Black Panther (PG-13) *****
There has been a lot of publicity about this film, and the reasons why are apparent early on. Wakanda is an African nation, hidden away from the rest of the world and a technological paradise. It is also the home of some pretty strong magic, made possible by a garden of purple flowers that, when mixed expertly and put in a drink, give the imbiber super powers.
Thus is born T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is also, upon occasion, the Black Panther. The drink gives him super powers but also a neat suit that can be willed upon him when needed.
Everything proceeds as usual in action films until we get to Wakanda. The guards are all superbly conditioned women! They, among others, pay fealty to T’Challa following the death of his father and the challenge to his authority from M’Baku (Winston Duke) and M’Baku’s yielding in the match.
Soon the Panther, now king accompanied by his girlfriend, Nokia (Lupita Nyong’o), and loyal friend Okoye (Danai Guira), are on the hunt for a burglar named Klaue, played with a great South African accent by the versatile Andy Serkis. He has taken some “Vibranium” from the British Museum and it is the source for all Wakanda’s power. Klaue is a very bad and dangerous man, armed as he is with a fake left arm powered by Vibranium that can shoot down almost anything. Inept CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) joins the hunt. Relentless in his pursuit of power in Wakanda is New Yorker Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who is actually a questionable heir to the throne of Wakanda and desperate to prove his worthiness as king.
Another element of the plot is IT specialist Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is T’Challa’s sister and protector of the technology of the country. T’Challa wants Wakanda to continue its peaceful, isolated, technological way, and Erik wants the country to become the militarized seat of empire.
With an anti-colonial stance, the film makes a strong pitch for global responsibility and interconnectedness. Judging from the size of an early audience for the film, “Black Panther” is going to be a big hit. Costumes, characters, special effects—they are all there in plenitude. The action is clear and beautifully performed and one starts wishing that more places could be like Wakanda—or Coachella …
Game Night (R) ****
Sometimes raunchy but always clever, this film starring Jason Bateman as Max and Rachel McAdams as his wife, Annie, delivers what we have needed all winter long—a snappy adult comedy. Jesse Plemons as the divorced cop-next-door, Gary, almost steals the picture but Bateman holds his own as the ultra-competitive nerd whose wife is perhaps more competitive than him. They have a circle of friends that enjoy game night but into their mix comes Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), in a rare comic role as an inveterate poser, roué and con man. He disrupts things by inviting the whole gang to his house on game night—the whole gang minus divorcé Gary, who is always seen in full police uniform with his Scottie dog under his arm.
As it turns out, relocating to Brooks’ posh pad was not such a good idea as Brooks has planned a “mystery kidnapping” night. The night is overtaken by real kidnappers who are looking for a Fabergé egg allegedly belonging to The Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall) but possessed for ransom by Brooks. This leaves a fake FBI agent unconscious on the floor, two other pretend robbers in dire straits and Annie in possession of what she assumes is a prop pistol. It isn’t. Mad chases ensue and the whole gang ends up at the airport in a hysterical last scene that is action-packed, funny and improbable, just as this whole movie has been from the beginning.
Classic scenes include the “Battle of the Metaphors” between Max and Annie and every scene between Ryan (Billie Magnussen) and all of his “dates” who range from brainiac to bimbo. There is also a running gag between a couple, Lamorne Morris as Kevin and Kyle Bunbury as Michelle, in which he tries to guess which celebrity she hints she slept with before they were married. Silly, like the rest of the movie, but laugh-inducing. Leave the kids at home, have a date night and enjoy “Game Night.”
Annihilation (R) ***
A presumptive, mystery-laden visual attempt at something mysterious, this ends up merely pretentious. Lena (Natalie Portman), widowed Army veteran and biologist, launches a search for the reasons behind her husband’s disappearance in what is called “The Shimmer.” It is an undulating wall of color from which one person has allegedly escaped—her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). Stone-faced, he cannot tell her anything that happened to him or even where he has been.
Accompanied by four other women (an odd choice, given that men were sent before), the five go into The Shimmer. The alleged leader is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Once in, the women have a tough time: One is eaten by a giant alligator, another by what appears to be a giant bear (really a monster half-bear, half ravenous pig).
There is a discussion of whether suicide is a rational path or whether all suicides are cases of self-destruction programmed into us. Do we really need the philosophical discussions when bears and ‘gators are eating our comrades? No, we do not, and we don’t need the last hour of the film either.
This film purports to be both mysterious and wonderful, and Portman is the last one standing. (No spoiler: Part of the problem with the suspense factor in the film is that Portman is alive, being debriefed by the Army after she has escaped.) Or is it Lena or some other life form that makes it out of the special effects? By the end, I could not have cared less. The lucky ones were those eaten first.
Every Day (PG-13) **
A casting director’s dream, this one allows her to cast all those teen look-alikes who can’t get work anywhere else. The lead, Angourie Rice from Australia, plays Lena, a charming enough high schooler, Rhiannon, who stumbles into the weirdest plot you can imagine: A character called “A” who cannot answer the question as to whether it’s a male or female (it plays both) wakes up every day as a different person. Unfortunately for Lena, she can’t keep track of who’s who (and neither can we) and falls for several “As,” including girls. The “A” she’s with cannot remember his or her experiences with Lena, which is confusing, of course.
After a while, we cannot keep track either. There are 14 characters who have two character names, and most of these characters are not memorable. That’s fine as far as a plot gimmick goes, but the script allows some of them to stay past their due dates as their new characters, and it gets not only complex but stupid.
The script is mostly high school clichés and some of the scenes are cringe-worthy. You would be better off renting “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”