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Vibrant color and unusual images are a big part of what sets this movie apart visually.

Watching Black Panther occasionally felt like I was glimpsing a superhero movie from an alternate world. The obvious way to parse that statement is to focus on the virtually all-black cast or that 99% of the dialogue is delivered in heavy African accents. Of course, these things make Black Panther unique among not only superhero movies, but also big budget “tent-poles” as well. There’s really never been a movie like this one and it, for lack of a better word, shows. But for me, the otherworldly quality of Black Panther had to do with the ways it’s familiar as well as different. The juxtaposition of the MCU movie, in terms of story priorities and aesthetics, and Black Panther as something wholly its own thing, is an interesting and impressive one. And it plays out in every frame of the movie.

Another quality that might make you feel like you’re watching a movie from another, better dimension is how there’s no pandering to the assumptions of a white male audience. Not only is Black Panther brazenly, unflinchingly feminist, it’s also not really about race in the way we would expect a movie for white people (but about black people) to be. It’s not out to educate white folks about the issues of race they may be sleeping on or resistant to. Instead, it’s assuming the audience gets it already by virtue of being black or woke or both and if not, can catch the fuck up. It assumes the audience understands terms like “colonizer” (or will quickly infer and understand it) and takes it as a given that images of Africa are often wrong-headed and reductive. In other words, it assumes the intelligence and awareness of the viewer. That’s rare these days.

Through its fantasy-tinged blend of Afro-futurism and homages to a broad spectrum of African cultures, Black Panther is assuming people won’t utterly miss the point by getting hung up on “Wakanda isn’t real” and instead understanding that it fucking is real. It’s an aspiration to an ideal that is nonetheless based on and informed by murkier realities. Wakanda isn’t Camelot, or the mythic City on the Hill. But it also sort of is. While confronting about a dozen other thorny, difficult sociopolitical issues, director and co-writer (with Joe Robert Cole) Ryan Coogler makes some time to also address that even a place that sees itself as the African ideal also has problems. No City on the Hill should forget what’s under that hill, or around it, and it’s that attention to broader ramifications (from a consistently fresh perspective) that makes Black Panther so much more than just a “black superhero movie”. But of course, it is that too. And if a “black superhero movie” has so much more to offer than the average “white superhero movie”, we’ve all got to rethink some shit.

That all said, Black Panther is still a movie. And it’s not a perfect one. Its two most noticeable flaws are relatively minor, though, and it manages to subvert expectations on the movie mechanics places where Marvel typically falls a bit short (formula and villains). The first of the flaws plays into the feeling of wanting more that people might have as the movie ends. The plot is in a huge hurry, leaving a few emotional moments or setups/payoffs with not enough time to fully breathe. That means the smaller, subtler moments do more heavy lifting. That’s not a terrible balance, in the end, meaning the movie kind of has itself covered. The second flaw is that its big battle sequence at the end doesn’t work the way it should, feeling kind of like it was added late in production and never quite polished to the same degree the rest of the movie is. Mileage will vary on that one, though, but I don’t think it will on Black Panther in general. The glowing reviews aren’t some attempt to get on the right side of a cultural moment. It is a legitimately great movie and an exemplary MCU movie.

SPOILERS FOREVER. Read the rest of this entry »

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The most important character in the movie.

I’ve been on a looooong blogging hiatus (again). I don’t know why! I just haven’t felt like writing movie reviews. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, though, just not film criticism. Trying to get my shit together to write a Blade Runner 2049 review kind of derailed the last attempt I made to get this thing going again. That’s why it’s funny that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is what’s bringing me back: I feel very similarly about both movies. The hiatus could also be because of guilt for not finishing my “Living with Late Stage Game of Thrones” feature. I left it too long, too much distance grew between me and it, and the water cooler conversation died down. Maybe I’ll resurrect it when I do a rewatch. It’s gonna be another whole year at least until Season 8 so there will be time for both. Plus, you know, my end of the year lists are only a week or two away and I need to sharpen the old pencil.

Anyway, back to what we’re all here for: the latest Star Wars movie, already a fucking box office juggernaut. Forgive me for dedicating a paragraph (who am I kidding?) to the cultural context but The Last Jedi is super divisive right? I don’t know about that. There’s a lot of shady stuff going on with the internet discourse on the movie, including reports of brigading and bots manipulating its audience score on sites like RT and Metacritic. Another great reason to actually read fucking reviews, people. I don’t know how true any of it is. I don’t pay a lot of attention to aggregator sites for a lot of reasons and I also think it’s pretty normal for fanboy audiences, who are the type of people that will register their opinion (especially if it’s easy, like a like/dislike toggle) on the internet, to skew the aggregates and corners of the internet discourse. Reddit is by no means representative of the general population as it predominantly serves and is dominated by a particular demographic. My advice is to remember the context when you come across the various opinions out there, including mine. Think for yourself. Read reasonable people engaging in reasonable critical discourse. Look up the definition of “Mary Sue” and “plot hole” before you toss those terms around. I know it’s the internet and being wrong is really chic right now but just a little effort. Please?

My custom is to save the third paragraph of my preamble to give a bit of a non-spoilery taste of what I thought of the movie. I think Star Wars: The Last Jedi is incredibly ambitious and sinks a little under the weight of that. I think it’s flawed but also brilliant and packed with so much interesting shit that it dwarfs other Star Wars movies (or all of them put together) in sheer complexity. It’s so loaded with ideas, especially about Star Wars, that it’s probably really difficult to get them all in a first viewing. It’s also full of misdirection and direct commentary on and dismissal of The Force Awakens, which is a big wedge issue for audiences. I know that I had trouble parsing some parts of the movie and relied a lot on the critical discourse around it (the non-fanboy kind) to help me crystallize my own thoughts. I settled on “I need to watch it again” because I’m like anyone else: my expectations, anticipation, hype, and predictions get all tangled up with the movie I actually saw. That always breeds a little disappointment which has to kind of be worked off to appreciate the thing itself. I think the so-called Last Jedi backlash is a result of people who haven’t really done that yet (or never will). To those people, Rian Johnson included a very special message toward the end of the movie, a tiny thing that is not a spoiler to describe: one rebel soldier licks some white dust off his fingers as they prepare to defend the dusty not-Hoth rebel base. “Salt.” he says. And hoo boy is there a lot of saltiness about Star Wars. There always has been. Even The Empire Strikes Back had a reappraisal before it became “the best Star Wars“. For a few years, Return of the Jedi was by and large considered the better film. Wrap your heads around that, fanboys.

As others have said in most of the reviews being written about The Last Jedi, this is a movie about generational conflict which carries the torch that The Force Awakens lit. It zooms in and solidifies themes about inheriting a broken world from a preceding generation that broke it. It’s an allegory for Star Wars itself and could easily have propped up a middle chapter that was just about passing the torch to the new generation. Its allegorical nature better justifies its plot structure, which is basically The Empire Strikes Back in reverse. All the pieces are there: each of the major new characters gets to have a moment where they pick up that torch, in theory, but Rian Johnson does not stop there. The torch is also used to burn everything down, or try to, sometimes very literally. In the process he takes all these new characters we like and reshapes them with depth and purpose while also redefining old favorites. That’s gonna rile people up. It’s not what we expect. It may not even be what we want. But Johnson is betting that it’s what we need and I think he may be right.

SPOILERS

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This movie is more tightly focused on a small cast of characters than the marketing would indicate.

Without much fanfare or celebration, the new Planet of the Apes movies have quietly become one of the best blockbuster and/or science fiction franchises we have right now. While Rise focused heavily on the issues of our treatment of intelligent animals and the practical ramifications of their personhood, Dawn began both a post-apocalyptic fable of the collision of diametrically opposed civilizations (a First Contact fable) as well as a tight civil rights allegory with two influential apes taking on the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, struggling for the soul of the rising Ape nation and how it would deal with the dwindling but still threatening human oppressors (very similar to how Xavier and Magneto intersect in the X-Men comics and movies). The wrestling match between hate and love, vengeance and mercy was a critical piece of Dawn‘s thematic content. Now arrives the closing chapter of the trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes, a movie that continues parts of the civil rights allegory (and adding some contemporary dimensions) while also adding a broad swing for the mythic, with elements of the movie recalling Biblical stories and the foundation myths of several cultures.

It’s important to note that War is not the gigantic humans vs. apes war movie that the marketing promised, but neither was Dawn. All three movies played up the warrior apes stuff in their marketing. I remember the trailers for Rise heavily relied on the Golden Gate Bridge battle. Dawn had more war scenes and action than War does. But that doesn’t mean that War for the Planet of the Apes is disappointing or somehow not a war movie. It’s both extremely satisfying as well as being a pretty unflinching and bleak war/anti-war movie. The thematic struggles of Dawn are still present, with the specter of Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his vengeful hate haunting both Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the events of this film. But instead of big battle scenes, War emphasizes the personal and there’s a lot of dialogue, most of it the hybrid ape language of vocalizations and sign language. Stopping to appreciate that this is a huge movie where tons of the dialogue isn’t English and most of the characters are CG apes is sort of obligatory at this point, but it’s no less impressive here than before. They keep managing to up the ante and making these characters even more lifelike and believable.

Though it is a pretty bleak and emotional movie (hoo boy), there probably more humor and comic relief here than in the previous two films. The tonal mix is potent and very well handled by Matt Reeves, who has really built magnificently on what Rupert Wyatt and his team began with Rise. This movie is also more gorgeous even than Dawn, with shots that are just jaw-dropping as well as many iconic tableaus with the apes especially. There’s also all the world-building, attention to detail, and believability that we’ve come to expect from this series. What’s perhaps lacking is the scale promised by the trailers, but I think by the time the movie starts to kick into gear, most viewers won’t mind the movie we got, even if it comes at the cost of the (potentially more shallow) movie we seemed to be getting. Read the rest of this entry »

It was difficult to choose an opening image, but this one is what I think best encapsulates this movie for me.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the latest in the long list of Hollywood sequels/prequels/remakes/reimaginings that no one but the money people (and a few inspired filmmakers apparently) asked for. It’s a movie that I, for one, didn’t expect to be much better than Tim Burton’s abortive 2001 remake of the original 1968 movie. However, I am here to tell you that Rise is the perfect blend of crowd-pleasing tentpole and smarter-than-average science fiction. It stands tall as a counter-example to the empty promise of genre-as-mainstream in Cowboys and Aliens and goes proudly shoulder to shoulder with previous years’ August scifi surprises.

The Charlton Heston epic started a long and enduring franchise that went backward and forward to tell all kinds of stories set in the universe created by one conceit: sometime in our future, apes will outpace our evolution and replace us as the dominant species. It’s a powerful notion, incorporating several parallel themes about evolution, humanity’s relationship to our nearest genetic cousins, and the hazards of technological progress. I don’t personally hold with stories about the hubris of humankind, stories where science and technology lead us into certain disaster. The subtext of stories like that is always something along the lines of “there are forces we shouldn’t play with” or “humans are not Gods” etc. I think what should stop us from exploring certain types of technology and science falls to our ethical values, which cannot be based on something as vague and inaccessible as religious impulses. The nice thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it is ends up being largely about that distinction. It’s about what happens when our methods are unethical but our goals are grandiose, noble, and beautiful. Read the rest of this entry »

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