Black Panther Review

“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”

 

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Since the fantastic first look at Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in Civil War, I’d been eagerly anticipating this solo film and a full look at his world. It certainly didn’t disappoint, going beyond my already high expectations in a wonderfully realized film with both captivating moments of superhero action and deep, resonant themes that provide a lot to think about. This is a film that shows deep respect for culture and tradition while carefully considering the forces and necessity of change, largely through Michael B. Jordan’s fantastic showing as a villain who has validity in his point of view but flaws in his chosen course of action. Eric Killmonger’s rhetoric isn’t easily dismissed, and the moral questions he inspires in T’Challa both anchor and plague our hero’s story.

Mention should also be made of Black Panther’s excellent portrayal of women as an important part of their society in a seamless way that speaks to true respect. The new king is surrounded by several confident, powerful women who are rightfully treated as the experts they are, have significant roles in the narrative, and are amazingly brought to life by pitch perfect performances by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letita Wright, and Angela Bassett (among others).

I’m not going to attempt a full laundry list of all the other ways in which Black Panther excels, but it’s simply excellent and continues the evolution of Marvel Cinematic Universe in important ways. It reminded me a bit of the also incredible Thor: Ragnarok, in elements like the way secondary characters are getting deeper and more nuanced development as well as (further) refining the impeccable balance of drama and humor the MCU’s known for. This is one of the very best movie’s I’ve seen in recent memory, and it’s wonderful to see a film strive for such depth and meaning while entertaining and succeed so thoroughly.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

“Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.”

 

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I observed in my review of Rogue One that the main Star Wars movies are (excellent) high adventure tales of good versus evil, while it showed there was also room for exploration of the shades of gray realities of warfare embedded in the struggle of the Rebellion and the Empire. The Last Jedi ends up somewhere in between in atmosphere, scope, and story, and I adored it. This is a movie featuring nuanced characters (including several excellent new additions) with conflicting and changing agendas, strong reveals, and significant open potential for next movie.

There were no easy answers and the characters, including familiar faces, are all too fallible. This seems to be one of the main reasons behind the mixed reception I’ve noticed, but I felt it added a wonderfully layer of depth. Without faults they have no room for growth, and the conflicts, missteps, and hard choices our heroes faced made this one of the most interesting Star Wars films for me. Without getting into spoilers, I also seem not to have made certain assumptions others did after Force Awakens, and the different expectations (or lack thereof) I had likely explain some of the disconnect between my impression and what appears to be more common consensus of longtime fans.

Of course I’m not claiming the movie was perfect and I did have some minor quibbles, most relating to certain aspects of Finn’s subplot, but nothing that significantly impacted my enjoyment.

One last aspect worth bringing attention to is the incredible visual look of the film. Rian Johnson not only introduced new and interesting locales, but also found new and interesting ways of presenting things we’ve seen before, with little details and creative choices that really aided and enhanced the movie’s impact.

So for what it’s worth, from a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I thought The Last Jedi was incredible overall and am extremely excited to see how everything proceeds from here.

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

“I know you want to save the world. But… you’re not ready yet.”

 

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I enjoyed bits and pieces of Sam Raimi’s original three Spider-man movies, but overall they weren’t as good as they should have been. I never had enough interest to bother watching the “Amazing Spider-Man” films. But I read a fair number of comics featuring him when I was younger and have always been interested in seeing a proper representation of the character on-screen.

Given the success and quality of Marvel’s ever expanding cinematic universe, news that they reached a deal to reacquire Spidey for use in their own films brought a lot of excitement. The new version of the character was introduced in Civil War, and Tom Holland impressed immediately as the perfect person to channel the balance of earnestness and awkwardness Peter needed.

Still, the high school setting that needs to be incorporated in a solo Spider-Man movie is tricky, and there were points of concern going into this new vision of the wallcrawler. As contradictory as it sounds, I thought things were executed both really well and with somewhat lackluster execution.

Make no mistake, the movie is great overall. When things start to come together the level of tension and emotional pitch are perfect, the action scenes are striking and fun, and the acting throughout is excellent. The catch is getting to the point where the movie becomes fantastic and all of the groundwork pays off is so boring. It shouldn’t be, as there’s nothing wrong with the plotting, acting, nor approach in the first half of the movie as the specifics of Peter’s life and all the important characters around him are introduced. Yet somehow despite being necessary and competently done the film lacks something to fully engage the viewer and shake the feeling of waiting for “the good stuff” to happen. Again, it’s not bad, but the early sections feel slow and pedestrian despite touches of humor and a solid underlying story.

And then a switch flips, and all the buildup, potential, and patience pay off in a big way. The climax of the movie is fantastic, anchored by incredible performances by Michael Keaton as a smart, dangerous antagonist just a few degrees of center and by Holland as a wannabe hero coming of age. Homecoming became everything I wanted from a Spider-Man movie by the end, it just took it a while to get there. Hang in for the full ride, and you’ll be rewarded with some of the MCU’s best scenes and performances. I just hope next time they’ll skip right to that feeling from the get go.

Thor: Ragnarok Review

“Kneel before your queen.

 

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I enjoyed the first Thor movie and its epic feel that really hasn’t been replicated in other Marvel movies, despite some pacing issues. The second one was fine, shining in the interactions between Thor and Loki amid a serviceable but somewhat lackluster plot and paint by numbers villain.

Third time is the charm here, and this was a flat out blast. Ragnarok feels like a music video come to life in places in the best way possible. Thor and Loki again provide the movie’s emotional core, and with a logical plot that still manages a couple of nice twists and a larger than life antagonist the layered story shines. Of course on top of all of that are healthy layers of action and humor.

Said humor largely works and several awesome moments had me unexpectedly laughing out loud. However in other parts it admittedly tries way too hard, and the characterization of a certain green supporting cast member felt really odd, with depth and consistency often sacrificed for running gags. The movie also drags just a touch in the middle and the use and/or absence of certain characters from the previous movies was … interesting. On the other hand, there are also great new cast additions.

Overall though I thought this was fantastic, with a strong story featuring compelling characters and numerous fun moments.

Quick Takes: The Lego Batman Movie, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and Logan

As I’ve done in the past I recently took advantage of a long plane ride to catch up on a few movies I’ve been meaning to watch. Here are brief thoughts on three films I checked out this time.

 

The Lego Batman Movie

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Exactly as expected. Silly and fun, with moments of depth and a metric ton of pop culture references and in-jokes. Not of all it worked, but the vast majority of it did and as a huge Batman fan in general this was highly amusing.

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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I gave this one a look because Tom Cruise movies in this vein are generally a decent enough way to spend a couple hours. And I hold to that opinion here. This was solid, providing nothing really ground breaking but was a good “spy” style action flick all the same.

 

Logan

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I’d heard great things about this, and despite Wolverine not being a personal favorite of mine I found myself agreeing completely. The plot was layered and interesting, Jackman provided his most impressive, nuanced performance yet, and X-23’s introduction and portrayal was perfect.

 

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These three very different films all fully embraced what they were to great effect. Logan’s the best here by a sliver over Lego Batman, with Reacher a clear third yet still enjoyable. Great batch overall and I could see myself watching any of them again.

Japan Cuts 2017: In This Corner of the World Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and ran through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here and on last year’s starting here. This year I’ve previously seen and reviewed Mumon, Tokyo Idols, and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue.

 

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Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is one of my favorite manga of all time. Fumiyo Kōno’s tale of life in the shadow of the nuclear bombs during the following decades is thoughtful, informative, and masterfully told. So I was extremely interested when I found out that her other work about the war was being adapted into an animated movie, and pleased when I found out Japan Cuts would be screening it.

The scope of In This Corner of the World is likewise how the war affected everyday life in Japan, but this time Kōno presents a picture of gradual effects and changes, as well as point of view of average people, leading up to and during the war.

The focal point is a young woman named Suzu who goes through school, gets married, and joins a new family against the backdrop of increasingly dire world events. There’s a wonderful use of time passage to illustrate key aspects of the story. The viewers are given little glimpses of both significant and mundane experiences to establish the status quo of Suzu’s life at different stages. The careful balance of light, amusing moments and interactions of normal life, the adjustments forced by the background war, and the more heartbreaking, “gut punch” events and realities of war combine to form a genuine feeling, important look at a dark time in world history.

The knowledge of what’s going to happen to Suzu’s hometown of Hiroshima tensely looms over the movie and the lives observed. Seeing their everyday concerns and normal worries (including arranged marriage, growing up, self-doubt, etc) intermixed with those of life and death makes the war less abstract in an important way. As such there are certain things that can predicted (yet still have enormous impact when they happen) and others that are still complete shocks and upend the viewers’ expectations. The film is frank in its depictions without anything feeling exaggerated or exploitive. The reality of the war and dropping of the atomic bombs is more than horrific enough. The numerous effects, physical, emotional, societal, etc, all creep into Suzu’s life in harsh ways that are allowed to resonate with the viewer due to the film refusing to shy away from showing the impact they have on the attitudes and outlooks of those affected. The actual violence shown differs in graphicness, often focusing more on the aftermath yet occasionally presenting graphic details for emphasis in certain situations.

The animation is gorgeous and perfectly captures Kōno’s drawing style and adapts it for film and motion. The color palate is beautiful and helps to draw viewers completely into the narrative. Producer Taro Maki mentioned it was well researched to be historically accurate in the representation of scenery.  The contrast of soft visuals depicting often horrific and tense events and situations works quite well to highlight the themes and emotions the film means to convey.

 

Producer Taro Maki was excellent during the post viewing Q&A, responding well to sensitive topics (including the fact that the everyday citizens of Japan would have been informed by propaganda and not aware of larger world events, leading to the presence of points of view in the film some audience members incorrectly took as biased endorsements of Japan’s side) as well as sharing interesting insight into the crowdfunding aspects of the film’s production. His appearance was somewhat of a full circle for me, as I saw a screening of Millennium Actress many years ago that he also attended and held a Q&A at.

 

In This Corner of the World is opening for limited theater release in the US on August 11. It’s both excellent and important. I highly recommend seeing it if you can.

Japan Cuts 2017: Over the Fence Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is ran through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here and on last year’s starting here. This year I’ve previously seen and reviewed Mumon, Tokyo Idols, and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue.

 

Divorcé Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) has settled into days spent at a vocational school learning carpentry as part of his unemployment benefits agreement. When a fellow student invites him out to pitch something better, an unusual bar hostess (mating) dances into his awareness.

 

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Over the Fence is another adaptation of Yasushi Sato’s short stories of the northern port city of Hakodate. I’ve previously seen one of the other two, The Light Shines Only There, which was one of my favorite films of 2015’s Japan Cuts. This is another story about two broken people coming together, but it feels quite different. We learn less about what causes the leads’ character flaws here, and the situations and personalities involved are simultaneously more low key and stranger. It also seems a bit lighter overall, despite heavy themes and volatile dramatic scenes.  The humor’s well integrated and the acting superb, particularly from both leads. Yu Aoi (playing the eccentric Satoshi Tamura) has numerous intense and/or weird scenes and traits to convey, and her devotion and skill in doing so makes even absurd spectacles like her frequent recreating of bird mating dances captivating.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t quite do justice to her masterful performance. More background was needed for Satoshi to help explain her point of view and actions. It wasn’t enough to demonstrate that she’s (partially) crazy, that she knows it, and it deeply bothers her (all of which were done quite explicitly and appropriately).  Some context was needed as to how she got to that point for the conflicts between her and Yoshio to resonate properly, and to make her a fully formed character instead of being defined by a single, negative characteristic (even if it manifests in a few different ways). What should have been powerful scenes often seem like weirdness and conflict for its own sake. Aoi did an amazing job with what she was given, but the plot let her character down.

The core story and its unique perspective were interesting, the acting excellent, and the key scenes filled with emotion. But there are some slow parts, and again the film’s main weakness is not giving the viewers enough background to truly connect to the characters and empathize with their struggles. As such this was a decent movie that could have been great with tweaks to the pacing and writing.

 

Actor Joe Odagira received Japan Cut’s Cut Above award before the screening and had a Q&A afterwards. The questions were varied this time, with honestly a lot of stuff that would have been more appropriate to ask a director, not the lead actor. He broke out laughing a couple of times as he tried to process what he was being asked, but generally responded well and made the most of each to say something interesting (or at least a polite acknowledgement, as in a gracious response to someone who raised their hand to complain about the editing).

 

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I’ll be back later with thoughts on two more films from this year’s festival.