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.

Captain America: Civil War

By: Kevin Jordan

Let’s get ready to R-R-R-UM-M-M-BL-L-L-E.

At the risk of repeating myself, how is it that Marvel keeps making outstanding movies?  I’m not really surprised by this anymore, but I am surprised that they continually top my expectations.  At this point in time, the law of averages says they are overdue for a real stinker, but I’m happy to report that the new Captain America smells very nice.  Wait…that sounds weird – let me start over.  Captain America: Civil War knocked my socks off.  No, that’s weird too and makes me sound like someone’s grandmother.  Alright, I’ll figure out a better way to say it by the end of the review, but you get the point – Civil War is arguably the best movie released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

As I said in my review of Batman v Superman, I was really looking forward to Civil War if only to get rid of the taste in my brain from viewing BvSBvS was always destined to fail at a story level because Superman could just throw a building at Batman and movie over.  But the real reason it failed was because the reason Superman and Batman are fighting at all is murky at best and completely nonsensical and dumb at worst.  Civil War is exactly the opposite and is more than Captain America v Ironman: Dusk of Avengers – they are fighting for reasons that actually make sense.  Sorry DC fans, but the sooner you admit BvS and Man of Steel were just bad movies, the sooner you can start demanding that Warner Brothers hire some writers and directors that don’t suck, follow the Marvel formula, and start making movies worthy of DC’s source material.

Captain america civil war

The Avengers have always been a tenuous alliance of superheroes, not so much because they don’t get along, but because they have different ideas on how to achieve the mission – world peace and protecting the human race.  The film kicks off with the newly reformed Avengers (that we saw at the end of Age of Ultron) chasing down some bad guys in Nigeria who were trying to steal a bioweapon.  By the time the scene is over, some collateral damage has occurred including eleven civilians dead.  The Secretary of Defense (William Hurt) informs the group that more than one hundred nations have come together to decide that The Avengers should no longer be a private entity and must start operating under the purview of the United Nations.  Any crime fighting undertaken outside of that oversight is to be considered a crime.  As the team digests the information and debates amongst themselves, sides start form.  One side, led by Tony “Ironman” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), agrees that oversight is necessary because they are powerful and dangerous, but mostly out of guilt for the Sokovia incident (from Age of Ultron).  This is understandable since it’s literally his fault that Ultron came to be.  The other side, led by Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), believes the opposite – that the various countries and diplomats have their own agendas and the team would end up becoming a weapon to be wielded by the U.N.  This is understandable because Cap didn’t trust what S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury were doing in The Winter Soldier (and rightly so, as it turned out).  The conflict arises because they are both right – oversight is a good idea, but the decision makers are completely untrustworthy.  Talk about art imitating life (*cough* Republicans v Democrats *cough*).

Side commentary – the logic of the SecDef mirrors the short-sighted-can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees thinking that we see in real life today.  While making his case to the Avengers, he places the collateral damage blame on them for the following events: (1) the Loki-led Chitauri invasion of Earth (The Avengers), (2) the Hydra-led invasion of D.C. (The Winter Soldier), (3) the destruction of Sokovia (Age of Ultron), and (4) the eleven dead in Nigeria.  Here’s how the team should have responded to those: (1) we stopped an alien invasion aimed at destroying/enslaving humanity, (2) we stopped Hydra from taking over America and the world, (3) yeah – that was our fault, and (4) hello – bioweapon.  I find it stunningly narrow-minded to get upset about the collateral damage when, had they not intervened, everyone dies or the world is taken over by bad guys or everyone dies.  My point is they could have come up with a better list of examples or just stuck solely with the Ultron incident.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The part I really want to put emphasis on is that the competing sides didn’t just jump to punch-kick-shoot, like Batman and Superman did, they literally talked about their ideologies.  Following their disagreement, another incident happens and they talk about it again.  I know that sounds a little boring (trust me, it’s not), but it makes the battle royale later in the movie much easier to accept because it’s the logical result of the escalation that occurs during the film.  And that, dear DC fans and Zack Snyder, is how you make a superhero v superhero movie.

On that note, the battle royale is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking.  I won’t spoil the who takes whose side, but here are your contestants – Ironman, Captain America, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Warhammer (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – and all of them get their fair share of the camera.  The scene also has great special effects, a very smooth escalation of fighting, and plenty of fun banter (at one point, Spider-Man is praising Captain America while simultaneously fighting him).  Yes – Marvel and directors Anthony and Joe Russo handled a twelve-person superhero fight movie better than DC and Zack Snyder handled a two-person fight.

Aside from the main story, they even managed to give due diligence to the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther, which is amazing considering how many characters were in this film.  That includes the additions of Emily VanCamp as CIA Agent Carter (to be fair, she’s not new, but she’s given far more to do this time around), Daniel Bruhl as the one true villain of the film, Martin Freeman as another government higher-up (and doesn’t he have to appear in Doctor Strange opposite Benedict Cumberbatch?), and even Marisa Tomei as Aunt May.  As incredible as it sounds, not one of these characters felt like a throw-in just to get a silly cameo for an upcoming sequel or standalone movie (seriously D.C. and WB – get your shit together).

So, yeah – Civil War was freaking awesome from pretty much every aspect you can think of.  Great characters, great story, no obvious plot holes, tie-ins with previous movies to maintain continuity, great new characters (and a big thank you to Marvel for fixing Spider-Man), great action, great acting, great dialogue, and most importantly, great entertainment.  See?  I told you I’d figure out a better way to describe this film.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back for Batman v Superman again.  Then, see Civil War again.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

By: Kevin Jordan

Ever had a root canal and a colonoscopy on the same day?

The Hobbit

Before I get into The Battle of the Five Armies, I need to apologize for a grievous error on my part.  In my review of The Desolation of Smaug, I told you not to ask for any money back even though the movie featured one of the dumbest scenes ever put to film – the dwarves riding barrels down a river while being attacked by orcs.  Not only that, I failed to even mention that scene’s existence.  I should have ripped that scene to shreds for its idiocy, forced action, bad CGI, and absurdity and I should have told you to ask for half your money for that scene alone.  For that, I’m sorry.  I’m also sorry that the barrel scene isn’t the worst scene in the entire trilogy.  In fact, it’s better than almost everything in The Battle of the Five Armies.  And that makes me really sad.

The Battle of the Five Armies was like sitting though a bad high school play.  A lot of people might accuse me of being a stuffy critic that hates fantasy, but nothing could be further from the truth.  I love fantasy and this movie was a disgrace to the genre, to its fans, and even to the machinery projecting it onto theater screens.  With the exception of Martin Freeman and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), I take back everything good I might have said about the entire trilogy because, as a whole, it’s a bloated, rotting carcass masquerading as worthwhile cinema.  The sad thing is that, based on the first two parts, my expectations for the final installment were set firmly at blah or meh.  I never would have guessed that this movie would rival The Phantom Menace for shittiest disappointment, even with such mediocre expectations to begin with.

(As I said in my review of An Unexpected Journey, I don’t know who this SPOILER alert is for, but here you go.  If you honestly haven’t found time to read a wildly popular, well known, short novel published in 1937 by now, I really can’t help you.)

I had honestly forgotten that The Desolation of Smaug had ended with Smaug getting ready to torch Laketown, so when The Battle of the Five Armies began with Smaug torching Laketown, I was a little disoriented.  The disorientation might also have been from spending the first two minutes of the film taking my 3-D glasses on and off; realizing that the film was not, in fact, in 3-D.  Good one, theater.  Anyway, the best scene of the film happens in the first ten minutes with Smaug slowly crawling through the burning Laketown, taunting Bard (Luke Evans) just before Bard kills him.  The visuals are stunning, Smaug is delightfully evil, and Cumberbatch has easily joined my list of actors who will get me to watch a movie just because they are in it.  I realized that this should have been the conclusion of the previous film, ending with a shot of Thorin staring obsessively at the treasure in the Lonely Mountain.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Peter Jackson (writer/director/producer) decided to end the second movie where did, but I don’t think he could have picked a worse place.

After Smaug dies, the movie falls off the proverbial cliff.  The last we saw of Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bilbo, and most of the dwarves, they had just finished fighting off Smaug and were watching him soar toward Laketown.  When we see them again in this film, they are still standing there, watching Smaug burn everything, but with one notable exception – Thorin is staring, trancelike, at the entrance to the mountain.  Later on, we’ll get some babble about dragon sickness (i.e. obsessive greed), but the problem is there is no transition time for Thorin basically going insane.  It’s like a switch is flipped and the viewer simply isn’t prepared for it.  On top of that, the sickness is another invention of the writers that didn’t need to exist.  In the book, Thorin is just greedy and selfish (he also never promised the people of Laketown anything – another divergence from the book), which is perfectly fine.  The only reason to invent a sickness is to make him seem more sympathetic because, then, it’s not really his fault.  While not as overt as other recent films (Dracula Untold, Maleficent), this hits on the current asinine trend of devillainizing villains by blaming something other than the person for that person being a dick.  But I digress.

The only non-battle time of the film occurs after Smaug dies, but doesn’t wait very long to pick up again.  The dwarves wall up the entrance to the mountain, the people of Laketown take shelter in the ruins of Dale (a town at the foot of the mountain), and armies march toward the mountain.  Meanwhile, Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) launch a rescue mission to retrieve Gandalf (Ian McKellan) from the Necromancer.  In a wildly stupid fight scene, Saruman and Elrond fight with the ghosts of the nine kings of men (those guys that become the Nazgul in LOTR) while Galadriel helps that brown wizard (who is still covered in bird shit for some reason) whisk Gandalf to safety.  I say it’s stupid for a couple of reasons.  (1) Saruman will actually say to the ghosts “you should have stayed dead” (aren’t ghosts dead?), (2) Saruman uses exactly no magic during the fight; instead choosing to just swing his wizard’s staff around, (3) the CGI is pretty substandard here (to be fair, it’s substandard in almost the entire movie), and (4) after a few minutes, Galadriel uses her magic to just blow the ghosts – and the necromancer – into the horizon.  I’m not much of a strategist, but why didn’t she lead with that?  Was she as confused as we were that Saruman forgot he was a wizard and thought he was Donatello from the Ninja Turtles?

If you think that’s where the unintentional comedy stopped, you’re in for a treat because the big battle scene hadn’t even started yet.  There’s no more plot at that point, so let me just share some of the other parts of the movie that had the audience laughing (seriously, we laughed a lot) in a movie that included exactly zero jokes.

  • The elvenking (Lee Pace) rides a stag with the biggest rack of antlers you’ve ever seen and at one point during the battle, the stag slams into several orcs, lifting them all of the ground by his antlers and appearing to become a galloping clothes rack.
  • Dain, Thorin’s cousin, shows up leading an army of dwarves. After getting knocked of his steed (a giant pig; which isn’t that much funnier than the stag) and losing his helmet, he proceeds to head-butt full armored orcs and send them flying.  Jar-Jar Binks’ antics during the battle of Naboo were less embarrassing.
  • Legolas grabs the legs of a giant bat flying by and proceeds to steer it to where he wants to go.
  • Not to be outdone, Legolas later runs up the falling stones of a bridge and uses WWE-style moves to take down the orc he is fighting. Incidentally, the bat and falling stones scenes are the worst bits of CGI I’ve seen since the local weatherman on the news forgot what happens when he wears green.
  • At one point, the orcs break into Dale and are fighting the humans who had retreated there. When Thorin finally breaks out of his “sickness” and joins the fight, the humans get a second wind, but the orcs are nowhere to be found.  Was it halftime or something?
  • Taking a cue from the Ewoks ability to fell stormtroopers by dropping rocks on their helmeted heads, Bilbo is able to fell orcs by throwing small rocks at their heads. It’s as preposterous as the head-butting dwarf.
  • Thorin decides to kill the pale orc (Azog) and four giant mountain goats conveniently appear to take him and three other dwarves up a small peak. Seriously, where the hell did the goats come from?
  • At the top of the peak, after Thorin and those three dwarves kill what have to be the most inept twenty-five or so orcs ever created, Bilbo shows up to warn them that a whole new army is on its way. As if to punctuate this, one hundred goblins (that number is specifically stated) start pouring over the walls to attack them.  Thorin tells two of the dwarves to look for Azog and that he and the fourth dwarf will handle the goblins.  This elicited the biggest laugh out of the audience, who I’m assuming had the same thought I did – “no, you aren’t winning in 100 vs. 2.”
  • That whole new army of orcs that’s supposed to show up ends up being a few dozen that show up sporadically and attack the dwarves one at a time to make sure the dwarves win.
  • Thorin and Azog end up fighting on a floating sheet of ice, and Thorin wins by throwing Azog’s own boulder (which we was swinging around by a chain) into Azog’s arm, thus tipping him into the water. Then, Azog floats just under the surface of the ice, appearing to be dead, when his eyes (not surprisingly) fly open, he stabs Thorin through the foot, and flies (yes – flies) out of the water as if he had jumped from a trampoline.

I guess these are the kinds of things that happen when you stage a 90+ minute battle scene designed at entertaining eight-year olds.  In addition to that nonsense, other aspects of the film are just as terrible.  The dialogue was as clichéd and soapy as you can possibly get.  The attempts at humor – as few as there were – all centered around Alfrid (the Wormtongue-y creep from Laketown) being a coward and weasel and ended with a cross-dressing scene (plus, they didn’t even have the decency to kill this annoying character).  The music was poorly timed and amateurish, sounding as if Peter Jackson outsourced the music editing to a kindergarten music class.  Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) serve no purpose whatsoever to the movie, but to sell more toys at Christmas and also challenge Edward, Jacob, and Bella for weirdest love triangle in film (the third being Killi the dwarf).

I think you’ve got the point now, but it is worth repeating that if it weren’t for Freeman and Cumberbatch, this film would have zero redeeming qualities.  And you can watch them together in three seasons of Sherlock, which is infinitely better – even when watching for the third or fourth time.

As fantastic as the LOTR trilogy was, The Hobbit trilogy is incongruously bad.  I’m sure I’ve missed other examples of putridity, but there were so many that this was the first movie that ever made me wish I had a notepad to write them all down.  I’m glad that this disaster is finally over and I sincerely hope that someone remakes The Hobbit.  Like, tomorrow.  Middle Earth deserves better than to go out like that.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back for all three films.  This last installment truly was that bad.