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.

 

 

Justice League Review

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This is going to be a personal, informal review for a very personal topic. I have not been a fan of the DC Extended Universe movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of DC Comics. Batman is my favorite superhero; Superman is a close second. I grew up watching the Justice League cartoon and Batman: The Animated Series. Not to mention, I’ve read basically everything when it comes to comic books featuring the Justice League. I’ve been reading everything from the Golden Age Comics, to the Grant Morrison Era, to the New 52. I’ve read Death of Superman, All-Star Superman, Golden Age Superman, Birthright, For All Seasons. I’ve read Golden Age Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, Death in the Family, Knightfall, No Man’s Land, Court of Owls, and a bunch of other comics that nobody’s ever heard of. I dedicated most of my early teen years scrubbing through the comic book histories of each character of the Justice League. DC comics were vital to my defining years, and I attribute them to defining much of my moral center. They taught me the importance of virtue and compassion, they were everything to me. Then the movies came.

I was actually very excited for Man of Steel. I was right in the middle of binge-watching all ten seasons of Smallville leading up to its release. At the time when I watched Man of Steel, I loved it but now after reflection and further viewings, it’s not bad but not great. Then Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice came and well…I hated it. It featured a mopey underutilized Superman, a psychotic murderous Batman, and an inconsistent and uneven plot. It was an overall mess of a movie. Then Suicide Squad was right around the corner, so that had to be good right? It was even worse. In my opinion Suicide Squad is garbage. I can understand if others enjoy it for its entertaining moments but for me, it’s a disaster. Then Wonder Women followed a little while later, and it got rave reviews from the whole world so I was hyped. It was decent, but in my opinion, it wasn’t as good as everyone claimed. I enjoyed the movie but I wouldn’t consider it to be in the upper echelon of top 10 superhero movies. So finally, the moment everyone was waiting for…Justice League was coming, and I wasn’t all that hyped. I had been fooled too many times to get excited, and even though Wonder Woman was good, I couldn’t trust the trailers or the fact that Zack Snyder had picked up right where he left off from Batman V. Superman. I didn’t see Justice League when it opened, and when I heard about its lackluster box office I thought “Good, their failures finally caught up with them”. It wasn’t until today that I actually decided to sit down and check out the movie.

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After finally watching Justice League, which I viewed with low expectations, I can say this: Justice League has awful CGI, some really bad dialogue, bad editing, its characters don’t feel established in their world, the humor doesn’t always work, the story is derivative, and…… it’s actually not that bad of a movie. Yeah, I actually really liked Justice League.  It was wildly entertaining and for the first time, I recognized some of the DC universe that I grew up with.

Since I went into this film with a negative view (being honest, I wasn’t objective), I started finding faults early. The dialogue was sooooooo bad. None of the jokes were funny early on, and there was a constant usage of generic superhero catchphrases and dialogue (“together we can save the world” “I’m putting together a team”). I’m not actually quoting dialogue from the movie, I’m just giving my representation of what it was. The special effects were literally horrendous. When the villain Steppenwolf first appears, a CGI fight scene happens that looks about as real as a 17th-century stage play. Steppenwolf himself looks ridiculously fake, and I’ve seen World of Warcraft cutscenes from 2013 that had better effects than the fight scene. The only recognizable superhero characters from previous films are Batman and Wonder Woman, and they feel disconnected in their effect on the outside world. The majority of the superheroes are introduced for the first time in this film, meaning without many characters to latch on to, the world doesn’t feel identifiable or established. The story is straightforward and borrows a few elements here and there from The Avengers and The Lord of the Rings.

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The turning point for me was when all of the characters came together. First off, I want to say that Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher, is awesome. He has this great intensity, and whatever origin he should have been given is summed up by his penetrating stare that indicates he suffered an unwanted accident that made him the way he is. Ezra Miller is also surprisingly relatable as The Flash. There is a standout scene early in the film where he is reluctant to fight, admitting that he’s never done battle before and in the moment is scared. Gal Gadot, in my opinion, is better in Justice League than she was in her own feature film (in which I thought she was serviceable but not remarkable). As Wonder Woman, she conveys a certain strength that holds the group together. I also finally got behind Ben Affleck as Batman. His murderous escapades in Batman V. Superman really deterred me from seeing what I see now, which is a great Batman. Batman and Wonder Woman play off of each other really well and serve as motivators for the rest of the group. The chemistry between the entire cast is a total success. Jason Momoa as Aquaman, though he is the least developed character in the league, has some of the best moments.

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Now, minor spoiler warning, I’m going to talk about Superman. I hesitate to call this a spoiler though, since, unless you’ve never heard of the Justice League or have been living in a cave, you’ll know that Superman is bound to show up. When he does, it’s great, but he’s not in the movie all too much. Poor Henry Cavill always gets the short end of the stick as Superman. In Justice League, he yet again gets pushed aside when he should have had a much bigger role.  There’s also been some controversy about Cavill’s CGI face since his real-life mustache had to be digitally removed. Honestly, it’s one of the least relevant criticisms I’ve heard and it’s really not that bad. I’m surprised that critics had a hard time getting over Superman’s fake upper lip more than they did getting over half of the other ridiculously bad CGI (I’m looking at you Steppenwolf). The upper lip was a little wonky at times but it was something I could easily get over.

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Ciarán Hinds as the villain Steppenwolf

The height of the film, as most people would expect, was the climax, and it was glorious. The action throughout the film but particularly in the climactic battle was fantastic. It’s everything you would want to see in a blockbuster superhero movie. The league functions as a unit, strategically approaching Steppenwolf and talking down his Parademons. The only real issue with the end is Steppenwolf himself, who is simply a weak villain. He isn’t terrible, but he doesn’t offer anything other than the usual bad guy dialogue and agenda. It’s a shame that he was chosen as the villain instead of Darkseid. He did the exact same things that Darkseid would have been doing, so why didn’t they just have Darkseid instead? The final battle could have also been on a larger scale and could have shown a larger impact on the global population.

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Darkseid, ruler of the planet Apokolips

The ending of the film was actually kind of touching, having finally set up the potential for a larger DC universe. The film itself does feel like a righting of the ship. Keep in mind, I went in with an already negative perspective and was instead won over by the movie. The team works well together, and there’s even a decent end message about returning to the world and taking initiative. None of the characters fell flat, and despite there not being a lot of humor that works, the scenes in which it does is a nice touch. Though some of the early dialogue is bad, it greatly improves as the film progress until the dialogue is great in the end. There are some cool Easter eggs and it might just feature the two best end credits scenes ever. It makes me kind of sad that we may not see a continuation of this universe due to its low box office. I wouldn’t have minded if the DC movie universe kept going from Justice League. I finally saw flashes of the DC that I loved and wanted. It does feel like The Avengers in some sense, which can’t be avoided because, in the end, it’s a fun and generic blockbuster action film. Justice League gave me the DC feeling that Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Wonder Woman couldn’t give. Wonder Woman is still a better overall film, but Justice League, in my opinion, is more entertaining, and my personal favorite DCEU film.

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The first comic book appearance of the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold Issue No. 28

 

 

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 

Miniblog: The Cloverfield Paradox Spoiler Review

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Before I go into the review, I want to say that I didn’t see the ad for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl.  I watched the trailer afterward on YouTube and only then saw the big marketing ploy: it was airing that very night on Netflix. The last Cloverfield movie, Ten Cloverfield Lane, was advertised maybe a month or a few weeks before its theatrical release. The Cloverfield movies have had unique marketing campaigns that draw attention to the strange concepts and seemingly different genres of each film. In this case, the marketing campaign succeeded again. I was totally surprised when I saw the release date and immediately wanted to watch it. It was Sunday night though and I had class in the morning, so I watched it Monday and…
The Cloverfield Paradox is an otherwise straightforward isolated space thriller with interesting elements of mystery and visual appeal, however, in regards to its story, characters, and the answers to questions it sets up, it simply falls flat.
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Let’s start with the fact that we don’t get any interaction or development for the majority of the crew members. The only identifying feature is that they come from different nations. Given the incredibly talented cast including Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo, it’s unfortunate that a film with such good performances provided such little detail to its characters. The only character with a backstory is the protagonist, Ava Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I know that in typical space thrillers the crew ends up dying anyway, but at least one moment of comradery between them establishes that what is happening to them is tragic. In Alien the crew is laughing and joking around right before the alien rips out of Kane’s chest. In this movie, the crew members are at each other’s throats in the very first interaction they have on-screen.

 

Once the story gets going and the crew fires a particle accelerator, it’s obvious when we see a flash from the earth that the will be transferred to a different dimension. This leads me to my second point about the film, it’s incredibly predictable. The fact that they were transported to an alternate Earth was predictable, the fact that the gyro compass was inside the Russian character was predictable, the fact that Elizabeth Debicki’s character (the one from the alternate Earth) had sinister intentions was predictable, and the fact the Cloverfield monster had ended up on their Earth as a result of the firing was predictable. Elements of the film come out of nowhere, the plot point of the main character’s children burning down in a fire because of her decisions is expositioned out towards the end of the film for dramatic effect. The entire sub plot with the main character’s husband where he finds a little girl is entirely pointless and boring. The sci-fi elements, once they get going, are interesting enough. There are exploding bodies full of worms, sentient hands, and gruesome mutilations. However, none of these incidents are ever explained, they are simply chalked up to “quantum entanglement”, the two worlds are messing with each other because they are close. That doesn’t explain how an arm can just gain sentience and start writing instructions, or someone could collapse and die then explode worms. Once the movie ends with the giant Cloverfield monster attacking the ship, there is no context to the situation. Is it the same Cloverfield monster from New York but grown up? Is this the same world as Ten Cloverfield Lane with the alien mothership? None of this is explained, and the ending just feels tacked on for thrills.

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As a film, it has narrative problems and its characters are thin. As a space thriller it has enjoyable moments and pretty good visual effects. It contains some sci-fi movie clichés like the dumb scientists, in this case the comic relief character is so enamored by an incident of magnetic interference that he stares at it and lets the metal material he was using behind him swallow him up. Elements of the film are very derivative of other sci-fi films like Alien, Life, and Event Horizon (although really all of these films derive from Alien).

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It is definitely the weakest of the Cloverfield movies but I enjoyed watching it. Maybe I’m just desperate for semi-decent science fiction films by major studios, a topic that will be explored in an upcoming blog.

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kong: Skull Island-What Makes A Better Movie, Visual Elements or Literary Elements?

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I just saw Kong: Skull Island, a very entertaining and interesting movie. The action scenes are on point. The visual style is attention-grabbing and the cinematography is splendid. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does an admirable job of recreating the 70’s Vietnam Era aesthetic, and he exceeds in his ability to depict human characters in sweeping long shots that indicate their vulnerability. However, where the visual elements of the film soar, the literary elements fall flat. The characters are almost nonexistent, the narrative is kind of all over the place and the dialogue is just TERRIBLE in some scenes. Now, keep in mind, this is a monster movie. We came to see King Kong fight a bunch of dinosaurs and attack some soldiers, so why should the film’s success be measured by a good story and characters? Furthermore, is a film with superior visuals, sound, and direction a better film; or is a film with superior writing, story, and characters better?

To go back to Kong, the story is straightforward, a team of scientists and soldiers go to Skull Island, damage the ecosystem, get attacked by Kong, and have to survive a rough landscape of monsters and dinosaurs. The characters are either one dimensional like Samuel L Jackson (a hardened veteran), Tom Hiddleston(a generic badass), and Brie Larson(a photographer…that’s basically all there is to her character); or the characters are plot points used to move along the story like John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, and Cory Hawkins. By the way, I’m using the actors’ names because of course, I don’t remember any of the names of the characters. I’m even good with names so it’s not like I wasn’t trying (I know literally every character’s name in Game of Thrones just try me).  In fact, what happens with these characters is something that I wrote about recently where the actors are so good they make you think the characters are better than they are. When John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson are talking to each other, the dialogue isn’t good, there’s little insight into their characters, yet it still sounds intense. That’s because the actors are intense, and they can make terrible dialogue like “I am the cavalry” sound somewhat plausible. If you just look at the cast for the film: Brie Larson recently won an Oscar, John Goodman should win an Oscar, and Samuel L Jackson is…well, Samuel L Jackson. These are all amazing actors, and the only reason I wasn’t falling asleep watching these characters is because of who they were played by.

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But again, we don’t need the characters to be Shakespearean good, it’s a monster movie, so why be overly critical? Well, just because a film’s purpose is to scare people with monsters, it doesn’t mean it’s a good movie even if it succeeds in its purpose. I’d like to compare this film to the 2005 Peter Jackson directed King Kong movie. In my opinion, Jackson made a better film, with a better story. You actually cared about Kong as the film did its best to establish a true connection between Kong and the female lead. However, to the film’s detriment, the third act isn’t as good as the rest of the movie and it often becomes too slow and sappy. The action is good, but the film tends to drag and is overly long. With Kong: Skull Island, the action is unrelenting. It seems like every few minutes there’s a new scary creature leaping out at its victims. The story is barebones but the pace is intense and focuses on the visual creativity and scope of the creatures rather than the struggles of the characters. Kong is an unstoppable, overpowered death machine and it’s awesome. Rather than get bogged down in the third act, we get treated to an awesome action scene between Kong and a giant dinosaur-lizard thing. With the Peter Jackson Kong movie, you have a thoughtful, more character driven film that wants to shed light on the gentle nature of the giant ape. With the new movie, you have a pretty straightforward monster movie with epic action scenes.

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So what does make a better film? Is it the visual elements, or the literary elements (story and screenwriting, etc.)? I think it varies from person to person. If you’re like me, and you can’t appreciate a film as much if it doesn’t have a strong narrative and well-written relatable characters, then you probably swing more towards literary elements defining films. If you’re more interested in the art and the crafting of a scene, the cinematography, the visual effects, the music, the production design (I love all these elements too, don’t get me wrong), but you might then define a film through that lens rather than overanalyzing the story and narrative. This would also apply to Kong: Skull Island, which I wouldn’t even consider a bad film. I would consider Kong an ok film from a story point-of-view and a very enjoyable one from a visual point of view. The purpose of many films is to entertain, and if that is the case, then Kong: Skull Island passes with flying colors. If you as an audience member are looking for something more in a monster movie, I would suggest looking elsewhere; but for all you monster movie lovers, Kong: Skull Island is another good addition to the pantheon of monster films, and I can’t wait for this version of Kong to fight Godzilla.