I Just Can’t Wait To Be King

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Fascinating — this is the word that goes over and over in my mind just thinking about the latest Marvel Studios film, Black Panther. It truly is a blockbuster with no equal and allows its hero to hold his own with the rest of the Avengers. Last seen in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, 42) of the hidden nation of Wakanda had returned home to save the life of Bucky Barnes, the comerade-in-arms of Captain America. Now, following the death of his father (John Kani, Endgame), T’Challa is crowned King and must contend with forces of all kinds — among them, the desires of his beloved, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave), the hopes of his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got To Do With It), and sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright, Ready Player One), and the threat of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station), a lost soul who desires to bring T’Challa’s secretive kingdom out into the open and destroy all who oppose.

Helmed and co-authored by career rocketeer Ryan Coogler (Creed), who continues to accelerate his success to new heights, his vision of Wakanda is a hopeful one, equal parts Cloud City in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and the eponymous continent in Atlantis: The Lost Empire — it’s a technological oasis on a comparably barren globe, but not without its problems, which get the audience thinking. For example, is isolationism the safest way to national prosperity? Do the sins of our fathers fall to us to atone? Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Black Panther dares to talk politics, but does so unobtrusively, and it’s all the more welcome in this reviewer’s eyes. Not to forget, Wakanda is lushly designed by a teeming horde of visual effects artists and gorgeously photographed by current Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), who films with little in sight that is tangible and still helps to sell the finished designs — further, if the option is available near you, see this movie in IMAX (preferably IMAX 3D), as over an hour of the film expands to fill the IMAX screen and your eyes with gorgeous effects and scenery! Other impressive touches include the crafting of a Wakandan language, spoken and written, for the film and tribal songs composed by Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar — it’s these extensive tweaks that really help sell the realism of the film!

Coogler’s vision is furthered by his cast, old and new; Boseman brings the conviction he brought to T’Challa in Civil War and gives to it the strength of a leader and the warmth he didn’t have in the preceding film. Nyong’o is in top form as T’Challa’s ambitious girlfriend — a fighter who breaks with Wakandan tradition and still mantains loyalty to her king. while Bassett is in far better comic book form and fare than she was in the atrocious Green Lantern. Unexpected returns come in the form of villainous Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), back from Avengers: Age of Ultron, completely debaucherous and embracing the perverted nature of his villainous character, while Martin Freeman (Sherlock) returns as his Civil War character, CIA Agent Everett Ross, expanded from his previous appearance and far more likeable this time as T’Challa’s ally. The MVPs of the film, however, are undoubtedly Jordan and Wright — Jordan brings raw hatred (practically unseen to moviegoers in his career) to Killmonger with a subdued nature akin to a rattlesnake; he exudes menace and fills the screen, which is what most villains should do. Wright, however, is bright and fierce as Shuri, the inventive kid sister of T’Challa who doesn’t back down from a fight and could certainly best Tony Stark at a game of chess! She also has the luxury of some of the film’s funniest moments, none of which suffocate the aforementioned qualities.

It’s truly a shame that DC had to strike the diversity quota first with last year’s meh-tastic Wonder Woman, but Marvel strikes better with Black Panther, and while I don’t think it will get the Best Picture nod that myself and fellow nerds are clamoring for, it is still one of their finest and, again, their most fascinating.

Rating: 5/5

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Thunderstruck

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Not many people would care to say it, but Marvel Studios’ 2011 effort at bringing Thor to the screen was a big friggin’ gamble, after the earthen adventures of the first two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk. Its final result, however, was masterfully helmed by Sir Kenneth Branagh was nothing short of amazing — thus, the God of Thunder quickly became my favorite Avenger. The second outing is well chronicled in the backlogs of this blog and was, I regard, the first big misstep from the House of Feige. Still, I held out hope for the third outing, but worries beset me when I heard the newly-announced director, Taiki Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) said he was “going to take the second Thor movie and add more jokes.” Jokes, I regard, were what killed Thor: The Dark World, but having seen Waititi’s effort, I feel nothing but giddiness and contentment with what I saw!

The film opens with several king-sized bangs, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth, In the Heart of the Sea) claims the life of a gigantic monster and finds a new threat awaiting him, in the bloodlusting form of Hela (Cate Blanchett, Cinderella), the Goddess of death. Destroying his prized hammer, Mjölnir, Thor barely escapes to distant planet Sakaar, where the Contest of Champions awaits, an old friend lies captive, and old wounds look ready to burst.

Hemsworth is in better comedic form than I have ever seen him! While I stand by my comment that dedicated comedies are not for him, this is a superhero film in the hands of a sharp, talented comedic director, and that same talent only helps our hero. Tom Hiddleston (I Saw The Light) is in equally fine form, returning easily to the black wig as Loki and never once stooping to the suffocating caricature he was in The Dark World. Finally returning to the MCU is Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk — the latter of whom now talks! There is no better heir to the legacies of Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby than Ruffalo, bringing the brawn and brain in both sides of his character! A surprising return comes in the form of Heimdall (Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond), the Asgardian gatekeeper who has a lot to deal with this time — his return is surprising given his well-publicized disdain with the franchise, but is all the more welcome, as he’s integral to this story and the franchise’s future.

Newcomers to the franchise also shine — Tessa Thompson (Creed) does her first accent role as Valkyrie, the last of an elite Asgardian platoon, and she is fierce as can be, with a smoothness comparable to crystal rum! That being said, lots of female roles in blockbusters these days like to emulate Star Wars‘ Rey, but apart from being a scavenger, the same can’t be said of Valkyrie — she’s got a vocabulary like an acid-soaked whip and fighting skills to match, no matter how smashed she gets! Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is in fine, debaucherous form as The Grandmaster, he who pulls the strings in the Contest of Champions. You really want to smack him in this, because he’s a perverted jerk, but then you want to kiss him, because he’s Jeff Goldblum! Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon) provides a comedic edge to his work as Skurge, an executioner under our villain’s payroll, and almost makes us root for said boss! Finally, Cate Blanchett — she takes another grand, villainous turn that most would be chewing the scenery in, but she manages to bring a level of humanity to such a horrid creature, one that suggests an abandoned child whose mind has filled with thoughts of vengeance. Bravo, Blanchett. Here’s hoping you make Dame by next Christmas!

The crew behind Ragnarok are integral to the films’ success — the film is brightly colored and peppered with detail, evoking memories of Mad Max: Fury Road, truly looking like a comic book without falling into the self-parody that Ang Lee’s Hulk did; see it in IMAX or IMAX 3D! The music is something else, too! Legendary composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh brings a score together that suggests the best of Patrick Doyle’s work and also Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (sidenote: fellow TRONiacs will surely appreciate the gladiatorial battle midway through the film!)

To clarify Waititi’s earlier statement, he did add more jokes, but the juvenile nature of said gags is toned down immensely — while there is one truly juvenile joke in the film, which you will surely recognize, the suddenness of its appearance actually makes it funny! The Dark World was inundated with them, so what could have remained the superhero equivalent of a Three Stooges comedy becomes that of a Marx Brothers satire, and it’s all the better. Waititi brings a comedic flair to the film reminiscent of James Gunn’s efforts in Guardians of the Galaxy, and as such, he’s not afraid to go serious when the need arises, and rest assured, there is as much at stake as there is in one of those films — one of the best examples of that is in Thor’s continued attempts at bringing Hulk back into the form of Bruce Banner, which starts off as a lighthearted gag, but evolves into genuine pathos by the time Banner becomes himself again. Also, Waititi isn’t afraid to linger with story elements — one of my biggest complaints with The Dark World was its glossing over the story in favor of naked actors, but though jokes may run deep in Ragnarok‘s DNA, it is still a film, and most great films have a narrative to follow with characters you care about! Here’s hoping Waititi is signed for more Marvel Studios ventures!

Let me reiterate, Thor is one of my favorite movies — I saw it five times in the theater! — and, until now, my favorite film in the Marvel Studios pantheon, as it has been gleefully upended by Thor: Ragnarok, one of the greatest trilogy-makers since Toy Story 3. Lusciously photographed, brilliantly scored and joyously written without a shred of fear in taking its time, this has all the makings of a classic.

Rating: 5/5

Like A Bolt Out Of The Blue

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While Marvel Studios has been, on average, going strong in the feature film market, television is another matter – Agents of SHIELD has become little more than The Marvel Easter Egg Hunt, and the Netflix shows amount to an R-rated version of the former. Agent Carter was fabulous, but as it was cancelled in its second season, we will likely never know its full potential. That being said, Marvel’s latest venture, Inhumans, holds great potential for both their life on the air and the future of television.

On the hidden lunar kingdom of Attilan, the race of Inhumans have made their home, ruled peacefully by a watchful king, Black Bolt (Anson Mount, Hell on Wheels), and loving Queen, Medusa (Serinda Swan, TRON: Legacy). However, insurrection becomes the order of the day when Black Bolt’s jealous brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones), leads a coup for the throne. With the aid of Princess Crystal (Isabelle Cornish, Australia Day) and her teleporting giant dog, Lockjaw (work with me), they escape to Hawaii, where they find themselves ill-equipped to Earth’s limitations, all while being hunted by the illegitimate occupant of their throne.

Even though it began as a feature film — a release date, an attached star (Groot himself, Vin Diesel, as Black Bolt) and everything — Inhumans works well as a series thus far, with a very early 90’s feel to it, reminiscent of the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but its first two episodes move slowly as a feature, something that will surely flow better on the small screen in installments. Whether this is a result of padding a feature film script or standard operating procedure at ABC (the answer is yes), it’s a minor gripe compared to its two big advantages.

Number one is its cast, led by Anson Mount as Black Bolt — to play a literal strong, silent type could be suicide for an actor, but Mount’s characterization of Bolt is resilient, yet charming — at least, for a character whose voice can level cities. In truth, he isn’t entirely silent — Mount, the showrunners and several ASL experts concocted a sign language that he uses to communicate, something not even thought of in the comics. I look forward to seeing the King of Attilan learning actual ASL, if for nothing more than awareness’ sake! Medusa, on the other, a source of fear for comic devotees due to visual effects seen in the trailers, needn’t worry about the effects, nor Serinda Swan’s portrayal of the Attilanian Queen. She’s not a standout performer just yet in the series — not all shows start off on the best foot — but the romance between her and Black Bolt is palpable; beautiful, even. By the end, you’ll be a shipper. A surprising addition to the cast is Ken Leung (Keeping The Faith) as the royal visionary, Karnak (“Zim-Zallah-Bim,” Johnny Carson) — I knew he was cast, but his powers are impressive and, in this fan’s eyes, may tie into the MCU at large sooner than we think. I mean, is it any coincidence that his powers bear a design similar to spells in the Mystic Arts (see also: Doctor Strange)? We shall see.

Number two is the technical merits behind the show — famously billed as the first show filmed with IMAX cameras and showing only in IMAX theaters ahead of its debut on ABC, this is the most polished and gorgeous show I’ve seen produced by network television! Visual effects, particularly Lockjaw himself, shine with no trace of green screen or cut corners — are you watching, Once Upon A Time? — and in an IMAX theater, sound is bounding — every crash, every stab and every slam of a hoof is amplified with gusto in IMAX Sound. Bravo; can we have more network shows in IMAX?

Yes, the show is bogged down with some gripes — everyone above the pay grade of an extra has to be pretty as per ABC tradition — even people in the lower caste of Attilan are pretty, which kind of defeats the purpose, story wise. ABC, please hire actors with less than perfect teeth, facial deformities and Autism in all your roles with no corrections. Call yourself inclusive, eh? Minor gripes include Isabelle Cornish, a bit of a teenage weak link thus far as Crystal, but I hope I’ll be proven wrong as I was with Agents of SHIELD‘s FitzSimmons, and Iwan Rheon is a bit dry as Maximus, but I’ve never seen his work on Game of Thrones, or any episodes of the aforementioned, but again, let’s let these actors find their groove in the MCU.

Thus far, Inhumans is imperfect, but few shows are right out of the gate. Heck, Star Trek: The Next Generation took three seasons to kick it into gear, and with any luck, Marvel’s Royal Family will triumph before its eight episode limit! To your health, my King & Queen!

Rating: 3/5

 

 

Feels So Good

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Though their bank statements may differ, I have personally felt that Marvel Studios had been resting on their laurels from Phase One — for every Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was an Avengers: Age of Ultron; for every Guardians of the Galaxy, a Thor: The Dark World. My thoughts on their other release this year, Captain America: Civil War, were less than savory (and can be found in the backlogs of this blog), and yet, in spite of my dislike for the aforementioned film, I found myself adoring Doctor Strange. Normally, I have a three-strike rule when it comes to franchises, but having the fortune of knowing a privileged duo of Marvel crewmembers, the rule need not apply, and with Strange, they are absolved!

To understand the story of this film, your reading is heavy, happen you are not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Those who are well-versed need not worry, and fans of the comics are in for one hell of a treat — several, in point of fact. First among them, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses) and his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Strange, a sorcerer supreme in the making, but an arrogant bastard of a neurosurgeon at first, rendered humble by the circumstances that befall him — an avenger after my own heart. As Robert Downey Jr. became Tony Stark, Cumberbatch effortlessly becomes Stephen Strange, not so much in bringing actual life experiences to the character, but insofar as his knowledge of Eastern religion and deep spirituality — Strange is something of an extension of the Cumberbatch the world knows, and that is great.

As Dr. Christine Palmer, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) plays a worthy romantic foil to Cumberbatch, parrying every zinger and wry remark he throws, sometimes hurls, at her. She has come a long way from playing the token wispy ingenue in drivel like The Notebook and State of Play, and I look forward to seeing her again in the MCU. A further welcome addition to the cast is Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) as the aptly-named Wong, wisely rewritten from Strange’s tea-making manservant to the librarian of the Mystic Arts with vicious late fees in tow. Speaking of vicious, Mads Mikkelsen (The Three Musketeers), previously in contention to play Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, is exponentially better utilized here as the borderline satanic Kaecilius, a disciple of the Mystic Arts who took a darker path — elements of Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the title character in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal are extremely prevalent here — he oozes villainy. Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), going bald and almost androgynous as The Ancient One, possesses all the gravitas of a leader with the control of a schoolteacher. The somewhat weak link in this great cast is Chiwetel Eijofor as Baron Mordo, an aide-de-camp of sorts to The Ancient One. He doesn’t seem to do much more than exist, but when the plot takes a turn for him, he portrays hurt feelings much like a child being told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Props go to him, but here’s hoping there’s better meat for him to chew on next time.

That being said, standing at Cumberbatch’s side for this film’s success is director Scott Derrickson (Sinister), a man who brings his experience in horror films to the best possible use in a film of this caliber. Make no mistake, this is the trippiest and, dare I say, darkest Marvel film yet, and that is in part what makes it a success — this is no cut-and-paste job of previous efforts. What’s more, Derrickson’s horror experience means that the film moves briskly and without sacrificing story for action — this is a stellar origin story, and without him, I doubt the film would have held up. I have no control in the matter, but I hope Cumberbatch and Derrickson are signed for the next five (I hope) sequels! Another problem remedied from most Marvel films is the score, composed by Academy Award winner Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles), who takes the emotions of his Star Trek scores and merges it seamlessly with the electric grittiness of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire.

Doctor Strange stands, in this reviewer’s eyes, among Marvel’s best — right above Thor and just under Marvel’s The Avengers. It’s spiritual without being cloying; it’s full of action without losing to the story, and it’s an origin story not bogged down by exposition. Full marks, and see it in IMAX 3D for the best viewing experience possible.

Rating: 5/5