Review of “Black Panther”

The latest Black Panther and newly crowned king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is faced with a challenge right after taking the throne: The ruthless arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is meeting a buyer in an underground casino in South Korea with a Wakandan artifact made from vibranium. T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) urges him to capture Klaue and bring him back to Wakanda to face trial for his crimes including W’Kabi’s parents’ murder. T’Challa, his former lover and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and head of the all-female bodyguards for Wakandan kings known as the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira) go to South Korea in an effort to capture Klaue. There they discover the buyer of the artifact is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). After a violent car chase through the streets of Busan, Klaue is finally captured; however, not long after he is broken out of agent Ross’ custody by Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). During his time serving with US Special Forces he picked up the nickname Killmonger due to the ease and efficiency with which he took enemy lives. There is a connection between T’Challa and Killmonger that could upset the peace and security of Wakanda and the rest of the world.

The pressure on writer and director Ryan Coogler to make a great “Black Panther” movie must have been intense. Not only is this the biggest budget film of his career, it also is the first superhero film to feature a lead character (and most of the cast) that is a person of color. “Black Panther” also has the added burden of being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) where audiences expect the movies to not only be good but fit in with the rest of the continuity established by the 17 previous films. It is a responsibility that must have kept Coogler up at night. All that lost sleep and stress was worth it as “Black Panther” is a great addition to the MCU. It also gives a level of legitimacy to a film genre that is often looked at as being of lesser importance when compared to dramas that usually don’t involve super powered people.

The world of “Black Panther” is one of the best and most fully developed of all the MCU. The film provides a quick history of the mythical African nation of Wakanda before showing us why and how the rest of the world is unaware of the technological marvels the country has produced. The reason for the secrecy is to protect Wakanda’s people from those that would try to invade the country and steal its natural resources, namely the magical metal called vibranium. There’s a scene in the film that supports the idea of foreigners taking from other cultures what doesn’t belong to them. The Wakandan city that is shown is a mixture of modern structures with natural elements incorporated within them. There are also people that live outside the city in a natural setting in homes made from the surrounding elements. The scenic design of Wakanda is a nice mixture of slick modern buildings and modest homes along with a high-tech mining operation that appears to be mostly automated. There is obviously a great deal of care taken to give the fictional country a fantastic but believable appearance.

“Black Panther” also finds the right mix of drama and humor. The interplay between characters never feels forced. While we are told these characters have known each other for years, it actually seems they have. There is an ease to the interactions between T’Challa and his sister, the technical genius Shuri (Leticia Wright). It’s playfulness with a tinge of competitiveness that often comes out in gentle teasing and the occasional obscene gesture. Danai Gurira’s Okoye and T’Challa have a friendly but professional relationship that feels rooted in deep respect. Okoye is a proud warrior and willing to lay down her life to protect the King. There’s a fierceness to Gurira’s performance that makes her electric to watch. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia has a deep emotional connection to T’Challa despite their love affair having ended. She also has a commitment to fight injustice no matter where that may be found and believes Wakanda should do more to fight for freedom of the oppressed.

Fighting oppression is a theme that runs through “Black Panther” and is part of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. What method to take is the main issue. I believe this, along with the groundbreaking nature of the film, is why it is so strongly resonating with audiences across racial and economic lines. The crowd in the showing I watched was incredibly diverse in terms of color and age. I’ve never seen more elderly people at a movie and certainly never at a superhero film. Families of various ethnicities were sitting together and enjoying the film. It was an amazing sight. I hope the success of the film will help diminish the idea that movies featuring primarily people of color don’t make money at the box office. It doesn’t hurt that “Black Panther” is part of the massive MCU; however, the wide age range of the audience shows if the movie is seen as treating its audience with respect and honesty, a broad cross-section of people will come to see it.

Clearly I loved the movie but there is one complaint I have regarding Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue: He wasn’t used enough. This is the second MCU film he’s been a part of, the first being “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In “Black Panther” Serkis has been let off the leash. Klaue is a maniac with little to no fear when face to face with T’Challa as Black Panther. He’s a whirling dervish of evil and one-liners. His personality is much more upbeat and he clearly enjoys being a bad guy. Serkis is of course best known for his motion capture work as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and as Supreme Leader Snoke in the last two “Star Wars” movies. His use in the MCU has been brief and unsatisfying until the out-of-control Klaue was set loose to create havoc. That said, we need more Klaue and it seems unlikely we’re going to get him. Without spoiling anything it appears, short of some kind of special Wakandan magic that Klaue is not coming back for any more appearances. This makes me more than a little sad. I’m sure Serkis who recently released his first directorial effort called “Breathe” and is putting the finishing touches on his take of The Jungle Book called “Mowgli” to be released later this year has plenty on his plate to keep him busy; but I will miss him chewing the scenery as Klaue.

“Black Panther” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture. There is a car chase where several vehicles are destroyed. We see a couple of people get shot. A couple of flying vehicles are blown up. Black Panther and Killmonger engage in hand-to-hand combat on a couple of occasions. T’Challa also fights another person in ritual combat to take the throne. He is stabbed a couple of times and gets thrown off a very high waterfall. Another character is stabbed in the chest. The rude gesture is a middle finger raised. Foul language is scattered and mild.

The stakes are raised in “Black Panther” in a way that feels more honest and satisfying than in other MCU films. While the safety and security of the world are at stake as in most MCU films this time it seems far more important and real. Perhaps the real oppression of ethnic and religious minorities in the US and around the world make this story hit home a bit more realistically. Whatever the reason, “Black Panther” has raised the bar for the superhero genre and for film in general. It’s time to open our eyes to movies from and about people of color the same way we do with films from and about people that look like me.

“Black Panther” gets five stars.

This week there are three new films coming to a multiplex near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Annihilation—

Every Day—

Game Night—

Listen to The Fractured Frame where ever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have reclaimed the underground kingdom of Erebor. Smaug the dragon (voiced and motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) is using his fire breath to destroy Laketown in retaliation for some of their residents aiding the dwarves. Locked up in the jail, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) manages to break out in an imaginative way and heads to the tower to try and kill Smaug with a bow and arrow. His son has seen where Bard hid the last Black Arrow and brings it to his father. (Minor Spoiler Alert) Bard is able to kill Smaug with the last Black Arrow but Laketown is in ashes. Bard, who has become the de facto leader with the death of the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) upon whom Smaug landed in his death dive, leads the survivors to the nearby abandoned village of Dale. Also arriving there is an army of elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace). Thranduil wants access to Erebor’s treasure to reclaim a necklace of white gems while Bard wants a share of the dwarves gold that Thorin promised; however, Thorin has been afflicted with Dragon Sickness which causes Thorin to covet the treasure as much as Smaug did. He’s also obsessed with finding the Arkenstone, the symbol of leadership for the dwarves. Bilbo stole the Arkenstone during his encounter with Smaug and has snuck out of Erebor with the stone. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has rejoined the elves at Dale after being freed from Sauron’s prison by the White Council. Bilbo arrives with the Arkenstone and urges Bard and Thranduil to offer it in exchange for the necklace and share of the gold in hopes of avoiding a war. Unknown to all, an Orc army led by Azog the Defiler (motion capture by Manu Bennett) is headed to Dale while a second Orc army is coming from Gundabad in another direction to conquer Erebor and begin preparations for the return of Sauron.

Unless you have been keeping up with the events in “The Hobbit” trilogy, what I described above may as well be in Latin as it probably doesn’t make much sense. Both “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies are films that are unkind to casual fans that don’t choose to pay attention to every bit of plot in every film. Unlike “The Fast and Furious” and “Die Hard” movies, these films require you be aware of what has gone on before. If “The Hobbit” had come out first, to fully enjoy “The Lord of the Rings” movies you’d need a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Earth history just to keep up. For that reason, I suggest if you haven’t seen any of the previous “Hobbit” movies, stay away from “The Battle of the Five Armies” as you will be either completely lost or poking the person with whom you came asking constant questions.

Having given that warning, this will not be my usual review as I have always been a fan of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Purists may quibble about omitted or modified characters or story details; but one cannot argue that his films aren’t masterful achievements in merging special effects and colorful characters into epic stories of heroism and friendship. What this review will be is kind of a critique of the three films as a whole.

My first and biggest issue with the films is Jackson’s inability to cut anything. The number of long reaction shots (some lengthened via slow motion) and sweeping helicopter camera views of a line of characters walking through the New Zealand wilderness probably adds half an hour of time to films that total up to almost eight hours. The battle scenes in the last film also run on as they consume most of the last half of the film. Surely there are parts of the battle that could have been cut. Watching 75 year old Ian McKellen and 92 year old Christopher Lee battling with Orcs and demons and such also stretches credibility. While both appear to be in good health it’s obvious their action scenes were shot with stunt doubles and their faces digitally stitched on to their replacements. Suggesting they were involved in the battles would have been sufficient. Showing them at length swinging swords and at times performing acrobatic maneuvers should have provided a reaction of “oh wow” but instead I thought “yeah, right.”

For all of Jackson’s mastery and innovation in the field of special effects, “The Hobbit” films have a couple of really bad looking rear projection or green screen shots. These are exclusively close-ups of characters riding on a horse or driving a sled of some sort. It seems inexplicable that Jackson would slip up on something as simple as that. Perhaps he ran out of time or someone else was overseeing that day’s shooting but the fact they made it into the movie is mindboggling.

Taken together, these are minor quibbles when compared to the wonder and majesty of “The Hobbit” trilogy. The spectacular world Jackson built out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works is the kind of achievement that only comes along once in a while. Considering Jackson has done it twice in the last two decades is amazing. While I don’t think this third film in “The Hobbit” trilogy will meet with quite the kind of award season love the last “The Lord of the Rings” film did, it will probably win a lot of money at the box office. Considering that’s all that is necessary to get more jobs in the film business, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” will be considered a success.

The question is, where does this final film rank among the six Middle Earth movies? I would have to say in fifth place. My order goes as follow: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “LOTR: The Two Towers,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “TH: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “TH: An Unexpected Journey.” The difference from first to last isn’t enormous but the first “Hobbit” film is something of a slog with the aforementioned long helicopter shots of characters walking through the wilderness.

This brings me to my final point: “The Hobbit” should have been only two films as Peter Jackson first announced. The leaden pacing of “An Unexpected Journey” and the lack of any real movement in the story except near the end seems to make nearly the entire first film a huge waste of time and money. With a bit more surgical excision of unnecessary plot points and more economy of storytelling, “The Hobbit” could easily have fit into two films. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sword and sorcery films as much as the next person but only if they don’t waste my time.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is rated PG-13 for intense fantasy action, frightening images and intense fantasy violence. Numerous Orcs are separated from their heads during the lengthy battle scenes. A couple of characters are stabbed to death. We see goblin creatures menacing people during an attack and one is shown stabbed in the chest. Legolas kills several Orcs with his bow and arrow and he shoots a large bat in the head. There is a very violent fight between Tauriel and one of the larger Orcs. Much of the violence is aimed at imaginary creatures but a few of the human (or dwarf or elf) characters are killed in sometimes graphic but not gory ways. Foul language is not an issue.

Taken as a group, “The Hobbit” films are somewhat frustrating as they sometimes feel like overstuffed burritos: You know there’s good stuff in there but it takes too long to get to it. When they are hitting on all cylinders, “The Hobbit” films are as good as any of Peter Jackson’s work. When they stumble, the movies are a dull struggle. “The Hobbit” films are more inconsistent than “The Lord of the Rings” movies, probably due to the difference in the source material. All in all, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a fitting end to the Middle Earth saga, giving us a rousing (if too long) battle between creatures from both fantasy and nightmare. With rights issues and a limited amount of material this is probably the last visit we will have with the residents of the Shire, Erebor, Rivendell and all the other lands of Middle Earth. It may not have been the best of the lot but “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is still a fairly good time with Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin. I’ll miss them all.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” gets four stars out of five.

If you have questions, feel free to send an email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net. You can also follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

There are a bunch of movies coming out as Christmas arrives this week. Below are trailers for them and, if I have time, I’ll see and review one of them.

The Gambler—

The Imitation Game—

Into the Woods—

Unbroken—