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Movie Reviews

‘No Time to Die’ Review

Kind of crazy to think about it, but Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond (2006-2021) lasted than Robert Downey Jr.’s as Iron Man (2008-2019).

“No Time to Die” is the 25th installment in the long-running James Bond franchise, and features Daniel Craig in his fifth and final outing as the titular spy, this time in a race to locate a kidnapped scientist who is working for a mysterious madman with a world-threatening plan. Directed and co-written by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the film features Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, and Ralph Fiennes reprising their roles from previous films, with Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Billy Magnussen, and Ana de Armas joining the cast.

The 007 films have always been hit or miss, with Craig’s “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” ranking among the best of the series and “Quantum of Solace” and “Spectre” usually being included among the worst. “No Time to Die” falls somewhere in the middle, acting as a fitting tribute to Craig’s time as the character and featuring several great action scenes from Fukunaga, but also runs far too long and is yet another installment with a weak villain.

It is hard to believe that people weren’t sold on Daniel Craig as James Bond at the time of his casting back in the mid-2000s, but much like Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck as Batman or Heath Ledger as the Joker he quickly shut doubters up with a gritty portrayal of the character. “No Time to Die” gives Craig a few chances to show Bond’s sympathetic side, as well as some dry humor. If you never warmed up to Craig then this won’t do you over, but the film makes a few nice nods to his decade-and-a-half as Bond.

The supporting cast is mostly very solid, with Lashana Lynch being the “new 007.” She has some fun fight sequences, as does Craig’s “Knives Out” co-star Ana de Armas in a limited role, showing that the franchise isn’t just a boy’s (and Dame Judi Dench) club. Christoph Waltz even gets to make a brief return from his role in “Spectre,” and thanks to some witty writing almost makes you wish we got an entire other film with him as the big baddie. And speaking of…

Rami Malek, who was cast fresh off his Oscar win as Freddie Mercury, is a different story than everyone else. Malek is doing the stoic, clenched jaw look that he has now known for, and his performance is as bland as the backstory his character is given. I really couldn’t tell you his exact motivations for why he wants to kill people, and in a franchise with so many rich bad guys, Craig has really only gotten to go up against one (Javier Bardem).

The action sequences are top-notch, with a few edge-of-your seat gun fights. Fukunaga even manages to get in a single-take stairway shootout that runs for about three minutes, something he loves to put into his projects (not only his famous four-minute one in “True Detective” but 2015’s “Beasts of No Nation”).

The biggest problem with “No Time to Die” (outside Malek) is that when guns aren’t going off, things can teeter on boring. There is a lot of talk about infections, de-population, and targeted groups of people, and for a film that was originally due out in April 2020 and now is released post(-ish) of a global pandemic, it may not be what some folk will deem as “entertainment.” The film runs 163 minutes and in no way justifies that length; if it had been a clean 140 then I think this could have been one of the better Bond films, but it wears out its welcome before a lackluster climax.

The latest 007 film is great news for theaters starving for blockbuster content, but only a ho-hum reward for actual cinemagoers. Sure, there is fun to be had; and the classic Bond cars, gadgets, and music are enough to make you remember why we love the movies. But there is something hollow at the core, and while there may be “No Time to Die” there was certainly time that could’ve been trimmed off this runtime.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review

You know what they say about the road to Hell…

“Dear Evan Hansen” is based on the 2015 stage musical of the same name, and features Ben Platt reprising his titular role as a socially awkward high school student who finds himself caught up in a lie involving a recently deceased classmate. Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, and Colton Ryan also star while Stephen Chbosky directs.

I didn’t know much about this film until recently, not even that it was based off a successful musical (I assumed it had been a YA novel or something, since everything is based off an IP nowadays). There has been some heat on the internet surrounding the casting of 27-year-old Ben Platt (whose father also produced the film) as a high school student, as well as the questionable morality of the film’s plot, and while both of these are valid complaints that are hard to completely ignore while watching “Dear Evan Hansen,” the film makes up for it with some catchy songs and solid performances.

Ben Platt made his theatrical debut as a college student in 2012’s “Pitch Perfect” and here we are a full nine years later and he has regressed into high school. The film tries its best to pass him off as a fresh-faced teen but it is often hard to buy. Sometimes a performance or narrative is so engrossing that it is easy to ignore mid-20-somethings playing high schoolers (Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man” or the entire cast of “Scream”) but here Platt is too distracting. His performance is solid enough, with some scenes of genuine emotion, but his singing is hit or miss (it may be the songwriters’ fault but his octaves just seem too high sometimes) and he has an ugly cry face (which doesn’t help the “looking old” thing).

I enjoyed Nik Dodani’s performance as Platt’s friend, he has a few amusing quips, and Kaitlyn Dever, whom I’ve been a fan of for years, continues to show why she is a rising star with some nice work as the sister of Platt’s deceased classmate. And God bless Amy Adams, even with a middling script like this she is determined to sell it. Playing a grieving mother desperate to latch onto any positive memory of her son, Adams is one of the only consistently genuine things about the film, and while it obviously won’t earn her another Oscar nomination to inevitably lose, it is a solid performance.

The musical was created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo behind “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” so obviously there are going to be a few banger songs and dance sequences. I particularly liked “Sincerely, Me,” while is pretty comical as well as probably the most toe-tapping of the whole film. Some of the other songs are entertaining, too, but there are some that seem out of place (and a few cringe-worthy “talk-sing” monologues).

People on Twitter have questioned the morality of the film, centering on a character who exaggerates his friendship with a dead student simply to make the parents feel better, and if that offends you then I can’t tell you that you’re wrong. It never stopped me from fully enjoying things as I think it is handled as well as one could possibly expect a premise like this to be handled, but it’s worth noting.

“Dear Evan Hansen” wears its heart on its sleeve and tries to be something a little different in the pretty worn teen drama genre. Not everything sticks and you feel the 136-minute runtime (this could’ve easily ran 100 minutes and been a better, slicker experience), but if you like your movies covered in cheese and built to contrive the tissues, then this is your ticket.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Copshop’ Review

Sometimes all the pieces are there, but a film just doesn’t work for ya…

“Copshop” stars Frank Grillo as a mob fixer who gets locked in a jail alongside the hitman hired to kill him (Gerard Butler), as the pair and a rookie cop (Alexis Louder) must work together to survive an assault on the police station. Joe Carnahan directs a script he co-wrote.

I am a big fan of Frank Grillo, he has a decent B-movie screen presence and has turned in solid supporting roles in films like “Warrior” and “End of Watch,” and while I have no real opinion on Gerard Butler as an actor, I think he has made some decent films, including last year’s surprisingly good “Greenland.” I also have a love-hate relationship with director Joe Carnahan, so on paper this film should have at least in-part worked for me. Spoiler: it didn’t.

This is one of those films that knows exactly what it wants to do, but as commendable as that is, it was just never gelling for me. Outside the main trio characters are completely expendable and have zero true character traits or development, and while deep mythos and deep plots aren’t what you look for in an old-school shoot-em-up, it’s nice to have something to grasp onto as an audience member.

Grillo and Butler aren’t mailing it in, but they’ve both been better. In fact, they spend a majority of the film’s runtime spent locked up in jailcells. The real star of the show is Alexis Louder, who is likely only known for her supporting role in this year’s “The Tomorrow War.” Louder has a nice charisma about her, and while her work her isn’t enough to save the film as a whole, it is a nice calling card for her moving forward.

The action set pieces just never grab you, and a lot of the blood is clearly done in post. Again, the film is clearly going for that 90s/2000s B-movie feel, but it just feels more cheap than it does campy. For being pretty thinly written, the plot is needlessly convoluted (several plot points are introduced only to be abandoned or quickly resolved in the third reel), and this would’ve just worked better as a straight cat-and-mouse game between Grillo and Butler.

“Copshop” isn’t the kind of bad movie that makes you upset, just disappointed that it is never anywhere near as fun as it should be given all it has at its disposal. If you want a brainless time at the movies and have absolutely zero expectations, then sure, maybe toss this one a bone (it moves quick enough, all things considered). But all parties involved have done better work, and there are films out right now that are better uses of your time and money.

Critics Rating: 4/10

‘Old’ Review

You know society is officially starting to get back to normal when we get another M. Night Shyamalan joint.

“Old” is the latest twisty-turny thriller from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and his first since 2019’s “Glass.” It stars Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Thomasin McKenzie, and Alex Wolff as a family who get stranded on a beach with several other tourists, only to find themselves mysteriously aging rapidly.

M. Night Shyamalan has had a pretty spotty career, with three or four films on his record that have been universally accepted as good while also creating some of the most mocked films of the 21st century (“The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” to name two; “The Happening” is its own thing, that horror film is a comedic masterpiece). Here, Shyamalan finds himself somewhere in the middle of good and bad, presenting big ideas with hit-and-miss execution.

With Shyamalan’s films, much like Quetin Tarantino or Michael Bay, you pretty much know what you are going to get; the question is will it be the good version or the bad. Shyamalan has directed some terrific performances over the years (like a young Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” or James McAvoy in “Split”) but he has also overseen some terrible work, like Mark Wahlberg in “The Happening” or the entire cast in “Last Airbender.” Some of the cast is fine here, with Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps turning in serviceable work as a drifting-apart couple.

However Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, both of whom are among the best young actors working today and have given some great performances in the past, are pretty terrible. You can put part of it on the fact they are 20-year-olds having to pretend to have the mentality of a 10-year-old, but they overact and/or undersell a lot of their dialogue, to the point of sometimes comedic results.

Now that’s not all their fault, as in true Shyamalan fashion the writing in the film is pretty bad. Characters literally introduce themselves to complete strangers with their names and occupation (“my name is Jarin, I am a nurse”) or have a perfect understanding of something completely random that just so happens to come in perfectly handy for an exact situation (“I was on my collegiate swim team!”). It gets to the point of being so eye-rolling that you chuckle, which maybe is part of the point.

The famous M. Night twist is actually solid, if not slightly underdeveloped, and did do enough for me to redeem the film in-part. I can predict that some people will have checked long before they arrive at the big reveal and for those people it may be too little too late, and that is understandable.

The problem with “Old” is that it is best enjoyed in a situation where you and some friends can openly laugh at the sheer lunacy of the events transpiring on-screen, and that is not something that is (at least respectfully) able to happen in a theater. It is dumb and only answers half the questions it raises, but I can’t say I was ever bored watching it. It is impossible to tell if M. Night is trolling audiences and making his movies dumb and ripe for parody on purpose or by happenstance, but maybe at this point in his career it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. So is “Old” worth seeing? I mean no, but also yes.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘In the Heights’ Review

If anything is going to bring back the theater experience, it’s this film.

“In the Heights” is based on the stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and follows a young man (Anthony Ramos) in Washington Heights, New York City as he goes about his life among his community. Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, and Jimmy Smits also star while Jon M. Chu directs.

Like many a’film, this was due out last year but was delayed until this June due to the pandemic. Because it is a Warner Bros. film it now falls under the “in theaters and streaming on HBO Max” umbrella like “Conjuring 3” and “Mortal Kombat,” but I hope that audiences make their way off the couch and into a theater and experience this colorful and fun, if slightly overlong, slice of summer.

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name with “Hamilton,” he wrote and starred in “In the Heights,” a musical based in-part on his Latino upbringing in NYC. Miranda produced and has a small role here, but the show now belongs to his “Hamilton” co-star, Anthony Ramos. Ramos has shown up in several supporting roles in the last few years (namely “A Star Is Born” and last fall’s “Honest Thief”) but this is his first true starring role and he makes the best of it. He gets a range of emotions to play with but also emerges into every scene with energy and I can’t wait to see what he does next (rumors have it leading the latest “Transformers” film).

The rest of the cast is solid, too. I really enjoyed Gregory Diaz IV’s witty teenage cousin of Ramos, as well as Jimmy Smits adding some gravitas to his scenes and Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony Award-winning role as Ramos’ abuela, providing the film’s emotional backbone. A few of the other performances and singing can be a bit wonky or over-the-top at points, but no one is flat-out bad and everyone seems to be having fun.

Being a musical, the dance numbers are arguably the most important aspect of the film and for the most part they sore. While the choreography isn’t as detailed or fun as “La La Land” or the songs as catchy or memorable as “Hamilton,” the film manages to capture the spirit of summertime in New York City very well. There are a couple instances of poor CGI or simply too much going on, as well as some poor sound editing (an issue even “La La Land” has in a few spots), but I was tapping my foot on several occasions. Not every song is a bop, but the ones that hit hit in the best ways (“In the Heights” and “96,000,” especially).

My biggest complaint with the film revolves around its editing, which I’ve already touched a bit on. There are several continuity errors between takes (enough that I started to notice and felt compelled to mention here), as well as at least two occasions where the actors’ lip-synching of the songs was blatantly off. The film’s transitions between acts also aren’t very seamless, and while in a stage play you have intermissions and set changes to break the story apart, a film should flow organically. At 143 minutes I started to feel the runtime adding up, and I can think of a few musical numbers or subplots that could have been trimmed out to make this a breezier, more streamlined experience (it is worth noting that my friend I saw this with thought the film flew by, so the pacing may be a personal preference).

“In the Heights” works better in moments than as a cohesive whole, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out, especially in a (respectfully distanced) “packed” theater. Films like this are why we go to the movies and I was lucky enough to see this in IMAX and got to see every drip of sweat on the characters and hear every clank of a Coke bottle. The film will mean more to some people than others (in the same way “Black Panther” did) but there is something here for everyone, so long as you go in with the right expectations.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Infinite’ Review

For a blockbuster film that was shot with the intent of being released into theaters, this is one of the most straight-to-streaming-looking films I’ve ever seen.

“Infinite” stars Mark Wahlberg as a man diagnosed with schizophrenia, only to realize he is actually seeing memories of his past lives and must join a secret organization in order to stop a madman from destroying the world. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Cookson, Jason Mantzoukas, Rupert Friend, Toby Jones, and Dylan O’Brien also star while Antoine Fuqua directs.

Like many 2020 films, “Infinite” was set to be released in theaters but was delayed, only to be moved streaming. While Paramount sold off several of its films, including “Trial of the Chicago 7” to Netflix, they held onto “Infinite,” opting to make it the first exclusive Paramount+ feature film (the service released “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” in February, but that received theater and Netflix releases elsewhere). I’m not sure why the studio felt like “Infinite” was the film that needed to be held onto and be the official hat tossed into the streaming ring, but it is a nonsensical, boring mess of a film that will be seen by few and remembered by even less.

Mark Wahlberg has always been a hit-and-miss actor in both performances and his choice of vehicles, with great work in the likes of “Boogie Nights” and “The Departed” to unwatchable bombs like “Mile 22” and the “Transformers” sequels. This falls into the latter category, with Wahlberg sleepwalking through his role. He offers narration here and there throughout, and by the end it sounds like he is reading his lines as part of a hostage video.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is another talented actor who seems to almost exclusively choose projects far below what he deserves (“2012,” “Locked Down,” “The Secret in Their Eyes”) and here he is equally as bad as Wahlberg, but at least he has the dignity to have fun with his role. Ejiofor is so over-the-top as the film’s bad guy, chewing up every scene he is in, that at least he made an effort to deserve his paycheck. The rest of the cast ranges from bland to cringe, with Jason Mantzoukas doing his normal crazy annoying guy schtick from a dozen other things. Outside Wahlberg, I couldn’t tell you a single character’s name if you put a gun to my head.

Antoine Fuqua is a talented filmmaker, he has made genuine good films (“Training Day”) and fun action flicks (“Shooter” and “Olympus Has Fallen”), so to see a PG-13 film like this so devoid of style or entertainment is actually baffling. The action set pieces are cut together so haphazardly that it is impossible to tell what is going on, and there was only one moment that I chuckled because of a clever grenade kill.

By far the worst aspect of the film, however, is the screenplay. It is the type of script that has bad guys are evil for the sake of being evil, with no attempts to justify or rationalize their actions like Thanos or Killmonger. New gadgets and rules get introduced every other scene, and for a film not based on a book series with huge established lore there are surface-level attempts of world-building that are quickly abandoned.

“Infinite” has all the visual appeal of a straight-to-DVD movie, with the razor-sharp writing of a Hallmark film. It truly is unbelievable that a film with this many talented people involved (including two Academy Award-nominated actors and a proven director) is not only just bad, but extraordinarily boring. If we really are going to move our blockbuster films out of theaters and onto streaming services (God forbid), we deserve a helluva lot better than whatever this film was trying to be.

Critics Rating: 3/10

‘Cruella’ Review

I really think I like these live-action Disney remakes more when they add onto the original stories and aren’t just shot-for-shot remakes like “The Lion King.”

“Cruella” is the origin story for the “101 Dalmatians” villain, with Emma Stone in the titular role as the criminal mastermind obsessed with fashion. Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong also star, with Craig Gillespie directing.

You can just engrave the 2021 Oscars for Hair & Makeup and Costume Design to this film already, because from the opening frame to the closing shot they steal the show. Taking advantage of London’s 1970s fashion scene, Jenny Beavan (a two-time Academy Award winner herself) creates elaborate dresses and detailed jackets, and has each character leap off the screen.

Aiding them greatly is Emma Stone, who continues to somehow impress and surprise me despite already being an Oscar winner. Stone makes the character of Cruella her own and in a way gets to play dual roles, since the film presents the black-and-white haired Cruella as a mysterious alter-ego to Stone’s timid Estalla, a product of the streets growing up. Stone carries her normal charm and wit, and gives one of the better performances of these Disney remakes.

I also really liked Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Horace, Cruella’s (somewhat reluctant) partners in crime. Fry has good comedic timing and Hauser has shown he can play a likable buffoon, and the pair play well off Stone’s energy. It is also always a treat to see Emma Thompson in anything, much less getting to have her chew scenery as a bad guy.

The film has a great energy about it, and for the most part you don’t feel its 134-minute runtime. Full of incredible music and snappy direction, the film moves along well, only really struggling in the third act where things get a little too repetitive. It could also be argued that this is not a kid’s film (it is rated PG-13), but there isn’t anything too crazy here that a 10+ audience couldn’t handle.

As we start to get back to normal and theaters return to the forefront, it is good to see we will have some quality pictures to check out. “Cruella” plays out like “Joker” and “The Devil Wears Prada” had a lovechild, but I really enjoyed myself during it and recommend supporting your local theater by seeing a film so vibrant on the big screen.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Cherry’ Review

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I’m all for Tom Holland and the Russo brothers spreading their creative wings and trying to do more than Marvel blockbuster films, but maybe they should choose better projects than this one.

“Cherry” is based on the popular semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Nico Walker. Tom Holland stars as an Army veteran who battles PTSD and an opioid addiction, and resorts to robbing banks in order to pay for his habits. Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, and Jeff Wahlberg also star while Joe and Anthony Russo direct.

The Russo brothers began their careers with small comedies but are best known for directing several installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the two best films of the franchise “Captain America: The Winter Solider” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” They have branched out into the action-thriller genre in producing roles with “Extraction” (starring the MCU’s Chris Hemsworth) and “21 Bridges” (with the late/great Chadwick Boseman), but this marks their first directorial effort outside the MCU in nearly 10 years. There are flashes of inspiration and style, but overall “Cherry” is a misstep on nearly every level.

Tom Holland quickly became a fan-favorite after being a scene-stealer as Spider-Man in “Captain America: Civil War” and has since grown a large fanbase. He continues to charm as the superhero but has also tried to branch out into more serious films, including this past fall’s “The Devil All the Time.” Holland is undoubtably a talented actor and will one day get his big awards, but that won’t start with “Cherry.” He is asked to convey a lot of emotions- love, scared, scarred, angry- but is let down by a very hacky and juvenile script. Some of the lines that Holland is forced to deliver are just too awkward or unnatural to be taken seriously. It is nowhere near a bad performance, Holland has some moments where he carries himself well, but this would be a tough task for any actor to sell.

The screenplay was written by Angela Russo-Otstot (the director’s sister) and Jessica Goldberg, and it is, simply put, not good. There are 4th wall breaks (until there aren’t), awkward narration (until there isn’t), and unnecessary use of profanity (“you want me to punch this guy in the d*ck?”). It jumps around time liberally, hurting any real sense of momentum or continuity, and there are really no redeemable characters in this entire ordeal. I’m not sure how loyal of an adaptation this was of the book, but it in no way made me interested to read it.

On top of the random choices from a narrative perspective, the Russos chose to use random moments of slow-mo, big words on-screen, and not-so-subtle commentary (one of the names of the banks Holland robs is called “Sh*tty Bank”). It makes the entire film come off like a pretentious student project, and for having directed the “Avengers” films that have such vibrant characters and massive scopes, there is very little trace of either of those things here. The only real compliment I can give the direction is towards the very end the bank heist scenes have some tension.

“Cherry” could have maybe been worth the mildest of recommendations if it was a 100-minute movie about a PTSD veteran who robs banks, but coming in at a pretentious and bloated 141-minute runtime there isn’t a real reason to watch this. Maybe if you fast forward past the first hour where Holland is a lovesick puppy dog awkwardly jamming exposition down our throats you can find some enjoyment, but otherwise this film is swing and a miss Oscar bait. Anthony Russo said that the pair made this film as part of the “one for them, one for you” Hollywood mantra, but the end result is more like “one for them, one for nobody.”

Critics Rating: 4/10

‘The Independents’ Review

“The Independents” is a semi-true story of the formation of the band The Sweet Remains, and stars the real-life members of the band Rich Price, Greg Naughton, and Brian Chartrand as fictionalized versions of themselves. Naughton also writes and directs, with Boyd Gaines, James Naughton, Keira Naughton, Kelli O’Hara, Chris Sullivan, George Wendt, and Richard Kind also starring.

I typically like these small films that feel “real,” with the best way I can describe this is a mix between “Sideways” and last year’s “The Climb.” We have seen the “struggling artists come together for one last shot at fame” story a hundred times before and this doesn’t make any attempt to break the mold, but thanks to some genuine performances, humorous writing, and toe-tapping songs, this film mostly works.

The three main stars each play a different stereotype we typically find in the genre, with Greg Naughton playing the stoner with marital problems, Rich Price acting as a man who thinks he missed the boat and is stuck teaching a college course, and Brian Chartrand as the care-free spirit (who may or may not be close to homelessness). The three share some solid chemistry (they are real-life friends, after all), and when they do have conflict it is not overtly contrived.

The three-man harmony isn’t a genre of music we hear too often these days (a point made in the film by Richard Kind’s agent character), and the melodies are soft and warm.

The film shows the emotional toll that trying to chase your dreams can take on a person and their relationships, and even if it is a bit rushed and open-ended by the end of the film, sometimes it isn’t about the destination so much as the journey. “The Independents” is an independent film that is easy to watch and forgive the flaws, because you can sense the passion the crew had while making it. In a world where capes and creatures dominate our screens, sometimes a small-scale humanistic story is refreshing, even while familiar.

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review

This film will be noted as one of the best of 2021, but is going to receive nominations for the 2020 awards season. Make it make sense.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of criminal-turned-FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and his betrayal of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen also star, while Shaka King directs.

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are two of the best rising talents in Hollywood right now, with both going from obscure favorites to mainstream faces following “Get Out” in 2017. Kaluuya earned an Oscar nomination for his work there, and subsequent praise for his performance in “Widows” and appearance in “Black Panther,” while Stanfield has appeared in numerous acclaimed films like “Knives Out,” “Uncut Gems,” and “Sorry to Bother You.” Their reunion here produces a film that is entertaining and intense, but also ponderous and at times infuriating.

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya embodies charisma and passion. An onlooker of one of his speeches calls him a poet, and it’s certainly true. He enters rallies to the sound of drums and the chanting of his name from a roaring crowd like he’s a college football star running out of the tunnel onto the field, and makes a point to gather oppressed people from all walks of life, not just African Americans. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Hampton knew he would not live to see old age (he would die at just 21) but he is ready to trade his life for the advancement of the people.

As petty thief William O’Neal, LaKeith Stanfield has a much more challenging role to balance, essentially playing a less-moral version of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Departed.” Having his arm twisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers in lieu of going to prison, O’Neal is portrayed as much more conflicted in the film than he was in real life but it serves the story wonderfully. While in reality O’Neal felt “no allegiance” to Hampton and the Panthers, director Shaka King and co-writers Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas choose to make O’Neal becoming a rat much more of a conflict of emotion. In one scene where Stanfield must keep his Panther facade up during a rally despite realizing his cover may be about to be blown, and it is masterful acting and direction by all parties. There is the classic “who else knows about me?” confrontation between O’Neal and his FBI handler, as well as a nice touch by King to have the pair meet in progressively more fancy settings as the film goes on to symbolize how removed from his own world O’Neal is becoming, and it adds a little bit of freshness to a story beat we’ve seen before.

The supporting cast is solid as well, with Jesse Plemons playing O’Neil’s FBI handler thinking he means well, comparing the possible threat of the radical Panther party to that of the KKK. However, he and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in make-up and prosthetics that make him look like Danny DeVito’s Penguin) would rather take Hampton and the Party out than fix any actual problems that created the need for the Panthers in the first place (“you can’t cheat your way to equality” Plemons says to Stanfield).

I really enjoyed the musical score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, too. It has its tender moments of delicate piano, intense sequences with knocking of wooden blocks, and some cool drum and guitar riffs when characters and simply hanging out. The cinematography by Sean Bibbitt is also pretty good, with nice framing and detailed rain sequences.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is by-default the best film of 2021 to date (no offense to “The Marksman” or “Outside the Wire”), but I already know I will be talking about it all the way through my Top 10 list in December. Much like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” it may take place in the 1960s but the parallels to modern times could not be any clearer, and it adds to an already impressive filmography from its lead stars. This may not be an easy watch for some people, but it is a necessary one for all.

Critics Rating: 9/10