns with a new mystery for the determined detective in the hopes of cementing the Knives Out subtitle as a regular film series. Frankly, if they continue to be as good as they have been, I would be delighted to continue seeing more. 

    Without going into too many details for fear of spoiling the mystery, Glass Onion is a spectacular step up from the first film and a pleasant showcase of Rian Johnson's growth as a storyteller. It's an all-around entertaining ensemble film with wittier dialogue, more robust characters, and better-constructed commentary. Not to mention a significant and remarkable plot twist I did not see coming. 

    I liked it better than the first film, mainly for the delightful improvement of Rian Johnson's ability and talent. Not to mention the overall enthralling performances from the entire cast. This is the kind of film that justifies maintaining a Netflix subscription. 

    Glass Onion comes highly recommended anytime. 

    Now, let's move on to the next film. 

For rent on Apple TV, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play

    Some say to keep historical inaccuracy from getting in the way of enjoying a good story. While there are some negative exceptions to that idea, such as movies with such egregious inaccuracies as to insult the audience and subject matter of the story (I'm looking at you, Green Book), there are also plenty of positive examples. Namely, films that trade complete historical accuracy for presentations of historical wish fulfillment. A few prime examples would be Quentin Tarantino's classic Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both films tackle some of history's greatest tragedies and darkest moments without shying away from their ugliness. Rather than simply ending with how it was, they present a "what if" scenario. And, in doing so, offer a call to action to learn from past mistakes and do better for the future. 

    The Woman King is also such a movie. A film with just enough historical accuracy to show its understanding of its subject material while providing a hopeful and uplifting lesson on moving forward. All delivered in what may be my unexpected favorite movie of 2022.

    Set in the 18th century, the story follows the kingdom of Dahomey and its all-woman warriors led by the bravest of the brave, Nanisca (Viola Davis). After taking in a new recruit under her wing, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), the two women learn of a dark and previously secret bond between them. One that might change everything they believed about themselves and their perception of the world around them. 

    While the film does a spectacular job showcasing well-choreographed action set pieces, gorgeous costume designs, and an epic plot about tribal clashes and colonization, the film is ultimately about courage, inner power, and love. It presents a personal story in an engaging and heart-pounding experience. 

    This is one film that absolutely defines the word epic. The film shines brightest through its competent direction, sharp writing, and profound performances from everyone in the cast. While some may object to the bits of graphic violence, it is at least justified in this film, as it is there to enhance the story and is not present merely for its own sake.

    Check this one out! 

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Emily The Criminal - A Solid Story


Streaming on Netflix 
For Rent on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, and Apple TV

    Criminality is an aspect of the human condition that too many people (especially those in politics) either don't understand or willingly ignore its true nature. While plenty of people commit crime merely because it's fun or they can freely get away with it, a greater motivation to commit a crime isn't out of an evil nature or malevolent desires but plain and simple desperation. Regardless of what self-righteous idiots like Jack Thompson would have you believe, economic disparity plays a more significant role in the perpetuity of crime than most people in authority would care to admit. 

    Emily The Criminal is a beautifully realized story encompassing precisely that point. While it may not be as profound or as nuanced as it aims to be, the characters and commentary are enough to elevate this straightforward narrative. 

    The story follows a young woman named Emily (Aubrey Plaza) working for a catering service, struggling to pay off her excessive student loans while attempting to find a better means of employment. One day, a friend offers her a chance at a better-paying gig. Said opportunity is operated by a man named Youcef (Theo Rossi), who employs people to serve as middlemen for a credit card fraud operation. He pays you a fixed flat rate to use a stolen credit card number to purchase an expensive item and return it to him for a higher resale. While Emily is initially reluctant, she quickly learns the ropes and appears to find some solace in this dangerous new hobby. Will she find happiness in this new life, or will it come back to hurt her? 

    The movie is pretty solid overall. There's really not much I can say about it beyond that. The performances are believable, the writing is stellar, and the direction is spot-on. I know that seems lazy of me, and it might give the impression that the film is lacking in some areas, but that's not the case. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is solid in all the right areas to make noticing its flaws too challenging to point out. 

    Emily The Criminal is a decent film with a real story that hits all the right notes. It's probably one of the few films on Netflix that can justify maintaining a subscription for another year at least. Give this one a shot. 

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Poker Face - A Poor Hand


For rent on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube 

    On a recent episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made, the hosts discussed the 2014 film, Winters Tale, starring Collin Farrel, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Russell Crowe. While discussing Russell Crowe's unusual performance (along with his ridiculous excuse for an Irish accent), one of the hosts commented that he appears to be suffering from a terrible case of "Marlon-Brando-Desiese." A common condition among actors who have become so engrossed in their own apparent greatness that they delude themselves into believing little effort is required to maintain talent and skill. Often resulting in unnecessarily flat performances, followed by delusions of grandeur, typically manifested by their sudden appearance in the director's chair. 

    While Russell Crowe has proven himself capable of directing and still able to put effort back into his performances (see his 2014 film The Water Diviner for proof of concept), it would seem that same sense of conviction and passion has not made its way towards Russell Crowe's latest offering, Poker Face. A film that seriously should have been so much better than it is; it's almost insulting that it's not. 

    The story follows a tech billionaire named Jake Foley (Russell Crowe), who has an affinity for fine art and card games, specifically poker. One day, he invites a group of his childhood friends to his cliffside home for a unique poker game with the highest stakes they've ever played with. Despite this game's unusual circumstances, his friends all decide to play. As the night unfolds and the chips fly around the table filled with laughs and conversation, the group of friends begins to feel uneasy, not just because of how much money they're playing with. It turns out that the game is part of an elaborate plan devised by Jake to confront some past demons with his long-time friends. Soon, the true motivation behind the game reveals itself, and his friends may prefer to change where it goes. 

    This sounds like an engaging and textured plot that would make for a great and entertaining film, and that's because it seriously is. However, it takes the film nearly forty-five minutes to begin and establish that plot. Minor spoilers, but the film spends the first third of its runtime with pretty but seemingly unrelated montages of ocean waves and Russell Crowe experiencing a Peyote high. Sure, it lines up with events depicted later in the film and does appear to set the intended mood, but it fails to provide any substantial reason to care for the eventual proceedings. It would have made more sense for the film to begin with the friends arriving at the house for the game and occasionally edit these opening moments throughout the runtime to introduce an element of mystery to the story, thereby adding to the tension. 

    When the plot finally does get off the ground, it does such a poor job of introducing the other characters and maintaining its mysterious twists that it all feels incredibly hollow, however unintentionally. 

    Because of this, there is a massive disconnect between audience engagement and the intended theme of the story. While most of the performances and bits of the dialogue prevent the film from becoming a complete and total disaster (hence the two-star rating), this unfortunate trainwreck might not have deserved the time of day. 

    Poker Face is the worst kind of film to review in a negative light. It has a fantastic idea for a story with otherwise talented people trying their damndest to make something memorable out of forgettable presentational aspects. If you must watch a movie about the dangers of gambling with engaging poker scenes, watch Maverick instead. At least that movie has Mel Gibson at his finest. 

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

I'm Still Here

 Hello everyone, 

    I'm so sorry for my longer-than-predicted absence. Life has a nasty habit of interfering with many things too often. 

    You may be glad to hear that I did manage to accomplish lots of writing for the next book's first draft, but unfortunately, I could not complete the first draft within my ideal time frame. I recently decided to divide my time between the next book and writing a script for an eventual graphic novel adaptation of Come See The Light

    Furthermore, one of my good friends, who recently recovered from cancer (many congratulations to you), is now reading the book and is interested in narrating an audiobook adaptation. 

    As for the future of this movie blog, well, that's kind of up in the air at the moment. Many things are interfering with my free time, more so than usual, and managing it has become increasingly challenging. While I am still interested in keeping it going, there's a good chance it will slow down for the foreseeable future. 

    Between my day job (which I love), obligations outside of work, and a few other unexpected adventures, finding the time to watch & review movies, especially new ones, has become a challenge in and of itself. 

    Whatever may be in store for the future of this blog, I hope you will continue to join me on this journey. 

    In the meantime, I wish you all a happy holiday and a better new year. I'll see you all when I can.

Ladies & gentlemen, I am TheNorm; thank you all for reading. 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever - A Beautiful Send-Off

  Streaming on Disney+     In 2018, Marvel Studios released their most outstanding achievement in superhero movies (and the world of cinema ...