Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Black Panther / **** (PG-13)


T’Challa/Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman
Erik Killmonger: Michael B. Jordan
Nakia: Lupita Nyong’o
Okoye: Danai Gurira
Shuri: Letitia Wright
Everett K. Ross: Martin Freeman
W’Kabi: Daniel Kaluuya
M’Baku: Winston Duke
N’Jobu: Sterling K. Brown
Ramonda: Angela Bassett
Zuri: Forest Whitaker
Ulysses Klaue: Andy Serkis

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Coogler & Joe Robert Cole. Based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Running time: 134 min. Rated PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture).

You’re going to read a great deal about the box office of Black Panther. You’re going to read many quotes from critics calling Black Panther “ground breaking.” You’re going to read that Black Panther is the best comic book movie ever made. For most people, none of this will really matter. For most people, Black Panther will just be a good time at the movies. It accomplishes this with a predominantly black cast in an international story that includes only two white supporting characters. That right there is the biggest reason why all of the previous things I listed are true. However, what is most remarkable about Black Panther is that all of those things said about it would also be true even if most people didn’t go to see it.

The character of Black Panther was first introduced to theatergoers in the movie Captain America: Civil War as part of Marvel’s reinvention of franchising with their cinematic universe of interlocking movies and story lines. Although for audiences Black Panther’s story began there, I doubt many who were not already familiar with the character from comic books could’ve imagined what the Panther’s full story might entail. During that film we learn the masked vigilante known as the Black Panther is T’Challa, the prince of a mysterious third world African nation Wakanda. T’Challa’s father, the King of Wakanda, is assassinated during a UN speech, now we are given the complete truth about Wakanda and T’Challa’s greater role in the MCU.

As it turns out, Wakanda is hardly a Third World country. That is a cover for the most technologically advanced country in the world, made so because of its location on top of the planet’s only reserve of a precious metal known as vibranium. MCU fans will know this metal as the substance used to make Captain America’s indestructible shield. The Wakandan government’s stance throughout the years has been that allowing this technology into the rest of the world would risk it falling into the wrong hands. Of course, what little bit of vibranium that has gotten out into the world has been sought after by those wrong hands, usually supplied by Ulysses Klaue, a mercenary and weapons dealer seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Klaue was responsible for the theft of what was believed by the world to be the last of the vibranium reserve and the death of the father of one of T’Challa’s top advisors and friend, W’Kabi. T’Challa receives a lead as to Klaue’s whereabouts and assembles a mission to bring the madman to justice. However, Erik Killmonger, a man with mysterious ties to the secretive country of Wakanda, thwarts their efforts.

The plot of the film could inhabit just about any political action thriller. It is remarkable because there really has never been a black political action thriller. The filmmakers don’t really highlight this fact. The plot is presented as matter-of-factly as any comic book story. This is just the way it is in the Marvel universe. Nor do the filmmakers ignore the realities of the world in which we live. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler appropriated the Rocky mythos to explore the modern black experience in America in his phenomenal screenplay for Creed, here he and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole do a similar treatment to the superhero model, questioning the responsibility black people hold in their own world perception. They neither blame nor excuse but say, “We must do better for ourselves.”

Improving upon the typical superhero model, Coogler also provides a complex human being for both his hero and his villain here. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is a leader who never really wanted the responsibility of leading. He leans heavily on his throne’s supporting cast for his own morality. The love of his life, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), operates as a spy for the kingdom primarily because she sees so much injustice outside the walls of Wakanda. She can’t bring herself to come home. The old ways provide resistance to change that T’Challa isn’t willing to push against on his own. His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), operates as the kingdom’s chief scientist, opposed to most all traditions in favor of progress. She leaves a little to be desired in terms of diplomacy. And his highest general, Okoye (Danai Gurira), sees the benefit of new thinking while she is still loyal to the throne above all else, possibly even ideology. With these characters, Black Panther represents the many different political mindsets that a progressive government requires. Nyong’o, Wright, and Gurira bring great amounts of humanity to these diverse female representations of strength.

Killmonger, on the other hand, does not just represent the blinded vision his name signifies. While he is blinded by revenge, his reasoning isn’t without merit. Michael B. Jordan portrays Killmonger as a multilayered villain. He’s street hewn and clearly the smartest person in the room. His origins, which I won’t reveal here, speak to a grave injustice, and not one of a general race-related grievance, but a very personal injustice made much more profound by systemic inequalities thriving in America and throughout the world. His position against Wakanda in particular deal with injustices perpetuated by a government unwilling to help its own in fear of breaking traditions and exposing itself to the world in a light it does not wish to admit.

Of course, the greatest achievement of Black Panther is to provide millions with superhero idols they’ve never been able to see who look the same way they do. It doesn’t do this with any sense of antagonism. The two supporting white characters are not used as symbols of racial inequality. Both are non-judgmental of their black counterparts or superiors. Andy Serkis’s Klaue is as much a tool of Killmonger as any henchman would be in any action thriller. I liked that Martin Freeman’s CIA Agent Ross isn’t used as an obstacle for the heroes as he was in Civil War. Instead he’s an equal who brings his own useful skills to achieving the heroes’ ends.

The accomplishments of the filmmakers are hardly limited to the roles of minority characters and minority actors, directors, and writers in mainstream cinema blockbusters. The movie is also the most gorgeous film that Marvel has released to date, and lately that’s saying something as Marvel has recently stepped up its production designs with such efforts as Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Thor: Ragnarok. The production design is vibrant, full of color and features wonderful traditional African design aesthetics mixed with a science fiction approach to affect the unique and stunning look of the technologically advanced society of Wakanda. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is just as brilliant. Morrison recently made history by becoming the first woman ever nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for her work on the Netflix movie Mudbound. Next year she may break another gender barrier by being the first woman nominated for a film with a blockbuster budget.

Whether you watch Black Panther as another superhero entertainment or as the groundbreaking, multi-layered, ceiling-breaking milestone that it is for minority representation in mainstream filmmaking, it is a blast to watch that embraces the high standards Marvel has been bringing to its movies since it started its own cinematic universe. It has been called the greatest superhero movie ever made. While that may be debatable, what isn’t debatable is that it is so good, all of the other things it is hardly matter in enjoying it. And that is why all the things it is matter so much.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris / *½ (PG-13)

Spencer: Spencer Stone
Anthony: Anthony Sadler
Alek: Alek Skarlatos
Ayoub: Ray Corosani
Joyce: Judy Greer
Heidi: Jenna Fischer
Spencer (11-14): William Jennings
Alek (11-14): Bryce Gheisar
Anthony (11-14): Paul-Mikél Williams

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal. Based on the book by Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and Jeffery E. Stern. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG-13 (on appeal for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language).

The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, is a film of our times. The world has become violent. Terrorist attacks are becoming so common that we are teaching our children how to live in a world rife with them. We look for examples of how to survive them. More importantly, we look for examples to follow to inspire us to be better in the face of evil. Eastwood has found those examples in Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. The first two service men, all three lifelong childhood friends who helped to thwart a planned terrorist attack on the Thalys train line from Amsterdam to Paris. There is no doubt that these three men are heroes. This, however, is not the movie they deserve. Nor is it the movie we deserve from their example.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

My first knowledge of Sam Shepard came while watching Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), in which he portrayed Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier and then some. Yeager was a hero of my father’s, who was a Marine Corps. fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that the film was about much more than Yeager’s accomplishments and another American hero and fellow Marine, John Glenn, was also depicted, the movie was all Yeager for my father and I. As such, he became a hero of mine and in many ways so did the actor who portrayed him, who did so in such a cool, matter-of-fact manner that he may well have also informed the actor I would eventually come to be.
I really knew little else of Shepard upon entering my acting training at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Within days of meeting people who would become my peers for the next four years of my life, the name Sam Shepard kept coming up around me. Apparently, I looked like and even exhibited mannerisms of a playwright and actor named Sam Shepard. I’m not even sure if I realized it was the same actor who portrayed Yeager at that point, although since my obsession with films was already underway, I probably did. But I had to pretend that I already knew that he was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. As such, he probably also influenced me to become a writer as well.
Words like “stoic” were being used about him in reference to me. An accomplished upperclassman looked at me and said, “You’re so fucking aloof.” But there was no derision in his words. It was a compliment of uniqueness, which most certainly could’ve been said about Shepard in his professional life. His early career was ensconced in the New York music and theater scene, quietly hanging in the background and co-writing songs with the likes of Bob Dylan and John Cale, even playing drums for the group Holy Modal Rounders, who once opened for the progressive rock group Pink Floyd.
I heard the comparisons, but I couldn’t really see Shepard in myself, looks or otherwise, until mere weeks into my student tenure when I found myself in one of the top floors of the Hofstra library high-rise immersed in Shepard’s pen. I read them all in a way I had never consumed plays before. “Buried Child”, “A Lie of the Mind,” and “True West” became not just potential productions, but something that connected with me on a more visceral level. The way Shepard lived and spoke in his matter-of-fact, almost classical western way, but explored the extremes of drug culture and somewhat psychedelic themes in his plays and his life was very much where I found myself at that time. That Christmas I asked for every Shepard collection and tome I knew of. His memoir “Motel Chronicles” could’ve been an alternate life of mine, at least in an oddly messed up romantic sense.
I still didn’t see the look that everyone else was seeing though, until I found a picture of him at 16 wearing a trench coat that looked eerily similar to a Canadian Air Force trench I wore during my last couple of years of high school. It was like seeing yourself in a picture that was taken years before your birth. We were definitely doppelgängers as young adults. I’m not sure I’ve aged as gracefully as he did. I certainly don’t have his hair.
I was lucky enough to weasel my way into the lead of a student production of “Fool For Love” at too young an age due to some unfortunate back problems of an upperclassman. Sorry, Jason, but in so many ways it seemed meant to be. I think I was able to channel Shepard pretty well if not fully understanding the maturity of his themes. I was never threatening enough in the role, but damn, I did look like him. I also played Doc in two different productions of “Crimes of the Heart”, the same part played by Shepard in the 1986 film.
Later, another actor I knew from Hofstra was lucky enough to meet Shepard at a NYC coffee shop. Shepard forgave him the rights to a production of “True West” he had directed when my colleague confessed that he had yet to pay for them. He informed me of the location of the coffee shop where Shepard was a regular. I took the cue to meet the man myself in what might’ve been the ultimate meeting of stoics. I told him it was an honor to meet him and he said, “Likewise,” which I don’t imagine it really was for him, and that was about all that was said. I like that it went down like that, though.
After college, the comparisons disappeared, but my connection to his work remained. I sought out the films of his I’d missed, like Terrence Malik’s “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “Paris, Texas” (1984), for which he wrote the screenplay. I even revisited film’s I hadn’t really thought of as his work, like “Baby Boom” (1987). Any time he showed up in a new movie, I was eager to see it—great films like “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “Mud” (2012), and even terrible ones, like “Stealth” (2005). I ate up his own directorial efforts, “Far North” (1988) and “Silent Tongue” (1993), and more recent screenplays, such as Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking” (2005). I loved seeing him in the first season of Netflix’s “Bloodline” (2015-2017). Probably more so than his performances, I enjoyed seeing him be himself in the documentaries “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” and his nastier side in “Shepard & Dark”, both from 2012.

--> It seems we’re losing those psychedelic cowboys that refashioned the American western mythology into something much more complicated than a John Wayne film. First Dennis Hopper, now Shepard. Clint Eastwood, Kris Kristofferson, Stanton and Dylan are still with us, but when they go, there will be a huge hole left in the folklore of American entertainment. I feel like a part of me has died with this celebrity death, and it isn’t just because I looked like him a long time ago.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Favorite Music of 2016

20 Favorite Albums of ‘16

In all my years of music obsession I don’t think I’ve ever immersed myself in music so much as I did in 2016. I’ve never listened to so many different albums and so many different artists. The year was dominated with soundtracks for me, but thanks to some new Spotify features, I was introduced to many more bands than I had ever been before.

My year end music lists are usually dominated by early year releases. For some reason the first half of most years just seem to be filled with albums that hit me harder than the albums released later. I also tend to get much more listening time for the year’s early releases than I do for the late year ones. But this year was different. After Sturgill Simpson’s amazing not-really-country ode to his son “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”, I figured nothing could surpass it in my mind. Then a few months later Car Seat Headrest hit me despite their questionable name. That one held my top spot for quite some time; then the new Leonard Cohen blew me off my feet, released like Bowie’s early year masterpiece, just before his death. Then A Tribe Called Quest’s triumphant return floored me, and then no one expected Run the Jewels to jump their 2017 release date the day before Christmas. The hits just kept on coming until the very end.

Anyway, the best I could whittle the list down to was 20, and there were still so many great albums I had to leave off the list. Here they are:

Monday, February 20, 2017

16 Favorite Movies of 2016

OK. I had all but given up on my favorites lists for 2016. I had tried compiling my list of favorite movies in the same manner I had in past years, where I do a little write up on each movie explaining its presence and positioning on the list; but since I hadn’t written reviews on most of these movies, I found myself writing far too much about each one. It was taking me far too long. I had put off my favorite music so I could concentrate on my movies. I had pretty much decided I just wasn’t going to do it this year when it occurred to me, I had the lists. Why don’t I just present the films the same way as I present the music each year, just list them and let them speak for themselves? Well, duh.

So, it may be a little late, but here are my 16 Favorite Movies of 2016. As usual concerning omissions, there are a great many films I missed that would surely have replaced some of these films on the list, but to be sure, these are all great films in a year that was filled with them. It was a pretty mediocre year for big mainstream films, but the independents were in rare form.

These films run the gamut, from Oscar contenders to surprise horror entries, from a nearly 8-hour documentary of an American sports legend whose life turned toward infamy to a costumed comedy of manners made by a master of the genre, from a classic 70s-style crime drama, to one of the most original premises for a movie I’ve ever seen, from a sci-fi thriller about linguistics, to the greatest performance of Sam Neill’s rather odd career. It was a great year for film, and I’m glad I didn’t pass up this opportunity to share my favorites.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Suicide Squad / **½ (PG-13)

Deadshot: Will Smith
Harley Quinn: Margot Robbie
Boomerang: Jai Courtney
Rick Flagg: Joel Kinneman
June Moone/Enchantress: Cara Delevinge
El Diablo: Jay Hernandez
Katana: Karen Fukuhara
Killer Croc: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Amanda Waller: Viola Davis
The Joker: Jared Leto

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Based on the comic book created by John Ostrander and characters created by Ostrander, Bill Finger and Ross Andru. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language).

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have finally brought the comic book battle to the cinemas, once again facing off against their arch nemesis Marvel. It took DC a long time to get their act together. While they were doing that Marvel wrote the book on a cinematic superhero universe. DC is playing catch up. They’ve already taken a good deal of flak for their first two entries “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The third, “Sucide Squad”, has likewise been a critical disaster, but not a box office one. It’s probably important to remember that the first two didn’t exactly slack at the box office either.

None of this really matters. The only thing that really matters is that Marvel took their time building their universe and DC wants to be where Marvel is right now. Marvel put out five films before they threw their heroes together in a team. DC put out 2, and one of those is pretty much a team up between three heroes, only one of which had a previous movie in this particular superhero universe. A total of three villains were introduced in those two movies, and now we get a superhero team made up of villains known as the Suicide Squad. They get their own movie, and we’ve never met any of them before. Batman makes an appearance, and a new version of the madman villain The Joker, with whom audiences are basically familiar from other films unrelated to this universe. But, neither of these previously revealed characters have anything to do with the Suicide Squad itself. What I’m taking a great deal of time to get at here—but DC has not—is that in the movie “Suicide Squad” we’ve got two hours to familiarize ourselves with nine new major characters and give them an engaging plot to survive, which just isn’t enough time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Star Trek Beyond / ***½ (PG-13)

Captain James T. Kirk: Chris Pine
Commander Spock: Zachary Quinto
Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy: Karl Urban
Lieutenant Uhura: Zoe Saldana
Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott: Simon Pegg
Sulu: John Cho
Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Jaylah: Sofia Boutella
Krall: Irdris Elba

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung. Based on the “Star Trek” television series created by Gene Roddenberry. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence).

I overheard a critic speaking recently who said that nostalgia doesn’t belong in criticism. I’m not so sure I agree with this, which is no surprise since I write from a very nostalgic point of view. I understand what this critic was saying. There is an objectiveness that is necessary in criticism and getting too nostalgic runs the danger of adopting the false entitlement of ownership that so many fans espouse these days, leading to much of the illegitimate criticism felt by franchises, such as the “Ghostbusters” reboot. However, I think it’s impossible to critique these franchises without acknowledging their reliance on what has come before. Of course, the best franchise films work just as well if you’ve never seen any entry in the series before, but most are made with the notion their audience is familiar with the franchise characters, tone and mythology.