‘The Rhythm Section’ Abandons All Clarity in the Name of Single-Minded Revenge

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Max Casella

Director: Reed Morano

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Guns Mainly, Plus a Few Needles, and By-the-Book Sex Appeal

Release Date: January 31, 2020

In The Rhythm Section, Blake Lively goes by the name Stephanie Patrick, but while she is on her revenge mission, she assumes the identity of a woman named Petra, an assassin who recently disappeared and presumably died. Also, heading back to early in the film, she’s making ends meet as a prostitute who goes by whatever name her clients want her to have. That lack of identity is telling. We know what motivates her (avenging the death of her family in a plane crash), but we never really learn who she is on a more fundamental level. That elemental minimalism can work in an action flick, but I get the sense that The Rhythm Section wants us to understand the context surrounding Stephanie’s mission, but explanation thereof never fully arrives.

That identity crisis extends into just about every facet. For example, the title is a supremely non-obvious one for a movie that doesn’t have anything to do with music. Its meaning is provided when an even bigger question mark of a person, as played by Jude Law, tells Stephanie in the course of training her to become a killer that she must keep her internal rhythm section steady. Her heart is the drums, and her breathing is the bass. This fairly fascinating idea is never referenced again at any other point. I suppose that Stephanie certainly breathes hard and her heart pounds when she gets into some deadly situations, but that is not emphasized in a way that it is calling out to be.

So much of The Rhythm Section is an enigma. Stephanie looks like a pretty well-off young adult before her family dies, so why she must turn to prostitution is anyone’s guess. (Maybe, maybe, it’s her path into the underworld of assassin-ry.) And her entire physicality is plainly bizarre. During the main training montage, she seems completely incapable of running like a normal human being, with her arms flailing and torso bent at a nearly ninety degree angle. It’s certainly a bold acting choice on Lively’s part. Maybe it’s a physical manifestation of the agony of trauma. Anyway, this all leads into a cat-and-mouse game between Lively and Sterling K. Brown, which should be dynamite, but it’s built upon the barest bones of a structure.

The Rhythm Section is Recommended If You Like: Vaguely high-profile cinematic oddities

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Reluctant Kills

‘Frozen II’ Only Makes Sense If You’re From Arendelle

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CREDIT: Disney

In Frozen II, Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling out to her from the forest. There’s some gee-gaw mystical explanation by the end about what that’s all about, but its ultimate purpose seems to be making her realize that she ought to be living on her own out in the forest. It’s hard not to read queer subtext into that, if you’re at all open to the possibility that there could be queer subtext in an animated Disney movie. So that’s how that goes, and meanwhile, there’s plenty more going on elsewhere, as Elsa and Anna stumble across some soldiers who have been fighting each other for decades while also trying to understand the important messages their parents have left for them. Plus, Kristoff attempts to propose to Anna while she keeps misinterpreting him in maddeningly over-the-top fashion, Olaf keeps telling us that water remembers, when ALL OF A SUDDEN, I’m so overwhelmed that I’m now doing a Phil Donahue impression (or at least an impression of Darrell Hammond’s Donahue impression). Arendelle is a busy place. Sometimes it’s exhausting.

I give Frozen II One Million Voices out of a Million and a Half Water Memories.

This Is a Movie Review: Shane Black’s Version of ‘The Predator’ Has Some Interesting Ideas, But It Could Have Benefited From a Few More Drafts

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Jacob Tremblay, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski

Director: Shane Black

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Plenty of Blood and Even More Guts, Tourette’s-Style Profanity, and Predator Sex References

Release Date: September 14, 2018

The Predators from Predator aren’t really predators. They’re sportsmen, hunting for the thrill of it instead of for sustenance. If there’s one thing that The Predator wants you to know, it’s this. And also that “The Predator” is a cool name, so it doesn’t really matter that it’s not accurate. This edition is filled with ideas, most of them more high-minded than the title character’s etymology. That is to be expected, considering that writer/director Shane Black (who acted in the 1987 original) has made his career on somewhat self-aware and slightly askew takes on the action genre. But by his standards, the ideas on display here are a little undercooked.

It turns out that some Predators may not be entirely motivated by killing. In fact, there is now at least one rogue Predator who is interested in helping earthlings survive. That is the idea driving the plot, as Army Ranger sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) procures some valuable Predator tech that multiple parties are interested in retrieving. But this film’s most compelling idea is its definitive stance that spectrum disorder is the next step in human evolution. Boyd’s son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who gets his hands on his dad’s discovery, is somewhere on the spectrum. His condition is not especially debilitating; it mainly manifests itself in an aversion to loud noises and an aptitude towards accurately interpreting alien devices. He becomes a person of interest to all sides in this struggle, and it is a fairly rewarding avenue for this story to take.

But the issue is, for as much as The Predator wants to grapple with these weighty concepts, the majority of its substance consists of cheeky jokes and action set pieces, which are only sporadically satisfying. There is plenty of energy from a motley crew of military prisoners, like Keegan-Michael Key’s aficionado of “Yo momma” jokes and Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s spouter. But getting in the way of it all are inconsistent explanations about how to dispatch Predators. Do you shoot them in the head? Wear them down with multiple hits until they finally start to fall? Do you need to get their armor off? Sometimes each of those options works, but other times they don’t. Also, there are these Predator dogs that are actually kind of cute but I’m not sure what their purpose is. And that’s pretty much how this whole film goes: it’s pretty cool, but I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is.

The Predator is Recommended If You Like: The Hulk Dogs from Ang Lee’s Hulk

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Predator-Human Hybrids

This Is a Movie Review: Hotel Artemis

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CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Global Road Entertainment

I give Hotel Artemis 2.5 out of 5 Rules: https://uinterview.com/reviews/movies/hotel-artemis-movie-review-an-intriguing-premise-can-only-carry-this-thriller-so-far/

SNL Review March 10, 2018: Sterling K. Brown/James Bay

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-sterling-k-brownjames-bay/

The Bachelor – B

Sterling K. Brown’s Monologue – B

Celebrity Family Feud Oscars Edition – C+

This Is U.S. – B-

Coco vs. Shrek Dinner – B

It Came From the Woods – C

James Bay performs “Pink Lemonade” – B

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B
Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. – B-
Dawn Lazarus – A-

Black Panther Deleted Scene – C

Dr. Love – B

Movie Shoot – B-

Chris Fitzpatrick: Rock or Rap – B+

James Bay performs “Wild Love” – B

Dying Mother (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A-

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Black Panther’ Absolutely Resides Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Just a Hitherto Barely Explored Corner

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Ryan Coogler

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Fighting with a Variety of Weapons, Some of It Fairly Brutal and Bloody

Release Date: February 16, 2018

Black Panther culminates with the lesson, “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” This appeal would seem to apply most directly to the United States at this particular cultural moment, but instead it is an exhortation to the fictional African nation of Wakanda now that its new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has ascended. Wakanda is filled with vast riches and incredibly advanced technology thanks to the stockpile of the alien metal vibranium long ago delivered by a meteorite crash. But it is also supposedly one of the poorest nations on the planet, likely due to a generations-long isolationist policy. Much of Black Panther feels like buildup to this point of opening up to the rest of the world, and in that way it is a prelude to the sequels that are sure to come. But what it reveals over the course of that prelude is thrilling.

Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie, but with a majority-black cast, black director, and African setting, it is unabashedly black in so many ways that are unprecedented for a blockbuster of this magnitude. It is unsurprising then that its initial villain is reminiscent of blaxploitation heroes fighting against The Man. Ulysses Klaue (an agreeably gonzo Andy Serkis) is a white South African arms dealer who is looking to get his hands on vibranium and make a pretty penny in the black market.  But after Klaue is dispatched, the conflict ultimately comes down to that between T’Challa and Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who was born in America but has Wakandan roots and just as legitimate a claim to the throne as T’Challa. While Killmonger’s methods are overly destructive, his complaints, both personal and regarding how Wakanda does its public business, are legitimate. That Black Panther focuses on an intranational conflict should not be viewed as evidence of African and black cultures refusing to engage with the rest of the world, but rather an illustration that they already have plenty to keep themselves occupied.

While filled with several action set pieces and a fast-moving plot, Black Panther is most successful in its design and production elements. This is the sort of movie that brings a fully realized vision of a fictional world to life. The costumes are based on traditional African garb, but they are their own uniquely lavish style. Diverse tattoos and piercings add to the mix, including a few elements (such as one very stretched-out lower lip) that could be presented comically but are instead signs of dignity.

Culturally, this is a people that honors its elders, going so far as to have another dimension of sorts that exists at the nexus of technology and magic. Dubbed “the Ancestral Plane,” its purpose is for new kings to visit their deceased forebears for the sake of imparting necessary wisdom. Wakanda also treats its women in high regard, as they no big deal serve essential roles in government, science, and diplomacy. It may be true that the throne may not appear to be an option for woman (at least in this outing), but the monarchy is not as unilateral a position as it could possibly be. Considering all that progressiveness, it is disheartening that so much of Wakanda honor is bound up in a code of fighting and a culture of combat. That is not a complaint against the movie; in fact, what we have here is an appreciably complicated look at the difficulty to be a paragon of a nation.

The Black Panther is not just T’Challa, but rather a mantle that he holds currently. Accordingly, Black Panther the film is very much an ensemble piece, with attitude- and passion-driven performances from all the Wakandan tribes. The particular breakthrough is Letitia Wright (probably best known for the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s spitfire younger sister Shuri, who manages to be both the comic relief and the Q to his James Bond.

Black Panther fits squarely within the overarching narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though it can stand firmly on its own. Furthermore, it is nice to see it sidestep the easy template of the typical origin story that most solo superhero cinematic debuts tend towards. It has the standard two post-credits scenes, and weirdly enough they fit in the the MCU’s next chapter more squarely than other recent post-credits stingers. The last one is also more satisfying than those recent examples, perhaps because Black Panther takes care of its own, and we are ready when it stretches out.

Black Panther is Recommended If You Like: Shaft, Captain America: Civil War, Fruitvale Station

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Headwraps

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Marshall’ is an Electric Portrait of the Supreme Court Justice as a Young NAACP Defense Lawyer

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Open Road Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, James Cromwell, Dan Stevens, Ahna O’Reilly

Director: Reginald Hudlin

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Dangers of Being And/Or Defending a Black Man in Mid-Century America

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Moderate)

I almost feel like it is my Professional Critical Duty to take Marshall to task for its most straightforward biopic tendencies. In that vein, while Marcus Miller’s jazzy score that just won’t quit is agreeably toe-tapping, it does indeed make it consistently clear when you are supposed to feel angry, or concerned, or shocked, or stirred to pride. But I can live with one element being on the nose, especially if it is enjoyable in and of itself. Besides, Marshall mostly sidesteps biopic clichés (save for one silly moment of epiphany). It only just superficially feels cliché because justice prevails so rousingly. But it deserves to prevail because its subject is kind of one of the best lawyers in American history.

Reginald Hudlin’s film wisely opts for the surest path to biopic success, i.e., focusing on one chapter in the subject’s life. In 1940, more than two decades before he ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, and twelve years before he argued before that same court in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a lawyer working for the NAACP, whose mission was to represent wrongfully accused African Americans across the country. One of those wrongfully accused was Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, cast both for and against his type of commonly decent men), a driver for a wealthy Connecticut family on trial for raping the woman he works for (Kate Hudson). Marshall’s co-counsel is insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), but since Sam is the only one certified to practice law in the state, only he and not Thurgood can speak during the trial, thanks to the ruling of a possibly racist or perhaps just frustratingly strict judge (James Cromwell).

Marshall is not out to score liberal brownie points, though it could easily settle for that. What it is more interested in, and what makes it so valuable, is examining why systems and social norms exist, and exploiting them for the best possible solution. A man like Joseph can find himself unfairly fighting for his life not just because he is black, but also because he is not entirely innocent. He has been guilty of unfaithfulness, petty theft, and absentee parenting. None of this makes him a rapist, but it is the conflation of all crimes that has been used and continues to be used as faux justification for the endurance of institutional racism. Marshall the film, and Marshall the man, say that yes, there is racism here, but there’s more to it than that. When it comes down to it, judge, jury, and opposing counsel are all people, and they can be appealed to if you know how to wield the truth properly and effectively, and are willing to take a few shots from those who aren’t ready yet.

Marshall is Recommended If You Like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Conviction, Selma, 42

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Pebbles