Sunday, March 4, 2018

March Releases

March Releases

Though the Academy Awards are slinging their considerable industry weight this month, March's big budget box office is surprisingly lean, chocked full of remakes, adaptations, and sequels -  the usual Hollywood modus operandi.  The biggest gun this month is unquestionably the latest adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's timeless science fantasy A Wrinkle in Time, featuring young Storm Reid as the unconquerable and incomparable Meg Murry.  A new Tomb Raider adaptation, and well as a sequel to Guillermo del Toro's 2013 sci fi monster flick Pacific Rim, will also be lumbering into theaters later on.

For more media releases this month, check out the links below, as usual:




Friday, February 23, 2018

"Black Panther" delivers on its promise

Movie: Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira

Black Panther strides into theaters on a wave of anticipation, and minus a few narrative follies and scenes that dragged on way longer than needed, Coogler and co. have definitely delivered, spellbinding fans with an action-packed and thoughtful meditation on a number of relevant social topics, all bolstered by a strong cast, stunning visuals, and perhaps the MCU's most brilliantly conceived villain to date.

In depth:
Hype always nurtures caution in the thoughtful, and the tidal waves of hype riding Black Panther's announcement nursed some pretty strong reservations on my end.  I had flashbacks of Chadwick Boseman’s one-dimensional and somewhat lackluster Civil War performance, and wondered how the heck you can feature a whole movie around him.  Source material was another concern; though the Black Panther franchise in and of itself was a step forward in comic diversity, neither the skin-tight superhero, nor his advanced nation of Wakanda, ever found the right voice to give the premise a fresh turn.  It didn't help that so many people had already invested the film with a slew of hopeful aspirations way beyond the typical winter blockbuster.  My worries eased a bit when Boseman’s cast mates were revealed, especially the lovely Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, but I still eyed the hype train with caution, dreading a fiery crash at the end.  All for naught, though; Black Panther not only delivers a thrilling and enjoyable movie experience, but it also goes beyond the confines and limits of Marvel’s previous releases through its stellar cast, complex villain, and satisfying narrative scope.

We’re treated to the now standard cold open, explaining the origins of Wakanda and how it grew into the technological marvel of Stan Lee’s verdant comic universe.  We take a detour to 1992 Oakland, where Wakandan king T’Chaka, played by Atandwa Kani, pays a visit to his undercover brother N’Jobu.  But this ain't no courtesy call; he's there to confirm rumors that N’Jobu was working with Ulysses Klaue (played by the incomparable Andy Serkis), a shady arms dealer who had recently launched a terrorist attack on Wakanda, looting some of the country’s valuable vibranium in the process.  Flash forward to the present, where current black tabby tussler T’Challa (Boseman) contends with the fallout of his father’s death and the daunting process of becoming the new king.  With the support of Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the Wakandan royal guard, and old flame Nakia ( Lupita Nyong’o) the prodigal prince ascends to the throne amidst much pomp and circumstance, but immediately faces a bevy of challenges.  Wakanda’s relationship to the outside world is a hot topic, especially concerning whether or not to open their borders to potential allies, or reveal their true wealth and majesty.  Worse yet, old nemesis Klaue is back, stealing Wakandan artifacts and selling them on the black market.  But as the new king sets off to confront this old nemesis, a much greater threat looms ahead: Klaue’s young accomplice Erik (Michael B. Jordan), a skilled soldier whose own dark secrets will threaten the very stability of Wakanda itself.

Black Panther  blends a healthy mix of ritual, action, and drama to create a superhero flick that tears away from the Marvel mold.  It helps that what Coogler and company crafted with so much care is less a superhero film than an ideological struggle for the heart of a nation.  He skillfully weaves a narrative that has less to do with T’Challa himself, or a trite battle between good and evil, and more with the history, rituals, and traditions of a kingdom currently at a crossroads.  For that, Coogler takes the long view in the beginning, sparing no detail in the dances and battles accompanying T’Challa as he takes his rightful place.  Some of this admittedly comes off as a little paddish; much of the coronation was mere dressing, with only pieces of it bearing any relevance to events later in the movie. But, even this has its purpose.  Wakanda is as much a mystery to movie goers as it is to the plebeians of the Marvel Universe, and by giving us a peek inside its vibrant culture, the setting feels that much more alive.  Under his guidance, Wakanda breaks away from the stilted limitations of its Mary Sue-topia comic depictions, becoming a fresh, Afrofuturistic vision as sleek and well-made as T’Challa’s suit.  Coogler has a real knack for giving a condensed but thorough overview of a location, and Wakanda bristles with vibrancy under his hand.
But what really breathes life into the film are its characters, who somehow all come off as strong and well-rounded without the icky residue of appearing to pander to people of color hungry for positive on-screen depictions.  A lot can be written on Okoye and Nakia; they are strong, dynamic characters in their own rights, driven by loyalties not necessarily connected to T’Challa.  Gurira brings strength, warmth, and a mild but welcomed sense of humor to her role, while "War Dog" Nakia almost successfully averts Marvel's epidemic Girlfriend Syndrome.  Ironically, they're both a more solid and down-to-earth depiction of strong, independent heroines in the current over-saturated superhero market than even Wonder Woman herself.  But the real standout in the female cast is young Letitia Wright.  As Shuri, T’Challa’s genius little sister and the Q to his James Bond, Wright is a total natural in her role, keeping the humor up without losing her competence or slipping into buffoonery, and playing the teasing little sister without fostering homicidal thoughts towards her.  Wright and Boseman have arguably the best chemistry in the film, and I look forward to a sequel just for the chance to see her shine again.

But the true cast show-off award unquestionably belongs to Michael B. Jordan.  The creators gave Killmonger a much-needed modern facelift, morphing him into a tragic figure with close ties to Wakanda and T’Challa personally.  His presence is the main culprit behind Black Panther's narrative graying, shifting from the usual Marvel formula of good guys and bad guys (even if the "bad guys" are somewhat sympathetic) and into the uncomfortably muddy ethics of international and domestic politics.  In addition, Coogler does for him what Marvel rarely does for its villains: give us a glimpse into his inner world, his struggles and drives, and in the process paint a stirring portrait of a wounded man swaddled in contradictions.  Under Jordan’s powerful and emotional performance, Killmonger becomes the closest thing the MCU has had to a Magneto: a charismatic “villain” who elicits both anger and understanding, whose motives are not without some justification, even if his means warp him into an indefensible hypocrite.  Marvel has its share of strong villains — from Michael Keaton’s blue-collared supercrook, Vulture, to Hiddleston’s Loki, the perfect portrait of a man twisted by his own insecurities and inner demons; but Killmonger stands above them all in how almost perfectly he scribes that misused and misapplied appellation, “tragic villain.”

There are, however, a few lurking shadows to put a damper on the praise parade.  Boseman, I’m sad to say, didn’t inspire much from me.  Not that he was bad by any stretch, and his rendition of the hero this time around is a vast improvement over Civil War.  But he still felt somewhat flat to me, lost in the nexus of his character type, as opposed to the character himself, and derives most of his screen energy from the interactions with his cast mates.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it speaks well for his charisma, but I hope his steady growth will eventually lead Boseman to taking ownership of the character and making him his own.  While I appreciate all the effort that went into making Wakanda a living, breathing society, there were stretches of the film that felt a bit boring because of the padding.  I probably shouldn’t count that against them too much, but a movie fan more impatient than I might find themselves shifting in their seat if they're not otherwise invested.  Somewhat less forgivable is the film’s reliance on coincidence to resolve a few thorny plot points - a narrative cardinal sin, in my book.  The most egregious offender here is a major movie spoiler, but let’s just say that it involves a physics-defying fall, a snow coma...and an even more unlikely happenstance.

But these foibles hardly take much away from Black Panther's power and emotional impact.  The effects are spectacular; the fights, stylish and well-produced; and the film cleverly lays the groundwork for all sorts of future potential.  Black Panther touches on some pretty heavy and relevant topics: immigration, isolationism, and the general relationship between a powerful nation and a global diaspora who look to it for guidance and aid, all fall under its umbrella.  But aside from the brilliantly executed Killmonger story, most of these avenues remain unexplored.  Here’s hoping that in future films, the ideas and magic remain as fresh and engaging as in this first agile step, with T'Challa and the rest of his crew leading Marvel down the forest path to a bright new franchise.
Grade: B+  

Friday, February 2, 2018

February Releases

February Releases

February is a big month for films, so here's the scoop on what's coming over the next 28 days.  The big story, of course, is Black Panther, the MCU's latest salvo for box office glory, featuring Chadwick Boseman as the titular African superhero.  Premiering alongside it - in perhaps an unfortunate bit of release date happenstance - is Early Man, a stop-motion claymation by Aardman Animation (of Chicken Run fame) starring a group of Stone Age hunters trying to fend off an up-and-coming Bronze Age civilization intent on taking over.  For the more, ahem, "adult" movie goers, there's Fifty Shades Freed, the assumed final chapter to the erotic saga of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, now married, as they encounter new threats to their steamy bed of wedded bliss.  Rounding out the month's big budget show stoppers is Annihilation, a sci-fi action thriller based on the "Southern Reach" trilogy penned by Jeff Vandermeer and starring Natalie Portman as a biologist leading a team into the heart of a mysterious government enclosure known as Area X, looking for answers to her husband's disappearance.

Check out below for more on the month's other flicks, as well as what's happening in the worlds of music, games, books, and television.




Friday, December 22, 2017

"The Last Jedi" hits a few wrong turns, but delivers a fair movie experience

Movie: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley

Director Rian Johnson ushers in Round 2 of the new Star Wars trilogy, and while the returning cast - both old and new - give it their all in an admirable showing, the strange pacing, weak side-plots, and generally off characterizations of some beloved franchise staples dull the enthusiasm a bit, with only its intelligent deconstruction of the Star Wars legacy to lift it above mediocrity.

In depth:
The Star Wars brand has seen a lot of ups and downs since The Force Awakens was released two years ago.  The loss of Carrie Fisher was a tremendous blow, which will obviously leave lasting reverberations for the films to come.  Meanwhile, though the new trilogy’s first film was largely a success - or at least, silenced fears that Disney would completely wreck the franchise - there was still heard the faint sounds of fan grumbling over the supposed stark changes it brought to the beloved series.  A female lead, a black male protagonist, and the surprise death of arguably the franchise’s most popular character all left die-hard saber-swingers floundering in the dark side on to what to expect in the future.  And now, The Last Jedi brings everything full circle, for while the first movie teased at changes to come, this one nearly deconstructs, or at least questions, some of the standard tropes that have been endemic to the enterprise since Luke first stepped out into the Tatooine sunset.  Everything from heroic machismo, to the pedestal treatment of “legends,” to even the notion of a “chosen one” all get a pretty bad spanking throughout the film.  Fine, fine, you might be saying.  But is it any good?  Well, yes and no.  But mostly, yes.

Unlike previous films, The Last Jedi seems to pick up almost immediately where we left off - an odd pacing choice, admittedly, though it doesn't rattle the cage too much.  The Resistance, lead by iron lady General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher) is forced to evacuate their base before a First Order fleet lead by General and all-around slimeball, Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).  Ace pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac, leads a successful but horribly costly counter assault on a First Order Dreadnought before jumping to hyperspace.  Meanwhile, Rey (Ridley) has finally caught up to the elusive Jedi Master and living legend Luke Skywalker - played, as always, by the incomparable Mark Hamill - only to discover, to her horror as well as ours, that the former hero has become a burned-out cynic, closed off to the Force and unwilling to resurrect anything resembling the Jedi.  As Rey struggles to overcome his walls and learn more about her gift, first film favorite Finn (John Boyega) wakes from his coma to discover that the Resistance escape ship was being tracked, ushering a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the First Order.  With Leia out of commission during a surprise attack and the Resistance leadership in confusion, Finn joins forces with his old friend Poe and new ally Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to find a way to break free of the Order’s grip.  And all the while, the ever-conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wrestles with murdering his father and his tenuous place beside Supreme Leader Snoke, and in the process, forms a link with Rey as they work through their common concerns of belonging and destiny.  Where all of these ambitions collide will witness both the rise of a new power, and an altered course for the destiny of the Jedi.

Compared to most other movies in the franchise, the Last Jedi really plays fast and loose with its many inherited tropes.  No doubt a huge part of Star Wars’s monumental popular appeal lies in how it modernized ancient mythic archetypes and braised them in a cool, sci-fi coating.  The traditional hero - his (and it’s almost always “his”) call to adventure, the escape from the belly of the beast, the final apotheosis as the hero realizes he’s the Chosen One and redeems the world - have all been staples of the traditional Star Wars order, and indeed, remain the source of its undeniable power.  The Last Jedi pushed open the cracks in this formula left by the Force Awakens: Poe’s hot-headed heroism causes more harm than good; the last-ditch Indy ploy dripping with macho adventuring fails spectacularly; and the “Chosen One” seems, at this point, anything but.  Even the idea of the conflicted young villain is mercilessly deconstructed, and provides the film with its most effective sense of suspense in its entire run.  This is a controversial element for some fans, but for me, at least, it shows a great deal of creativity, and enhanced my experience quite a bit.

Even if you're not a fan of Disney taking a swipe at a few Campbellian sacred cows, the A-list cast goes along way to sweetening the pill a bit.  With this being their second go around, the actors by now have all settled into a comfortable groove with their characters, and it shows.  Ridley and Boyaga are the real stand outs, with Rey and Finn stealing the show in this new leg of the franchise.  Rey has bloomed into a more nuanced character, with a smaller chip on her shoulder and a more appealing vulnerability born of recognizing her link to the Force and her desire to learn more of her past and her place in the grand scheme of things.  Finn’s delightful oscillation between practical cowardice and flashes of the utmost heroism marches on, and he even forges a distinctive edge over the course of the film, culminating in an epic battle against his own personal nemesis.  Finn’s everyman quality had been my high point in the preceding movie, and while much of his screen time was spent floundering in a bloated arc, he was still a delight through every moment of it.  Though Kylo Ren has been a divisive character since his introduction, I’ve always liked his take on how a young man can slip into evil through a muddled mixture of fear, ambition, and insecurity.  And of course, we must all bow to the great Carrie Fisher in her final performance - even if she spent about half of it in a virtual coma.

Still, even with all this praise, some bizarre narrative choices result in a somewhat lopsided showing for the story as a whole.  One drawback to taking a deconstructive turn in a popular series is that everything comes together in a more intentional - and hence, calculating - fashion.  The humor felt too pressed upon and unnatural at times; the “twists” were beaten to death by foreshadowing; and all the many plot points came across as blatantly calculating, and not as organic as the original series or even its decidedly mixed-bag predecessor.  This is the underlying rot under every shaky foundation of the movie, and explains quite a bit of its other follies.  The need to intentionally break open the hero archetype laid down by Han Solo has warped Poe into an intensely unlikable figure - hot-headed for no good reason, secretive, and resorting even to mutiny to enforce what he wrongheadedly believes to be the “right thing to do.”  More frustrating is that despite this, and the fact that he is directly or indirectly responsible for about half of the deaths for the Resistance (no, really), his actions are waved away in an oddly enforced status quo.

But perhaps the most devastating change for many fans is where they left the Skywalker legacy.  Now, granted, I can’t fully jump on board with this; the central aspect of the Force, after all, is that it should belong to everyone, and wrapping everything around one bloodline makes a mockery of that lesson.  But reducing Luke Skywalker to a shell of who he was off screen can seem a lot like character derailment, and it doesn’t help that the film grants relatively few positive depictions of masculinity.  While I was ultimately satisfied with Luke’s character arc and understood (and appreciated) the lessons he imparted to Rey concerning a balanced view of the Jedi legacy, seeing him morph into a bitter cynic and viciously dismiss Jedi history as one of “failure, hypocrisy, and hubris ” with very little in canon to back it up can feel quite jarring without deeper reflection.

There are a couple of other things to pick at, if you’re really looking for it.  Finn’s side plot to find a hacker for a harebrained scheme to break the First Order’s tracker was a bloated and unpleasant affair, and not even Finn’s charm could surmount its plodding pace.  A major part of that objectionable little detour was new character Rose, who was a bit of a mixed bag in general.  While her initial scenes and sad loss of her sister at the very beginning lend her some potential and pathos, she quickly loses my interest as the subplot drags on and she fades increasingly to the background - relegated, it seems, to the slum of last-minute love interests and potential romantic plot tumors which come out of freaking nowhere.  Even beyond the sideplot, though, the film seemed to drag on longer than it needed to; there were several points before the finale where the film could have ended but didn't. Instead, it just ambles on, diffusing the tension and making me check my watch every five minutes.

And yet, despite these flaws and their seeming gross weight on the scales versus the Last Jedi's more positive attributes, this was still a worthwhile film.  While I understand that flirting with genre deconstruction can be quite unnerving in such a beloved series, I believe it was handled tastefully as a whole.  We don’t know what the next film will hold; Fisher’s demise put the ultimate monkey wrench in any plans Disney had for her and the film.  But Star Wars now stands at the crux of a cinematic crossroads: will it continue down the arduous road to deconstruction, or will it rebuild itself into something more akin to the original series?  Either path can be fraught with difficulty, but as long as it keeps its balance, it may be worth the effort.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Play Review: Fences

It was a Sunday evening, and we were shuffled into an intimate little setting at the Out Front Theatre Company, nestled to the northwest of Atlanta.  This indie outlet hosts a playhouse no bigger than the cheap seats at the AMC, which serves only to enhance the intimacy of venue.  The lights dim as the image of Troy Maxson - Illiterate garbageman, former Negro league star, checkered husband and father - leaps into view.  He’s standing alone, bat in hand, swinging at Death as his whole world slips away due to his own flaws and personal misdealings.  It is one of the most iconic images of the modern stage, closing out the visible history of its demon-haunted hero.  August Wilson’s tragic creation helped launch his name, and made Fences the most well-known and studied play of his ambitious Pittsburgh Cycle.  It has been subject of analysis from scholars and critics alike since its 1985 debut, and luminaries such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington all stepped up to the honor of playing its flawed patriarch - the latter bringing Wilson’s masterpiece to the big screen in 2016.  But for the inspiring minds behind Atlanta’s Independent Artists’ Playhouse, the intimate environment of the indie theater scene is well-suited to draw out the power and tragedy of Wilson’s work.  The talented cast, despite some minor flaws, brought Troy, Rose, and the rest of the characters to life, bestowing a force and agency distinct from the admittedly stellar performances of Jones, Washington, and Viola Davis.  The small setting, in fact, only enhanced the play's claustrophobic feel, earning another tip of the hat to the producers and their stylistic choices.

Wilson’s play centers on the fall of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector living in a small house in Pittsburgh, with his nurturing wife Rose and their son Cory.  The central story unfolds over a series of episodic vignettes featuring Troy as he interacts with the rest of the cast: his strained relationship with Lyon, a son from a previous tryst; the damage wrought upon his marriage due to his infidelity; his unresolved shame and doubts centered on his brother Gabriel, who sustained brain damage following his war tour; and, perhaps most central of all, the disintegration of his relationship with Cory, as he first sabotages the boy's chance to play college football, and finally drives him away completely as his son loses all respect for him and they clash in the climax.  Though Troy’s cut from the same mold as tragic heroes of old, the eternal question both within and without the story is how much of Troy’s downfall can be blamed on the racist society around him, and how much lies his own faults and foibles.  Wilson himself seemed ambivalent on the question, and a common thread running through all iterations of the play is how far they tilt to one side or the other.  

The minds behind Independent Artists’ Playhouse offer their own interpretation, thanks to the commanding performance of Marcus Hopkins-Turner as Troy Maxson.  Marcus is a tall man, physically imposing but lean and lanky.  He plays this up in his nuanced depiction of the Maxson patriarch; he’s not James Earl Jones’s stern authoritarian, nor is he a prickly imp like Denzel Washington, but rather, convincingly blends both portrayals into one whole.  The strength of Hopkins-Turner’s character lies in his ability to catch the audience unawares; his lean, grandfatherly form and penchant for good-natured ribbing suddenly morphing into a towering, bellicose figure who at moments seems capable of any act of violence.  And yet, the actor also bring a sense of weariness to the figure; his Maxson seems, above all else, a man fundamentally fed up with his life and what he has been through.

His cast mates all live up to their roles, though results may vary.  The two most important characters in the play after Troy are Rose and Cory.  Britny Horton was a lovely Rose Maxson - jovial and good-natured, and trying desperately to be a supportive wife to the cranky Troy, though her squealing pitch at times got the better of me.  A key, easily forgotten fact about Fences is that the titular structure belongs to Rose just as surely as it does to Troy; while Troy guards against all the outside forces conspiring to do him in, Rose wants to protect all she holds dear, and Horton’s graceful and breezily feminine interpretation - challenging to Troy, but largely devoid of any self-aware snark or biting remarks - makes us feel for her struggles as strongly as Troy’s.  Jael Pettigrew holds up well as an adequate Cory, though the play’s direction leans heavily towards Troy and Rose, and Cory, despite being the play’s designated antagonist (if of a heroic sort) gets completely overshadowed by the other two.

One performance I distinctly did not enjoy was Jared Brodie as Lyons Maxson.  Though obviously a talented and expressive young actor, he plays Troy’s elder son as an overly emotional whiner, liable to storm off in a huff if he can’t get his father’s ear.  Though that is, I suppose, a legitimate angle on a character whose own spotty actions often only inferred, seeing him play a strong counter to his father - hardened and a bit bitter for his absence in his life, even as he tries to steer down a different path - would have been preferable.  Besides Brodie, some of the stage direction did not work according to the atmosphere of the play.  Troy and Rose spent too much time looking off in different directions during their most heated exchanges.  This makes sense in some cases, as in the infamous “baseball dialogue,” during which Troy talks past his long-suffering wife with sports metaphors while they argue over his infidelity.  But at other times it didn’t fit, and looked as if Troy was having a soliloquy off on his own while Rose lectured him.

By and large, though, these is small trifles before a strong and tightly directed play, and the fitting resolution at the end gave no question onto which side of the fence they stood regarding how much blame Troy should shoulder for his misfortunes.  It was a concise and fitting end to a well-done interpretation of Wilson’s seminal work, and though this showing of Fences has, tragically, run its course, if you are in the Atlanta area and in the mood for an evening rendezvous with the stage, you’d do well to swing by and give the IAP a look at any of their venues.  It would be time well spent.

Grade: A

Friday, December 1, 2017

December Premieres

December Releases

Alright, let's get real: we all know what the biggest story is this month.  You know - a certain internationally renowned modern mythology?  Starts with an "s," rhymes with "tar pours?"  Whether you're a new fan, an old staple to the franchise, or even just a casual moviegoer with a pulse, odds are you will be seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi if nothing else this December.  I honestly feel bad for the poor slobs that have to open on the same weekend, but hey - you never know.  Besides that gaping crater on the surface of the end-year movie world, Jumanji is getting set for a modern face life courtesy of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and others, while Hugh Jackman stretches his post-Logan legs in P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman.  Last but certainly not least, Anna Kendrick brings her rag-tad girl posse back together for one last song in the conclusion of the well-regarded Pitch Perfect trilogy.

Check out the links down below to find out what else is popping in the entertainment world:




See you at the movies!