Avengers: Infinity War Review

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Avengers: Infinity War, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, is the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before I go into the review, I’d like to give a little background.

In the comic book industry, there is something called a “comic book crossover event”. This began in 1984 with Marvel Comics’ Secret Wars which featured an assortment of characters from the Marvel Universe coming together for 12 issues. After this, DC responded with its own major crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which also spanned several issues and significantly affected the continuity of the DC Universe. Since the 1980’s, there have been countless event comics from “Infinite Crisis” to “Civil War” to “Infinity War”. And although 2012’s The Avengers was a significant landmark in the comic book to film medium, Avengers: Infinity War is the first time that a major comic book crossover event is being adapted for the big screen. Now I’m much more of a DC fan when it comes to the comics (I can tell you about literally every major story event in the DC Universe going all the way back to its inception in 1939), but I did manage to read the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet story by Jim Starlin which is what this movie is based off of. For me, the opportunity to experience a massive event like Infinity War on the big screen is something I never could have imagined as a child. That being said, I went into this film with tempered expectations. There has been an unreal amount of hype leading up to the release of the movie, and the fact remained that there was a lot that was being promised or at least expected.

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Avengers: Infinity War took inspiration from The Infinity Gauntlet, written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by George Pérez and Ron Lim

Well, I can certainly say that Avengers: Infinity War delivered on its expectations. The Russo Brothers were able to give the fans what they had promised, a big event where the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe fights off an overwhelming threat. If you are expecting an entertaining action film with some big moments, this is the movie for you. It is quintessential blockbuster popcorn fanfare with a little something more for those who are big fans or want to dig deeper into the story’s implications. It’s also a film that takes itself more seriously but still has a nice blend of humor. At times, the humor can be weird and overstay its welcome, but it largely didn’t detract from the drama.

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Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, is the centerpiece of the film.

The important thing to know is that this is not a story where the Avengers are the main characters. Thanos is actually the main character of this tale, and he means business. It seems like the Russo Brothers really took a delicate approach to how they wanted to represent Thanos. He is a nuanced and emotional character, with a lot of screen time, and a unique motivation. It’s admirable that this character with no prior development that has been hyped for 13 films was developed so well. His relationships with other characters within the MCU also felt well-established.  Josh Brolin did an excellent job with the motion work and managed to capture the myriad of emotions Thanos exhibits. a villain for the film, Thanos fits the part and does it strides. He truly feels like the big threat to the Avengers that the studio was hyping up, and it represents the comic book storyline well since it seemed nearly impossible for the Avengers to even stand a chance against him. The fact that his actions in the movie act out a crusade rather than a conquest, and the fact that you really understand where he is coming from, makes Thanos a good villain. He is not the emotional roller coaster that is Killmonger or the malice that is The Joker, but he serves his purpose within the story.

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The action is also excellent. There are a lot of great fight scenes and epic struggles with some great “wow” moments. One thing I didn’t expect was the number of twists, thrills, and shocks in the movie. It’s all a lot to take in, and the end result is a heavier, more genuine film than most of the recent quirky comedy style MCU films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnorak. Speaking of Thor, he can be considered almost a secondary main character within the narrative. He gets the second most development and screen time after Thanos. The approach to Thor does take a step back from the tone of Ragnorak and opts for a more grounded view of his character. He still makes a few jokes here in there in the typical Thor way, however, there is a bigger focus on how much he has lost. It’s reminded how much of a tragic character he really is and also how powerful he really is. Due to the serious approach, there are moments in the film that come across as very dark, and even haunting at times. There is this sense of finality like everything has been culminating towards the confrontation with Thanos. 18 years of build-up has all lead to this.

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Infinity War features a large cast of classic Marvel Comics characters.

Considering the fact that there has been so much development and new additions to the Avengers ensemble after 18 movies, there are a lot of characters to balance. For the most part, the characters work off of each other very well, especially many of the new combinations of characters who had previously never interacted with each other. The styles and aesthetics of the other films in the franchise were also well-incorporated within the movie. When the Guardians of the Galaxy showed up, classic rock began playing and bright streaks of colors filled the screen. When Wakanda was featured, the drums started kicking in and the Black Panther theme came on. As good of a job as the film does in balancing the characters, some of the characters are underdeveloped or underused, and some are even inconsistent with how they were in previous films. I can’t really get into who these characters were until my spoiler review which I’ll post later. The main drawback to the overall experience is that there’s so much going on that at times it can feel very disconnected and the stories start feeling separate. A group of characters will be off doing one thing while another group of characters will be doing something somewhere else. There are multiple storylines going on at the same time and featuring different characters, and the story jumps around from place to place and at different times which can be quite discombobulating. We may spend a lot of time in one particular point with one group of characters before jumping back to a different group of characters at a different point. In some of these jumps, I would completely forget the previous arc and would have to reorient myself towards the current point. It’s understandably hard to juggle all of these characters, and the Russo Brothers did a good job, however, the jumping around from vignette to vignette made the experience less absorbing and harder to get engrossed in.

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Overall, Avengers: Infinity War is a solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It delivers on its promises, offers exciting and novel action sequences, and presents an awe-inspiring and multifaceted villain the likes of which the comic book movie genre hasn’t seen before. As a major DC fan, I can’t help but feel a little jealousy that the DC universe hasn’t been able to replicate this level of universe-building and massive scale. Infinity War felt exactly like the event comics I loved reading with the way everything came together and how many characters appeared on-screen. It’s a wonderfully constructed adaptation of the Marvel Universe depicted in the comic books and is put together fairly well especially considering the sheer magnitude of the film in terms of characters, themes, and the overall universe.

Yet, I can’t help but feel there is something more that could have been. I enjoyed the film, but I can’t put it up there with some of the most epic sagas of all time like Star Wars, Halo, or Lord of the Rings. What I think is missing is consistency of tone in regards to this film and the rest of the universe. This is an issue more with the direction the entire MCU has taken. The fact that so much had to be done in this film to establish a new tone, new villain, new characters, and create an epic spectacle indicates that the previous films before it weren’t successful in establishing the right tone and emotional stakes. The Marvel formula has always been fun, comedic, and low stakes for the most part. Infinity War is epic, but there’s a disconnect. The overly comedic tone of the franchise so far has hurt the movie. The emotions not running as high for these characters in their respective films is what might have caused the emotional disconnect in this film. This would have been truly legendary if the previous films were different and had established this more serious tone. The films could have been darker and had more stakes to begin with, set up Thanos and the Black Order much earlier, and hyped up more of the Infinity War itself. If Marvel had done all of these things much earlier and set up elements of Infinity War in other films, it would have been unbelievable to witness. However, I think the Russo Brothers still did an excellent job, and quite possibly the best they could have done given the situation they were in.

4/5 Stars

Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.

 

 

Arpeggios and TV Themes: Repetition in Music

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I could make up a clever anecdote about how something interesting sparked my thought process and motivated me to write about this but that just wouldn’t be the truth. I was walking around my college campus earlier when a random thought just popped up in my head: TV show themes copy each other. The Flash TV show theme sounds a lot like The Walking Dead theme, and also a lot like a track I’ve heard from Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. As a vocal critic/commentator of derivation in pop culture, I spent the extra time I had today listening to and analyzing the structure of the TV melodies that all sounded eerily similar to each other. I’m sure there are movie soundtracks that follow the same pattern I’m about to show you, but since this is such a recurring thing in TV, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on. To make it easier to analyze, I’m transposing all of the arpeggios into the key of C.

The music I found was from The Flash, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and Westworld. Now, when I say similar, I don’t mean identical (actually two of these are identical). They simply have the same rhythmic and melodic patterns.

To start with, here is The Flash theme:

THE FLASH

The Flash TV theme

Now here is the Walking Dead theme:

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The Walking Dead TV Theme

Sound pretty similar? If you look at the notation, you can see the similar sixteenth note structure. The Flash plays an arpeggiated version of a C natural minor scale, also known as Aeolian mode. Here it is below:

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An Aeolian takes the seven notes of a major scale and flats the 3rd, 6th, and 7th, so it ends up looking like 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7.

The Flash theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th of the scale then back down. So it plays the C, Eb, G, and Ab.

The Walking Dead theme is in a harmonic minor scale, it’s the same thing as a natural minor except it turns the seventh note of the scale back to a natural instead of a flat. So it becomes: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7.

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The Walking Dead theme plays the 1st, 5th, then goes up an octave to play the 2nd and 3rd of the scale. So it plays the C, G, D, Eb, then back down.

Aside from the fact that the rhythm is exactly the same with the three sets of sixteenth notes, both of these themes start and end on the same note and feature a half step movement from 5th to 6th in the flash and from 2nd to b3rd in The Walking Dead.

Next, I want to take a look at “Here Me Roar” from Game of Thrones.

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The Flash TV theme

Now for references, here is the sheet music for The Flash theme:

THE FLASH

The Flash TV themeYup, they are exactly the same, note for note, beat for beat. Obviously they vary as each piece plays on but the core idea and the central theme of each piece is identical.

Another TV theme that’s still kind of similar but not as much as the other three above is the Westworld theme. The theme itself is composed by Raman Djawadi, the same composer for Game of Thrones so all of the similarities between the two themes could be a study on its own. Going back to the main ideas though, the Westworld theme also features a few elements that resemble the other TV themes.

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It includes nearly the same successive sixteenth note rhythm, however if you notice the lack of a double line on the last note means the arpeggio ends with an eighth note rather than a sixteenth note. Aside from the rhythm, the theme plays an arpeggio of the harmonic minor scale much like The Walking Dead. In the case of Westworld, it plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th of the scale. So, it’s not entirely like the other themes, but it is a lot like the next theme below.

 

The Stranger Things theme is the least similar out of all the themes I’ve mentioned because of one simple fact, it’s in major.

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The Stranger Things theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th exactly like the Westworld theme only instead of being in harmonic minor it is a C major scale. The flat 3rd is the only note that changes to make the arpeggio major. Just look at the notation and notice the missing b symbol.

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I guess what I’m trying to say is not that these TV show themes copy each other blatantly, but rather that music in itself is a medium based in repetition. Art is created from inspiration and imitation. Repetition is the key to understanding what makes something truly beautiful. The arpeggios that are used in these themes exemplify the effectiveness of music, and how memorable and powerful pieces can be created by simply rearranging a few notes in a scale. In the rapidly developing medium of television and film, music that matches the intensity of what you see on screen is essential. So, sometimes the music will be similar and have the same notes and chords, but its nothing that hasn’t been happening since the birth of music. The arpeggio motiff in telivision has become a memorable repetition that joins the likes of the minor 2nd and 2-5-1 as elements of music that can be used to bring significance to a piece. These TV themes do sound the same and thats ok, however, I still see it as an interesting thing to point out. It reminds me that music is a complex and ancient art form where patterns of beauty can be found much like a golden ratio or a tesselation.

Black Panther Review

Marvel Studios has been on somewhat of a hot streak as of late. In 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnorak all grossed over $800 million at the box office. Thor and Spider-man both had over 90% fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, with Guardians being over 80% fresh. Despite the critical and commercial success, Marvel has been associated with using a derivative formula.  Complex narratives and serious drama are not a topic of conversation. Cinemagoers usually expect a fun, joke-filled, low-stakes comedy-action film with competent direction and acting. It is rare for a Marvel film to break this mold. Thankfully Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, is a breathtakingly dramatic, wonderfully acted and directed, and thematically rich film that stands out among the 18 MCU movies. It is a film that dares to take itself seriously where other Marvel films have embraced the camp.

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Where Black Panther truly succeeds is in its ability to be self-contained. There are very few references to the larger Marvel universe, and the film begins by delving right into the Black Panther lore. The opening fifteen minutes are immersive, the beautiful culture and landscape of Wakanda feel established and lived-in. It’s obvious that the architects behind the movie put a lot of effort into crafting an authentic representation of African culture in a technological landscape. The vibrant scenery reflects the vibrant characters. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther is as captivating as ever. He builds upon the taste of his performance that was given in Captain America: Civil War. Alongside T’Challa are several other great side characters played by great actors. A few standouts include T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, T’Challa’s ex and a Wakandan spy, Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, and the general of the elite Wakandan bodyguard known as the Dora Milaje, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira. The full cast of Wakandan’s includes esteemed actors such as Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Daniel Kaluya. Winston Duke is particularly stellar as M’Baku, the powerful leader of the Jabari people, and Martin Freeman returns to the role of Everett Ross to provide some levity.

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Left to Right: Zuri (Forest Whitaker), Wakabi (Daniel Kaluya), Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challah/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright)

Black-Panther-Trailer-Breakdown-4The music is another excellent aspect of the film. It features a unique composition of cinematic score and contemporary soundtrack. Ludwig Göransson’s African rhythms and Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop beats blend into the film’s sequences and don’t intrude upon the important moments. The film knows when to use the contemporary soundtrack and when to use the cinematic score. The costume design features bright complementary colors and rich patterns without having off-putting or outlandish designs.

Black_Panther_Wakanda_TravelCoogler’s style of direction leaves little to the imagination, as breathtaking shots of sweeping landscapes and cityscapes are prominently displayed throughout the film. The overhead shots and upward tilts highlight the true scope of Wakanda’s advanced world. Where the consistency stops is during the action scenes. The first action sequence takes place at night and features jerky camera movements and bright machine gun flashes that detract from the fighting. The second action sequence features intense cuts and effective tracking shots. The rest of the action in the film is either bright and well-choreographed or dimly lit and jumpy. Black Panther also lacks the same physical prowess and swiftness that he had in Civil War. It doesn’t help that the special effects, at some times, can be very distracting and even lackluster. A few of the digital backgrounds are not fully rendered and can look fake. The CGI in some of the action scenes make the characters’ movements seem uncanny and clearly computerized. Some of the visually stunning camerawork can be hampered by the poor background effects. However, it is possible that Marvel Studios could be saving their budget for the extravagant bonanza that is Avengers: Infinity War. Aside from the unsatisfactory CGI, the visual and auditory elements of Black Panther are fantastic. Coogler has developed a fully fleshed-out world that has its own distinctive aesthetic.

As for the narrative, the subtle but socially relevant commentary and the Shakespearean levels of family drama and tragedy elevate the film above the average superhero movie. There is humor, but it is natural and not overused. The story is serious, and intent on making an actual statement. The true heart of the conflict is in the ethical dilemmas facing T’Challa. As an advanced nation with vastly superior resources, Wakanda has the capacity to dramatically affect the world. It can provide aid to other countries, bring in refugees, and do it all better than any other country ever could. The tradition that previous Black Panthers have followed is to hide Wakanda from the rest of the world, preserving its culture and sheltering its people. The choice that T’Challa has is to either take initiative and help the world or prioritize his own people above others. If T’Challa reveals Wakanda, it could result in the endangerment of his people and the potential loss of cultural identity. If T’Challa stands firm with tradition, then the world will continue to struggle and vulnerable populations would remain vulnerable. The film does provide an answer, and it relates to the message of globalization and the need for humanity to stand together as one group of people rather than a series of divided tribes. T’Challa has to make the hard choices and adapt as a leader. He acknowledges the sins of the past and makes new developments that even go against tradition. Every film has its derivative moments though, and Black Panther is no different. It occasionally follows a few story beats from other superhero films, and the superhero clichés relating to the hero’s journey are akin to what you would see in The Dark Knight Rises or an episode of Arrow.

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Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger

The best part of the film by far, is its villains, specifically Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger. While Ulysses Klaue is deliciously maniacal as a villain and actor Andy Serkis steals every scene he is in, he is not a major motivator of the plot. Eric Killmonger, on the other hand, is central to the plot and his entire story parallels T’Challa’s. Moreover, much of the story is about what happened to Killmonger and why he is the way he is. Killmonger is identifiable and garners a lot of sympathy. He is a monster born out of his environment and his own family tragedy. The circumstances of Killmonger’s upbringing qualify his views. His motives can actually be seen as reasonable; his viewpoint even makes sense. Only through his ruthless methods can he be identified as the villain, and again, his actions are only a result of the hand he’s been dealt. Killmonger was an outcast, not born in the privileged wealth of Wakanda. Because of this, he doesn’t identify with Wakanda, but instead with the marginalized black communities of the world that exists outside of Wakanda. He sees the world as a chaotic nightmare that Wakanda has turned its back on, and only by taking aggressive action can Wakanda right the wrongs of ignoring the rest of the marginalized communities in the world. Michael B. Jordan brings an intensity and gravitas to the role that rivals some of the best comic book villain performances ever. He can play the sympathetic victim and then turn on a dime to become an intimidating and coldblooded monster with a pure intent to kill in his eyes. Killmonger has a commanding presence on screen, and his brilliance as a villain is also accentuated by how effective he is in causing problems and outmaneuvering the heroes. He’s a great villain because he thinks he is the hero of the story.

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Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright)
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Left: Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, leading the Dora Milaje

While the overall plot structure isn’t radically different from other superhero movies, Black Panther takes a few unexpected turns in how it manages to resolve its story. It isn’t over-reliant on the hero. It isn’t just on T’Challa to save Wakanda, it’s on his friends too. Okoye, Nakia, Shuri, and others are all superheroes in their own way as they fight together against the enemy. They are all the warriors of Wakanda, dedicated to protecting their king and country. Chadwick Boseman shines, but it is an ensemble film with an ensemble cast. Everyone brings their all to their roles.

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Ultimately, Black Panther is a film about culture. It questions whether cultural identity should be preserved and protected to the point of hostility, or whether peoples all over the world should unite under a banner of shared experience and humanity. The dynamic realm of Wakanda represents the ever-changing landscape of a globalizing world. Black Panther is important, not only because it features diversity and representation on new levels that haven’t been seen in major blockbuster films, but also because it’s a very good film with socially relevant themes. It has a focus; it tries to evoke thought from the audience. It builds and takes its time with the story, it features some of the best performances in any superhero films, and it does this all while being a part of a shared cinematic universe that’s about talking raccoons and Norse gods fighting against a giant purple alien with a power glove. It is a refreshing change of pace for a franchise that is becoming derivative in recent memory.

4.5/5 

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Spoiler Heavy!!!!) A Lesson in Moral Complexity

 

 

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Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, standing with the billboards

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s latest home run film. It follows up the masterpiece that is In Bruges by deftly blending dark comedy and dark drama. Featuring one of the most outstanding ensemble casts in recent memory, Three Billboards educates the viewer on how hate can affect one’s life.

The story follows Mildred Hayes, a mother who is dead-set on finding the men who raped and killed her daughter, Angela Hayes. To rile up attention for the case, which has gone on for seven months, Mildred rents three billboards on an unfrequented road and prints the messages: “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”, “And Still No Arrests?”, and “Raped While Dying”. The billboards serve as powerful iconography, especially since they’re really all the information we have about what happened to Mildred’s daughter. We never see the violent act of her death actually happen, and her presence is rarely felt throughout the film. McDonagh conveys the horrific nature of the crime through the ominous presence of the billboards. The camera pans out of order to show the first billboard “Raped While Dying” last in order to create a bigger shock value amongst the audience. Though the boards aren’t very high or very large, they are first seen through low angle shots which gives them a monumental perspective. The backgrounds of the boards are bright red with black text, which are not only eye-catching but also splash the film early with the color of blood. And so, the limited information combined with a showcase of how determined she is to find her daughter’s killer creates an immediate understanding and sympathy for Mildred. Despite all of the harsh or misguided actions she carries out in the film, there is always an element of forgiveness at play for the audience in knowing her pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are factors associated with many of the characters in the film.

 

Willby and Mildred
Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby has a conversation with Mildred

 

The billboards draw negative attention toward Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who is a respected officer within the community. Willoughby happens to also be dying of cancer. His relationship with Mildred isn’t antagonistic, and the viewer is made aware that he hasn’t been intentionally neglecting the case, however, Mildred is unflinching in her decision to keep the billboards. In a conversation with Willoughby, Mildred claims that all the men in the country should be put in a database and investigated whenever they’ve committed a crime. It’s clearly preposterous, yet you understand that Mildred wants to see more action from the police department. Her position stands unaltered even with Willoughby’s condition in consideration. To add another piece to the puzzle, Willoughby’s fellow officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is an apparent racist and all-around douchebag. He consistently tries to find ways to pressure Mildred into taking down the billboards. The first half of the film serves as an effective look at conflict where both sides have sympathy. There is sympathy for Mildred, played wonderfully by Francis McDormand, as she stands her ground on her daughter’s case. There is also sympathy for Chief Willoughby, who is conscious that his time with his wife and kids is dwindling. Woody Harrelson captures the pain, compassion, and love that embodies Chief Willoughby. In fact, as he appears to be the only one of the three central characters living without hate, his role transitions from an active character to more of an arbiter of wisdom. In a shocking twist, Chief Willoughby shoots himself in the head after spending one last day with his wife and children. In a letter, he explains that he would rather avoid his family having to see him slowly suffer and wither away in a hospital bed. His suicide is advocated by him as an act of bravery, and it shifts the film’s focus towards the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character.

 

Dixon
Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, confronts Mildred

 

Upon Willoughby’s death, Dixon initially reacts by senselessly beating Red Welby-who rented Mildred the billboards-and throwing him out of a window. When Dixon gets fired for his actions by the new chief, his character seems to be headed towards a downward spiral of potential villainy. When the billboards are burned down, he seems to be a likely suspect. However, when Mildred retaliates by burning down the police station with, Dixon unbeknownst to her, still inside, it creates a symbolic moment where Dixon reads a letter from Willoughby while oblivious of the fires burning behind him. Willoughby’s letter urges him to let go of his anger and the pain in his past and instead work towards becoming a good police officer. When Dixon plunges through the flames with Angela Hayes’s case file, it’s as if the singes and burns on his body become a literal embodiment of his bad self, which he will always carry with him. In one of the best moments of the film, Dixon ends up in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the same guy he threw out of a window. He apologizes, and in a poignant scene, the initially upset Welby pours a glass of orange juice for Dixon, providing him with a token of forgiveness. From then on, Dixon tracks down a suspected rapist, gets beaten within an inch of his life in order to get the suspect’s DNA, and notifies Mildred that the suspect may be “the guy”.  When word comes in that the suspect, though a rapist, is not the same man as Angela’s killer, Mildred assures Dixon that the hope that he had given her was more than she had had in a month. She concludes that it was better to have that feeling of hope-however fleeting it is-than have nothing. The efforts that Dixon had made to find her daughter’s killer were the kind of efforts that she wanted out of the police. In the film’s resolution, when Dixon and Mildred decide to go after the confirmed racist, they debate whether it is worth it to take his life and ultimately agree to decide on the way to confront him.

 

The film ends ambiguously as to whether Dixon and Mildred decide to kill the rapist. In the end, it’s not about justice, or vengeance, or even finding the killer. It’s not even a story about learning to let go of hate and embrace love.  It’s learning to live with hate, learning to temper it and not let it consume you. Mildred will always carry hate in her heart, what happened to her daughter will always stay with her and keep the coals burning in the furnace of her heart. She’s unhinged, aggressive, and a danger to everyone around her. Dixon is still that racist asshole, just a more focused asshole, with a clear perspective on his goals of being a detective. Feelings of racism don’t just magically go away. Neither of them are heroes, neither of them are villains. They simply have more clarity in their goals, they are aware of their hatred, aware that they will always carry it with them. They’ve developed moral codes. Keep in mind, moral codes don’t necessarily mean righteous codes, they mean codes that a character follows and doesn’t break, good or bad. Their codes are also still developing much like everyone’s are, as they haven’t decided whether to take the life of the scapegoat racist. Even characters like Willoughby aren’t necessarily martyrs, since the act of suicide is generally considered a coward’s way out rather than the brave act that Willoughby feels it is.

 

The morals of each character are identified by the actions they undertake in the film: Willoughby’s suicide, Mildred’s arson, Dixon’s “redemption” (All Oscar-worthy performances by the way). Each character no matter how small has a moment of sympathy or relatability. Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones has his moment when he hands Dixon the orange juice, and Peter Dinklage has a small surprise role as James, a car salesman attracted to Mildred. When Mildred botches the dinner with James, he goes into a rant of how he knows his position as a dwarf and how he’ll never be a “huge catch”, yet his stature and demeanor still outshine Mildred’s rage and foul temperament. Three Billboards, like In Bruges, is a character study. It doesn’t focus on finding mysteries or on Mildred finding inner peace. Three Billboards is about the effect of an unforgettable tragedy, and one mother’s response to that tragedy, on the lives of our characters. The story teaches that people are not perfect, and no matter how righteous the cause or effort, everyone has a point of darkness in their heart, or a different perspective that goes against the generally expected code of society. Even after being burnt down, the billboards are put up again. They stand just as the hatred in Mildred’s heart still stands.

MARTINMCDON
Director Martin McDonagh

 

When asked by Variety about the character of Dixon, McDonagh claims, “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the South, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”