Test Pilot (1938)

test pilot 1.png

Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

test pilot 3.png

However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

prisoner of zenda 1.png

It’s the curse of a childhood watching too many reruns of Get Smart but I can’t seem to get Don Adam’s impersonation of Ronald Colman out of my head while watching The Prisoner of Zenda. There are worse curses to be stricken with though I suppose.

This classic adaptation of Anthony Hope’s eponymous novel also relies on a storytelling device that I have long abhorred, again, probably because I watched too many sitcoms with the incessant trope of one actor playing two unique individuals who always seem to have the gall of showing up in the same frame together so they can interact.

Yet here I generally don’t mind the convention so much because it feels less like a gimmick and more of a way to get at a far more interesting dilemma about identity. Because Ronald Colman is given the dual roles. One as the incumbent king, Rudolf V, who first finds himself incapacitated the night before his coronation thanks to some foul play and then ultimately kidnapped by one of his enemies.

But Colman is also, rather conveniently so, an Englishman named Rudolf Rassendyll who initially meets the King due to his striking likeness and ultimately resolves to play the role at the behest of the King’s faithful aides (C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven) so that the kingdom is not usurped by the vengeful Duke Michael (Raymond Massey).

Duke Michael on his own is hardly an interesting specimen as villains go but he does have a woman who is madly in love with him (Mary Astor) and another man in his stead who is even more unscrupulous than himself in Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

No doubt the King’s plotting brother and Rupert are flabbergasted to see the King make an appearance at the coronation without a hitch — their plans spoiled — and the King reunited with his Queen, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who finds herself rather unexpectedly falling in love with this man who seems so vastly different from the person she used to know.

It sets up one of the greatly humorous balls in recent memory with a stop-and-go waltz, followed by passionate romantic confessions, and harrowing interludes where Rudolf brazenly confronts his opposition with his usual gentlemanly charm. Though he doesn’t trust them too much in order to keep his life to live another day.

Thus, it’s drawn up as a film of factions led at one end with Ronald Colman and his cohorts the wizened Colonel Zapp (Smith) and young Captain Fritz (Niven). Then you have the stone-faced Massey with his counteroffensive joined by Fairbanks Jr. as a character of arrogance and playful impertinence who subsequently livens up many a scene. Madeleine Carroll makes a mesmerizingly beautiful entrance on coronation day to complete this vast accumulation of talent which included directors John Cromwell as well as George Cukor and W.S. Van Dyke filling in a handful of scenes for which Cromwell struggled to get the desired results.

First and foremost, I admire Colman deeply as a romantic lead and a most virtuous protagonist but he is secondarily an action hero, at least not in the way that Flynn and Fairbanks Sr. or even Tyrone Power will always be thought of in such terms.

So Prisoner of Zenda is a fine film and there’s a great bounty of entertainment that can be plucked from its pages but it’s not quite the swashbuckler you might be led to believe. Even the enduring finale punctuated by the climactic duel is a fine showing complete with shadowy castle interiors courtesy of James Wong Howe paired with snappy repartee and clashing steel but it’s not quite as thrilling as Flynn and Rathbone. There’s certainly no crime in that.

That long trod connection between love, duty, and honor is drummed up once more but it can be seen as a timely commentary on one residential royal who abdicated his throne in deference to love. I’ll give you a hint, he was British and he went off to marry a commoner named Wallis Simpson. You would think Hollywood would go for a love conquers all sentiment but apparently not if David O Selznick is working the strings.

As someone who is coming at films from so many directions in so many different orders and approaches, sometimes it’s fascinating to step back and see why I’ve finally arrived at a film at a particular juncture in time.

Madeleine Carroll began as a mere blip on my radar after I saw 39 Steps (1935) but after numerous years of never seeing another one of her pictures I found myself back to Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) and still further I sought out My Favorite Blonde (1942) and The Prisoner of Zenda — two of her most lauded films after she made the move to Hollywood.

More remarkable than her gilded place as one of the first successful British actors in Hollywood, was the fact that she willingly dropped her entire career for something far more profound. Because she was a British subject and after her sister died during the Blitz, she resolved to return to her home and serve tirelessly in the Red Cross as her contribution to the war effort.

She didn’t have to do that but she was so compelled that she gave up the limelight, the recognition, and the undoubted wealth to sink into the background and do her part. Certainly, that has nothing to do with this wonderful film. Then again, maybe it does. Because this is a film about doing your duty and living by a certain code of honor that no one holds you to but yourself. Some might call it a human conscience. Rudolf had an inclination to do what was good as did Carroll.

In truth, her part to play is rather small though still memorable. But what are films if not artifacts that wield so much power outside of themselves? They point all of us to people and places, times and universal themes that we might never get to any other way. I watch movies for something that goes beyond mere entertainment and I did an abysmal job trying to explain it but maybe I don’t have to. Maybe you understand it. Because what we do outside of the movies to impact our fellow man is far more important than any performance on celluloid.

4/5 Stars

If I Were King (1938)

if i were king 1.png

There’s a moment in the film that can’t help but draw us back to Genesis where Joseph (of technicolor dream coat fame) has risen in the ranks of Egypt and finds himself with the lives of his brothers in the palm of his hands. He’s able to toy with them while also blessing them immensely. It’s easy to see the hand of Providence at work. Nothing so meaningful happens in If I Were King but there is, nevertheless, a similar moment.

Ronald Colman plays the charming, most agreeable of vagabonds and that’s hardly a complaint. We might call into question the validity of his portrayal of such a mythic figure as Francois Villon but we can never doubt his pure charisma.

Francois Villon as witnessed in this film, directed by Frank Lloyd (Mutiny on the Bounty) is a glorified scoundrel who might be a far cry from the man who actually bore the name Francois Villon but, once more, do we care? Hardly.

Preston Sturges’ quill is in playfully fine form mixing eloquent verse with a lightness of being that’s able to upend typical medieval drama with its warring nations, kings, and battles. All of the aforementioned are present but they’re made rather more enjoyable. The tongue in cheek nature of it all enlivens any dips into needless melodrama.

Instead of stringing this man up for his obstination, insubordination, and theft the giggling king (Basil Rathbone) proceeds to make the same man commander of his armies for not only killing the most loathed traitor in the king’s ranks but also boasting he could do a far better job running the kingdom. The origins of a new medieval gameshow are afoot: King for a week.

Basil Rathbone shines in a particularly enjoyable performance for its various quirks including a cackling delivery that feels completely at odds with the persona he cultivated with the majority of his villainous roles. In other words, it’s a real corker.

Meanwhile, in his newfound place of power, the remade Grand Constable finds he has considerable influence. First, to free his friends from the caverns of the dungeon and being by the king’s side to advise him in his moment of crisis. You see, his generals don’t want to fight the militant Burgundians who are about to lay siege to his kingdom.

Villon receives a stroke of genius from the lovely lady in waiting (an exquisite Frances Dee clothed in royal opulence), unload all the kingdom’s food supplies to the poor so the feckless military leaders will get off their duffs and be stirred to action with their larders all but depleted. It’s a drastic and terribly outrageous solution but it does produce some results.

The earlier raucous swordfight within a tavern against the king’s constable is only surpassed and subsequently quashed by the sheer magnitude of the final conflict between the Burgundian marauders and the city’s protectorate — a sequence that was declared to use some 900 extras. It’s certainly no hoax watching the mad chaos of clattering steel.

It was some time into watching this medieval period piece that I realized if Hollywood were to remake such a film as this or one of a similar nature it seems like there would be an unspoken impetus to somber it up and make it into high drama.

All but gone are the days when period dramas could be fun with a touch of whimsy to go with the usual action, adventure, and romance. Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman, those charming heroes of old, are a forgotten breed of leading men and the last time I remember a film channeling this same enjoyment in such things was The Princess Bride now over 30 years ago.

In truth, I suppose the space for medieval heroes and swashbucklers has been edged out by newer and bigger blockbuster beasts. Namely, sci-fi and superhero mammoths that have taken over the main stage. And I have nothing particularly against said tent poles mind you, but I do long for more pictures like this one. Period pieces that don’t have to be so serious. They can have fun too (even if historical accuracy goes a bit to the wayside). That’s a pardonable offense when there’s no pretense for accuracy.

Because If I Were King is blessed by its rich and constantly comedic overtones. That is no doubt the gift of Preston Sturges. This picture can wear the strains poetry and still keep the mood a sprightly one. Films like this are something special.

4/5 Stars

The Three Musketeers (1948)

220px-Three_Musketeers_1948.jpg

The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. That’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept that there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with baited breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact that we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense that they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess that I didn’t much care that any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) that we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling that the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In that regard, there’s nothing lacking and if that’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say that you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility that lifts entertainment above the mediocre and allows it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deux ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Black Panther (2018)

Black_Panther_film_poster.jpgFor some Black Panther might be a stellar actioner, consequently, brought to us by a visionary director, Ryan Coogler. It’s top-tier as far as Marvel movies come; there’s little doubt. For others, I completely understand if Black Panther rocks their entire paradigm because there’s so much of note here. The box office seems to confirm that just as much as the dialogue that has been created in its wake.

What’s so revolutionary about this addition to the cinematic landscape is that this is not simply a superhero movie created by a predominantly black cast and crew but that their very heritage is so crucial to the roots of the story. The identity and complex history of Africans and African-Americans is wrapped up in the very sinews of the narrative. A whole diverse patchwork of ancestry and generations of culture is meticulously infused into the African nation of Wakanda.

Many may have forgotten that in an earlier Marvel installment the king of the 3rd world nation of Wakanda was killed in an act of terrorism. His son T’Challa proved to be next in line to the throne as long as no challengers arose from any of the five tribes that encompass the country. In such a case the two warriors take part in a ritual combat.

Far from just having intricate primordial traditions, the nation has also long-harbored an immense secret. Under the pretense of an archaic nation, they have built a technologically advanced empire around the versatile metal vibranium. In order to keep its properties protected, they have foregone sharing it with the world at large. Already you begin to see one of the primary themes running through the film. With great power comes great responsibility. How you choose to wield it is of vital importance especially when the world around you is hurting.

I have long been a fan of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan and the partnership continues to impress. Coogler somehow managed to take a Marvel franchise film (which we’ve had too many of) and turned it into a radically personal picture. It works on both levels — arguably catering to all audiences.

His female characters are imbued with tenacity and still a capacity for great good. Lupita Nyong’go is a perfect example as the lifelong sweetheart of the ascending king T’Challa because she has left her homeland to help the oppressed in less fortunate lands. She jokes that she would make a phenomenal queen one day because she’s stubborn but it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, the king’s mother (Angela Basset) is stately; caring deeply for her children while his sister (Letitia Wright) is feisty and blessed with the ingenuity of an inventor. She’s the Wakandan Q if you will. And there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira) the fearless leader of the all-female royal guard. Far more than an assassin, she is guided by a sense of honor and loyalty that splits her right down the middle.

Many people will be happily surprised by a soundtrack that synthesizes original music by Kendrick Lamar with a score by Ludwig Goranson (Community) infused with distinctly African instrumentation. It makes for a satisfying marriage in music. But no less impressive are the intricate costumes and set designs which develop this appealing aesthetic of the old with the new. Coogler’s team seems to have a very keen awareness of both which is refreshing.

When Black Panther falters at all the problem is simply due to repetition. After 17 other entries, we can hardly blame a film like this for doing something that’s seemingly derivative even momentarily. It’s inevitable. Because if you’ve seen one fight scene between two agile, armored superhumans you’ve seen them all to some extent.

And yet this picture does so much more within that framework that’s moving because there’s a certain ambition and an innate understanding of what movies are capable of. They can help us cull through crises while still maintaining the exhilarating guise of a superhero action flick. It’s true that at times it feels like we are watching a Bond film only rejuvenated with more diverse characterization.

Like the best films in that franchise or any other really, the villains are noticeably tempered in a very particular way that is stimulating. Yes, multiple bad guys and when I say that I mean that each has unique shading giving us different looks. Andy Serkis is the chortling international arms dealer who seems small scale and yet he’s made dangerous. There’s a distinct edge to him.

Even more important is Erik Warmonger (Michael B. Jordan) because he acts as T’Challa’s character foil. As we find out, they have a lot more in common than they would have been led to believe except Warmonger has more sinister intentions. The joy of Jordan’s performance is that the character is high-functioning, charismatic, and actually poses a threat as we see on multiple occasions. But no matter how twisted or misguided he might seem there’s still some level on which we can understand his lifelong resentment. Also, let me just say it now. From his clothes to his swagger, he just looks cool…and supremely confident.

Meanwhile, fellow tribesman such as M’Baku (Winston Duke) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) do not necessarily have sworn allegiances staked out and so that gives them some agency to shift the tectonics of the story this way or that. Again, they have a certain amount of power that gives them an undeniable presence.

Like The Winter Soldier or Civil War (arguably my favorite Marvel entries thus far), the villains are compelling because they invariably feel planted in the real world or better yet they’re made up of friends and family. There’s nothing more disconcerting than people who aren’t villains at all and yet they still go in opposition of you.

Thus, Ryan Coogler has succeeded in constructing a layered story that might be one of the few Marvel films I would gladly pay a second viewing to. It hinges on so many issues with consequences for our contemporary landscape. Again, with great power comes great responsibility.

It deals with the afterlife as represented by the ancestral hunting grounds where first T`Challa and then Erik commune with their fathers to receive insight. For the former, it means reconciling with his father’s own failures during his lifetime so he might not make the same mistake. For the latter, it means connecting with his own father about their joint Wakandan heritage which Erik never knew first-hand living in America.

Black Panther calls into question themes of isolationism as much as it does a complicated history of colonialism. Look no further than the African artifacts exhibit in the History Museum and you can plainly see that we are still grappling with the same issues planted in the same past. Far from dismissing it, we would do well to continue to entertain a dialogue. The roles that museums, archivists, and archaeologists play in all of this are important too. Suddenly, even for a brief instant, I’m starting to second-guess Indy’s obdurate assertion that artifacts belong in a museum. Where do we draw the lines on such an issue while not unwittingly promoting colonialist traditions? I don’t quite know.

The final words of Warmonger linger in my mind as well:

T`Challa: “We can still heal you…”

Warmonger: “Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

His words sting, as they should because so much truth dwells right there. I have always struggled to reconcile those very things because for being a nation made of immigrants the African-Americans are nearly the only ones who did not come to The Promise Land of their own volition. The handprints of such a reality can still be spotted in our world today.

There are deep roots that are set in place. In the History Museum corridors you see documentation of a muddied past of colonialism. Then, in Oakland (Coogler’s hometown) along with basketball and Public Enemy you see obvious signs of social decay and problematic issues of drugs and gun violence.

That it is actually put out there is nearly a relief and a necessity. However, and this is a big however, there seems to be an underlying hopefulness that we can somehow live together. Marcus Garvey once proposed blacks recolonize their native country and that in itself brings up other issues of cultural identity.

Erik Warmonger is right at the center of that with African descent and yet longheld ties to American society. What do we label him? I’m not sure we can. I’m not sure we need to. That’s for the individual. Regardless, it’s a work in progress. Messy no doubt but hope is still present.

Like Fruitvale Station (2013) before it, being rich in black culture by no means that the film is completely exclusive in the same regard. Far from simply being a token white person Martin Freeman is allowed to be a hero just like his counterparts and anyways maybe for once it’s okay for the Caucasian characters to take a momentary back seat if only to allow other voices to speak.

What we are left with as King T’Chala addresses the United Nations is not the sense that one people group is better than another or the new should overthrow those who have long been in power but that we should find those points of intersection — the things that unify us.

“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

It’s a fitting summation because this is a film that draws up different tribes, turns people against each other nearly in an instant, while constantly rearranging factions and who holds the keys to the kingdom. If it’s resolved in the end it’s only a fragile peace at best and if we are to maintain that we need far more than vibranium. We need a heavy dose of human understanding and empathy.

We can acknowledge our past failures as a society but must never allow them to shackle us for good. Mistakes are meant to be learned from. It’s when we’re not willing to learn and to change that dire straits look inevitable. I hope for our sake that the film’s call-to-action might still stand true.

But the film itself is also an imperative to take deep abiding pride in your heritage and who you are as a human being — unique just as you are. Thus, it seems utterly misguided to desire a future world where we do not see color but instead, we might yearn for a day when everyone can look at the rich strains of human diversity and proclaim “It is very good.” Where we can survey that same world and see that every color, creed, and tongue is finally one tribe instead of many.

4/5 Stars

Thor Ragnarok (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_posterMy heart lept in my chest when I heard that Taika Watiti (What We Do in The Shadows) was going to be helming the latest Thor movie. Because it’s hardly a well-kept secret that Thor has essentially been the weakest of all the Marvel threads (Hulk’s individual film excluded).

So once more Marvel has done an impeccable job of keeping lukewarm bandwagoners such as myself mildly interested. Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Brie Larson in the upcoming Captain Marvel movie — another personal favorite. Then, we have Ryan Coogler directing Black Panther with one of the most glorious casts in recent memory. They make their product so alluring despite my general lack of interest in the perennial juggernaut.

But back to Thor Ragnarok which goes far beyond the quip-filled, light-hearted humor that Marvel has often boasted, to great success, I might add. Even with its darker moments and strains of drama, there’s little doubting that Watiti’s brand of near insouciant humor is alive and well. Exhibit A is the very fact that we are reintroduced to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he swings precariously from a rocky prison encased in chains about to be executed by a fiery conflagration of a villain.

In case you haven’t realized it already what we are about to be served up is a comedy about an apocalypse. Oxymoronic as it may sound, the film all but pulls it off. Still, more explanation is in order.

Thor returns to Asgard only to begin quibbling with his black sheep of a brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) just like old times. They call on their father (Anthony Hopkins) whose imminent death is less an ending and more a god-like dispersal. There are other asides involving Dr. Strange (Cumberbatch) and yes, we even found out a little bit more about the Hulk and what Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been doing the last couple years.

Being the weasel that he is, Loki’s always betraying his brother and Thor winds up getting captured by a former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who has taken on the life of a slave trader, bringing in fighters for the Contest of Champions. Thor is destined to be the newest attraction on center stage.

Watiti most obviously makes his general tone felt in the film through his own character Korg, a giant rock monster who is more like the Michelin Man than The Thing. Watiti’s understated voice coming through so clearly as he matter-of-factly talks about the not uncertain death that awaits nearly everyone. But he’s also handy for a few rock, paper, scissor jokes as well.

Jeff Goldblum is probably the film’s other finest creation for his own brand of oddly perturbing flippancy with gladiatorial violence and hedonistic relish of death matches. But in the same breath, The Grandmaster also happens to be probably the funniest addition to the cast for those very same reasons.

In fact, it’s these themes touched on briefly that are most crucial to drawing conclusions about Ragnarok. It’s deeply entrenched in issues of death and mortality, violence and warfare. By no small coincidence, the main villain brought to the fore is Hela (Cate Blanchett) who helped Odin build his kingdom and has come back to rule it as her own. It’s not a particularly inspired creation but what did we expect? It is what it is.

Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is the film’s favorite hard-hitting tune to conjure up for perfect trailer sound bytes to crosscut with the action at hand. Whether it serves any other purpose aside from just being a bit of retro-cool is probably beside the point.

There’s a line that seems apt for such a film that I couldn’t help recalling. It goes like something like this, “We laugh at death because we know that death will have the last laugh at us.” It’s one thing to make light of death as a coping mechanism and as an outlet to grapple with something we don’t completely understand, quite another to completely dismiss it. Because the far easier road is to try and evade dealing with it altogether.

The usual CGI extravaganzas and spectacle aside, there is something still to relish in this movie. What I’m trying to say is that Thor Ragnarok is a deathly funny superhero film. In spite of the usual tiresome amount of pyrotechnics, random cameos, and overzealous action sequences, there is an ephemeral and still a delightful enjoyment to be found in this picture. It no doubt bears the imprint of Watiti while still wearing some of the tiresome Marvel tropes.

The one theme it does suggest most overtly is that “Asgard” was built on past indiscretions, bloodshed, and violence. But moreover, the mythical nation is not simply a place. It’s the people that make it up. And in the wake of an apocalypse, it’s some amount of solace. That and Jeff Goldblum giving the commoners a pat on the back. It’s always good to undercut solemnity with another punchline following the credits.

3.5/5 Stars