BLACK PANTHER (2018) – Superior Film Much More Than Just A Superhero Movie



Every once in a while, the superhero film reinvents itself.  It happened twice in 2008, with THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and IRON MAN (2008). It happened again with THE AVENGERS (2012).

And now it has happened once more with BLACK PANTHER (2018).

BLACK PANTHER is the latest superhero movie to come from Marvel, a comic book company that has been churning out top quality superhero films regularly since IRON MAN in 2008.  They show no signs of slowing down.  And while all their movies do follow a similar formula— wise-cracking superheroes who like to bicker and often fight with each other, high production values, A-list actors, superior writing, and a fun sense of humor— they have tweaked things on occasion. THE AVENGERS brought the “family” of superheroes to the forefront, where the conflicts were more about hero vs. hero than hero vs. villain.

Now comes BLACK PANTHER, a deeper, more resonating tale that reaches further into the social, political, and racial issues of our time than any superhero film before it.  As such, it’s that rare film that supersedes its superhero costuming and succeeds on a level usually reserved for thought-provoking Oscar nominated dramas.

BLACK PANTHER tells the story of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is destined to become king of the African kingdom of Wakanda after his father, the king, was killed in events chronicled in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). Wakanda is a special kingdom.  The people there have in their possession an element which gives them incredible technological and healing powers, powers they hide from world so as not to become involved in global conflicts. It’s also what gives the sitting king of Wakanda the power to become Black Panther, the warrior who protects his people.

One of T’Challa’s first challenges as king is to hunt down the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a man who has a long history of inflicting pain on Wakanda.  This chase reconnects T’Challa with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who is also after Klaue.  When Klaue escapes, one of T’Challa’s best friends W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) laments that he had hoped that T’Challa would be different from his father, but like his father, T’Challa has failed to reign in an enemy of the nation.

Things grow more complicated for T’Challa when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda with bombshell revelations and a challenge for the new king, both of which threaten to change everything about Wakanda and its status in the world.

I absolutely loved BLACK PANTHER.  It has all the things that have made the Marvel superhero movies successful and then some.

For starters, once more it boasts a phenomenal cast. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in GET ON UP (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in MARSHALL (2017), is perfect here as T’Challa/Black Panther.  He strikes the right balance between strength, honor, heroism, and vulnerability.  He makes T’Challa the perfect leader, yet when he is challenged for his crown, the notion that he will win that challenge is anything but a done deal.

Michael B. Jordan knocks it out of the park as Erik Killmonger, the young boy abandoned by the Wakandans to grow up in the slums of Oakland, CA who had to fight every day of his life to get back to his native country.  Killmonger is one of the villains in this movie, to be sure, but so much of what he says makes perfect sense, and his view of the world is much closer to reality than T’Challa’s.  It’s a fascinating role and Jordan, the star of CREED (2015), is more than up to the task.  I haven’t felt this much empathy for a screen villain in a very long time.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o [12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)] is very good as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend who he spends most of the movie trying to get back together with.  Nakia is T’Challa’s rock, and she’s with him every step of the way in this adventure.

As good as Nyong’o is here, I enjoyed two of the other female performers even more. Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD (2012-2018), is mesmerizing here as the warrior Okoye. And Letitia Wright is just as good as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, who not only gives her king brother a hard time throughout, but is also the keeper of all the technological secrets and advancements of Wakanda.  In short, she gets to play “Q” to T’Challa’s “James Bond.”

Martin Freeman is amiable as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is formidable as the villainous heavy Ulysses Klaue.

The cast also includes Daniel Kaluuya from GET OUT (2017) as W’Kabi and Forest Whitaker as Zuri.  As I said at the outset, BLACK PANTHER, like the Marvel superhero films which preceded it, has an A-list cast.

I found the entire movie to be pretty much mesmerizing.  Director Ryan Coogler, who also directed CREED (2015), drew me in at the outset with a combination of strong storytelling, cinematic scenes, and a Wakandan mythology that is prevalent throughout the movie.

BLACK PANTHER is loaded with memorable scenes, from the exciting to the poignant.  T’Challa’s first encounter with Klau followed by the ensuing car chase is as an exciting sequence as you’ll find.  It’s as good or better as anything done in the James Bond films.  The challenge bout between T’Challa and Killmonger is absolutely thrilling and exceedingly emotional, and the all-out climatic battle at the end of the movie is a rousing way to close out the film.

Scenes between T’Challa and his father, and Killmonger and his father are moving and sad and touch upon philosophies of life and of race.

It’s an outstanding script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. The thoughts on race alone and the plight of the black man in the world are themes that make this one above and beyond a normal superhero tale.  You can almost see the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. inside T’Chala and Malcolm X inside Killmonger as they spar on the right way to save black lives in the world.

The film also doesn’t shy away from the political, addressing current issues as well. T’Challa’s statement to the United Nations  that we must “build bridges, not barriers,” is a clear reference to a certain wall that a certain leader wants to build.

When Killmonger finds himself on the throne, questions arise as to the responsibilities of fellow leaders and the citizenry when faced with an irresponsible king with no experience.

The script goes even farther than current events, examining in general the difficulties of being a world leader, as when T’Challa’s father tells his son, “You’re a good man.  And it’s not easy for a good man to be king.”

BLACK PANTHER is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tale for our time, a look at the responsibilities of those who possesses great power, of what happens when someone without experience gains that power and uses it for a personal and oftentimes reckless agenda, and it’s an examination of the responsibilities of race relations, of just what it means to rebel against oppressors, to achieve equality in the world without becoming that which you’re trying to overcome.  It’s as deep and as resonating a superhero film as I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also a Marvel superhero film, which means that at the end of the day, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

I loved BLACK PANTHER. It’s not only one of the best superhero movies to come out in a long time, but it’s also a powerful movie in its own right, as it deals astonishingly well with issues of race relations and responsibilities of those in power.

It’s a masterfully told story of our time.






Riveting Western HOSTILES (2017) Earns Its Title


Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale share the danger in HOSTILES (2017).

HOSTILES (2017), the new western adventure by writer/director Scott Cooper, is anchored by a solid performance by Christian Bale as a hardened cavalry officer ordered to escort an aged and ill Cheyenne chief on a dangerous trek from New Mexico to Montana, a chief who was once responsible for the deaths of many of the officer’s men.

HOSTILES opens with a brutal attack on a family by a group of Comanches that leaves a father and three children dead.  The mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape but not before seeing  her entire family, including her infant, slain.  The action switches to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) receiving orders that he must provide safe passage for an ailing Cheyenne chief, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to his home land in Montana.  Blocker wants no part of this mission because he knows firsthand the merciless carnage which Chief Yellow Hawk once caused, but as his superior officer Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) reminds him, Blocker is no saint himself.

A career soldier and months away from retirement and a pension, Blocker reluctantly agrees to follow his orders.  Soon after Blocker, his men, and Chief Yellow Hawk embark on their journey, they come across and rescue Rosalie Quaid but realize the deadly Comanches are still on the prowl, putting everyone, including Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, in danger.  And the murderous Comanches are only one of the threats which Captain Blocker and his party must face on their increasingly treacherous trek to Montana, all of which provide for a very dark and thrilling western adventure.

If you like westerns, you definitely want to see HOSTILES.  Writer/director Scott Cooper, whose previous films include BLACK MASS (2015) and OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), the latter also starring Christian Bale and one of my favorite movies that year, has made a tense, compelling drama that hooks you from the get-go with its savage opening scene and then pretty much never lets go. Sure, not everything works— Blocker’s story arc is a bit too neat and tidy at times— but enough of it does to make this movie a must-see trip to the theater.

Christian Bale is rock solid as Captain Blocker, a weathered military officer who has seen his share of deplorable acts of horror and has committed them as well, which he justifies because it’s his job to kill.  Bale brings the necessary intensity to the role, as well as the scars and pains which are apparent in his eyes throughout.  It’s a very satisfying performance, and I enjoyed Bale more here than in the previous two films I saw him in, THE BIG SHORT (2015) and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013).

Bale is phenomenal, and he’s not alone.  HOSTILES boast a very strong cast.  Rosamund Pike is nearly as good as Bale here as the bereaved yet strong spirited Rosalie Quaid.  She is every bit as locked into her performance as Bale, and the two share an uneasy chemistry, brought together by tragedies in their past and their present.

Veteran actor Wes Studi, who I most remember for his powerful performance as Magua in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) is sufficiently noble as Chief Yellow Hawk.  Jesse Plemons, who seems to be showing up everywhere these days and who stood out as Todd in the final season of BREAKING BAD (2012-2013), plays Lt. Rudy Kidder, a soldier on Blocker’s team with a solid resume but little experience in the field. And we just saw Plemons in THE POST (2017).

Rory Cochrane delivers a strong performance as well as Sgt. Thomas Metz, Blocker’s longtime military buddy and right hand man.  Stephen Lang, most recently seen as the blind man in the thriller DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a small role as Col. Abraham Biggs, the man who gives Blocker his controversial orders.  And Bill Camp, who also had a memorable small role in MOLLY’S GAME (2017) as a doomed poker player, is memorable once again in another small bit, this time as an annoying newspaper reporter.

Timothee Chalamet has a brief role as a young private.  Chalamet was impressive as one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends in LADY BIRD (2017), and he’s also receiving praise for his role in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017).

Fans of THE WALKING DEAD will be happy to see Scott Wilson ride in as an angry land owner.  Wilson played Hershel on THE WALKING DEAD for a few seasons.  Of course, Wilson is known for much more than THE WALKING DEAD, as his career goes all the way back to IN COLD BLOOD (1967).

And Ben Foster even shows up as a military prisoner on death row who claims he’s no more dangerous than Blocker and that he’s seen Blocker do far worse things than he ever did. Foster is fine here, but he’s played this type of role before.  A lot.

Foster and Bale previously starred together in another western, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), another hard-hitting action tale where Bale played the hero and Foster a loose cannon bad guy.

Scott Cooper’s screenplay, based on an unpublished manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, is a good one.  It tells a riveting story that held my interest throughout and it features characters even those in minor roles who are fleshed out adequately.

And Cooper is just as successful behind the camera.  The picturesque shots of New Mexico and Montana are reminiscent of the great western vistas captured by legendary directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks.  The action scenes are intense and suspenseful and provide some edge of your seat moments.

The first half of the movie admittedly plays better than the second half, when Blocker and company are dealing with the Comanches.  What follows, while interesting, never captures the same intensity as these early scenes, although the ending is powerfully tragic.

And the very ending, the final shot of the film, is as cinematic as they come, and could easily be destined as one of those closing shots that people long remember.

I loved HOSTILES.  It easily hearkens back to the classic westerns of yesteryear, films like STAGECOACH (1939), THE SEARCHERS (1956),  and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992). Yet it also possesses a dark edge that makes it every bit as gripping as a contemporary thriller.

You’ll easily understand why this one is called HOSTILES, an understanding that won’t stop you from enjoying this extremely satisfying film.








DEN OF THIEVES (2018) – Action Flick Too Derivative To Stand Out


Gerard Butler as tough unconventional cop Nick Flanagan in DEN OF THIEVES (2018).

DEN OF THIEVES (2018), the new action movie starring Gerard Butler, is a gritty violent bank heist tale that plays it “safe”— heh heh— with its by- the- numbers storytelling.

Worse yet, it’s rather derivative of previous movies of this type, a formula that prevents it from being all that memorable.

DEN OF THIEVES opens with the statement that Los Angeles, California is the bank robbery capital of the world, and then goes on to tell the story of two very different groups.  There’s the elite unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department led by tough guy cop Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) who tells a man he’s interrogating that they don’t arrest people, they kill them, so he’d better talk. Yup, Flanagan and his team break all the rules to get the job done.

The other group, of course, is the bank robbers, led by a mastermind who goes by the name of Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) whose plan in this movie is to rob the one bank that no one’s been able to rob, the Federal Reserve. And his plan is a good one, with a decent chance of success, unless Flanagan and his team can figure it out and stop him first.

And that’s pretty much the story of DEN OF THIEVES. And while there are plenty of characters on both sides, on Flanagan’s team and in Merriman’s crew, the film mostly focuses on Flanagan and Merriman, with the exception of one other character, the driver for Merriman’s group, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who Flanagan and his men pick up, work over, and use as their insider to learn what Merriman is up to.  Of course, it works both ways, because once Merriman finds out, he uses Donnie to feed Flanagan false information.

As I said, DEN OF THIEVES is gritty and full of testosterone.  If you like your movies full of aggressive ripped characters, with barely a female character in sight, then this is the film for you.  Now, I like action movies as much as the next guy, but the biggest problem with DEN OF THIEVES is just how derivative it is.  It borrows heavily from other action films of this type, most notably Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, a film I happen to like a lot. It borrows heavily from other films as well, including THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995).  As a result, nothing that happens in the film is all that refreshing or original.

While DEN OF THIEVES isn’t a straight remake of HEAT, its plot is basically the same. The characters’ names have been changed, and their situations are a bit different, but the story of unconventional cop vs. mastermind bank robber is identical.  And HEAT did a better job with its characterizations.

In DEN OF THIEVES, the characters really aren’t fleshed out at all.  We learn a little bit about Flanagan’s home life, as he is in the midst of a divorce, separating him from his two daughters, and we see him very upset about this.  But what we don’t see is how this affects him on the job.  You’d think he’d be in a really bad mood after being served divorce papers, and he might take it out on the bank robbers, but he must be good at repressing these feelings because they hardly affect him at all, the result being a one note performance by Gerard Butler: tough and mean, all the time.  I actually had to laugh the first time we find out Flanagan has a wife and two young daughters.  Watching this guy chain smoke, eat donuts and basically look like he’s heart attack waiting to happen, the last thing I expected was to find out that he was a family man.

First-time director Christian Gudegast, who also wrote the screenplay, does a better job behind the camera than at the keyboard. The action scenes here are decent, and a couple of high speed chase scenes satisfy, but the characterizations are thin, the dialogue basic, and the entire tale unoriginal.

Gudegast is the son of actor Eric Braeden, known to genre fans for his appearances in such films as ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970).  He also played the werewolf in the episode “The Werewolf” of the TV show KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974) starring Darren McGaven as everyone’s favorite reporter/monster hunter Carl Kolchak.  Braedon’s also known for his work on the daytime soap opera, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

Braeden appears here in DEN OF THIEVES in a small role.

The acting here is decent.  I enjoyed Gerard Butler as tough guy cop Nick Flanagan, even if he was a very unlikable character.  Pablo Schreiber is also convincing as Merriman, but the problem is we know less about Merriman than we do Flanagan, so neither one of these two characters, in spite of the acting performances by the actors, have much depth.

Probably the best performance in the film belongs to O’Shea Jackson Jr. as driver Donnie. He’s not only convincing to the audience, but to Flanagan and Merriman as well, both of whom decide to keep him alive when he tells them he knows nothing of what the other side is doing.  Donnie is the one character when he’s on-screen who you are curious about since you’re not quite sure what he’s really up to— an innocent driver, undercover cop, or something else?  It’s a good performance by Jackson, Jr., who is the son of rapper Ice Cube.

And while there are plenty of other folks on both sides, no one really stands out. 50 Cent looks tough as fellow bank robber Levi, but we learn nothing about him.  And for fans of THE WALKING DEAD, another baddie, Mack, is played by Cooper Andrews, who last season played Jerry, King Ezekiel’s loyal right hand man, on the popular AMC show.

DEN OF THIEVES is a decent action movie, but unfortunately it’s just not original enough to stand out.  It also has a script that doesn’t add any depth whatsoever, and it simply doesn’t have enough going for it to sustain its 140 minute running time.

I liked it while I was watching it, but five minutes after it was done, it was all easily forgotten.


Best Horror Movies of 2017



Here’s a look at my Top 5 Horror movies of 2017.

But first, four honorable mentions, movies that didn’t make my Top 5 list but that I enjoyed all the same:  SPLIT, ANNABELLE: CREATION, ALIEN:  COVENANT, and PERSONAL SHOPPER.

And now, my top 5:

5 IT

IT (2017), the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, does what King stories do best: it creates believable characters, puts them in harm’s way, and then makes you squirm as they fight for their lives. IT is a very good movie that actually works better as a drama about a group of friends dealing with the threats in their lives than as a straight horror movie because it’s not really that scary.  Its scariest scene might be its first scene, where young Georgie first encounters Pennywise in the sewer.  This is a frightening sequence, a great way to start the film, and while Pennywise does have some decent moments later, none are quite as potent as this first one.

Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise here in the 2017 version was good enough to make me forget about Tim Curry while I watched this movie.  Taken as a whole, I thought this new version was better than the 1990 TV rendition. The driving force behind this 2017 movie is Bill and his friends, both the way they are written and the way they are acted.

The child actors are all excellent, and they’re the part of the story that for me, works best in this film adaptation of IT.



belko_experiment larger poster

How low can humanity go? For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end. Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie. In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies. And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the infamous Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.




IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is everything that the rebooted THE MUMMY (2017) is not. It’s simple in its execution, it’s believable, it’s frightening, and its depiction of horror on the big screen is as pure as it gets.  The only thing the two films have in common is they opened on the same weekend.

IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place during a time when some unknown disease has crippled the world, thrusting people into heavy-duty survival mode.  We follow two families sharing one house as they try to survive in this apocalyptic world, never knowing how much to trust each other. IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story and made it compelling and frightening, without gimmicks or special effects. A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with the characters, who we get to know and care for. Solid cast, led by Joel Edgerton. Riley Keough is also memorable. And Kelvin Harrison Jr. stands out as Travis, the innocent young man who has to see and live through these horrors.

If you like your horror pure and simple, without convoluted stories or  overblown special effects or gratuitous blood and gore, if you simply like to be scared, and to watch a story about characters you care about thrown into a situation which puts them in extreme danger, then IT COMES AT NIGHT is the movie for you.



A CURE FOR WELLNESS is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.

A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center.  The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all.  When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick.  The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.

Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back.  The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs)  tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him.  But Lockhart is involved in a car accident and finds himself recuperating as a patient at the spa, and that’s when all the trouble starts.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling. The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller. It’s also a compelling mystery. And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it takes on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.



get out poster

The best part of GET OUT is that it is so unlike most other horror movies today. It uses as its canvas a true-to-life story about the awkwardness and difficulties of a mixed race relationship which serves as a springboard to a genuine tale of horror.  In the world of horror movies, it’s a breath of fresh air.

In GET OUT, an African-American young man Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) travels with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time.  Even though Rose promises that her parents are not racist, Chris still has reservations about the weekend.  He knows how difficult these things can be. In this case, he has no idea.

Written and directed by first time director Jordan Peele, known more for his work as a comedic actor, GET OUT strikes a nice balance between drama, horror, and even some comedy.  The script is excellent.  The dialogue is spot on, especially for Chris, as he processes what is going on, at first taking everything in stride, then becoming somewhat suspicious, and eventually getting into full steam red flag mode.

And the film doesn’t skimp on the horror.  When we finally learn what is going on, it’s a decent reveal and is a natural progression on everything that has come before it.  It doesn’t come out of left field. GET OUT is a refreshing horror movie, one that moves away from the standard horror movie tropes we so often see, and I for one was happy for it.

It’s my pick for the Best Horror Movie of 2017.

Thanks for reading!











THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017) Hard Hitting Horror Movie Makes Its Mark



belko_experiment larger poster

How low can humanity go?

For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

Belko Industries is a company located in Bogata, Colombia.  On a morning that begins like any other morning, the employees come to work, but  they soon notice that the non-American employees are being sent home, and there is a heavier military presence outside the office building.  Rumor has it that there has been some kind of bomb scare, which makes sense in this day and age, and so the 80 employees inside the office continue with business as usual.

Normalcy comes to a crashing halt when a voice announces over the intercom that unless the office workers kill two of their own, innocent people will die.  The doors to the building then lock and metal shielding covers all the windows, effectively locking the 80 occupants inside, and cell phone service is also disrupted.

At first, everyone believes it’s a prank, and they rationalize that as long as they stay calm, nothing bad is going to happen.  When the time limit comes and goes, the voice announces they have failed the first part of the test, and suddenly two people inside the office die as their heads explode.  The workers discover that their co-workers were not killed by gunshot blasts but rather by explosions from within their skulls.  They realize that they all have implants in the back of their necks, put there by the company as tracking devices in case they ever got kidnapped in the highly dangerous Colombian countryside.  Now they understand that they all have bombs inside their bodies, and so they know that whoever is responsible for this horror can kill them with ease.

The voice on the intercom raises the stakes:  unless they kill 30 people inside the building, the voice says 60 people will be killed, so they must kill 30 to save 30.  The employees pretty much divide into two camps, one led by Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) who believes killing is wrong, and that they must use their energies to find a way to escape, and the other led by Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who with his military background believes that it is best in order to save 30 lives, to eliminate 30 lives.

I really enjoyed THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, not because it’s a highbrow thought-provoking drama, but because it’s a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end.

Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

McLean crafts some very suspenseful scenes, the high point when Barry and his team round everyone up and decide to choose who will live and who will die.  Then the power goes out, and all hell breaks loose.

James Gunn’s screenplay presents the perfect set-up for a thriller and then executes it brilliantly.  Sure, the characters aren’t as fleshed out as one might want, but this movie is a rare instance where I didn’t mind the lack of character development.  The characters are all terrified, and knowing that they could die at any moment, was enough for me.  They become instantly sympathetic because their lives are in danger.

I wasn’t nuts about the ending.  It’s not weak enough to sink the movie, but it is certainly not the film’s best part.  It’s inevitable with a story like this that you want to know who is responsible and why, and I don’t think the answers provided here were anything special.  The ending just isn’t as satisfying as all that came before it.

Other than the strong screenplay, the best part of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the acting.

John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as Mike Milch.  He makes Mike a very likeable character who’s easy to route for.  He also cares for his co-workers and values their lives, which is something some of the others quickly forget.  Gallagher Jr. was also in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he was also very good, and he starred as the masked killer in the horror movie HUSH (2016).

Equally as good as Gallagher Jr. is Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris.  Goldwyn plays Norris as a three-dimensional character, not just a cardboard cutout.  While Norris sees himself as the man most qualified to both choose who lives and dies and then to be the one to pull the trigger at the executions, when the time arrives for him to do this, you can see the pain on his face.  The horror of what he is doing is not lost on him.

Adria Arjona also stands out as Mike’s co-worker and girlfriend Leandra.

John C. McGinley, probably most known for his role as Dr. Cox on the TV comedy series SCRUBS (2001-2010), but I always remember him for his outstanding portrayal as serial killer Edgler Vess in INTENSITY (1997), is excellent here as the unhinged Wendell Dukes, a role I could easily have seen Bruce Dern play back in his heyday.

The rest of the cast is also very good.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie.

In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies.  And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture that feeling of the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the third straight above average horror movie I’ve seen in 2017, following A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) and GET OUT (2017).  All three of these films have featured a fresh story that hasn’t relied on clichéd material.  Even better, all three films have been well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.

2017 so far has been an excellent year for horror movies.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT continues this trend.

It’s a relentlessly intense thriller that will have you squirming in your seat.  For a horror fan, you can’t ask for much more than that.


Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to Also available at

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.


 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to Also available at

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to Also available at  



THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) Remake Is A Rousing Adventure



Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife—.

Eh hem.  Excuse me.  I got carried away.

“The Bare Necessities” is one of my favorite songs from the 1967 animated Disney THE JUNGLE BOOK— one of my favorite movies of all time— and I’m happy to say it makes it into the 2016 remake by director Jon Favreau.

Because I’m a huge fan of the 1967 film, I was certainly looking forward to this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  At the same time, I was wary that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the classic animated film.  While I probably still prefer the 1967 movie— it’s been a favorite for so long— this new remake comes pretty darn close to satisfying on all levels. In short, it’s a pretty darn good movie.

Now, there’s also a 1994 live action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK, also produced by Disney, that I have not seen, a version that was not well received upon its initial release, although there are some folks who swear by it.  Not to mention the 1942 version starring Sabu.  But for me, the 1967 animated film has always been the most endearing.  Now comes the 2016 THE JUNGLE BOOK. All of these films are based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) opens with an homage to the 1967 film, using the same music and the very same opening shot.  But this is no shot-by-shot remake, as there are plenty of differences between the two films.

THE JUNGLE BOOK is the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) a young boy who had been abandoned in the jungle only to be rescued by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who turned him over to a wolf pack, where he was raised as a wolf.  Mowgli enjoyed a happy life with the pack, with his adopted parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyon’go), and wolf cub brothers and sisters.

All is well until the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who hates and fears humans decides that Mowgli must die.  The pack realizes that even with their combined strength, they are no match for Shere Khan, and so they arrange for Bagheera to bring Mowgli back to the man-village, to live safely with his own kind.

But Shere Khan is wise to their plan and attempts to kill Mowgli while he is still with Bagheera, who fights off the tiger while telling Mowgli to run, which the youth does.  On his own in the jungle, things look bleak for Mowgli until he is rescued by the laid-back Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray).

But the danger is far from over.  Threats lurk behind every tree, as Mowgli and his friends must contend with Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie (Christopher Walken) and his army of apes, and of course Shere Khan.

There is a lot to like about this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Probably my favorite part is the serious tone this movie takes. While director Jon Favreau keeps this one family friendly, it is not overly silly or nonstop funny as a lot of the “family” animated films are these days.  While there are certainly humorous moments in the film, for the most part, this JUNGLE BOOK is a serious adventure.  It even contains some rather dark moments.

When Bagheera tangles with Shere Khan to protect Mowgli it’s an exciting and rather vicious sequence.  For those of us who grew up with the 1967 version and wondered what it would be like if Bagheera actually fought Shere Khan, this film provides the answer.

bagheera vs. shere khan

To protect Mowgli, Bagheera the Panther prepares to tangle with Shere Khan the Tiger.

The flashback sequence where we learn what happened to Mowgli’s real father is intense and disturbing.  Likewise, the fate of Mowgli’s wolf father Akela is just as jarring.

Christopher Walken’s King Louie is larger than life and powerfully aggressive.  There’s more King Kong in this interpretation than Louie.  Similarly, Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa the Snake is mesmerizing and frightening.

king louie 2016

Christopher Walken’s King Louie.

The cast is fantastic.  Young Neel Sethi is perfect as Mowgli, and all the voice actors here do a terrific job.

Ben Kingsley makes for a majestic Bagheera, matching Sebastian Cabot’s effort in the original.  Even better is Idris Elba as Shere Khan.  He turns the tiger into an absolute villain in this one, making Shere Khan lethal and scary.  George Sanders voiced the tiger in the 1967 film, and he gave the character an elegant gentlemanly villainy.  Anything remotely sophisticated is gone here.  Elba’s Shere Khan is less a proper Bond villain and more like someone you’d meet on THE WALKING DEAD.  He’s not a nice guy.

shere khan

Shere Khan.

Lupita Nyong’o is phenomenal as Mowgli’s wolf mother Raksha, while Giancarlo Esposito made me forget his icy portrayal of drug kingpin Gus Fring on TV’s BREAKING BAD and provides a dignified voice for Mowgli’s wolf father Akela.  Scarlett Johansson is spot-on as the menacing and mesmerizing snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken, in what is probably my favorite performance in the movie, makes King Louie a scene-stealing simian who seems like he walked off the set of the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboots with Andy Serkis.  Walken’s Louie is much more monstrous than the Louie from the animated version.

Emjay Anthony, who played Jon Favreau’s son in Favreau’s CHEF (2014),  and who I also enjoyed in the surprisingly good horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), is very effective as one of Mowgli’s wolf cub brothers.  And Garry Shandling, who passed away last month, provides the voice for Ikki the porcupine.

Of course, Bill Murray probably has the biggest shoes to fill, playing the most iconic character from the animated movie, Baloo the Bear, voiced with impeccable perfection by country singer Phil Harris back in 1967.  While Murray certainly didn’t make me forget Harris, he more than holds his own and all in all does a decent job with the character. It helps that Baloo seems to be a natural fit for Murray.  He even gets to sing “The Bare Necessities.”


Baloo the Bear

This being a more serious rendition of the story, most of the memorable songs from the animated version by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman do not make it into this film, but a few do.

As I said, Bill Murray’s Baloo does perform “The Bare Necessities,” and some of the other familiar themes do make it into the film as background music, as in the Kaa the snake sequence.  Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” is the only song that is somewhat awkward.  Walken’s King Louie is just a bit too frightening to accept his breaking into song, and yet there is just something creepy enough about his Kong-like character singing that makes the scene work.

The CGI animation here is top-notch.  The animals all look amazing, especially Shere Khan, who is absolutely frightening.  While the film is available in 3D, I saw it in 2D and it looked just fine.

Jon Favreau does a terrific job here all around, from creating exciting suspenseful scenes to the superb CGI animation.  He also crafts some poignant moments as well, like the tender scenes between Mowgli and Raksha, and the sequence involving Mowgli and the elephants.

Rounding out this solid production is the screenplay by Justin Marks.  It keeps things serious throughout without sacrificing the “family” feel of the tale. So many of today’s CGI animated children’s movies are steeped in adult humor, and while this can be a lot of fun, the adventurous tone in THE JUNGLE BOOK is satisfying and refreshing.

If you’re in the mood for a rousing adventure, a film fit for the entire family, then look no further than Jon Favreau’s exceptional remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK.

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!






TRIPLE 9 (2016) Wastes Talented Cast


triple 9 poster

With a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Kate Winslet, TRIPLE 9 (2016) should have been triple the fun, but it’s not.

TRIPLE 9 tells a dark tale of corrupt cops working for the Russian mob, and as such should have been a riveting action drama, but less than stellar writing and underdeveloped characters ultimately do this one in.

The bad guys include crooked cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), ex-cop Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), and disgrunteld ex-soldiers Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) who also happens to be Gabe’s brother. They work for the Russian mob, and they’re at the mob’s beck and call because the head of the mob Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has Michael Atwood’s young son in her clutches, which in this case is easy to do because she happens to be the boy’s aunt!  See, the boy’s mother is Irina’s sister.

The good guys— and there’s not many of them in this movie— include Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a cop who runs the straight and narrow because he wants to “make a difference,” (cliche, cough, cliche), and his loose canon police captain uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson).

Michael and his team rob a bank for Irina’s mob, but after the job, she refuses to pay them, saying there is one more job that they must do for her, and of course, Michael cannot refuse her, because she’s got his son.  The job is next to impossible, as it involves robbing a federal building loaded with swat-team style security, and so they come up with a plan to utilize “999” which is the police code for “officer down.”  They decide to kill a police officer, knowing that once that 999 code spreads over the police dispatch, every officer on the force will be racing towards the shooting scene, which will give them the time to make their impossible heist.

They choose Marcus’ new partner Chris to be their victim, thus setting the stage for the big conflict in this movie.

TRIPLE 9 suffers from some pretty weak writing across the board.    The screenplay is by Matt Cook, and it’s his first feature film writing credit.  It shows.

Let’s start with characters.  All of these guys have the potential to be very interesting, but none of them— not one– is developed enough for us to care about them.  Part of the problem is that there are too many characters in this movie.  Perhaps things would have been better had screenwriter Cook taken just two of these guys and built the story around them.

Take the two main characters for example.  You have Michael Atwood, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the leader of the baddies, who should be the guy we love to hate, or perhaps feel bad about, but I felt absolutely nothing for this guy.  We’re supposed to feel bad for him bad for him because the mob has his son, but we never see him as a dad with his son.  They have some scenes together, but they’re meaningless.  On the contrary, the little kid seems to be having more fun with his aunt Irina.  Plus, we’re given no background to establish what kind of relationship Michael had with the boy’s mother.  Everything is all so peripheral.  And on the tough guy bad guy front, Michael is a failure as very few things he does here work.

Likewise, Casey Affleck’s Chris Allen is a walking cliche.  He goes around brooding, obviously unhappy with a lot of his fellow police officers (no wonder they want to kill him!) and the brief scenes where we see him with his family are pointless.  We just never get to know him.

Anthony Mackie’s Marcus Belmont is even less developed than these two.  Clifton Collins Jr. fares slightly better as Franco Rodriguez.  At least he comes off as slightly creepy.

Woody Harrelson’s performance as Jeffrey Allen is all over the place.  At times, he acts like the top cop in the precinct, but more often than not he’s a loose wire, often sounding and acting like the corrupt cops he’s trying to weed out.

And then there’s Kate Winslet.  What was she doing in this movie?  Irina Vlaslov comes off like a cross between Cruella Deville and Brigitte Nielsen’s Ludmilla from ROCKY IV (1985) only without any personality.  I never took this character seriously.

The two best peformances in this movie belong to the two TV stars, Aaron Paul (BREAKING BAD) and Norman Reedus (THE WALKING DEAD).

Reedus delivers the best performance in the movie, hands down, with Paul right behind him, but the reason they don’t lift this movie is they’re not in it much at all.  Had this film been built around these guys, these characters, the filmmakers might have had something.  Reedus is icy cool as big brother Russell Welch, and in his brief screen time, he manages to do something that no one else other than Paul does in this film:  he actually makes you care about his character a little bit.  Incredibly, in the brief time Reedus is in this movie, he gives Russell some depth, a feeling that there’s more to this guy than just a shallow mercenary.

Paul does the same with younger brother Gabe Welch.  Of all the villains, it’s Gabe who’s the most messed up, the one who struggles the most to keep it all together, and Paul does a great job with this character.  Unfortunately, the movie spends very little time on these guys.

Director John Hillcoat actually does a pretty good job here.  The opening robbery sequence is indeed rather riveting, and the climactic “999” scene is also very good, but there’s just so much in the middle that doesn’t work that by the time we get to that “999” scene, I didn’t really care about any of it.

For example, there’s the weak depiction of the Russian mob.  How do we know this Russian mob is so deadly?  Because we’re privy to quick shots of bloodied whimpering bodies in the trunks of cars.  It’s certainly not because we’re privy to what the mob is up to.  The plot is centered around the big heist at the end, and yet very little time is spent on what they are actually stealing or why the mob wants it so badly.

The film also never really delivers true suspense.

There’s just not a lot that works in TRIPLE 9.  It wastes its very talented cast, its story is contrived, its characters undeveloped, and its execution is uneven.

Instead of calling in a 999, perhaps the folks in this movie should have dialed 911.