Samson (USA: PG-13; BC: PG; Ontario: PG)
A professor of mine once joked that Samson was almost a parody of a biblical judge: hot-tempered, promiscuous, murderous, and prone to going on one-man rampages instead of leading his people the way a judge should. Oh, and Samson kept giving his lovers information that they used to betray him, even in one case where the lover in question had made it pretty clear that she intended to betray him. Suffice it to say, Pure Flix — the studio behind God’s Not Dead — has made the Samson of their movie a much more upright sort of figure. He doesn’t use cruel innuendoes to accuse his wife of infidelity (Judges 14:18), he doesn’t slaughter 30 random men just to pay a debt (Judges 14:19) — instead he kills 30 soldiers who attack him and happen to have female Hebrew prisoners, to boot — and he professes to be shocked, shocked! when a Philistine woman who invites him to stay at her inn turns out to be running a brothel (cf. Judges 16:1). Still, if you can get past the sanitization of the biblical story, the movie has its pleasures, starting with the opening scene in which Samson and his brother trade riddles while breaking into a Philistine storehouse. The performances are generally fine, from Rutger Hauer’s disappointed father to Billy Zane’s cynical Philistine king, and Taylor James acquits himself very well as the film’s reluctant titular hero — but Jackson Rathbone’s villainous Philistine prince seems to be coming from a different, campier planet than the rest of the cast, and the staging of the action scenes doesn’t always make sense. (The biblical Samson didn’t have an audience when he carried the gates of Gaza away, but this one does, and the Philistines just… stand there gaping and let him take the gates?) A bit of a mixed bag, all things considered, but an okay diversion, as these things go.
Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman as the hero who was first introduced two years ago in Captain America: Civil War, isn’t the first black superhero movie by any stretch — click here for more information about that — but it is, probably, the first superhero movie that has been so saturated in African culture that nearly all of its actors are of African descent (with key exceptions being Martin “Bilbo” Freeman as an American CIA agent and Andy “Gollum” Serkis as a South African arms merchant). The film’s cultural distinctiveness is worth celebrating in and of itself, as is the extremely pronounced role that women play in the Panther’s life, from his tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to the fierce warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira). (This film should tide over anyone who’s itching for another hit of Amazonian battle prowess à la Wonder Woman.) Alas, Black Panther is still a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, so it follows some pretty familiar origin-story beats, and it can’t entirely resist the bathos that has infected so many recent Marvel movies. But it’s a fun ride, and I frequently wished that my father — a lifelong James Bond fan who grew up in Africa and passed away last year — had been there to watch it with me, particularly during the first half of the film, which has the sort of gadget labs, casinos and car chases that the Bond movies have specialized in for years. (As for the film’s politics, I suspect that many people will try to construe some sort of anti-Trump or anti-Brexit subtext to this film, and they won’t be completely off-base. But the film probably doesn’t go as far as they think. I’ll avoid saying more, for now, in case this gets into spoilers… and also because I can’t rule out the possibility that I missed something on first viewing. Suffice it to say that I am reminded of how, when District 9 came out, everyone assumed it was all about apartheid, and my father immediately picked up on the fact that it was actually about the refugee crisis between African nations.)