Black Panther

Black Panther

By: Kevin Jordan

You almost had it.

For the first 114 minutes of its 134-minute running time, Black Panther is a really good movie.  Those 114 minutes are exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel Studios movie – fun, witty, and visually excellent, with memorable characters you cannot wait to see more of in future movies.  It even manages to tackle a couple of social issues without stepping on itself.  So, what the hell was the last twenty minutes all about?  It was like watching Hamilton, but getting hit in the face with a pie during the final act.  Since the rest of the movie is good, you’ll forgive the pie, but not cool bro.

(SPOILERS – I am going to describe that pie.)

There is a lot to like in this movie, so that is where I am going to spend most of this review.  The film begins with a quick back story of the fictional African country of Wakanda – a country filled with vibranium and magic herbs delivered by a meteor strike centuries ago.  Using those two things, the Wakandans developed super-advanced technology, including imbuing their ruler with super powers (making that person the Black Panther), flying in anti-gravity, UFO-like aircraft, and healing all manner of disease and injury.  It also begs the question “where were these jerks when aliens invaded the planet in The Avengers?”  I’m guessing the Avengers would have appreciated the help, considering Wakandan technology makes Tony Stark’s tech look like he’s playing with Duplos.

That would have been helpful against the Chitauri. Or Ultron.

Incidentally, this refusal to help others or share their technology is the driving conflict between the main characters of the film.  King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and wiseman/priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker) want to keep Wakanda’s secrets hidden from the world (like their civilization has always done), while special operative/former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and the exiled Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) want to reveal the hidden secret of Wakanda to the world and help people.  Like in Captain America: Civil War, both sides make really arguments, so it is tough to decide which side to root for.  I mean, you’ll root for T’Challa because he’s the Black Panther, but you’ll question him while you’re doing it.

For most of the film, it feels like we’re watching a James Bond flick.  T’Challa and a couple of warriors, Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), embark on missions to stop people from smuggling vibranium out of the country.  They are repeatedly seen inside a command area and they even have a gadget maker in T’Challa’s 16-year old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).  When they learn of a museum heist involving an artifact that was actually vibranium, they determine the perpetrator is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).  I know – I thought Klaue was dead too and this confused me for a while.  Also, I think Serkis was ecstatic to play a character that didn’t involve motion-capture because he was visibly having as much fun in his role as Cate Blanchett had in Thor: Ragnarok.  Anyway, they hatch a plan to catch Klaue by undercover to a casino where Klaue plans to sell the artifact to a CIA agent, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).  And, just in case you don’t think I’ve sold the case of this film being James Bond: Marvel Edition, they stage a car chase scene with a high-tech luxury car.  The only thing missing was British accents.

I made these.

While I was really into the spy-esque thriller feel of the film, I also couldn’t help marveling at a couple of the characters and the performances being delivered.  As good as Boseman is in the title role, the sneaky good performances come from Serkis, Wright, and most especially, Gurira.  Wright attacks her part with an earnestness that endears her to the audience immediately.  Serkis revels in a villain role where we can actually see his face and invokes glimpses of Joker-level crazy/genius.  But Gurira steals nearly every scene she is in, combining her tough-as-nails Walking Dead persona (Michonne) with a patient and wise advisor to create a character every bit as powerful and charismatic as Black Panther.  Watching her admonish T’Challa as if he were nothing more than her pupil made me wonder who was the real leader of Wakanda.

So there I was, minding my own business and enjoying a really good movie when, out of nowhere, Klaue is unceremoniously replaced as the villain by Killmonger.  Aside from the fact that Killmonger is a terrible villain name, his character is woefully underdeveloped.  In fact, Killmonger is such a thin character that agent Ross (who is also laughably underdeveloped) is forced to monologue Killmonger’s backstory for the Wakandan leaders, as well as the audience.  Turns out, Killmonger wants revenge for his father’s death and I lost interest in anything he did or said after that.  Apparently, the writers also recognized this so, after about a five-minute digression where the movie becomes The Lion King, they wrote in a Lord of the Rings-style, epic, battle royale where Wakandans fight other Wakandans for no reason while dodging armored rhinos.  *SPLAT!!*

Can you see me now?

What’s so frustrating about this climax is that the movie goes to great lengths to detail Wakandan culture and tradition, featuring the succession ceremonies and fierce loyalty, then tosses it out the window because rmored rhinos dammit!  Plus, half of the Wakandan warriors decide to fight T’Challa after discovering he is still alive, meaning Killmonger isn’t technically isn’t their king (after besting T’Challa earlier).  Even if you enjoy such battles in your movies, the tonal shift in the film to get there was so jarring it felt like it came from a whole different movie.  It was like watching a baseball manager bring in his worst relief pitcher when the starter was throwing a shutout.

Despite the uninspiring climax and dull (second) villain, the rest of the movie was so strong that I would still rank it in the top tier of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Panther being the eighteenth film in the franchise).  I’m very interested to see where they go from here with Wakanda, their technology, and Tony Stark realizing he isn’t the smartest person on the planet.  I can’t wait to see how Okoye plays into the larger picture and no actor is more satisfying to watch than Boseman as Black Panther.  In other words, Black Panther is well worth watching and a great final lead-in to Avengers: Infinity War.  Mmmm…pie?

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back unless that pie ruined your shirt.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By: Kevin Jordan

I’m not sure either side should win.

As much as I look forward to many movies every year, none of them do I anticipate as much as Star Wars.  Since writing movie reviews does not pay the bills (or anything but movie admissions, for that matter) and advanced screenings of Star Wars flicks are always in the middle of a weekday, I’m forced to decide whether or not to take a day off to see the movie.  Since my dream of being a professional baseball player died a long time ago, the decision to ditch a day of work for Star Wars is easy.  The only down-side is I have to hold my tongue the next day or two so as not to spoil the movie for anyone within hearing distance of my cubicle.  And for Star Wars, we at the screening got an extra reminder that we shouldn’t ruin the movie for others with spoilers.  But, you know how I feel about spoilers in reviews.  Reviews are spoilers by their very nature.  If you don’t have some level of spoilers, it’s not a real review.  Hence, the obligatory spoiler warning I always include.  So, to meet my extra obligation for Star Wars, here is your warning.

(SPOILER ALERT)

………

(EXTRA SPOILER ALERT)

………

(Seriously.  I’m going to include a few SPOILERS.)

………

(Are you still with me?)

………

(Are you sure you want to keep reading?)

………

(Last chance.  SPOILER ALERT)

………

(There’s no turning back now.)

………

(Okay.  I think I’ve made my point.  Here we go.  SPOILER ALERT, but nothing huge.)

This picture contains zero spoilers.

The Last Jedi picks up where we left Rey (Daisy Ridley) standing on an island facing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  But, really it picks up showing us the Resistance fleeing their base before the First Order shows up to destroy them.  Apparently, there were a whole lot more First Order guys than were on the destroyed Starkiller Base.  General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), commanding a fleet of star destroyers, shows up at the Resistance’s planet to kill them all and we are treated to a scene straight out of The Avengers.  I think Joss Whedon snuck into the writer’s room to add a can-you-hear-me-now gag in the opening space battle scene and I’m still conflicted on if it works in a Star Wars film.  It’s not that I didn’t laugh (I did), but that exchange turns the EVIL FIRST ORDER and General Hux into the silly first order and General doofus.  Do you know how hard it is to believe that the First Order was able to take over the entire galaxy after watching them fall for a crank call to their battlecruiser?

The opening space battle also made me realize how terrible every faction in this universe is at military strategy and tactics.  On the First Order side, they have a dozen star destroyers that never fire a single shot at the fleeing force or the planet below them, opting to wait for a dreadnaught to show up that carries four gigantic guns.  Incidentally, this was exactly how the Empire lost in Return of the Jedi.  The Empire had a whole fleet of star destroyers that never fired a single shot because they were waiting for the Death Star, even after the rebels began to specifically target the star destroyers.  Anyway, on the Resistance side, they’ve hatched a plan to take out the dreadnaught, led by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), despite Leia (Carrie Fisher) verbalizing the cost wasn’t worth the mission.  Not only does she okay an obviously tiny-odds mission, she tries to back out of it when all the assets are already well past committed, then lays all the blame on Dameron for disobeying a retreat order that was nonsensical.  It’s no wonder the wars never end in the Star Wars universe.  Both sides are militarily dumb.

(Side note: The star destroyer thing is really nagging at my brain.  Seriously, what exactly are they for, if not triangle shaped transports?  Their name implies they can actually destroy things, yet we rarely ever see them fire a shot at anything in any movie.  But, they sure do crash a lot.)

Nobody in the galaxy can actually read that map.

After this, the movie spends time jumping back and forth between the First Order fleet pursuing the remaining Resistance ships and Rey trying to convince Luke to rejoin the Resistance and train her to be a Jedi.  If this sounds an awful like Empire, at least no one gets frozen in carbonite.  Though, speaking of frozen (and here’s the one sorta-real SPOILER), Leia survives being blown up and blasted into space without a spacesuit.  Remember in Guardians of the Galaxy when Gamora and Star-Lord both survive being in space without a spacesuit?  Yeah, it sucked in that movie too.  Watching frozen Leia open her eyes and magic herself back to the ship was possibly the worst moment in the entire franchise, and this franchise includes Jar-Jar Binks.  I get that it can be explained away by the Force and Skywalker DNA, but it undercuts any danger she is in, will be in, or has ever been in.  We all know that Jedi are not invincible and most definitely cannot survive space.  Plus, Leia isn’t even a trained Jedi, making this scene even more ridiculous in the context of this universe.  She should have just been found in the wreckage of the area of the ship that was blasted and nobody would have questioned her survival.

How about a little positivity, since I liked this movie despite its flaws?  The scenes with Luke and Rey are easily the highlight of the movie because we get to learn a bunch of stuff about the past and reunite with one of the all-time movie heroes.  Hamill plays a grumpy old Luke as if he’s been practicing 35 years for exactly this moment.  He’s surly and cynical and you are screaming at Rey to whack him over the head with her staff because we want to see some Jedi stuff, dammit!  Ridley slips effortlessly back into Rey, delivering a character that grows exponentially while on the island, despite Luke’s efforts to drive her away.  There are also some really cool new Force concepts that we get to watch develop, not the least because these scenes involve Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his current mindset.  Speaking of Kylo Ren, man is that guy a mental wreck.  Losing a fight to Rey has caused Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to lose faith in his apprentice and Kylo is trying desperately to prove his worth.  I love that Hux keeps poking at him, despite the fact that Kylo is an unstable bomb that could kill Hux with a thought.  This plotline is the heart of the movie and the space chase is just a distracting side story meant to give screen time to Dameron, Leia, and Finn (John Boyega), and deliver most of the action we all want to see.

Can’t you train me just a little you old crank?

This brings us to Finn and a bunch of extraneous stories that end up muddling the film.  If writer/director Rian Johnson had stuck with just those two story threads, the movie would have been far tighter.  Instead, a third story is tossed in where Finn and fellow space janitor Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on a desperate mission to a super-rich city to find a guy who might be able to help them save the fleet from annihilation.  This sub-plot is far more social commentary on income inequality, child slave labor, and the military industrial complex than fantasy space opera with laser swords.  It’s preachy in a way that brings the movie to a screeching halt rather than delivering a subtle, but powerful message dressed in droids and blasters.  I really love Finn as a character, but he felt almost forgotten in this film.

But, oh, that action and special effects.  Mmmmmmmmm.  I know film snobs love to criticize the very existence of CGI, but CGI has allowed us to see things beyond our wildest imaginations.  Everything is this movie was visually stunning (with the exception of the stupid little porgs – penguin-like creatures on Luke’s island that exist solely for Disney to sell merchandise to children.  I’m not exaggerating, these things literally do nothing in the movie outside of being on the Millenium Falcon in some poorly conceived homage to the rightly-derided tribbles of Star Trek fame).  One shot in particular near the end of the film was spectacular to behold (which I won’t spoil) and made even the porgs worth putting up with.  Oh oh oh, and the last planet we see them on?  Just, oh wow.  Even if I did try to describe it (which I won’t), you’d have to see it to understand.  I know I’m big on providing evidence to support a claim (hence the entire reason SPOILERS are necessary in a review), but on this one I’m just going to ask you to trust me.

Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

If you’ve stuck with me through the previous 1500 words, let me reward you with the answer to the question you really want to know.  How good is The Last Jedi compared to the last two Star Wars movies?  For starters, it definitely has way too much crammed into it (while the other two are very streamlined), but I can’t get enough Star Wars so I’m not really complaining.  I wish they had made some different decisions with a couple of the minor subplots and characters (like with Laura Dern’s vice admiral Holdo, for one).  I wish Finn wasn’t quite so slap-sticky, or the rest of the movie, for that matter, but at least there weren’t any fart jokes.  On the flip side, spending time with Luke was fantastic, Rey and Kylo’s connection is developed sublimely, and the crescendo at the end of the film makes up for all of the minor problems in the film.  All in all, it’s not as good as the previous two films, but it’s still a pretty good Star Wars film.  In other words, we still win.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but I’m saying that far less emphatically than the last two movies.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By: Kevin Jordan

Reviving the past.

star_wars_episode_vii__the_force_awakens

By far, the question I get asked the most is “what do you think the best movie of the year is?”  I like this question because it allows me to rant a little about how the main stream critics would never say a movie like Star Wars is the best movie of the year.  Now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has released in theaters, that question has changed to “do you think the new Star Wars is the best movie of the year?”  As much as I loved the movie, and considering how I now believe J.J. Abrams can do no wrong, I can say without hesitation that main stream critics are pretty much dead inside.  However, The Force Awakens is NOT the best movie of the year – that would be The Martian.  However again, The Force Awakens is definitely top three (if you are wondering what the third is, you’ll just have to wait until my Year in Review is posted in a couple weeks).

A much more difficult and interesting question to answer was posed by a friend of mine a couple of days ago – “is The Force Awakens the best Star Wars movie?”  I can’t think of a more loaded question than that.  And the answer, depending on who is asking, might cause diplomatic relations to deteriorate to the point of someone jabbing you in the neck with a homemade light saber.  I’d say we could start by tossing the three prequels out immediately, but even that argument has become vociferous in recent months.  Seriously, there are people out there actually defending those films as really good movies and not doing it ironically or sarcastically.  Those people are also dead wrong – the three prequels are garbage, and no amount of rewriting history in their heads is going to change that.

In the broader argument of which Star Wars film is the best, The Empire Strikes Back is the most often picked movie, but not by me.  As a kid, I watched all three originals dozens of times and Empire was my least favorite.  It doesn’t have enough action, it has the creepy cave scene with Luke and Darth Vader, and it has the kind of ending that a kid doesn’t like.  A New Hope is similar in that much of the beginning part of the movie is slow and the trash compactor scene was scary.  Return of the Jedi was my favorite because, you guessed it, action, action, and more action (side note: even I never really liked the Ewoks and always thought that dropping rocks on a storm trooper’s head and knocking them out was tough to believe).  Yes, the rancor was frightening and the pit of Sarlacc was a thing of nightmares, but the battle on Jabba’s pleasure barge was awesome and the climactic battle where three different battles were happening simultaneously never got old.  And, to answer your new questions – no, I did not have to look up any of those references and, no, I do not own a storm trooper cookie jar.

For me to answer the question of best Star Wars movie, I have to compare The Force Awakens to Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back.  Why not A New Hope?  I’m glad you asked.  The Force Awakens is almost a remake of A New Hope, which is also the reason I don’t think it’s the best movie of 2015.  Now, if you have not seen The Force Awakens yet and you don’t even want tiny SPOILERS, stop reading now.  I’ve already told you I loved this movie and I’m even considering seeing it again and paying the 3-D surcharge (and you know how I feel about 3-D), so you know what my rating is going to be.  Last warning – very mild SPOILERS imminent.

The Force Awakens and A New Hope both feature a young hero living on a desert planning who is strong with the Force.  They both have a resistance/rebellion fighting against an evil empire, now called the First Order.  They both have a droid containing secret information that everyone is trying to get their hands on.  They both feature a super weapon capable of destroying a planet with a giant laser (this time the weapon is the size of an entire planet).  They both feature the resistance leaders looking at a hologram of the super weapon and determining that the best way to destroy it is to disable its shields and fire at a specific weak point on the globe.  They both feature a villain draped in black, wearing a respirator, and speaking with a modulated voice.  They both feature a secondary villain who is the military leader of the evil empire and doesn’t really answer to the other villain.  The point is that Abrams was most likely creatively restricted by his Disney overlords to ensure that a repeat of The Phantom Menace did not happen.  Again, I was wildly entertained by The Force Awakens, but it was impossible not to notice the volume of plot elements lifted from A New Hope.  But, what makes The Force Awakens better than A New Hope is that our hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is not whiny like Luke was, there is an almost perfect balance between the comedic relief and seriousness, the visuals are phenomenal (like I said, I’m strongly considering attending a 3-D showing), and of course, plenty of action.

Getting back to the question of if The Force Awakens is the best, it never asks you to believe that a bunch of primitive fur balls hurling rocks and sticks can defeat a heavily armored infantry wielding laser guns and walking tanks like Return of the Jedi.  Considering the quantity of action is roughly equal, Jedi is out.  As for Empire, thinking about it beyond its level of action (which there is plenty, just not as much as Jedi), could the plot distinguish the two?  The plot of The Force Awakens is essentially – “Where’s Luke?”  There’s a bigger story in the works – new rebellion, new empire, who is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), what’s going on with the new Republic, why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wearing a mask if he doesn’t need to, to name a few – but the movie itself is really about finding Luke.  The plot of Empire is essentially – “Learn to be a Jedi, Luke.”  Yes, there is the bigger story of rebellion versus empire and Han Solo and gang being chased by the empire for almost the entire movie, but all of that is just setup for Luke to return as a Jedi.

Characters, maybe?  The Force Awakens introduces a bunch of new characters, all of which are well-fleshed-out or intriguing enough for us to wait for more in the upcoming sequels.  We’ve already mentioned Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, but there’s also everyone’s new favorite droid BB-8, storm trooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega), and X-wing pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).  They also bring back the old gang, though nobody besides Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) do more than scowl or utter more than a couple of lines.  Considering Empire was a sequel, they too brought back the old gang, but also added Lando Calrissian, the Emperor, and, of course, Boba Fett.  Wow – this is harder than I thought it was going to be.

I can’t tell you more without giving away spoilers that would make you want to maim me, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that The Force Awakens is as good as The Empire Strikes Back.  Either answer is defensible, and both should be embraced by both my generation and the younger generation.  But, regardless of which movie you think is better, we can all agree on one thing – thanking J.J. Abrams for resurrecting Star Wars in film and making us remember why we loved the originals so much.

Rating: All this movie needed to be worth every penny was to be better than the prequels.  It’s worth many times that.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

By: Kevin Jordan (Number9)

 

APES-poster-art-154x300Treading the beaten path.

I have no idea what to make of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is probably what makes it something of a disappointment.  Maybe a letdown was inevitable, both because of the old “sequels are always worse than the original” cliché and because Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a fantastic movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Dawn, but something was definitely missing that made it a worse movie than Rise.  And, no, it wasn’t James Franco.

The film begins with a montage of news reports overlaid with a map depicting the spread of the virus Franco’s character created around the globe over a period of ten years.  When everything finally goes dark, we are greeted by our old ape pal Caesar (Andy Serkis), dressed in war paint, and signaling his troops for an attack.  If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ve seen this scene and it’s not the impending attack on the remaining humans like you are led to believe.  They’re hunting elk.  Yeah – I know; I was baffled too.  It’s a very misplaced scene in which Caesar gets a chance to teach his kid a lesson about patience and we all immediately ask the question “since when are apes carnivores?”  I get that evolution would probably push them that way, but in only ten years?  Am I already thinking too hard about this movie?

After an introduction to the apes’ home and society, a couple of the apes stumble across two humans in the forest and one of the apes is shot and killed by the panicky human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo).  Caesar quickly responds and surrounds the larger group of humans that will become our main characters outside of Caesar and his advisor, Koba (also returning from the first film).  The humans consist of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), Carver, and Kempt (Enrique Murciano) and were on a mission to restart a hydroelectric plant when they ran into the apes.  In an effort to avoid conflict (and for the film to further establish his humanity), Caesar releases the humans and sends them home (to San Francisco).  Koba argues that they must show force, so Caesar leads an army of apes to the city and warns the humans to stay out of the forest.  At this point, we also meet the leader of the humans in Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who insists that they cannot survive without the dam.  After Caesar leaves, Dreyfus immediately begins preparing for war and Malcolm convinces him to give him three days to speak with Caesar and convince him to compromise and let them restart the dam.  This is also where the story kind of falls on its face.

We don’t know anything about the human colony other than they live in San Francisco and there are more than twenty people and less than a million.  Dreyfus says that they will run out of fuel in a couple of weeks and the way the way to survive is to reconnect with other pockets of surviving humans.  In other words, they need the power in order to make a phone call.  Um, what?  Other than communications, how is the power so necessary that they are using all of their fuel on it?  And why are they still living in a city instead of closer to farmland?  And what nuclear power plant is Dreyfus talking  about when he says they “used up all of their nuclear fuel years ago” (the closest nuclear plant to San Francisco is roughly two hundred miles away)?  And how many people are living there that they managed to consume the equivalent of 2.2 million people’s worth of electricity (per year)?  These are questions you start wondering when the film gives electricity as the sole motivation for humans willing to go to war, but failing to give any rational explanation for using that electricity.  In fact (SPOILER ALERT), when the humans do get their power back on, they all start dancing in the streets as if grocery stores are going to start magically spitting out Lean Cuisines and Fanta.  Whatever.

The rest of the movie is incredibly predictable – humans and apes will try to get along for as long as needed, but certain apes named Koba would rather just kill all the humans because he hates them for experimenting on him pre-apocalypse.  Even though the film was predictable, I found myself drawn in by the continued (from the first film) look into the shitty side of humanity; this time, taking shape in the enhanced-intelligent apes.  It’s not subtle and probably explains the tepid applause by the audience when the film concluded (conversely, the enormously crappy Tammy received a resounding ovation, much to my chagrin) because people generally don’t like facing truths about our own shittiness.

Maybe my real problem with the film is that it didn’t try to break any new ground, as its predecessor did, and doesn’t even come close to telling a compelling a story.  The actors were given very little to do, with the exception of Jason Clarke, who seemed slightly out of his depth.  I’m not advocating for the deadpan Franco or the wildly inconsistent Mark Walhberg, but Clarke just wasn’t very convincing as a counterpart to Caesar.  None of the humans were developed to a point that we should actually care about them, plus, Caesar is the hero and because humanity is so sucky, we’d actually prefer to spend less time with the humans and more time with the apes.  In fact, a far better movie would have shown us two groups of apes having to deal with each other through their newfound intelligence rather than the well-trampled ground of ape vs. human that we’ve seen throughout the franchise.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back.  It’s an entertaining movie and looks as good as the first, even though you can predict everything that’s going to happen well before it happens.