A Role Model for Much of the World

After years of establishing a formula, the superhero genre is flexing its muscles. Arguably, The Dark Knight, with its plot twists and its twisted villains – especially Heath Ledger’s Joker – moved the genre to a higher level. For the Marvel Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a clear-cut hero and threw him into a world filled with shades of gray. Its sequel, Captain America: Civil War – the best Avengers movie so far – hit an even darker tone. On the other side of the scale, Thor: Raganok managed to find a completely fresh voice by looking at the genre with a decidedly cockeyed view. While the DC films following Nolan’s trilogy have been mostly pedestrian, last spring’s Wonder Woman was transcendent, and a healing tonic after the misogyny of both the genre and the previous year’s presidential campaign. Now, Marvel has rocked the genre again with Black Panther, fittingly released during Black History Month.

T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and protector of his people in his guise as Black Panther, was the first Black superhero, appearing with The Fantastic Four in 1966. Two years later he had his own comic book series. From the outset the character was different from others in the Marvel Universe. Rather than accidentally gaining his powers (from gamma radiation or a radio-active spider bite, for example), his power was inherited along with his kingship. Where most superheroes are lone wolfs, Black Panther is firmly planted in a community. His first appearance on screen, in Civil War, was captivating. Where most superheroes blaze hot, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was a cool blue flame. He spoke softly, but when action was required he sprang into action like, well, like a black panther. But he was, essentially, on his own, except when aligned with Iron Man and others. Now with the stand-alone Black Panther, we see him in his element. The screenplay by director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Jon Robert Cole focuses not just on the hero but on the community that surrounds him, and empowers him.

The movie opens with the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, related by a father to his son. Five tribes battled over land where a meteorite had deposited vibranium. A warrior ingested a heart-shaped plant that had mutated by exposure to the vibranium. He gained great power, but rather than wiping out the other tribes, he used his strength to unite four of them. One tribe went their own way, but they were allowed to exist peacefully in the land. Powered by the vibranium, the Wakandans developed marvelous technology far beyond the rest of the world. But they hid their advancement from outsiders as European colonizers fought wars against the natives while slavery tore apart the fabric of Africa. Wakanda was an island in a troubled sea. The country became a paradise, guarded from outsiders by an elaborate ruse as well as a far flung network of spies embedded in nations around the world.

Following the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa is to be formally installed as king, but first he undertakes a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s his all-female imperial guard. They retrieve one of Wakanda’s spies, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), from her mission against modern-day slavers. They return to Wakanda where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), wait for them. Shuri is like James Bond’s Q played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the installation – and an unexpected challenge by the leader of the separatist tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) – T’Challa learns that a longtime enemy of Wakanda has surfaced. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had stolen a supply of vibranium from Wakanda years earlier and killed several Wakandas while making his escape. Now he’s surfaced after stealing an antiquity that was made from the metal, and is about to sell it in South Korea. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia head there to capture Klaue and recover the vibranium, but they’re unaware Klaue is working with an American mercenary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a former US Special Forces warrior, but he also has a special connection both to Wakanda and to T’Challa.

You don’t usually get a superhero story that’s about responsibility, both personal and socially, but that’s what Black Panther revolves around. It also posits what might have happened if Africa had been spared the twin scourges of colonialism and the slave trade. Since Wakanda avoided both, the narrative of slavery or prejudice and injustice that underlies so much of the presentation of blacks on screen, is not the central focus. Think of the recent black stories in the cinema: 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, or Chadwick Boseman’s first star turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Instead of dwelling there, Black Panther asks what is require from the Wakandans who have been so favored. Is it enough to maintain their hidden world, or have they a responsibility to act to help those who’ve been oppressed?

An outstanding aspect of Black Panther is the number of strong female characters in the mix. Gurira is a bad ass of the first order, matched by the dozen warriors she leads. Nyong’o is James Bond cool while Wright is a delight, a wisecracking genius who can hold her own in a battle. Bassett is regal in her role, but you also see the steel spine within her.

The men fare just as well, with Boseman building on his embodiment of the character from Civil War. As with the 007 movies, the quality of the villain often controls the quality of the film, and Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the best ever. His backstory and performance moves Black Panther close to a Shakespearean level; think Henry V on the outside, Richard III inside. A delightful surprise is Duke, a six-foot-six mountain of a man who plays a much more grounded and multi-dimensional character than usually portrayed in the comics. In addition, you have Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), each in important roles. The movie is overflowing with talent, and it uses that talent effectively.

Black Panther has already broken box office records for February and had the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history. The wonderful aspect of this, though, is the success is more than deserved. The movie not only tells a great story – it gives a large swath of the world a role model for whom to root.

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Captain America Rises

Of all the superhero series that have filled the screens of theaters – and filled the seats as well – the most pleasant surprise for me has been Captain America. The first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, had a tinge of nostalgia that you don’t usually find in the genre, with the origin story set during WWII. It also had a compelling and semi-tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter; not many superhero movies leave you with a tear in your eye. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel movie to date. So I was primed for Captain America: Civil War.

The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who helmed Winter Soldier and who’ve been tagged to take over for Josh Whedon for the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War. The script, based on the classic story by Mark Millar (who also wrote the base stories for Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service), was adapted by Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely who’d done the previous Captain movies and are also doing Infinity War. While they each may not be Christopher Nolan, as a team they come pretty close.

As a result of an operation run in Lagos, Nigeria by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) that causes a large number of civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (John Hurt) delivers an ultimatum from the United Nations to the Avengers: submit to oversight by that organization or be declared outlaws. He has an ally in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who’s racked by guilt from the Ultron affair.

Rogers sees the other side, that political interference could prevent them from being effective or doing what they see needs to be done. Wilson supports him and they refuse to attend the signing of the accord. But then the conference is attacked and it appears to be the work of the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers believes Bucky is being framed, and with the help of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Rogers tries to save his friend. But there is much going on behind the scenes with a mysterious player named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) pulling strings in the background while pursuing his own agenda.

After several movies each, the main actors wear their characters as comfortably as their costumes. One of the pleasures of Civil War is the new kids on the block. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins Team Cap and brings a welcome dose of snarky humor. For Team Iron Man there’s Spiderman (Tom Holland). The character has finally been repatriated to Marvel after fourteen years at Sony and five great to awful films, and Holland gives me hope the upcoming Spiderman movie will be the former rather than the later. Best of all though is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who’s out for revenge after his father is killed at the conference. Boseman is a powerful actor as he proved with 42 and Get On Up. Where superhero movies are often operatic in their emotions, Boseman dials it way down, which makes his performance all the more compelling. His own stand-alone movie has been announced for 2018, and I’m already looking forward to it.

It’s fun to see the consistency of the Marvel Universe. They brought back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, the character he played in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. They also again have John Slattery as the older version of Howard Stark, a role he began in Iron Man II.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how hard it is to make a good third movie in a series. Lord of the Rings managed it by pretty much filming all three as one movie, and it had the benefit of having a trilogy as its basis. Even when the third is done well, the second movie is often the stronger. Nolan ran into that with The Dark Knight, which still is the pinnacle of the superhero movie genre. The Dark Knight Rises was excellent and a fitting conclusion for the trilogy Nolan planned, but it will always be overshadowed by The Dark Knight. The same goes for Star Wars. Return of the Jedi was a decent final chapter for the original trilogy, but it couldn’t match The Empire Strikes Back. About the only time the third movie in a series was better was Revenge of the Sith, but then it didn’t have far to go to outshine episodes 1 & 2.

Civil War falls into the same slot. It’s thrilling, has a deeper plot than most superhero movies, the acting’s first-rate, and it builds to a satisfying climax, but it couldn’t top Winter Soldier. So hang your expectations at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is, a really good movie.

Anticipation – Summer ’14

Rather than make a long list of movies for my summer preview blog this year, I’ve decided to focus on the films I’m excited about seeing. These are the movies I’d line up to watch on their opening day over the course of the next four months, in the order of their release dates. At the end I’ve included the titles of some movies I may also see, as well as a few that strike me already as turkeys.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2)

With the reboot of Spider-Man two years ago starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, director Marc Webb cut out the camp of the Sam Raimi films and replaced it with a harder edge. This time you have three excellent actors – Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Dane DeHaan – as the bad guys Spidey must defeat. DeHaan was excellent in Chronicle, which was something of a deconstruction of the genre – super powers won’t solve your problems, it will just super-size them. He’s an actor to watch.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)

After the classic The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer made the first two X-Men movies, which were wonderful. His recent oeuvre (Valkyrie, Superman Returns, Jack the Giant Slayer) hasn’t done well. After Singer, the X-Men series made a bad misstep (“Curse you, Brett Ratner!”), but came back strong with X-Men: First Class. Now we have the best of both worlds, with Singer directing members of his original cast as well as their earlier versions from First Class. Days of Future Past is based on a classic story line from 1980, so it has a strong plot as a starting point. The first trailers look like it’s a winner.

Maleficent (May 30)

This movie does a “Wicked” twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale by giving us some sympathy for the Devil – or at least the delightfully devilish Angelina Jolie. It gives backstory that makes the cursing of Princess Aurora more understandable than simply an overlooked birthday shower invitation. Elle Fanning plays the teenaged Aurora, while Jolie’s daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt plays the princess as a toddler.  Vivienne had to take the role since all the other children who auditioned for it were completely freaked-out by Angelina in full Maleficent mode. Audiences may be as well.

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)

One of the pleasures of The Descendants was Shailene Woodley as George Clooney’s eldest daughter. Woodley not only held her own with Clooney, but matched him in magnetism on screen. Now she’s starring in this movie, based on the Young Adult bestseller. Usually in the summer there’s a movie that breaks the blockbuster format for releases, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel three years ago. The Fault in Our Stars may be the movie for this summer.

Begin Again (July 4)

And if The Fault in Our Stars isn’t the antidote to movies filled with explosions, then this one might be it. Director John Carney scored a few years back with the movie Once, that has now become a hit as a musical on Broadway. Here he again explores music and the effect it can have on people. (The original title for the film was “Can A Song Save Your Life?”) He has a wonderful cast to work with: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, and “Maroon 5” frontman Adam Levine.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully rebooted the series, after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes crashed and burned. The advances in CGI, as well as Andy Serkis’ incredible ability with performance-capture special effects, made Caesar believable as an ape with enhanced intelligence. In this sequel, humanity has been decimated by a pathogen. The survivors in San Francisco, led by Gary Oldman, come into conflict with Caesar’s clan of intelligent apes.

A Most Wanted Man (July 29)

This thriller is based on a John le Carre novel and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles. That’s enough to make me to want to see this film, though it also stars Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Bruhl. One caution, though, is that it’s directed by Anton Corbijn, who made the George Clooney misfire The American. Hopefully Corbijn learned from that experience.

Get On Up (August 1)

The trailer for this bio-pic of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is reminiscent of Ray and Walk The Line, but with better dancing. It stars Chadwick Boseman, who had a star-making turn in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 last year. The movie also has The Help of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively.

What If (August 1)

This movie was originally titled “The F Word” and was shown at some festivals last year, but is only now being released. It stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as two people who form a platonic bond of friendship. Radcliffe moved on from the Harry Potter series with an effective performance in The Woman in Black, but the real attraction here is Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of Elia Kazan wrote and starred in the excellent and inventive film Ruby Sparks. Apparently much of the dialogue for What If was improvised on the set, which with Kazan could be a strength.

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August 22)

The original Sin City opened the door for semi-animated movies both good (300) and bad (Sucker Punch). Now co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez have returned to town to deliver another story from Miller’s series of illustrated novels. Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba reprise their roles from the original movie, and are joined by Eva Green, Lady Gaga and Josh Brolin.

Others movies that I’m on the fence about: Godzilla, Jersey Boys, Edge of Tomorrow, A Hundred Foot Journey, The Giver, Guardians of the Galaxy, Lucy, and If I Stay.

And there are some movies this summer that you’d have to pay me to see: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Haven’t they reached their twenties yet?), Transformers: Age of Extinction (This franchise should have reached the age of extinction two movies ago), The Expendables 3 (More expendable than ever?) and Hercules (The Rock should have rolled past this one).

Agree? Disagree? Are there other films on your list? Please feel free to leave a comment.

 

The Courage To Change

Many times arts and sports have paved the way for change in this country.  Part of the reason Barack Obama could be elected president was the public had already seen Dennis Haysbert (“24”) and Morgan Freeman (Deep Impact) play that role on TV and in the movies.  One moment that changed the equality landscape for women was when Billie Jean King defeated the loudly chauvinist Bobby Riggs in tennis.  The fight for racial equality in the 1950s was brutal and violent, but the path had been if not smoothed at least tramped down a bit when Jackie Robinson slipped on his Brooklyn Dodger uniform with the number 42 and became the first black baseball player in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.  That historic change in the United States has now been beautifully captured in the movie 42.

In the fall of 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War.  Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells a couple of his executives that he’s decided to desegregate baseball.  When asked why, Rickey says that the money that blacks and whites use is all the same color – green.  (He’ll explain his motivation two more times in the course of the movie, with increasing honesty.)  To make his plan work, he needs a very special player.  They look through the roster of Negro League players, dismissing several (including Satchel Paige with the comment that he’s too old; Satchel would have the last laugh though).  Finally they come to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs that year.

Robinson had been born in Georgia, though his mother moved the family to California when Jackie was still young.  He attended UCLA, where he was the first athlete to letter in football, track, basketball and baseball.  Financial concerns made him drop out of school, and instead he enlisted the Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.  His time in uniform was cut short when he faced a court martial because of incident of racial prejudice.  He eventually received an honorable discharge, and later joined the Monarchs.

Rickey brings Robinson to New York City where he explains his plan.  He says that he needs someone who won’t let the prejudice get to him because, regardless of the provocation, if the black player retaliated he’d be viewed as the one in the wrong.  It leads to this exchange which mirrors the historical record of the meeting: Jackie: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?  Rickey: No, I want a player with the guts not to fight back.  Jackie: You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.

The contract with the Dodgers allows Robinson to propose to Rachel (Nichol Behaire), his long-time girlfriend.  They marry early in 1946, just before he reports to the training camp for the Dodgers minor league farm team in Montreal.  Unfortunately the camp is in Florida and the Robinsons are almost late for spring training because of prejudice they encounter in New Orleans, where Rachel, having been raised in California, encounters her first “Whites Only” bathroom.  Rickey arranges for black sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) to act as chauffeur, guide and mentor to Jackie.  The challenges on and off the field only increase as Jackie enters the big leagues the next year.

Chadwick Boseman had mostly worked in television on shows such as Brooklyn Heights, Castle, and Fringe, before getting the role of Jackie Robinson.  His performance is mesmerizing.  He captures Robinson as a real person, with fears and foibles but also courage and honor.  Nichol Behaire matches Boseman with both intensity and grace.  You feel what it must have been like for the real Robinsons, and you wonder how they persevered in the face of it all.

Just as Robinson broke barriers, so did Wendell Smith.  One excellent aspect of the movie is that he gets his due as well.  Holland is excellent in the role, and the scene where Wendell tells Rachel Robinson what Jackie means to him gives you goose bumps.  Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Rickey is a revelation.  After years in heroic leading man roles, 42 gives him a chance to shine as a character actor.  And shine he does.

The rest of the cast is just as stellar, including Christopher Meloni as Dodger manager Leo Durocher and Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman.  Tudyk’s role calls on him to be a completely obnoxious example of racism.  He plays the role beautifully, which means he’s horrendous and hard to watch.  It’s especially strange to see him in such a role after his classic turn as the gentle pilot “Wash” Washburne, married to Gina Torres’ Zoe, on the series “Firefly.”

A pivotal role in the movie is Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black.  Reese was the acknowledge star of the Dodgers, who had to face down his own prejudices when Jackie joined the club.  Director and screenwriter Brian Helgelund uses him in a sense to stand in for baseball on the whole and its coming to grips with the change brought about by Robinson.

One would not think of Helgelund first as the one to make this movie.  He came to prominence adapting L.A. Confidential, and later he did the scripts for movies such as Mystic River, Man on Fire and Green Zone.  He’d only directed a couple of movies, all that he also scripted, such as Payback and A Knight’s Tale.  (On Payback he’d fought with star Mel Gibson, who was producing the movie; Gibson ended up firing him and finishing the directing himself.)  Here, though, he shows a strong visual style and marshals the story so it’s both compelling and thrilling.  Especially good is the action on the field, since he captures the feel of the game, such as what it’s like to face a major league pitcher.

Special kudos to the visual effects department for recreating the era, including Ebbets Field, as well as to the costume department.  This is a finely detailed film, which adds to its evocation of the time.

This is not an easy film to watch, though, since it doesn’t shy away from presenting racism as it was then, deeply ingrained in the nation’s psyche.  A friend had wondered whether it would be appropriate to take children to see this movie.  My answer would be, this is a movie that every young person in this country should see, and older people as well.  Recently there have been incidents that show the racism of the 1940s still lies beneath the surface in this country.  But just as Jackie Robinson broke through prejudice at that time, 42 exposes how prejudice diminishes all who practice it, and the beauty that can be seen when prejudice is overcome.