Movie Review: Black Panther

Too many characters, too long, too much plot but, at its root, lacking a meaningful theme. This is what I think about Marvel’s exhausting new comics movie for Disney, Black Panther, which pounces, confuses and contradicts.

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Five tribes converge in an African kingdom where a substance called vibranium once crash-landed, leaving the tribal nation rich in this superpowerful resource, which must be mined and developed to perform wonders. This place is called Wakanda and Wakandans hoard the stuff, which they mine, keep and profit from for themselves, concealing it from the world, despite its healing abilities. Some might say ‘but it’s only a comics movie’ and dismiss any other thought. As for me, I did wonder, and you might, too, about what Wakanda’s closely guarded windfall could do for people with cancer, for instance.

This is the main problem with the politically tinged Black Panther, which mixes nationalism, genetics and collectivism to address, question and challenge ideas without dealing with them. Being a Marvel movie, many merely want to know if Black Panther has fights, fun, humor, cleverness and action, all the marks of Disney’s Marvel Studios brand. So, yes, it has those to varying, uneven and inconsistent degrees. Humor is flip and scattered. Fun comes in spurts. Fights are too fast, cleverness isn’t clever enough and action is solid. Visuals are, as usual, computer-generated.

Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the Fruitvale Station director (using a Bay Area angle here, too), Black Panther doesn’t settle on a theme. It ends up in a squishy mix of notions summed up by the arbitrary term social justice. It might have been called ‘Social Justice Warrior’, though this would run afoul of those who claim that title. Black Panther, with no overt relation to the 1960s black supremacist movement, opens with its first social justice mission to ‘bring back our girls’, the phrase associated with a campaign to reclaim girls kidnapped and raped by Islamic terrorists in Africa and forced to become veiled Moslems. The campaign omitted those facts and so does the movie, instead using the initial mission to introduce its leading lady and gentleman, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Chadwick Boseman as her ex-boyfriend, Wakanda’s leading monarch. Knowing what the audience knows could happen to the girls, this packs stakes, severity and context into the plot. Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and Nyong’o, Patsy the raped slave in 12 Years a Slave, rise above the script.

They’re not in Black Panther enough. Yet they carry the movie while sharing it with too many characters. Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood) plays the king’s mother, Andy Serkis (War, Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) plays a wild-eyed villain who comes off like a drunken Englishman, Forest Whitaker (Phenomenon, Rogue One, The Crying Game) plays a kind of referee, Letitia Wright (Cake) plays a sassy royal sister with amazing tech skills and Winston Duke (Dwight on Modern Family) plays a rival tribal leader. Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Marshall) has an important role. Danai Gurira steals every scene as a warrior. Michael B. Jordan (NBC’s Parenthood), who played the title character in Coogler’s Creed, plays the arch-villain. There are several other characters, too, including a tribal farm leader played by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya. They are each overwhelmed.

With horseback riding across the countryside and a sweeping score that briefly replaces the predominant drumbeat, the audience enters the great kingdom introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda comes with clipped, cliched narration as the story begins. A king is designated, then challenged (also cliched) during a waterfalls conference with leaders and warriors from the five tribes. All of this royal shuffle arcs into a plot to smuggle the powerful substance, which leads to the perils of poverty, presumed errors in judgment and what went down during that tie-in to the Bay Area. Wakandans speak English with foreign accents yet they also speak in a foreign language with subtitles and it’s never clear why. There are bands of all-female or all-male warriors — with all this same sex togetherness, I looked for gays in the military with none in plain sight — and the only enlistment shared by both sexes is subservience to nation, blood and the rule of the monarch.

For all the palace intrigue, it is natural to want to know who’s behind Wakanda’s smuggling amid painted faces and masks, decorative gear and furnishings and body and facial mutilation. Also, why are ritualistic displays practiced in a country so modern, enlightened and technologically advanced? An answer partly comes with the closest Wakanda has to a national slogan: Praise the ancestors! Even when sponsoring gladiator-style fighting to determine the nation’s ruler — this is intended as admirable? — familialism is as rampant as in Buckingham Palace … or Trump White House.

Black Panther tries too hard to have its genres, plot points and philosophies every which way.

Boseman’s ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel’s universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 ‘badass’?

A late second wind gets Black Panther’s game on. When Michael B. Jordan’s angry urban black man finally kicks in, Boseman’s king finally gets some screen time and begins to doubt the ancestry worship, though never down too deep. Blood as defining one’s identity never gets challenged. Instead, it is mixed with mysticism. Black Panther, like last year’s Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok and most Marvel movies, is agnostic about ideas. Question your country is a platitude which competes with the question of foreign entanglements but it’s all housed in lightness, wizardry and fanfare. The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’

Thoughtfully halting after uttering the word duty, which she nearly brings herself to doubt, Lupita Nyong’o’s character rests on acting “for what I love.” Nakia’s is an affirmation of a real King’s noble line about being judged by the content of one’s character. One senses in Black Panther‘s restless pacing and prowling that it’s stalling to keep from being stalked, hunted and downed by the social justice bunch.

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

With several credited writers, campy Cate Blanchett (Carol, Truth, Cinderella) in smeared black eyeshadow, full gothic gear and Maleficent-like antlers to match, butch lesbian warriors, scads of Marvel Comics characters and tie-ins, cameos and one gigantic Phallic symbol — even Jesus Christ and Moses if you know where to look — Thor: Ragnarok runs more than a bit amok. Pardon the kitchen sink analogy, but this Disney movie, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), is almost a full-blown camp comedy, with action and a high body count.

With Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Snow White and the Huntsman) returning in the title role, Thor: Ragnarok starts flaming early on, with flying embers coming over the opening credits to Thor’s heavy metal musical theme. The Norse god of thunder narrates his own situation. Ragnarok is quickly explained (think the Rapture) and the movie’s off on its wild runs. Light, silly and depleted of the original Thor movie‘s mythology and sense of honor, in comes brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, I Saw the Light, Kong: Skull Island) and their dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and a first-born child, Hela, played by Blanchett as a veiny goddess of death with black hair, black eyeliner and black bodysuit like she stepped out of an X-Men movie.

“This you must face alone”, Odin tells his son Thor about the new dilemma of the long-lost sister’s return to their mythical world. With shades of Terminator, Mad Max and Willy Wonka films, complete with a glitzier version of Thunderdome, the action comes in spurts while the comedy keeps the lines coming in crisp flamboyance. Blanchett’s Hela sashays around swinging her hips and dripping her lines such as: “You don’t know who I am?”

But Thor: Ragnarok, with Hemsworth gamely and amazingly staying in character the whole time, has more glitz and schmaltz in store with another planet’s grandmaster in gold lamé played by Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) in a gray-haired pompadour with blue fingernail polish and face paint. Idris Elba (Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, The Jungle Book) returns in the same role. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon, Bones in Star Trek Beyond), Tessa Thompson (Selma, Creed) and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk, Spotlight) are fine and look for an appearance by the director and, of course, Marvel and Thor creator Stan Lee. It’s all in good fun and games and the film feels and looks like a gaming play, complete with heavy use of automatic weapons and artificial scenes.

For instance, Hulk changes proportion. Hela is inexplicably regenerative while Thor is not. Others will probably notice an array of tricks, Avengers series nods and gimmicks, though it borders on exhausting and I opted to see Thor: Ragnarok in a two dimensional screening, not in 3D. Eye strain and fatigue may creep in but thematically interesting resistance, extermination and something called “obedience disks” gives the ensemble-driven, meandering plot a second wind. At root, Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy with action, not the other way around, though it is too long and I could have done without the Hulk and his subplot. Hemsworth’s Thor gets the best quip when he puts Bruce Banner in a bind to go somewhere else and says: “Use one of your Ph.Ds”. Fans of the original will want more of Thor’s mythology.

Movie Review: Deadpool

Movie Review: Deadpool

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Ryan Reynolds was the perfect leading man in 2009’s The Proposal and he has struggled ever since to find the right type of movie to match his unique talents, which at his best call to mind the dry humor of Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy and other actors whose ironic performances never seem seedy or malicious.

Deadpool, one of the Marvel Comics-based characters and loosely tied into Fox’s X-Men series, is not that movie. But, for Reynolds, it is a start. Ryan Reynolds, as anyone who saw his spot for testicular cancer self-exams and a car commercial during Super Bowl 50 knows, is everything George Clooney was oversold as for the past 20 years: handsome, upright, comfortable in his own skin and distinctively humorous in a way that’s simultaneously barbed and bright. The makers of Deadpool, which is dark, gruesome and foul-mouthed, turn formulaic snark and bitterness inside out, wrap it around Reynolds’ irresistible screen appeal (which reminds me of James Garner) and deliver it into a thematic decency that lets the audience in on the joke.

That’s what Deadpool‘s marketing has done brilliantly for the past several months and it apparently worked. The movie opened huge at this weekend’s box office, beating both Zoolander 2 and How to Be Single and breaking records. Maybe today’s young audiences are ready for something sassy and smart if it comes in this genre. Deadpool, like Marvel’s similarly-themed Ant-Man, gets dirty and dark with cleanliness and light as the ultimate point, which is why it’s not as hard to take.

The plot is overly simple, with a young mercenary (Reynolds) meeting a lady of the evening (Morena Baccarin) and falling in love, getting funny and nasty to a montage of holiday-themed sex gags, until their bad boy and bad girl karma sneaks up and life throws a curve. Reynolds’ character ends up getting caught trying to resolve the problem in a deadly inducement of mutation by torture. A slavemaster (Ed Skrein) turns him into a would-be mutant mercenary. But the victim uses his mind to endure, resist and break free of the slavery to become the title character and strike back. All of this happens after opening credits that poke fun at Hollywood. The action is exciting, the classic soundtrack songs are perfect (especially Juice Newton’s 1980 cover of “Angel of the Morning” and “Calendar Girl”) and the computer imagery is fine.

Reynolds’ lines make the movie, though. As crude and disgusting as the material gets, with jokes about masturbation, emoji and Rosie O’Donnell displayed in that fast-talking, fragmented way today’s youths have of half-expression—i.e., “hashtag: drive-by”—Reynolds and company play bits up in order to slow down and have an impact. In mutant form, Ryan Reynolds makes his impression with snappy vocals of witty (if often vulgar) lines that underscore the contrast between the sacred and the profane.

Irreverence bridges the gap. Reynolds’s character plays with unicorns and Hello Kitty and mocks IKEA—aided by his blind roommate (Leslie Uggams in a welcome return to the screen)—and, in the end, with twists of anti-anti-heroism, he goes by his own judgment for his own sake. Deadpool may be sharp, rough and jaded, and he is, but it’s so he can cuddle, kiss and play and he does that, too. In other words, he’s made for Ryan Reynolds, who finally gets closer to making a movie his talent deserves.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

Movie Review: Ant-Man

AntManPosterMarvel’s Ant-Man (opening on July 17) is good for what it is. These Marvel movies for Disney are comic book-based movies, and this resembles a classic comic book, with exaggerated lines and all, especially during the first half. It’s an original and tightly drawn plot about a thief’s redemption. With proper exposition, for a change, it’s as enjoyable as 2008’s Iron Man.

Things get fragmented, fast and predictable in the second half and this is not a young kid’s movie as scenes include profanity and disturbing deaths. But Ant-Man is a light movie about keeping perspective and it’s better than the recent Avengers picture. Look for Avenger Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Marvel man Stan Lee.

The three main characters are Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Last Vegas), his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) and Paul Rudd (Admission) in the title role. Pym invents a way of miniaturizing man, his daughter may be in on the plans and Rudd’s ex-convict burglar Scott Lang is recruited to conduct a live experiment on assignment to stop the bald, swaggering villain (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) that aims to make the worst of the new discovery. The conflict plays out in corporate boardrooms and laboratories.

Aside from father-daughter storytelling arcs and Pym’s reclamation of an invention which rightfully belongs to him—he explains that he “hid it from the world”—the plot is plain. Action moves at a steady clip when it’s engaged. Ant-Man’s deployment, based on Lang wearing a suit and applying thought and technology that makes him the size of the insect and able to be skillful, agile and fast in commandeering other ants, comes at the expense of Lang’s redemption, largely due to a trio of clownish criminal cohorts. With Michael Pena (Lions for Lambs) doing a version of a Joe Pesci character, lines and scenes are broad. But this is a movie called Ant-Man, after all. Cartoonish comes with the deal.

With his geek, gee-whiz persona, Rudd’s fine in the role and Lilly is very good at measuring her performance in what could have been a flat character (despite a wig or hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Swing Out Sister’s lead singer and Lee Grant in Airport ’77). Lilly’s character bridges Ant-Man‘s gaps, which should have been filled by Rudd as Lang. Veteran Douglas gets more screen time than expected and he’s good, too. This is pure popcorn fare, really matinee material at best, with glimpses of a more daring movie in scenes such as Ant-Man literally emerging from a groove into an electronic dance music scene as mindless as an acid-tripping hippie and a military-industrial complex scenario out of Starship Troopers. Audiences that become animated over everything Avengers will probably rave on Ant-Man, too, which offers coherent, light, witty escapism.

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

TASM2 posterThe Amazing Spider-Man 2 is short, far short, of amazing. The 2012 original in Sony’s and Marvel’s rebooted series, The Amazing Spider-Man, was less predictable, more character-driven and more focused. This movie is not terrible, not middling, just lacking in cohesion and feeling unfinished.

Centering upon Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield again) and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone again), both graduating high school as the oldest high school students since any season of Glee, no less than three villains complicate Spider-Man’s already complicated life, not counting the evil Oscorp and its evil business executives in an unfortunately and implausibly anti-capitalist subplot that bubbles underneath the whole movie and finally pops with the impact of slowly deflating bubblegum pfftt. Easily the most developed and interesting villain is an electrical engineer played by Jamie Foxx, recreating his homeless lunatic from The Soloist, that also fades out without a proper finish. The character isn’t really believable as an engineer but he at least has reasons for becoming Electro.

And, taking back what he created, Electro zaps some life into an otherwise flat, lifeless script that doesn’t know what to do with its sense of humor or story, spreading Peter Parker’s doubt too thin and wasting time with disjointed scenes that result in a wildly fluctuating and self-contradictory movie. The throughline is misanthropy, which is shared by everyone from Parker’s photojournalist, who is never seen working at the Bugle, to a baggy-eyed business heir, gothic secretary and of course poor Maxwell Dillon/Electro (Foxx) who is lonely, invisible and misunderstood. Joined by Sally Field as Aunt May and Campbell Scott in flashback as Parker’s father, they all flit in and out of this kitchen sink sequel with abandon. The boozy Oscorp kid is not for a second plausible as someone who could contemplate what time it is let alone running a big business that powers Manhattan and the only one whose character makes some internally logical sense is a hammer-and-sickle tattooed Soviet type (Paul Giamatti) in what amounts to a cameo as a mad dog Russian bent on mowing every New Yorker down for kicks.

All of this takes place in large, cartoonish action scenes in 3D (I saw the picture in IMAX 3D, which adds nothing) and only the most invested and diehard Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and Marvel fans will want to shell out the cost of parking and movie ticket to see the twists (which most will see coming) and feel satisfied. The rest will leave the theater feeling subjected to a Wagernian exercise in overkill that magnifies everything but what matters to the max. The result reminds movie people that Marvel is capable of losing touch with what made its Captain America: The Winter Soldier a fine film – strong lead character, purposeful story and a meaningful theme – and getting caught in flat tales of misanthropy. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is at once incomplete, underdeveloped and overblown.