Black Panther – A Review

This weekend, pretty much everyone in the United States and I went to see Black Panther. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of this film ever since the Black Panther character made his triumphant debut in Captain America: Civil War. My anticipation was whetted further with the news of the all-star cast that they had assembled for Black Panther and the fact that director Ryan Coogler would be behind the camera. Though Black Panther would only be Coogler’s third full-length feature, based on his previous work I was confident that he was the man to oversee this important and historic film. The fact that Kendrick Lamar was curating the soundtrack was really just icing on the cake – all the ingredients were there for Black Panther to be something very special.

Of course, what looks good on paper doesn’t always match up to the final product. Coogler and company had to execute for Black Panther to be a success. And while I was confident, part of me was also a little concerned. There’s a lot of pressure inherent with making a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Panther is not your average Marvel movie. By being the first major superhero movie that featured not only a black main character, but an almost exclusively black cast, Black Panther had a level of expectation and responsibility attached to it that perhaps no superhero movie other than Wonder Woman has had to endure. Would the hype of Black Panther be too much to live up to?

Thankfully, Black Panther totally rose to the occasion and more than exceeded expectations. Thanks to uniformly outstanding performances, thrilling action sequences, and a well-thought out story, Black Panther is arguably one of the best Marvel movies to date. I’ve been thinking about the film a lot since I saw it on Saturday, which is unusual for one of these blockbuster popcorn movies. Black Panther sticks with you and gives you a lot to think about and unpack – yet still manages to be a hell of a fun ride.

Black Panther picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, as T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to become king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). Though Wakanda is a country of amazing technological advances and reserves of the metal vibranium, it has remained hidden from the rest of the world. As he ascends the throne, T’Challa must defend Wakanda from outside forces as well as the consequences of a family secret.

One of the smartest moves that I think Marvel made with the character of Black Panther was to introduce him in another movie and get some of his backstory out of the way. We didn’t learn everything about Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, but we learned enough that Black Panther didn’t have to spend a lot of time unpacking his origin story. Black Panther already has a lot to do, in that it is introducing a bevy of supporting characters as well as introducing the world of Wakanda; having to introduce the character from whole cloth in this film would have been almost too much to do.

Because the basics have already been established, Black Panther basically can hit the ground running. The movie opens with a beautiful primer on the history of Wakanda and then continues to do its world building as the movie progresses. As a result, even though this is the first time that the viewer has spent much time in Wakanda, the country feels fully realized and lived in. Unlike some of the other foreign places where Marvel movies have taken place, Wakanda feels like an actual place that we’ve known about forever – and it fully embraces its African heritage. Though the film does move to other locales, the time spent in Wakanda with its royalty really makes all the difference.

I think it’s a credit to Black Panther that the titular character is perhaps among the less interesting people in the film. That is no critique of Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal, which continues to be great, but rather speaks to the deep bench of secondary characters that the film introduces and who feel like old friends by the end credits. This movie has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors and in more than one occasion I am pretty sure that we are watching a star being born.

Much has rightfully been made about the importance of Black Panther for its black representation, but this film is also crucial in its depiction of women as well. The strongest, smartest, and most bad-ass characters in Black Panther are all black women; Dora Milaje, the Special Forces team that protects the king, is made up exclusively of women warriors. I was already a fan of Danai Gurira from her work on Walking Dead, but she is so spectacular in this movie that she almost stole the whole damn film as Okoye, the greatest warrior in Wakanda. There is a fight scene in a casino where she is simply elegance in motion; the cinematography of her kicking ass in a beautiful red dress is seared in my memory. Relative newcomer Letitia Wright gives a breakout performance in her role as T’Challa little sister Shuri, who also is the head of all technological development in Wakanda. She gets some of the biggest laughs of the film and just lights up the screen. Lupita Nyong’o is obviously an amazing actress, but she gets to throw down with the best of them as Nakia, a Wakanda spy and T’Challa’s ex. Angela Bassett always makes everything better and Black Panther is no exception; she has a small role as Ramonda, T’Challa and Shuri’s mother and former queen.

Of course, the men in Black Panther are no slouches either. The internet has fallen in love with Winston Duke, who plays M’Baku, head of the Jabari, Wakanda’s mountain tribe, and they aren’t wrong for doing so. He’s both terrifying and hilarious, which is a pretty hard balance to find. He easily got some of the biggest laughs and cheers during the screening I was at. Daniel Kaluuya continues to do excellent work as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi. Andy Serkis gets to step out from behind his usual motion capture performances to be on-screen as bad guy Ulysses Klaue. Black Panther is basically its own stand-alone movie and there are very few attempts to tie this film into the larger MCU. The one exception is the presence of Martin Freeman, who reprises his role as Everett K. Ross that he originated in Captain America: Civil War. He isn’t a central part of the narrative, but he provides the minimal connective tissue to the wider Marvel universe.

Black Panther has an embarrassment of riches, including having the best Marvel villain of all time (take that Loki). As Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan gives Marvel perhaps the first bad guy that you not only sympathize with, but who has a legitimate beef. Most of the time in Marvel movies, the villains are kind of cartoonish in their quest for an infinity stone or world domination. There isn’t much method to their madness – they just want power. With Killmonger, Black Panther presents a very nuanced depiction of T’Challa’s foil. On more than one occasion when Killmonger is laying out his complaints, you can’t help but think he has a point. Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler bring out the best in each other – Black Panther marks their third collaboration – and this film is no exception. There are heavy issues at play in the conflict between Killmonger and Black Panther with plenty of shades of grey to consider. Their clash is almost Shakespearean and Jordan is clearly having some fun with the role. Killmonger has a swagger and wardrobe that makes you pay attention to him. Killmonger isn’t 100% right, but he isn’t 100% wrong either; viewers will be forgiven if they temporarily forget who their allegiance is supposed to be with. Jordan also has a scene with Sterling K. Brown in the movie that brought more than a few people to tears.

As much as I enjoyed Black Panther, I don’t know that I’m ready to say that it’s my favorite Marvel film. Part of that is fatigue with the genre – for all the things that Black Panther does to innovate and challenge expectations, it is still a superhero movie. There were some twists and turns that I thought were somewhat predictable, given how many Marvel movies in particular, and movies in general, that I’ve seen. While it was visually dazzling and had strong performances across the board, there were some pacing issues where I thought things moved a little slow. I ride hard for the Captain America films and I have a soft spot for all things Guardian of the Galaxy, but while I don’t know that I can say Black Panther is my favorite Marvel film, it is certainly in the conversation.

Some other random thoughts:

  • There are two post credit clips in Black Panther, so make sure to stay all the way to the end.
  • I sincerely hope that Shuri and Tony Stark cross paths at some point so she can clown on his tech.
  • There is so much goodness in this movie that I didn’t even get to discuss the rhinos!
  • I cannot overstate how beautiful this film is. I know Wakanda isn’t real, but it would be a gorgeous place to visit.
  • Also – this may seriously be the best looking cast ever assembled. Everyone is so good looking – I had to look up to see how old Michael B. Jordan is to make sure he was age-appropriate. Also related – what’s up, Winston Duke.

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  • Donald Glover gave some notes on the Black Panther script and there were a few places where I definitely think I felt his influence.

I am so happy that I saw Black Panther is a packed theater with a diverse crowd. There were a lot of families at the screening I was at, and knowing that some of these children were seeing people that looked like them for the first time as superheroes made my heart full. It also made me happy that some boys (and their parents) who may have opted out of Wonder Woman because it was “too girly” were tricked into seeing a film that provided plenty of examples of strong women. Black Panther could have buckled under the weight of expectation and responsibility, but instead it raised the bar for the whole damn genre while making history. With the runaway success of both Black Panther and Wonder Woman, hopefully this changes the conversation about what kind of movies can be successful.

Black Panther is currently in theaters nationwide.

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Some Thoughts on Netflix’s Dark

We are living in an era of peak TV, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s nice to have options and lots of new content, but it can also feel a little overwhelming. I can barely keep up with all the new shows that debut on cable, let alone all the streaming platforms. I have a very long list of shows that I’ll hear mentioned on a podcast or see a lot of chatter about on Twitter, but it’s very easy for series to simply fall through the cracks. It is very rare nowadays that a series will become a cultural touchstone that everyone is watching; sometimes a series like Stranger Things of Game of Thrones will break through and dominate pop culture, but often times people wind up watching shows in relative isolation, waiting for other people to discover a show that they enjoy.

I’ve never been a very patient person, so I’m just going to try to recruit people to start watching Dark on Netflix. I’m a little obsessed with it – I finished the first season in about two days and I want to talk about it.

Now, part of the problem with Dark is that is a show that you can’t really talk about it unless you’ve seen it, as half the fun of it are the plot points and reveals. I watched Dark having no idea what it was about and I think the less you know going in, the better. A podcast I listen to mentioned it and I trust their judgement, so I took a flyer on it. I’m a trusting soul. But I realize that isn’t enough for most people, so the most bare bones description I can provide is that Dark takes place in a small German town where children have started to disappear amid mysterious circumstances. Adding to the drama – this has happened before. The series focuses on four families in the town and their complex relationships – and secrets- that span generations. I’ve seen the series described as both Stranger Things meets The Killing and Stranger Things meets Twin Peaks, but if I was going to go that route I’d probably call it It meets Lost.

Are you intrigued yet?

Now I have to be honest and say that watching Dark is a bit of a challenge. First off, the show is in German, the first collaboration between Netflix and the country. The default option presented to Americans in watching it is a dubbed version, but I’d strongly recommend switching over to subtitles. I know subtitles turn some people off, but the dubbing is distracting and takes away from the ambiance of the series. The dubbed voices do not even remotely correlate with their characters nor do they sync up very well with the actors. Trust me on this – subtitles are the way to go.

The second hurdle is that this is a complex narrative with a lot of characters to keep track of. And not only do you need to remember who someone is, but you have to keep track of their relationship to all the other characters, which is a lot harder than it sounds and only gets more complex as the series continues. The series also shows these characters in flashbacks to when they were younger, just to add to the level of difficulty.

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Actual footage of me after the first episode of Dark

 

Watching the first few episodes reminded me a lot of the early going in Game of Thrones when I had a hard time keeping everyone straight and threatened to keep a white board in my living room to diagram all the families in play.  For Dark, I’ll admit that I kept the series’ Wikipedia page open so that I could refer to it when necessary. Much like Game of Thrones, it all finally clicked, but it was definitely a challenge in the beginning.

I know, I know – I’m not doing a great job of selling this.

However, I will say that any additional work that you have to put in absolutely pays dividends. I’m too busy to be wasting my time on shows that I don’t enjoy.  I finished the first episode a little disoriented, but desperate to know what happened next. I was 100% drawn in, even if I wasn’t exactly sure who all these people were and what they meant to each other. Part of what makes the show exciting is that it is constantly going in new and unexpected directions. When you think it might zig, it zags. Unlike Lost, this doesn’t feel like mysteries just for the sake of mysteries; the reveals all make sense and while I did figure out some of the surprises before they were confirmed, I still enjoyed the ride of getting there. Series with sci-fi elements aren’t always in my wheelhouse, but Dark always kept me interested. I actually could have finished the show faster than I did – which was already pretty fast, thanks to my binge watching – but I put off watching the final episodes so I could enjoy the series a little longer. I’m legitimately bummed out that I have no new episodes waiting for me when I get home and I’m already anxiously awaiting season two.

Dark is atmospheric, intriguing, and addictive. If you like mystery-box shows, it is well worth checking out. And then come find me so we can talk about it.

Season one of Dark is currently streaming on Netflix.

Darkest Hour – A Review

Thanks to being over the cap of vacation days that I could carry into the new year, I was able to take off a lot of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Typically I take very little time off at the holidays – my family is all local and I’d rather cover for other people who have kids or have to travel. But this year, I needed a goddamn break, so I seized the opportunity to indulge in a little staycation that involved a lot of Netflix and trips to the movie theater. It was kind of heavenly and something that I rarely do; usually if I’m out of the office I’m traveling, but there is something to be said for spending some quality time at home.  I think I’ve seen more movies in the theater in December than I had the rest of the year, which is a sad indication of what my 2017 looked like. I would have gone to the multiplex even more if it wasn’t so frigid in Upstate New York; on more than one occasion I had every intention of going to the movies, stepped outside, said “Nope” and went back inside to the warm confines of my apartment.

One of the movies that I faced the subzero temperatures to see was Darkest Hour – a movie that I admittedly wasn’t too jazzed to see. If it didn’t have Oscar buzz, I would have skipped it completely, but since I am once again making my quixotic attempt to see every Oscar nominated movie in every category I had no choice. I bundled up and fought for a seat in a surprisingly overcrowded theater to watch Gary Oldman portray Winston Churchill.

Part of the reason that I was kind of “meh” about going to see Darkest Hour was that I definitely have fatigue from movies that focus on World War II, especially in this political climate when I have to endure Nazi-related nonsense on a regular basis. I admitted to my guy friends this weekend that I thought Saving Private Ryan was overrated and they practically ran me out of the bar. Having watched The Crown I also wasn’t too jazzed to see yet another portrayal of Winston Churchill. I’m certainly not saying that John Lithgow gave the end-all, be-all depiction of Churchill, but his personality and this time period are well-tread – especially in an Oscar season that also features Dunkirk as a contender (which is also referenced in Darkest Hour). In short, Darkest Hour potentially was going to feel like homework.

Darkest Hour examines the period of time just prior to Churchill’s appointment as prime minister and his early days in office when he is faced with Hitler’s march across Europe and the deliberations within Churchill’s advisors. Churchill was not necessarily the popular choice for prime minister and assembles a war cabinet that is similar to Lincoln’s team of rivals that includes his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom support negotiating peace with Hitler. Darkest Hour shows Churchill’s transformation to the leader that he is revered for and shows the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that was unfolding as the treat of a German invasion was looming.

Given my apathy about seeing Darkest Hour, it’s probably not surprising that I wasn’t completely bowled over by it. It is definitely a well-acted film – Oldman is likely the frontrunner for Best Actor – and it’s well-made, but it never totally won me over and captured my full attention. I found some parts of it a bit boring and an Englishman who mumbles is not always easy to understand (there were a few times Closed Captioning would have come in handy). Oldman does disappear into the role quite nicely, though to be honest, I’d have been hard pressed to describe what Oldman looks or sounds like when he’s not in character.  I was pretty psyched to see Ben Mendelsohn turn up as King George VI, and Kristin Scott Thomas was a welcome addition as Clementine Churchill. Lily James does the most she can with the relatively thankless role of Churchill’s typist. The supporting performances aren’t really the point; Darkest Hour is all about giving Oldman a chance to shine and his performance does a lot to overcome some of the plotting and writing deficiencies. Still, even Oldman can’t fix everything and while I will not be surprised if he takes home an Academy Award, one stellar performance does not always make a great movie.

Darkest Hour is potentially worth seeing for Gary Oldman’s tour de force performance, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. If you don’t know much about this time period in Great Britain, the film does provide a very accessible and simple overview of the early days of Churchill’s tenure as prime minister. But there isn’t a lot of new info here for those who are already well-informed. My issues with Darkest Hour could have more to do with my own personal preferences than the film itself. It may be fairer to file this under “not for me” and move on.

Darkest Hour is currently in theaters.