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Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior. It’s unlike any other super hero film prior. Yes, there have been African-American leading men in comic-based movies, notably Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire-all-badass Blade. However, this is the first movie I can think of with this kind of budget, this kind of backing, and with this kind of ownership over its cultural heritage and the heavy burdens it carries.

We last saw T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War mourning the loss of his father, the king of the African nation of Wakanda. The outside world does not know that Wakanda sits on a vast supply of virbanium, the strongest and more durable metal in the world and the key to Wakanda’s impressive technology. Under a holographic cover, Wakanda is a thriving metropolis with flying cars, skyscrapers, and next gen weapons. T’Challa goes home and must earn the right to the throne. However, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former top-level black ops solider, is looking for his own path into Wakanda and onto the throne. Killmonger teams up with arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to force Wakanda to deal with being cut off from the world.

This is a movie populated almost entirely by black faces, notably black women (more on that later), and they are given a mainstream platform that celebrates its multitudinous African roots and traditions thanks to co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed). This movie is proudly black, which will rankle some on the fringes of society, as if celebrating one’s own identity is somehow denigrating those who do not apply to that status. Black Panther is not an exclusionary movie because of its content and execution; this is a very accessible movie to a mass audience, even those who haven’t been paying attention to every nitty-gritty detail in the previous seventeen MCU entries. There are only two characters from other MCU films that appear, one as a post-credits cameo and the other an officious representative (Martin Freeman) of the outside’s clandestine organizations. This is a unique world isolated from the long shadow of colonialism. Wakanda has never known, to our knowledge, the depravity of the European and American slave trade. They have continued to develop uninterrupted by conquerors, slave traders, and the crippling aftereffects of racism. The Wakanda people could very easily be the conquerors themselves. They’re the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and hide as a “third-world nation,” utilizing the ignorance of the Western world to its security. The world of Wakanda is a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and defiantly independent nation.

The larger theme is over the responsibilities inherent to those with privilege. The nation of Wakanda is vastly successful by all conventional metrics. T’Challa must wrestle with whether to continue their exclusionary stance, ignore the plight of the larger world and say it’s none of their business or engage with the world, potentially putting his own kingdom’s peace and prosperity at risk. It’s a simple enough theme and yet it has tremendous weight to it especially when you account for those on the other end of the Wakanda borders. The character of Killmonger is a direct reflection of this. His experiences in Oakland are not the ideal pairing with the luxury of Wakanda. Killmonger sees Wakanda’s great influence as a way to protect beleaguered black citizens of the world and especially in the United States. It’s a way to prevent more senseless deaths from black citizens who were slain as a result of the fear of just being black (a powerful example was Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station). It’s a pointed political statement that doesn’t get too heavy-handed (even though I would have preferred that). It questions the value of isolationism especially when suffering can be prevented. Killmonger works as a villain because you can understand his point of view. He goes beyond the need for vengeance. The wrongs he wants to right are larger and historical. Even Killmonger’s last line really attaches itself to this theme. T’Challa offers him a way out but with imprisonment. “No,” Killmonger declines, “My people were the ones who leaped over the sides of the slave ships. They knew death was better than bondage.” The emphasis is “his people,” not T’Challa’s, not Wakanda. His people were the ones who suffered from slavery. Could Wakanda have possibly prevented it?

Another wonderful surprise of Black Panther is its incredible all-female ensemble that provides expert support to their king. T’Challa has the good fortune of four strong women, each of them having a different and vital relationship to him. The standout will be Danai Gurira (TV’s Walking Dead) as the fierce chief of security, Okoye. She has a swagger that vacillates between being intimidating and being brashly enjoyable. Okoye has many of the best lines and she throws herself into every fight. There’s also a sense of duty that transcends a single man that challenges her loyalty. Letitia Wright (TV’s Humans) plays Shuri, the Q of this world, the top scientist and creator of many a gadget. She’s T’Challa’s little sister and their interplay is very competitive and teasing. She’s looking to be more involved in the action and a highlight is when she teams up with her big bro. Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book) is Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who comes in and out of his life as an undercover spy. All three of these women have a powerful sense of agency and are integrated in important and essential ways. Even though Nakia may slide into that romantic interest role, she still has a vibrant life outside whatever feelings she may or may not have for the hero. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who radiates strength and fortitude. These women gave me some of the biggest moments of entertainment in the entire 135 minutes of movie.

Now some careful readers might note that I haven’t done much to emphasize the actual action of the super hero action movie, and that’s for a good reason. Black Panther stands stronger on theme and character than it does its actual action sequences. Coogler had a wonderful sense of scale and verisimilitude with 2015’s Creed, relying on long takes to put the audience in the heightened drama of the boxing ring. With Black Panther, the action sequences can lose a sense of immediacy. Many happen at night or are filmed and edited in ways that diminish some of their impact, like hand-to-hand combat in splashing water where the splashes obscure the activity. Other scenes felt like a video game CGI cut-scene. Speaking of video games, Black Panther’s suit has a crazy ability to absorb the kinetic energy of weapons, which means the stakes take a dip when our hero can merely just stand and allow himself to get shot repeatedly. The payoff for this absorption is a giant energy shockwave but it plays out like a fighting game’s special feature. It’s an aspect that’s not really utilized in a satisfying or unique way. The final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger feels too weightless in execution. It’s meant to even the playing field by nullifying their extra abilities, but if they both have the same “Panther powers” isn’t the field already even? The third act, the usual punching bag for MCU critics, is the best part of the movie from an action standpoint. It utilizes the characters in significant ways and allows for organic complications while still maintaining its wider sense of spectacle. Plus it’s one of the few action sequences that allow all the pyrotechnics to be enjoyed during the visibility of day.

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Boseman (Marshall) was an excellent choice for a stoic and too-cool-for-school character that can glide right on by. The ageless Boseman is at his best when he’s working off the other actors, especially his female posse. He has a couple of very effective emotional confrontations as he learns of his family’s secrets. As steady and soothing a presence as Boseman can be, this is Jordan’s movie. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) has been Coogler’s cinematic good luck charm and we’re still benefiting from that divine kinship. His character is at the heart of the central thematic question. While T’Challa is ultimately the one who has to decide, it is Killmonger who embodies that need for change and the desire to rectify the past. There’s a flashback with Jordan that got me to tear up, and this guy was the villain! It’s one of the film’s biggest mistakes sidelining Jordan for far too long. After his introduction, Killmonger is strangely absent for the next hour or so of the movie, ceding the spotlight to Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), a more antic and goofy scenery-chewing baddie who has a few regrettably “faux hip” lines of dialogue that land awkwardly. Serkis is having a blast but can feel like a holdover from a different film.

Much like last summer’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It has a personal significance that I will not be able to fully tap into, no matter the expansive powers of empathy. Black Panther, as a long-awaited cultural moment, will have many ripples of inspiration. After my early screening, I sat back and watched an African-American boy, no older than seven or eight, walk out of the theater in a daze. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he said in astonishment, “That was the best movie ever.” That kid has a hero he can call his own. That matters. Black Panther, as a work of art, is rich in topical themes and has a wide supporting net of exciting, robust, and capable women. I enjoyed how personal and relevant and political the movie could become, folding new and challenging ideas onto the MCU formula. Coogler is a marvelous director and storyteller showing rare acumen for being able to handle the rigors of a Hollywood blockbuster and deliver something hearty. The action has some issues and there are some structural hiccups that hold it from the MCU’s upper echelon (I enjoyed all of the 2017 MCU movies better). Black Panther is a winning movie when it features its sterling cast celebrating their virtues and solidarity and a still respectable enough action spectacle when called upon for big screen duty.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

1948Remember in the late 90s when studios seemed to develop similar projects every few months? In 1997, we had two volcano movies (Volcano, Dante’s Peak), and in 1998 we had two animated bug films (Antz, A Bug’s Life) and two asteroid action flicks (Deep Impact, Armageddon). With the wealth of unproduced screenplays, there’s definite merit to different writers coming up with similar concepts independent of one another. Now in 2013 we have two action movies that, boiled down, are essentially Die Hard in the White House. The first out of the gate, Olympus Has Fallen, is an entertaining action vehicle that reminds me of the 90s Jerry Bruckheimer era of big explosions, big body counts, and irony-free pleasures.

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a top Secret Service agent still reeling from his inability to save the President (Aaron Eckhart)’s wife (Ashley Judd) in a freak accident. He now provides security at the nearby Treasury Department, the President afraid to see Mike’s face and be reminded of his loss. Then one sunny day, a cargo plane fires on D.C. citizens, armed terrorists assault the White House, and North Korean nationalist Yang (Rick Yune) has taken the President and his cabinet members hostage. The Speaker of the House, Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), has ascended to America’s Commander in Chief and he has to navigate tricky issues like how to save the president. Luckily, they have a man on the inside. During the firefight, Mike scrapped his way inside the White House. Now it’s one man versus a bevy of terrorists and nationalists.

100030_galThe overall execution reminds me of the heyday of mid 90s action cinema, with its mixture of the ridiculous played completely sincere. It doesn’t really matter that North Korean terrorists are able to take down the White House so easily. Sure we can nitpick the very prospect of a large foreign aircraft getting so close to D.C. before getting intercepted, and only with two fighters at that. But if you can tuck away that nagging voice reminding you of the implausible nature of everything, then Olympus Has Fallen is a serviceable action thriller. Every fifteen minutes or so our hero has a new mini-goal to accomplish. It keeps things fresh and holds your attention away from analyzing the sillier elements (Gatling guns atop the White House?). The debut script by screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt follows the Hollywood blockbuster blueprint down to the smallest detail. Of course there’s another blueprint it mirrors, namely that of Die Hard. Beyond the premise of one man left to his wits in a hostage standoff, there’s also the moment where the bad guy poses as a good guy to the ignorance of our hero, there’s the failed outside tactical use of force, and the bond forged between the man on the inside and the link outside, whom isn’t given the level of respect deserved. That’s not just an application of the Die Hard premise to a new setting (like Air Force One or Under Siege), but a sampling of the very plot beats from Die Hard. Then again if you’re going to steal then steal from the best.

There’s a certain throwback bravado vibe going on here that makes it all easier to swallow. It’s got big silly action sequences and some in-your-face jingoism (a character, when faced with the notion of execution, literally starts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), enough that Michael Bay would be misty-eyed, but treating the subject matter with such thoughtless swagger makes the reality easier to accept. Having D.C. attacked, civilians mowed down, national monuments crumbled, and the White House in ashes, well you’d naturally think back to the very real horrors of 9/11, and you may shudder. By embracing the implausible nature of the action and achieving a tone that prioritizes popcorn thrills, Olympus Has Fallen dances around pitfalls of exploitation and simply becomes another big, dumb, but enjoyable action movie. I say this without a hint of derision or irony.

I haven’t been a fan of Antoine Fuqua as a director. He can compose a good looking movie, but Shooter, Tears of the Sun, and King Arthur were enough to convince me the man could not properly stage exciting action. I think perhaps the limitations of the setup brought out the best in him because there are some genuinely gripping action sequences on display here. Also, the man does a fine job of establishing the geography of his action and presenting a surprising variety. Fuqua, aided with the shifting script, makes sure that the audience never gets bored. Sure there are storylines that don’t exactly work, like Mike finding the First Son, a character never heard from again, but the movie keeps changing shape, getting bigger, and finding enough satisfying payoffs. This is an effective, serviceable “turn off your brain” action movie, and it does enough right that you don’t fret about turning that brain back on until the end credits. The R-rating also ups the ante, providing bloodier and brutal escalation to what should be life-and-death stakes.  If you’re going to give me “Die Hard in a…” then you best make sure your movie doesn’t wuss out. You’ll recognize plenty of action movie tropes and clichés, but the action is worthwhile and the plot constantly moving that you simply don’t mind.

100033_galIt’s nice to see Butler (Playing for Keeps) find a role that plays to his, admittedly limited, strengths. His character is your standard tough guy with a tragic past, haunted by the life he couldn’t save, looking to make amends and forgive himself. It’s probably the fact that the role has so little to it that Butler is able to slide effortlessly into gruff action star mode, a preferential place (though I prefer the man to be bearded as well). The rest of the movie benefits from actors who are far better than the material: Freeman, Eckhart, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, and Angela Bassett. They all provide better-than-average performances for this type of movie. Even Dylan McDermott (TV’s American Horror Story) gets room to shine. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, The Man with the Iron Fists) makes for a very sinister bad guy. The part is Generic Antagonist #301, but Yune finds fun ways to enjoy the menace, soak it up without hamming it up. He transforms a generic villain into a dude you want to see righteously toppled.

After last fall’s updated Red Dawn (scrubbed free of invading Chinese forces) and now this, I must ask if North Korea has become the go-to military enemy for American action movies. Olympus Has Fallen takes the added step of never having the government of North Korea involved or approve, like the terrorists are acting on their own. We wouldn’t want to upset the government of North Korea; that’s what Red Dawn is for. But does anyone really view North Korea as a credible military threat? They are seen as a rogue nation, yes, and they claim to have nuclear arms, so they should be taken seriously, but does anyone realistically think we’ll wake up tomorrow and be conquered by North Korea? I suppose this criticism lies more with Red Dawn than Olympus Has Fallen, a movie that only needs a handful of dedicated foot soldiers rather than an invading army. I also find it laughable that the only thing holding back North and South Korea from war, in this fictional scenario, is the presence of about 28,000 U.S. troops. Also, if these events played out as they do, who doesn’t think that the U.S. would respond with military action against North Korea?  We started a war with Iraq and they weren’t even responsible for the actions of a handful of terrorists. I guess the North Koreans are the new Hollywood Boogeymen.

With a hook of a premise, some exciting action, and more than a few borrowed plot beats from Die Hard, it’s still a pleasant surprise at how entertaining Olympus Has Fallen works. It’s a movie that simply does enough right to justify watching. Its action is good enough, its plot is familiar enough but offers enough forward momentum, its actors are good enough, and it does enough right to quell potential boredom. I appreciated its throwback feel to the mid-90s action movie, a time of elevated popcorn thrills and powerful bravado, all without a hint of irony no matter how ridiculous things got. It lands on shakier ground when it tries to become a rah-rah kind of patriotic rally, but I’d be lying if I denied the certain pleasures of watching a Secret Service agent take out the bad guys on his turf. Time will tell how the second Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movie will fare, but if you’re looking for big and dumb but enjoyable, Olympus Has Fallen is like a summer popcorn film only in March.

Nate’s Grade: B

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