Friday, February 23, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Unearth the Legend

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody marvels at a cultural phenomenon, action, horror, and alien spirits.


Director Ryan Coogler's Marvel superhero movie feels like a shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, much like James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy was when it came along back in 2014... And I had a similar viewing experience with Black Panther as I did with Guardians when I first saw it - it felt so different from what had come before, it took me a while to adjust to it and start properly enjoying it.

While Guardians expanded the cosmic possibilities of the MCU, Black Panther introduces a new level of science and technology. The primary setting of the film is the secretive African nation of Wakanda, which the outside world believes is a land of poor farmers, isolated from the outside world by mountain ranges and an impenetrable rain forest. It's actually a nation so technologically advanced it's like an alien world, and it's hidden beneath a hologram projection of wilderness. The Wakandans were able to achieve this technology thanks to a material called vibranium, which fell to this spot in Africa on a meteorite millions of years ago. Some vibranium has leaked out before - somehow Captain America's shield was made of it - but most of it is hidden away in Wakanda. And the tech isn't the only thing it has helped out with. Something about the meteorite also affected the local plant life, creating a heart-shaped herb that gives anyone who consumes it superhuman strength, speed, and instincts. The first man who discovered this herb, after being led to it by a vision of the panther goddess Bast, became the first ruler of Wakanda... and the first Black Panther, protector of his nation. This is a mantle that has been handed down for generations.

The last Black Panther was King T'Chaka (John Kani), who was killed in a terrorist attack in Captain America: Civil War. T'Chaka's son T'Challa took on the power and costume of the Black Panther in that film on a quest to avenge his father's death, but when the Black Panther film picks up a week after the events of Civil War, we find that the transition isn't that easy. There are ceremonies T'Challa has to go through before he can become King and Black Panther, including a fight to the death with anyone who might wish to take the throne from him.

As the film took us through Wakanda and showed all of its technological capabilities, I was really thrown for a loop. The hologram covering the nation, a herb that gives superhuman strength and can heal a likely-fatal bullet wound in one day, that same herb allowing people to communicate (or hallucinate that they're communicating) with lost loved ones in the afterlife, remote vehicle driving again involving holograms, T'Challa's teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) being like Q in the James Bond franchise and easily inventing things so advanced they make Tony "Iron Man" Stark look like a chump... It was a lot for me to take it.

In the midst of all the outlandish stuff, the film also deals with some very serious real world issues, like the debate of whether or not Wakanda should reveal itself to the outside world so they can provide aid to less fortunate nations and take in refugees. There are also racial issues in the mix. Black Panther has received a lot of attention, and has become a cultural phenomenon, because of the race of the strong, heroic title character. You can counter that there have been black superheroes before, and some of them have even gotten their own movies before, but none of those other movies have dealt with race as strongly as this one does. T'Challa is an African man who still lives by ancient African traditions, Wakanda is a mix of the futuristic and traditional, and the race of the main characters is very important to the overall plot. I may have thought people were forgetting Blade before I went to see Black Panther, but after seeing the movie I understand the hype. Blade didn't deal with race the way this does.

The villain of the film is Michael B. Jordan as Erik Stephens, a mercenary who has earned the nickname Killmonger because he has so many confirmed kills. Killmonger believes he has a claim to the throne of Wakanda, and he also believes the nation should reveal themselves to the world - and should provide their advanced weapons to fellow black people all over the world so they can rise up against their oppressors and take control of society through violence. Jordan delivers a very intense and theatrical performance that makes Killmonger a very memorable villain.

As he builds up to knocking T'Challa from his throne, Killmonger teams up with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has been to Wakanda before, when he stole some vibranium in 1992. Klaue was introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but Black Panther is his chance to shine... And I'm kind of ambivalent about the character, because he brings both very dark moments to the film and some goofy moments, cackling out one-liners and talking about the music he has on a Soundcloud account.

Chadwick Boseman does strong work in the role of T'Challa. He's a good, likeable hero, and has a great support team - The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira as his guard Okoye; Lupita Nyong'o as his ex-girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia; Winston Duke as helpful rival M'Baku; Forest Whitaker as Wakandan Zuri. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is in there as the conflicted W'Kabi. Angela Bassett isn't given a whole lot to do as T'Challa's mother Ramonda. The highlight of the film, though, is Letitia Wright as the aforementioned Shuri, who pretty much steals the show out from under everyone else, she's so much fun to watch.

My favorite part of the movie involves a trip to South Korea to stop Klaue and Killmonger from selling a piece of recovered vibranium, which leads to a fun sequence in a casino - where Martin Freeman's Civil War character Everett K. Ross of the CIA joins the film - and a crazy car chase. That was the peak of the action for me.

When the film reaches its get climax, things get a bit scattered and weird. I was surprised to find that the final battles reminded me of the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace. It has pretty much the same set-up of cutting between aerial action, a battle being fought on the ground between large groups (and there are even sci-fi style creatures involved, with giant rhinos covered in vibranium armor), and a more personal fight going on elsewhere. Here, that personal fight is Black Panther vs. Killmonger, in his own costume and with his own enhanced abilities. There's a whole lot of CGI involved in all of this, but I did feel that Black Panther and Killmonger were CG too often in their fight.

A lot of people are already ranking Black Panther as their top favorite film of the MCU, or at least in their top five. I can't really rank it yet. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, this film deals with a character that I'm not very familiar with, and it showed me things I didn't expect. It took me some time to get into Guardians, and now I do it rank it as one of my favorite MCU movies. I don't know if Black Panther will end up in my top five once I've had more time to dwell on it, and more chances to watch it, but it is a good film.

PASSENGER 57 (1992)

Wesley Snipes has had some major ups and downs over the course of his career, with a down swing really hitting the bottom when he had to serve three years in prison for failing to file taxes. One of the greatest up swings came in the early '90s, when Snipes had lead roles in several popular films within just a few years. One of his most popular is the Kevin Hooks-directed "Die Hard on a plane" action flick Passenger 57, which provides the definitive line of Snipes's career: "Always bet on black."

In the film, which was written by David Loughery, Dan Gordon, and Stewart Raffill, Snipes plays John Cutter, a former Secret Service agent who has a troubled mind and tragedy in his past, as so many great action heroes do. He even has the same problem many other heroes do: his wife was killed. In this case, it was a robbery gone wrong, which Cutter was present for, that took the life of his love. We get a black & white flashback to this event, when the man whose job involved protecting people wasn't able to protect his wife.

Since then, Cutter has been working as a security specialist for an airline, instructing flight attendants how to handle hijacking situations. Then Cutter gets an offer to become Vice President of the counterterrorism unit at Atlantic International Airlines. Given the fact that this offer comes from characters played by Bruce Greenwood and Tom Sizemore, the most shocking thing about this film is that neither of them turn out to be traitors in league with the villain. However, this offer does require Cutter to take a meeting in Los Angeles, and he ends up boarding a plane where one of his fellow passengers is recently captured terrorist Charles "The Rane of Terror" Rane (Bruce Payne), who is being taken to California by FBI agents so he can face justice there.

Rane's lawyer has warned him that California has the death penalty, so he should try to plead insanity, but Rane refuses to, believing himself to be a misunderstood genius rather than a madman. He even violently forces his lawyer to repeat, "Charles Rane is not insane." Totally not crazy.

As you could guess, the decision to put Rane on a passenger plane turns out to be a horrible move. Rane is soon free of his restraints and he and his henchmen have managed to take control of the plane. Most of the lackeys are the typical sort of guys you expect to see take a beating in an action movie, but there's also Elizabeth Hurley as henchwoman Sabrina, who got onto the flight by being disguised as a flight attendant.

As he fights to take back control of the plane and save its passengers, Cutter also gets assistance from a flight attendant - Alex Datcher as Marti Slayton, who we saw Cutter give a stern talking to during one of his classes because she chose to fight rather than follow the fake hijacker's orders. And yet when Cutter is faced with hijakers, he starts kicking asses left and right.

We know Snipes is a capable action hero and we know Payne has the icy villain thing down, they've both done this sort of thing again and again. Here they're pitted against each other in a film that is an excellent example of old school, straightforward action filmmaking. It tells its story quickly, getting to the hijacking within the first 30 minutes and then packing the remaining of the running time with fights, tough guy lines, and moments similar to scenes from Die Hard (or Die Hard 2). Plus an unexpected stopover at a carnival.

It has to tell its story quickly - I didn't remember this from my multiple childhood viewings, but Passenger 57 is a short movie, running just under 84 minutes. Including 3 minutes of end credits and a padded 3 minute title sequence. It fits everything it needs to within that short time.

It's short, it's simple, it was made on a budget that would be the equivalent of $26.5 million today, and it was a major release for Warner Bros. A box office hit that found an enduring place in pop culture. I wish studios could find some room amidst the big spectacle movies to release more action movies like this these days.

Around the time that he was becoming an action hero with Passenger 57, Snipes was attempting to develop his own cinematic adaptation of the Marvel Comics property Black Panther. Three drafts of the script were written, but the project didn't get far before being abandoned because the technology wasn't there to properly pull it off in those days. So Snipes set his sights on another Marvel character - Blade. And his 1998 Blade movie was a major stepping stone in the comic book movie boom that continues to this day, twenty years later.


Writer/director Derek Nguyen's supernatural thriller The Housemaid is a film that might have been just as effective if it hadn't featured any genre elements at all. Even as it is, it functions primarily as a drama, with an orphaned young woman named Linh (Kate Nhung) landing a job as a housemaid at a French plantation in Vietnam and proceeding to fall into a romantic relationship with the landowner, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud) - a man who happens to be engaged to a woman who's living in France. When Laurent's fiancée inevitably shows up at the plantation, you know it's going to cause some trouble for him and Linh.

This story plays out in a fascinating place and time in history; 1953 Vietnam, a decade before the United States Armed Forces became fully engaged in a war in that country, but at which time there was already a war being waged there, between the French Union forces and Vietnamese forces seeking independence from the French Empire. I really know nothing about this part of history (the main reason I even know the French had plantations in Vietnam is Apocalypse Now Redux), so I was intrigued by the small pieces of information given here.

If you're not inclined to be entertained by the story of a Vietnamese housemaid being romanced by a wealthy Frenchman in the 1950s, you might find The Housemaid tough to sit through, as the majority of the 104 minute running time is dedicated to that side of the plot. The drama far outweighs the horror element. Of course, there is the opening scene that gives away the outcome of the romance, so maybe the promise that this is going to end in bloody tragedy will help you get through all the lovey dovey stuff. Personally, I spent most of the movie thinking the opening scene was completely unnecessary, but when the story gets back around to that moment I realized Nguyen had a very good reason for starting the film out the way it does. The final act benefits from that bit of "flash forward" storytelling.

The horror scenes felt like they were sprinkled in to add a little extra flavor, but they do provide some nice visuals and a good amount of creepiness. Linh starts having nightmares and scary visions soon after she moves into the plantation, and for good reason. She has heard the stories about the hundreds of workers who were beaten to death at the plantation during its dark history, their bodies buried among the rubber trees, enriching the soil. She knows about the place where runaway workers were imprisoned, some starved to death. She has heard the story about Laurent's former wife drowning their baby and killing herself. It's not surprising she would be disturbed while staying at this place, nor is it surprising that strange things would happen at a place where such terrible events have occurred.

Linh sees things like monster hands bursting out of a crib; the ominous figure of Laurent's late wife, who has crawled out of her watery grave; ghouls walking among the trees; human remains strewn across the forest floor. The longer she stays at the plantation, the more the spirits step up their game. They start causing bodily harm.

Nguyen does a great job presenting the horror elements, and in fact the entire film is incredibly well crafted. This is a very impressive debut for the filmmaker, one that establishes him as a director to keep an eye on in the future. With this film he proves that he can make drama captivating, and that he can make horror properly unnerving. He could go anywhere from here, and it will be interesting to see where he chooses to go.

The Housemaid is set to get the remake treatment, which is a fact that weighed heavily on my mind while watching this film. I can easily imagine a remake diluting the story and dropping in a lot more jump scares, but hopefully that won't be the case. The Housemaid has more on its mind than just saying "Boo!" to the audience, and a remake shouldn't reduce it to that level. But if it does, at least we'll always have Nguyen's film to appreciate.

The review of The Housemaid first appeared on


There's speculation that John Carpenter's film Ghosts of Mars started out as a sequel to his earlier films Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., that when Carpenter started working on the screenplay with Larry Sulkis the protagonist was Kurt Russell's character Snake Plissken. The title would have been Escape from Mars; a shift in plans after Carpenter and Russell said they would follow up L.A. (if it had been successful) with Escape from Earth. Then at some point Plissken was swapped out for a different antihero, and somewhere along the line Carpenter decided to turn it into a horror story that drew inspiration from the 1967 film Quatermass and the Pit, which Carpenter has made clear he is a fan of.

Ghosts of Mars' Escape roots have never been officially confirmed, but the finished film is very Escape-like. It's set in a future time, in this case 2176, and has an opening that catches us up on how things have changed between now and then - by 2176, there are 640,000 colonists living on Mars, which has been 84% terraformed and is 10 years from having air like Earth. There's a matriarchal society in place, and laws are enforced by the Mars Police Force.

The film centers on a particular squad of Mars police officers - Pam Grier as Commander Helena Braddock, Natasha Henstridge as the pill-popping Lieutenant Melanie Ballard, Clea DuVall as Officer Bashira Kincaid, Liam Waite as Officer Michael Descanso, a then-mostly-unknown Jason Statham (sporting more hair than usual) as Officer Jericho Butler - who have caught a train with Peter Jason and Robert Carradine at the controls, assigned to pick up an alleged criminal from a remote mining village and escort him to a major city, the first city on Mars, where he will face justice.

That criminal is James "Desolation" Williams, played by Ice Cube and this film's version of Snake Plissken - or its version of Napoleon Wilson, if you want to go back to Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. He used this set-up a few times. Desolation is accused of murdering multiple people... and when the officers reach the village, they do find evidence of a massacre, blood and body parts all over the place. But Desolation didn't do it. He's sitting in his jail cell in the middle of a seemingly deserted village. The only regular people left are Desolation's fellow prisoners (Wanda De Jesus as Akooshay, Rick Edelstein as Zimmerman, and Doug McGrath as Benchley); a trio of guys known as Uno, Dos, and Tres (Duane Davis, Lobo Sebastian, and Rodney A. Grant), who witnessed something very strange happen at the mine; and Joanna Cassidy as Arlene Whitlock, a science officer who was fleeing from another mining disaster when her hot air balloon crashed.

Everyone else the officers encounter are violent and feral. They have modified and mutilated themselves. They've put on armor and they're out for blood. Led by a guy called Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), these maniacs set out to rid the village of the officers, the prisoners, and the men with numerical nicknames. Why have these people become murderers? The explanation is right there in the title: the miners have stirred up the spirits of the planet's former inhabitants, which have been lying dormant in the dirt. They are now possessed Martian warriors, and they want their planet back.

So cops and prisoners team up and weapon up to take on this small army of possessed aggressors. One problem: every time a Martian is killed, the spirit exits their body and attempts to possess someone else. As people are hacked to pieces and/or possessed around her, Ballard finds a way to avoid becoming a Martian vessel: it seems possession won't take if she's drugged up.

Ghosts of Mars sounds cool in description, but I find it to be one of Carpenter's lesser films. It's a goofy flick with clunky, awkward storytelling and action that doesn't live up to the concept's potential. There are some fun moments, but it feels quite underwhelming overall.

This would probably be more entertaining if the characters were better. They're bland at best, though, and some of them are downright horrendous. This may contain Ice Cube's worst performance - to put it mildly, Desolation Williams is no Snake Plissken or Napoleon Wilson. Statham wasn't the Statham we know yet, either, and the movie's greatest sin is that it completely wastes the amazing Pam Grier.

There are some great ideas at the base of Ghosts of Mars, but Carpenter couldn't pull off the execution of this one. And yet I keep coming back to it from time to time, approaching each viewing with the hope that this is going to be the time when Ghosts of Mars really works for me.

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