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

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

220px-Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterThis was yet another pleasant surprise. Just when I think I’ve finally washed by hands of superhero movies the cineplexes are blessed by two pictures like Wonder Woman and then Spiderman: Homecoming. And they couldn’t be more different. Still, as much as Wonder Woman was invested in its heroine, you get the sense that the crew behind this film care some about Peter Parker too.

Peter (Tom Holland) is living the dream. He got to do battle with the Avengers and Tony Stark has taken him under his wing and he has video proof of it all. He’s expecting great things. He’s expecting to leave the drudgery of high school classes, band, and academic decathlon behind.

Except for most of the film, he is relegated to thwarting small-time crime and he never gets to fight extra-terrestrials or other unearthly beings from outer space. It’s precisely this point that suggests there’s something profound about this character without any of that added white noise.

It’s the very fact that Peter is struggling with his own identity, how to be Spiderman and keep it a secret while simultaneously trying to realize the full extent of his abilities. He’s walking a tightrope because he wants to tell his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and he wants Mr. Stark’s right-hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) to call him up for his next assignment so he can prove himself. And yet nothing happens like he wants. No one takes him quite as seriously as he wants. After all, he is a teenager. As some famous philosopher once noted, “with great power, comes greater responsibility.”

But Tom Holland imbues Peter with a genuine likability that lights up his performance from end to end. This guy isn’t a jerk or a moody loser. He falls somewhere in the middle, making idiotic decisions but always because he believes them to be right in that wayward teenage brain of his; he only gets distraught because in his world Spiderman is all he has. Without it he is nothing. That’s his own insecurity speaking.

In one scene that’s undoubtedly meant to be impactful and which subsequently gets referenced later, Tony Stark takes away Peter’s suit after a debacle with an ocean liner and in so many words he says that if Peter needs his suit to be someone then he doesn’t deserve it. Maybe this and the related scenes are needlessly overt in reflecting our hero’s fall and redemption but if nothing else they cast our protagonist in a positive light. He is one of us.

Another thing that constantly reminds us of this fact, has to do with the world and characters he is surrounded by. First of all, the writers do something fairly refreshing and they give him the honor of fighting a villain who is grounded on earth — a man (Michael Keaton) just trying to provide for his family. He is vengeful when the government (Tyne Daly) cancels his contract in favor of the affluent private corporation of Stark Industries. It’s a very real issue wrapped in a superhero film similar to Civil War’s antagonistic dilemma, part of what made that previous film and this one compelling.

But whereas that was a battle among friends, this picture is understandably a high school story. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing the John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldenstein writing credit not to mention the inclusion of a certain decathlon advisor (Martin Starr) making it hard not to draw up a minor Freaks & Geeks connection.

Honestly, it’s hard to put Spiderman on that level but it does begin to tease out the high school experience as Peter is forced to live a double life while chasing after Adrian Toomes and his clandestine arms operation all across town. Because just as important are his friendship with his Star Wars-loving best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), teenage crushes, parties, National Decathlon Championships, and, of course, Homecoming.

That’s the beauty of this story. It never tries to take on some epic agenda but far from settling it finds the importance in both the hero’s journey and the growth of someone in the throes of their adolescence. Peter knows that his nighttime activities are hurting his relationship with his aunt and hindering anything that could be between him and his amiable dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier).

The film’s greatest twist (which I’ll consequently omit)  is a beautiful bit of storytelling because it links together Peter’s two worlds so openly. Before they were two entities crisscrossed and tied together like chords of his spider webbing. But there comes a point where they are so closely connected he can no longer keep them separate. He must face it all even if it can’t be resolved as he would like.

So as the Marvel Universe rolls ever onward this picture turns out to be a rewarding entry because in some respects it chooses to tell a smaller story. Still, that story has some lovely touches and a rich cast that more than carry our attention.

The fact that the school outcast (Zendaya) wears a Sylvia Plath t-shirt cracked me up as did a bit of shameless Star Wars product placement, not to mention Captain America fitness videos. But there’s also some sentimental nods as well, namely to Ferris Bueller and the war memorabilia in the Principal’s office honoring his relative who fought alongside Cap during WWII (played by Kenneth Choi in both films).

Michael Keaton turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as a “villain” and everybody from Marisa Tomei to Donald Glover are enjoyable in their admittedly small parts. Of course, we have the laundry list of cameos from Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Gweneth Paltrow, and Stan Lee too as expected.

I won’t harp on this topic too much but it’s obvious that Spiderman is making a concerted effort to be ethnically diverse with its cast which is awesome and refreshing on so many levels. Whether they’re trying too hard with this perfect spectrum of ethnicity is not something to criticize at this point in time. Still, it does suggest that surrounding your typical characters with a lot of diverse individuals in cameos and supporting roles is good enough. Rather than forcing these smaller roles to meet public outcry, there’s a necessity for a better solution.

If the recent Hawaii Five-O pay equality news is any indication, the current state of affairs often has more to do with how the parts were initially created whether in Spiderman or Hawaii Five-O and not how they are interpreted. What might be more radical still is creating these same types of stories and standalone parts for actors who have normally been relegated. I would love to see a Donald Glover movie (on top of Community of course), a Kenneth Choi movie, or even a Jacob Batalon movie. But while we wait, go enjoy Jon Watt’s film for all it’s worth without an ounce of reluctance.

4/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

b9d42-prideofthe3Before superheroes headlined any Marvel or DC blockbuster, it was real life heroes that audiences wanted to see. No pastime was quite as popular as baseball and in that era Lou Gehrig was one of the titans along with Babe Ruth and the rest of the Yankees. You see this film is less of a biography (It certainly is not completely accurate), and more of a visual eulogy to a contemporary hero. The prologue explains as much:

“This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on the far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig” ~ Damon Runyon

As a modern viewer, I am just happy I can recognize baseball names like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, and of course, Babe Ruth. When audiences went out to see this film starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright back in the day, they were practically living it. World War II had already heated up and one of the great American heroes had died the previous year. Lou Gehrig was all those things in the prologue and more making it hard to get it all into a film.
Like any other superhero, he has an origin story beginning with his childhood in Manhattan, living with his poor German immigrant parents. His domineering mother convinces him to go to Columbia for engineering, but he soon ends up in the big leagues because of his tremendous skill with a bat. He is often a shy and even awkward young man, but he loves his parents and he can sure play ball. It’s that last point that gains him a lot of respect after a less than graceful start as “Tanglefoot.”
He soon becomes a lethal one-two punch with Babe Ruth, after initially being dismissed as the rookie and a boob. Journalist Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) has a major influence in Gehrig’s life and never loses faith in the young man’s abilities. He also does Lou a favor by introducing him to an attractive young Chicago socialite named Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), who finds Gehrig quite ridiculous at first. Soon, however, a budding romance begins with the often reserved Gehrig falling for the vibrant and vivacious young Eleanor. He gets engaged, married, hits two home runs for a little boy, and wins a world series. A lot of his other exploits are laid out for us too and the trophies and accolades start stacking up. All of this happens during the happy times when Gehrig is on top of the world, first with Murder Row and then The Bronx Bombers.
But all fairy tales must come to an end, and Lou Gehrig’s is especially tragic. He plays an, at that time, unheard of 2,000 consecutive games, but he also falls into a rapid decline. Eleanor looks on helplessly as her husband begins to deteriorate in front of her eyes, and the fans know something is not right. Gehrig gets examined and learns he has ALS, but very little is known about it. Much less can be done to treat it.
His final appearance at Yankee Stadium came on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. That day he gave his “Luckiest Man Speech,” and he walked off the field for good. Gary Cooper delivers the partially revised dialogue with a calm and clear delivery that seems to truly epitomize Gehrig. Although he is playing the man, it is almost as if he is giving a eulogy.
That’s a fitting ending because we do not need to see the suffering or the death. What we remember is the wonderfully full life he led. Perhaps this film had more cultural relevance back in 1942, but I would argue that it is still a stirring, heart-wrenching film. You have a small heart if you cannot find a place in it for this one.
Although he was not too good at baseball, in the other sequences Cooper seems like the perfect man to embody Gehrig. He is distinctly American, strong, quiet and he also has a pleasant charm with a comical streak in him. The look on his face when he realizes his weakness tears the heart. Teresa Wright had many fine performances early on in her career, but I will step out on a limb and say that this is probably the best one. She has so much spirit and at the same time, she is funny with a noticeable tenderness. She is the perfect wife and a wonderful actress to embody Eleanor Gehrig.
In a society that places so much interest in make-believe superheroes, I don’t mind taking some time to acknowledge a real one. We were the lucky ones Lou, thanks. Let anyone and everyone who does the Ice Bucket Challenge know who you are. You deserve to be remembered. Always.
4.5/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

84784-gotg-posterMy first thought about this film without any prior knowledge was, “How can they have a superhero movie with a talking raccoon and a walking tree? That’s so stupid!” Well, they proved me wrong or maybe they proved me right in a sense.

Guardians of the Galaxy is stupid in numerous ways, yes, but it’s the kind of dopiness that is fun, endearing, and often hilarious. It succumbs to some of the normal superhero/blockbuster cliches, but it also finds time to make fun of itself, and it benefits from that. It does not take itself too seriously and it begins with Chris Pratt aka Peter Quill aka Star Lord (not Andy Dwyer for all those Parks and Rec fans). He is an unlikely superhero, even the actor himself, and so it makes his character work all the better for this film.
After a childhood, tragedy Peter is abducted by a group of Ravagers, and thus begins his life in the far reaches of the galaxy retrieving artifacts for his employers by any means possible. He comes across a highly sought after orb, and he himself has a price on his head. That’s how he crosses paths with deadly female assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and bounty hunting partners Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). Gamora was sent by a power hungry villain bent on revenge. Rocket is a highly intelligent raccoon with an attitude, and Groot is a walking tree of few words who teams with him. They all end up in prison, and it is there where they finally begin to gel as unlikely as it sounds.
The crew is joined  by fellow inmate Drax, and they head out to deliver the mysterious orb to their contact. However, it falls into the hands of the enemy, and the gang must now protect Xandar from destruction. We have seen it all before, an epic space battle with ships zooming by, pyrotechnics everywhere and unexpected twists and turns. It is moments like these where it seems Guardians falls into the usual mold of explosions, image overload, and corny drama.
Quickly it finds itself again with Peter being goofy (ie. a dance off) or Rocket giving us one of his many wry comments in an extra epic moment (Well now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing now). It is these sorts of moments that make this film. Groot only knows three words, “I am Groot,” and yet Rocket has spent so much time with him that he understands every iteration. That’s how a summer blockbuster about a talking raccoon and a walking tree ends up working. It sidesteps some of the usual tropes, and when it does fall into one it willfully makes light of itself. We can forgive and forget because these “lovable misfits” are a barrel of laughs and they have a heart. It does not hurt that this film has an Awesome Mix for a soundtrack. At times I was not sure if I was watching a space opera or a rock opera — the music was so often the highlight. Then, when “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” started playing I was sold.
3.5/5 Stars