Black Panther

We can be honest with each other right? You are going to see this movie regardless of what my comments on it happen to be. Hell, everyone seems to be on their way to see this. There is a huge anticipation that it will set new box office records for an opening weekend and the early reports are promising so it’s likely you don’t need my perspective. As friends though [even if it is just virtually] it is right to spend some time talking about our impressions of the movie and maybe providing a more tempered view or an alternative perspective. That is essentially what this is going to be. I liked the film quite well and there are characters and aspects that are very rewarding and nicely put together. It is however not the second coming, not a cultural revolution and not the best film in the MCU.

Chadwick Boseman is an actor that I have raved about for a couple of years now. I thought he was great in ’42 and while “Get On Up” had some issues, he was a perfect James Brown. I missed “Marshall” last year but I certainly hope that while he might be good in it, he needs to be careful about getting pigeon holed as the go to guy for black biopics. These days you need to be able to do a lot of different things to keep a career going and too many checks in one column might make you seem limited. His being cast in “Captain America: Civil War” as T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the hero known as Black Panther is a great opportunity for him. He can build some action credentials to go along with his chameleon impersonations. This film however took a while to get his character in sync. The story calls for him to be a bit tentative taking on the role of his late father, but he still needs that persona to shine through and it does not really happen until the third act. For the first two thirds of the movie he is overshadowed by the antagonist, who has far less screen time than Boseman does.

The reason that it takes so long for us to see the true hero that Black Panther should be is that the villain of the piece is played by Michael B. Jordan, an actor who is rapidly turning his charisma into big screen gold. He may not be Johnny Storm but he is definitely Adonis Creed. He dances through an opening heist like the featured player, although in this scene he is mostly a by-stander. When he makes his way to Wakanda, he struts in like Errol Flynn with a deer over his shoulders and drops a big dead bird on the party. By the time we notice that his personality and goals are warped, we are more than halfway to agreeing with him in his assessment of T’Challa as King. The part is written well and he runs with it.

Another reason this film succeeds is that the supporting cast is composed primarily of women who strike the right note of independence but also partnership with the nation. Wakanda has it’s own version of the C.I.A. running ops in Africa, that spy may be the future Queen. . The General of the capital army is an Amazon style warrior who would fit right in on Themyscira with Diana Prince and her family of warrior women. T’Challa’s little sister is basically the Wakanda version of MI6 Q Branch. All of these characters and more are part of elaborate rituals, cultural practices and grand battles that climax the film.

So, having said that about the characters in the film, let’s talk about the world building of this culture. One of the reasons that this movie is being touted as a cultural touchstone is it’s emphasis on strong African characters who define the world in which they exist without conceding to the non-African world. Director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler is attempting something admirable with this film, but he fails in a couple of important elements.Excuse me for pointing out a stereotype of these communities in films made by non-Africans in the past, does an African kingdom really need to pass it’s royal heritage from one group to the next through mortal combat? This sounds like the Lions in “The Lion King” or Celtic clans from a millennia ago. It does not seem like a system that would still be followed by a society capable of the technological advances this film gives to them. Maybe part of the story is to confront the tribes that make up the kingdom that “Game of Thrones” style succession is perhaps past its’ time.

I’m also a bit flummoxed by all the technology and cultural magic standing side by side. Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and the chief engineer of the hidden society, pooh poohs  the suggestion that magic had anything to do with the recovery of a C.I.A. operative from a near fatal wound. She proudly proclaims that Wakanda is built on technology. At the same time, people are commiserating with the dead over the past and the future of the country. The spirit of the Black Panther is added and removed through rituals that certainly are not technological in their presentation. I like the idea that the people of this nation are spiritual, but to try to play both sides without acknowledging an inconsistency seems like a story weakness to me.

The visualization of the hidden nation of Wakanda is another thing that bothers me about the film. Take away the dirt streets and the graffiti, and the capital city of the country could be Asgard, home of Thor and his family. It is as if everyone in the comic book world looked at pictures of modern London, superimposed a cultural patina over it and then laid on some technology that works for no apparent reason. I know these are comic book films, but there needs to be a bit more grounding to reality. Billionaire genius Tony Stark, or Bruce Wayne have nothing on King T’Challa, except that they do have limitations of science holding them back. All the magic that Dr. Strange, Loki and the Scarlet Witch are bringing in to the universe is beginning to make it a little less urgent. This movie is pushing for the same kind of agenda. I know that when the Infinity  War gets here, something needs to give our planet an edge, I just what something more tangible than a miracle tool that is going to show up in the last minute. The  Rube Goldberg look of the cities of the world remind me of several scenes from the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Maybe a little less “Wow” factor in the home-worlds would help make us care about them more.

I hope this has not rained on anyone’s enjoyment of the film too much. I like the character of Black Panther and I like his people. The part of the world they live in is so beautiful that it seems a shame to try and top that with some CGI polish. The film is a juggernaut that earns some respect for trying to expand the horizons of the comic book universe it occupies. Let’s just not pretend that it is perfect simply because of those aspirations.

Creed

This is a movie that was getting a high amount of positive buzz in the last two weeks. I had it on my radar since last summer when the trailer first came across my eyes and I was looking forward to it even before the publicity hounds started to work their magic. I am happy to report that this is not a case of professional hype managing to sucker in a few journalists and cinema fans, this is a very solid movie with two great performances. It does not do anything too different from it’s predecessors, except that it is as serious and well played as the original film was.

Basically, this is the seventh film in the “Rocky” series, but it is the first to feature a fighter other than the “Italian Stallion” himself. It was a bit of a stretch nine years ago when Rocky came out of retirement and fought an opponent nearly half his age. There is no way that this film could have sold us on Rocky as the protagonist despite the fact that Sylvester Stallone is in fantastic physical shape and probably could outlast someone a third of his age. He probably spent any credibility in that regard two years ago when he cashed in on the Rocky legacy in “Grudge Match” with Robert DeNiro.

“Creed” takes a different and much smarter direction. Rocky becomes the reluctant trainer of a new fighter, the illegitimate son of his old foe and close friend Apollo Creed. Donnie (Adonis) Johnson is an orphan with an attitude when he is taken in by Apollo’s widow eight years after his death. We sort of have to bend the rules of time and space to allow the events to play out as they do, because it is just twelve years later that he is trying to break into the boxing game himself. The set up of the story line ignores the real ages of the legacy characters, so that the young fighter is indeed barely an adult and still seething with anger and self doubt. Michael B. Jordan (who will probably use his middle initial for the rest of his career for obvious reasons) is a talented young actor,who is a veteran of several excellent television programs and had a breakout role in “Fruitvale Station” a couple of years ago. He manages to reach us through his hard headed demeanor and uncertain station in life. The physical gifts required to be a fighter are demonstrated pretty well, but there is an effective romantic angle in the film also. It is his scenes with Rocky though that make the performance resonate so well.

Jordan is matched in his performance by the man who created the character, the series and the trope of “Rocky”, Sylvester Stallone. Sly has not always gotten the credit he deserves as an actor. The Rocky series was dominated after the first original story, with plot lines that demanded less and less of him. The same thing was true of his other franchise character, John Rambo. The films made a lot of money, but the artistry was sometimes lacking. I thought his performance in “Rocky Balboa” would be his swan song with the character and he was excellent in that film. His work in this film however far surpasses that. He is more subtle here than anything he has appeared in in ages. Rocky is a little bit subdued by age and cognizant that time is not on his side. He puts on the role of Mickey, the Burgess Meridith character from the first three films, but plays the character as Rocky, the good hearted and loyal former Champion. There is an admittedly soap opera storyline in the plot but it plays out so honestly and with real emotions that a guy like Rocky might have, it is easy to accept it.

 

The movie is a boxing film with the Rocky heritage behind it, so it needs to be rousing and inspiring as well as dramatically satisfying. The director Ryan Coogler manages to make the old bits of Rocky films feel fresh, even when they are directly aping them. This is his second feature film and he moves the story forward with assurance and creativity. The first major fight in the film is staged in a marvelous fashion, as if it were shot in a continuous take. The climactic fight, even though it follows very familiar paths from previous films, still manages to arouse our spirit and build tension. Donnie’s story feels authentic because of the way he interacts with the world and the language and behavior of those characters he encounters. When he crosses over into the cinematic world of Rocky, the director manages to bring the credibility of the character to the formula of the fight film. This is one of the better films I’ve seen this year and I expect I will be seeing it again down the road in the annual “Best Picture Showcase.” Yeah, it could do that.