“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

“Just because there’s no war, it doesn’t mean we have peace.” X-Men: Apocalypse

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the past decade and a half (plus), there have been a lot of X-Men movies – some kick-out-the-jams great (X2, Days of Future Past, The Wolvervine), some as tired as a day-old doughnut (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Last Stand), and a couple inventively transcendent (First Class, Deadpool). If nothing else, the fact that one intellectual property can sustain that many films with such varied output is testament to the allegorical appeal of a bunch of costumed oddballs whose spectacular difference makes them feared and loathed by the mediocre masses. ‘Murica.

Where does Bryan Singer’s latest X-entry Apocalypse rank? About smack dab in the middle. It’s a decent summer popcorn epic with a great cast, many of whom rise above the CGI detritus to land a moment or two of tear-jerking pathos. Per capita Oscar/Golden Globe winners/nominees, the X-movies have always far surpassed their nearest rivals. In this flick alone, you’ve got Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Rose Byrne and series newcomer Oscar Isaac. I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see Nicholas Hoult (who plays Hank McCoy) and Evan Peters (Quicksilver) similarly awarded for their (other) work. Joining them are equally strong up-and-comers Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, and Lucas Till. And Olivia Munn, who is about as vocal a proponent of animal rights (and as militant a one) as a Hollywood bombshell can be, plays bad-ass ninja mutant Psylocke like Xena Warrior Princess slaying a frat party.

The film is perilously overstuffed. (Could you tell from that cast list?) Apocalypse suffers, as so many of these enterprises do, from a dopey and predictable end-is-nigh narrative arc upon which to hang far superior character moments. Heck, truth in advertising time, “end-is-nigh” is the film’s very title.

Said title is also the name of the film’s antagonist “Apocalypse,” played by Isaac under so much make-up and costuming that he looks like a Happy Meal toy or a grape popsicle. He’s such a fun and frisky performer that mostly he rises above the cardboard operatic dialogue with which he is saddled. It doesn’t help that, well, he can’t move his neck in that get-up. Like at all. But Isaac does just fine being menacing enough that you believe the world actually might be in some trouble … and at the two-thirds mark of this overlong film, you might wish he would just hustle up and get it over with.

The rest of the cast isn’t given a lot to do, but they make the most of every moment, even if no member of the cast likely has more than two or three pages of dialogue in the entire film. Peters continues to be delightful comic relief as the resident speedster, though the sparkle of his “between the raindrops” slo-mo scene-work has lost a bit of its novelty since the last film. McAvoy is compelling as a baby Patrick Stewart, totally mastering the fine art of Stewart’s mind-reading, telepathic grimace face.

We get a fun (depending on how you view “fun”) bit with Jackman finally getting to unleash Wolverine’s full-tilt berserker rage. In fact, I was a little shocked the filmmakers were able to keep their PG-13 rating, as Jackman’s bloody pas-de-deux approached horror movie levels of carnage.

Byrne, Hoult, and Lawrence are rather neglected by Simon Kinberg’s rambling screenplay – which may have been just fine with them – but these three pros still bring welcome heart and wit to their too few impactful moments. Lawrence does get one of the film’s best lines, though: “Just because there’s no war, it doesn’t mean we have peace.” Amen, sister.

Fassbender is the film’s heart-breaker. His scenes aren’t well written – Singer and Kinberg, shame on you with this Lifetime TV melodrama – but he plays them so beautifully, so delicately, and so hauntedly you just may get teary. A bit. I did anyway, and I don’t think it’s because it is allergy season here in Michigan. Fassbender grounds the film with a kind of hyper-real pathos that also benefited his other two outings in the franchise. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise this installment could’ve been a total candy-coated disaster. (Whenever wait-staff at Red Robin are wearing your film’s logo on their shirts as a cross promotional effort, while delivering a revolting concoction called the “Red Ramen Burger,” your flick may be in trouble.)

So what if the assembled performances here are tantamount to Halloween USA costume catalog posturing? It’s all good. Everyone deserves a paycheck. During one ponderous scene between Isaac, McAvoy, and Fassbender, I zoned out and just kept thinking to myself, “Damn, that is a fabulous trio of ACTOR noses right there. Look. At. Their. Noses.”

I’m not sure where the series goes from here, and I admit a morbid curiosity to see how many more characters (for future toy sales) they can cram into … chapter nine, is it? I’m losing track. However, I hope the studio execs, plagued as they are by checkbook accounting and the collective creativity of a baked potato , take to heart the lessons that all of us mere mortals see in the success of a movie like Deadpool. Have fun, be light, tell a human story, focus, keep it small, and understand that these superhero movies are today’s fairy tales. We want a moral, we want to relate, and we need it told in less than three hours.

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Olivia Munn

Olivia Munn

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).  In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Jolie’s greatest betrayal came at the hands of Disney’s marketing department: Maleficent

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, how I wanted to like Disney’s Maleficent. I really did.

I love a good postmodern take on a villain’s back-story – Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (the novel and, sort of, the musical) or John Gardner’s Grendel or even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (which gives us a topsy turvy, super-identifiable Joker in Heath Ledger’s gonzo performance). I even like Tom Stoppard’s exercise in twee Shakespearean intrigue Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

I had such high hopes for Disney’s similar take on Sleeping Beauty‘s nefarious baddie. Sleeping Beauty is one of my least favorite Disney animated classics, so I figured they could really go for broke and do something interesting. Angelina Jolie is perfect casting, and I believed the sky to be the limit. When I heard Lana Del Rey’s spooky, woozy take on the iconic “Once Upon a Dream” back in January, I thought, “Oh, yeah, they’ve nailed this.”

Alas, no.

If the film could have simply been Angelina slinking around to that hypnotic musical interpretation for two hours, I might have enjoyed myself.

Don’t get me wrong, Jolie is spot on as the titular anti-hero. (This does seem to be the summer of the anti-hero from Godzilla to Neighbors to Michael Fassbender’s dreamy Magneto.) Jolie is a delight in her otherwise disappointingly sketchy scenes, wringing an intoxicating cocktail of wit and despondency from a dearth of dialogue. Honestly, if she speaks 200 words in this film, I would be surprised.

I wish the rest of the film lived up to her wry potential. She owns the fact that she is spectacularly featured in a big summer blockbuster cartoon, but unfortunately no one else matches her (save Del Rey’s musical contribution).

Directed in ham-handed fashion by Robert Stromberg who was scenic designer on Disney’s other atrocious fairy tale reinventions Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent is clearly a Disney cash-grab forged from those films’ over-stuffed visual cast-offs. There are floating mountains and Wii-video game worthy creatures aplenty, but not much heart.

Jolie puts in a yeoman’s effort salvaging a film with no discernible script and a supporting cast that is be-wigged and be-dialected mercilessly. Seriously, Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan sounds like he took a left turn off the set of an Austin Powers flick, and the less said about the waxy-faced fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Flittle (Leslie Manville) the better. (Ladies, I urge you … fire your agents … now.)

Jolie conveys such beautiful heartache as a true force of nature. Her Maleficent is violated over and over by a world consumed in its material goods, power plays, and social status. With simply her limpid eyes (and her fabulous cheekbones, lightly accentuated by some Gaga-esque prosthetics), she conveys a hurt that is deep and compelling as Maleficent finds her core essence destroyed by those she loves deepest.

Why the rest of the film couldn’t meet this performance is a crime I will never understand. I fear Maleficent’s greatest betrayal came at the hands of Disney’s relentless (soulless?) marketing department. Sigh.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety … X-Men: Days of Future Past

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

How many Oscar winners and nominees does it take to put together a successful comic book adaptation? Apparently, a boatload.

The per capita of Academy Awards/nominations among the cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past is astounding: Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender … not to mention talented folks like Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Evan Peters, and even director Bryan Singer who likely may find themselves on the receiving end of a nod or a statuette of their own one day.

As comic book adaptations go, this is about as good as they get, marrying a bit of the self-serious sermonizing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with the gee whiz ironic whimsy of Jon Favreau’s and Shane Black’s respective Iron Man movies.

Having Singer return to the franchise (he rather unsuccessfully left to direct the bloated Superman Returns) is a stroke of much-needed genius. Other than last summer’s quietly effective The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, or the zippy promise of Matthew Vaughn’s retro romp X-Men: First Class (Vaughn gets a writing credit on Days of Future Past), the series had started to lose its way with over-marketed, under-delivering, freakishly-merchandised failures like X-Men: The Last Stand (yeah, I’m a Brett Ratner hater too) or clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood who went from Tsotsi and Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine … wtf?)

Singer, not unlike J.J. Abrams with his seamless Star Trek reboot, brings us quite literally full-circle, mining all that has come before and brilliantly weaving the series’ best and crispest elements into a crackerjack narrative. The plot is a riff on Chris Claremont’s/John Byrne’s iconic “Days of Future Past” comics storyline from the early 80s. It details Wolverine’s mind-bending time travel leap from a dark dystopian future full of death and pain and murky CGI to a swinging 1970s full of death and pain and cheesy poly blends, all to avert a handful of historical moments that spark the creation of mutant-murdering robot Sentinels whose nefarious deeds bring about that nasty future everyone wants to avoid.

Clear as mud? It doesn’t matter ’cause the ride is a helluva lot of fun. The film isn’t perfect. I found this grim future-shock framing set-up with its overbaked Holocaust allusions, its bleak visuals, and its mopey characters and their endlessly ominous pronouncements rather tedious. Halle Berry (so miscast from the very first film) as weather-manipulating Storm still seems like she’s phoning her performance in from some all-inclusive Caribbean resort where they supply her an infinite series of bad white/gray wigs. And as much as I love McKellen and his comrade-in-arms Patrick Stewart as Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier respectively, they both appear to be marking time and collecting a paycheck (albeit a pretty hefty one).

However – and this is so key – all that Charles Dickens-meets-Philip K. Dick dreariness is essential to the fun once our time traveling mutant everyman (that would be Jackman with a crackling world-weary wit as Wolverine) hits the Me Decade. Everything comes alive.

McAvoy is so good – funny and haunting – as the young Xavier who has let his life (and fabulous mansion/school) go to seed. Fassbender (young Magneto) as the chillingly beautiful Malcolm X yin to McAvoy’s Martin Luther King yang is sharp as ever. The film smartly returns to Singer’s core hook: that mutant persecution is a righteous summer-blockbuster allegory for all the -isms/-phobias that plague our society and for the tension that always has and always will exist between the philosophies of blending/integration and of fighting/individualism.

All the players in the 1970s portion of the film acquit themselves nicely, from Lawrence’s fiery person-on-a-mission Mystique to Hoult’s worried caretaker Beast to Dinklage’s well-intentioned, quite-misguided military industrialist Trask.

The film’s best moments come from Evan Peters’ much-too-brief screen-time as speedster Quicksilver. He rocks every single freaking moment he has, like nothing I’ve ever seen in one of these tentpole epics. He wrings comic gold out of one word (“whiplash”) and has an absolute Bugs Bunny-esque ball torturing a gaggle of Pentagon guards, all set to the strain’s of Jim Croce’s time-warped classic “Time in a Bottle.” Give this character/actor his own movie. Now.

The smartest move of all in this very smart film? There is no villain. There is no mustache-twirling, blow-up-the-world, video-game-destructo fool in a cape leading us to a predictably cacophonous denouement. Nope. Everyone is their own worst enemy in this movie. Just like life. Fear and hate, self-loathing and prejudice those are the villains in this film, a movie which serves as a shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety.

Most importantly, X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves us with hope. No situation and no person are ever beyond redemption, as Stewart tells McAvoy in one of the film’s trippiest and most heartfelt moments. Amen to that.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Accomplished acting, even with 80% of one’s face covered: Dredd 3D

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

2012 may be the year superhero movies offered a case study in accomplished acting, even with 80% of one’s face covered. It’s like someone put out a dare, and both Dark Knight Rises’ Tom Hardy as “Bane” and now Dredd 3D’s Karl Urban as “Judge Dredd” said, “I’ll see that bet, and raise you with monosyllabic dialogue and guttural intonations… I will get more across than most of your showiest, most wildly gesticulating, scenery chewing actors out there!”

I may be one of the few viewers who didn’t loathe the first cinematic interpretation of Judge Dredd in the mid-90s with Sylvester Stallone, though I will admit he did nearly ruin the good judge’s catchphrase with his “Yo, Adrian!”-esque take: “I aaaaammm da laaaaawwww.” Happily, I can report Urban, so whimsically fun as Dr. Bones McCoy in the recent Star Trek reboot, not only redeems said line (slyly and in the film’s final act no less) but turns in a great performance, saddled with a helmet that makes Ian McKellan’s “Magneto” headgear look like a Sunday bonnet.

This new iteration, less candy-coated than the first film and working effectively with a mere fraction of that movie’s bloated budget, takes full advantage of the Swiftian, dystopian dark satire of the comic book source material (2000 A.D.). In today’s troubled age  – violent outbursts in the most innocuous of locales (e.g. movie theatres, schools, shopping malls), cartoonishly extreme political infighting, grotesque urban sprawl, pharmaceutical escapism, and a society so desensitized by reality television that common decency is a long-forgotten memory – the original comic series from the 70s/80s is eerily prescient. In Judge Dredd’s world, the justice system is now a twisted reflection of the collapsed mores of society, with police/judge/jury/executioner all wrapped into one entity: a band of jack-booted, black motorcycle-riding “judges” who roam Mega City One (the remnants of a nuclear obliterated America being one large city that runs from the former New York to Boston), futilely trying to prevent an unending tide of violent crime. And this film nails the uncomfortable future shock allegory of today’s ills.

The movie is beautifully filmed in shades of gray, with effective pops of color and slow-mo during the most extreme scenes of man’s cruelty to man. I am not a 3D fan (it mostly just gives me a headache and reminds me of my old View-Master reels), but in this case it works very well, evoking the layered imagery of a comic panel. All the supporting players bring just the right amount of gravitas to their increasingly dark, absurdly surreal surrounding. 300’s Lena Headey is particularly creepy as drug lord villain “Ma-Ma,” and Juno’s Olivia Thirlby is a nice mix of sadness and pluck as Dredd’s rookie sidekick. The movie is no doubt going to be too dark (or too close to home) for most of today’s movie-goers, but its intoxicating mix of social critique, hypnotic visuals, and escapist thrills ensures it a long life as a future cult classic. Catch it soon before it slips away, only to be enjoyed on the small screen.