Feb 232018
3,5 reels

Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, where the King of the secretive king of Wakanda was killed, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes on the role of king and the Black Panther, aided by four powerful women, his technologically gifted sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his spy girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his mother (Angela Bassett). Soon after his coronation challenge, he is informed that Klaue (Andy Serkis), a vibranium smuggler and murderer has resurfaced. The pursuit of Klaue will bring T’Challa into contact with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) as well as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an angry, skilled killer with a claim on the throne.

You can’t separate the film from the cultural event. Black Panther is the first Black blockbuster (and no, Blade does not count). It has a brave, noble Black hero, supported by a group of strong, equally noble Black women. It brings the style of Afro-futurism to the screen; Wakanda is an African country that was never colonized, so the culture, the social customs, the décor, the fashions, the music, and the traditions are what might have been if Europe had kept its grubby hands to itself. Black children will now grow up with a powerful icon who looks like them, and White children will see other possibilities in the world. This is all important, making Black Panther an important film.

And it needs to lean heavily on that importance, because without it, it is just OK. It’s a nice action film. It’s part of the MCU so it was going to be good, and it is, but its cultural significance is the only reason to ever call Black Panther great. As I said, this is an MCU film, so don’t take my criticisms as condemnation. It is miles better than Justice League or X-Men Apocalypse or, if we want to walk outside of superhero flicks, The Fate of the Furious. It’s a good action picture, and maybe that’s all it could be in order to be a cultural moment. Perhaps everything had to be simple and clear to be what it needed to be. Perhaps. Still, I’d have liked a lot more depth and emotion. The major heroes all have great potential, but because there is so many of them, we don’t get to know any of them (we are told that Nakia is/was T’Challa’s girlfriend, but shown nothing about it and barely shown who she is). Maybe in the next picture we’ll get more—the women deserve a whole lot more screen time. Ryan Coogler is not Joss Whedon; he doesn’t know how to flesh out 5 or 6 characters with only a few lines. So by the end I liked T’Challa and the four women, but know them only well enough that the term “the four women” is fitting. And they are the best thing about the film.

Killmonger also had potential. He had the high ground both philosophically and personally, which should lead to an interesting morally gray conflict, but we didn’t get that. Instead Killmonger has “evil murdering psychopath” tacked on to his character so it is very clear who is right and who is wrong. Again, perhaps that is how it had to be, but it isn’t interesting. And Killmonger leads to a second major problem—he has a legitimate claim to the throne. His goal is to challenge for the throne, so what was the point of the whole first act? He didn’t have to do anything evil or violent. He could have just walked up and introduced himself. But then we wouldn’t have gotten Black Panther riding on a car roof for the trailer (that product placement has to go somewhere).

As for the action, it is the worst of any MCU film. It isn’t a miserable failure (Again, I’m looking at Justice League), but the framing is off more often than not, the camera is generally too close, and most of the time nothing has weight. The chase reminded me of Quantum of Solace. In the “large” battle scene (I guess Wakanda isn’t all that big after all), the camera never tells us where we are. People hit people. People fall down. Who knows where anyone is or who is winning. Plus we have a cavalry-deus ex machina, which is always a cheap out in a script.

So we have a dumb but enjoyable action flick, elevated by its cultural significance. The characters are mostly good if underdeveloped, the style is fantastic if filmed in a mediocre fashion, the dialog is acceptable if a bit too serious and mostly forgettable, the action is above average if nothing special, and the plot is workable as long as you weren’t showing up for the story. Black Panther is another success for Marvel and Disney, but Marvel and Disney have raised the bar for superhero movies, and Black Panther slips under it. Well, I expect to see a deserved Oscar nomination for costume design. That’s something.

Feb 092018
three reels

An account of the “Doolittle Raid” in which the US bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities, undertaken to raise US morale and damage Japanese morale instead of for the physical damage that could be done. We follow the crew of “The Ruptured Duck,” captained by Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) and including gunner David Thatcher (Robert Walker) and navigator Charles McClure (Don DeFore) as they go through special training with other airmen, including Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum), all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle (Spencer Tracy), then as they attack Tokyo and attempt to survive.

This is a WWII propaganda piece, less of the “Why we fight” sort and mostly of the “Average Joes just like you” kind. There is a lot of time spent showing the crews doing average stuff (a lot of time). They play poker, sing songs, and smoke enough to give cancer to the entire state of Maine. The actual bombing mission takes only a few minutes of screen time, a fraction of what we spend being shown how these are regular folks.

It has a touch of the “We all love each other” propaganda here and there. The seamen say how much they respect the airmen and the airmen return the compliment. Our heroes announce that the Chinese are “our kind of people” and how they hope to come back and fight with them arm in arm. And there are lots of “Aw shucks” moments. This is the kind of picture where a solder says, “Gosh I’ll be glad when this war is over.” You need a better actor than Van Johnson to sell that line.

The relationship between Lawson and his wife is awkward and unnecessary and the training and “getting to know you” segment is way too long. The film doesn’t get going until the raid begins but then things become much more engaging. The attack itself is brief. The real story is after that, when the The Ruptured Duck is forced to ditch in the sea and the wounded fliers are aided by Chinese resistance fighters.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a good movie that could be much better with trimming. At 138 minutes, it is too long; a half hour could have been chopped without effecting the story, which means it should have been chopped. But the Chinese section of this overlong cut makes it worth seeing.

Feb 062018
two reels

The world is running out of energy. The only chance of saving civilization is a super-particle accelerator energy experiment being carried out on a space station. The multinational crew consists of Captain Kiel (David Oyelowo), Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Monk (John Ortiz), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and Tam (Ziyi Zhang). After two years of failures, the crew is feeling the stress. Things are falling apart on Earth as well, with Hamilton’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies) filling her in on the disasters. The next experiment appears to work, but then rips a hole in space and time, causing catastrophes on Earth and a string of weird and horrific events on the station, including an unknown woman (Elizabeth Debicki) appearing in the wall.

Paramount had no faith in this movie. The third film in the odd Cloverfield branding exercise was, as of a month ago, titled The God Particle. The new head of Paramount found nothing of interest in this kinda-sequel, as well as the need for quick cash after a fortune-destroying 2017 (Did you see Baywatch? Monster Trucks? Ghost in the Shell? Downsizing? Yeah, no one else did either). But no one heard another peep about this film until the middle of the Super Bowl when it was announced that it was now called The Cloverfield Paradox and would be released in a few hours on Netflix. Well, I gotta hand it to them. If you want to show how much disdain you have for your own film, that’s how to do it.

Was it deserving of such treatment? Probably. It is very familiar, “borrowing” heavily from Event Horizon (1997) and 2010 (1984) and noticeably from Life (2017) and even Alien (1979). But it doesn’t manage to say anything as coherent as any of those. The problem is no one decided what story they wanted to tell. I’m not talking about plot, but story. Was this supposed to be the arc of a mother—Hamilton—dealing with the death of her two children? How about a haunted house-type horror flick, with unexplainable and cruel things happening to our crew? Or maybe a science fiction tale of people looking at the cost of survival? Since no story is ever selected, we get a little of each and none are satisfying. Nothing with Hamilton’s grieving story is earned, particularly her late-in-film speech. We don’t feel her loss; we are just informed about it. It also doesn’t tie into anything else that happens. The haunting-type horror sprints out of the box, with unpleasant eye manipulation, an unknown woman appearing with her body pierced by wires, a wall sucking in a man’s arm, and worms exploding from a corpse. But except for one event in the third act, all that stops without explanation. Everything goes back to behaving absolutely normally. After an arm is magically dragged through solid metal, a human turning on another human is an extreme de-escalation.

Then there is Michael down on Earth. Everything he does is irrelevant to the rest of the movie. He takes up time and breaks tension. That’s it. Rumor has it that he was given extra scenes to tie this film tighter to Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, but it is unnecessary. The connection is clear and is the one thing the film does well, even if it does it with bland exposition. Early in the first act, we hear of the titular paradox (that fails the definition of the word “paradox”): if something goes wrong with the experiment, then time and space will be shattered and monsters will appear, not only now, but in both the past and future. So where did the monster in Cloverfield come from if he seems to have had no effect on our world? Well, he was inserted into the time line due to the experiment. Likewise the events that concluded the second film. It’s nice and neat, if that’s what you want. Michael’s scenes aren’t nice and neat but a waste of time.

With characters we could root for, maybe the film could have evoked some emotion, but we don’t know these people and are given no connection. Hamilton is the only one with a back story and it should have been cut. The rest are black boxes. I don’t know why any of the other crew members are there (they certainly were not chosen for their emotional stability) or why they act the way they do. There is an attempt to give three of the characters a trait in making them annoyingly religious, but this comes to nothing (when Earth vanishes, the laws of nature no longer function, and horrific things happen, wouldn’t religion come into play?) so is really just a one-off quirk. The actors do their best, particularly the two Marvel alums (Brühl and Debicki) but the script gives them nothing.

I’m being generous in awarding The Cloverfield Paradox two stars, but it isn’t a bad film—it’s just not a good one—and I want to put it in a different category than the first Cloverfield movie.