And Now For Something Completely Funky: ‘Long Shot’ Movie Review

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CREDIT: Philippe Bossé

I’m not sure what Long Shot‘s sense of the political landscape is. It seems to believe that the difference between Democrats and Republicans can actually be quite nebulous, which is interesting to think about, and maybe true in some cases, but certainly not in the majority of my experience. It also has some valuable things to say about the importance of compromise, although it’s kind of shouty and generic about it. But anyway, this is mostly a love story.

At first blush, it might look like the same old tale between a beautiful blonde (Charlize Theron as a presidential candidate) and a lovable schlub (Seth Rogen as a journalist-cum-speechwriter), but it downplays any eyeroll-worthy aspect of that setup by clearly illustrating the mutual attraction here. So Long Shot works best when it investigates what ambitious people are willing to sacrifice or not sacrifice, and why, in the name of the people they care about, though it would have benefited from more specific political window-dressing.

I give Long Shot My Satisfied Endorsement.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Black Panther’ Absolutely Resides Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Just a Hitherto Barely Explored Corner

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Ryan Coogler

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Fighting with a Variety of Weapons, Some of It Fairly Brutal and Bloody

Release Date: February 16, 2018

Black Panther culminates with the lesson, “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” This appeal would seem to apply most directly to the United States at this particular cultural moment, but instead it is an exhortation to the fictional African nation of Wakanda now that its new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has ascended. Wakanda is filled with vast riches and incredibly advanced technology thanks to the stockpile of the alien metal vibranium long ago delivered by a meteorite crash. But it is also supposedly one of the poorest nations on the planet, likely due to a generations-long isolationist policy. Much of Black Panther feels like buildup to this point of opening up to the rest of the world, and in that way it is a prelude to the sequels that are sure to come. But what it reveals over the course of that prelude is thrilling.

Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie, but with a majority-black cast, black director, and African setting, it is unabashedly black in so many ways that are unprecedented for a blockbuster of this magnitude. It is unsurprising then that its initial villain is reminiscent of blaxploitation heroes fighting against The Man. Ulysses Klaue (an agreeably gonzo Andy Serkis) is a white South African arms dealer who is looking to get his hands on vibranium and make a pretty penny in the black market.  But after Klaue is dispatched, the conflict ultimately comes down to that between T’Challa and Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who was born in America but has Wakandan roots and just as legitimate a claim to the throne as T’Challa. While Killmonger’s methods are overly destructive, his complaints, both personal and regarding how Wakanda does its public business, are legitimate. That Black Panther focuses on an intranational conflict should not be viewed as evidence of African and black cultures refusing to engage with the rest of the world, but rather an illustration that they already have plenty to keep themselves occupied.

While filled with several action set pieces and a fast-moving plot, Black Panther is most successful in its design and production elements. This is the sort of movie that brings a fully realized vision of a fictional world to life. The costumes are based on traditional African garb, but they are their own uniquely lavish style. Diverse tattoos and piercings add to the mix, including a few elements (such as one very stretched-out lower lip) that could be presented comically but are instead signs of dignity.

Culturally, this is a people that honors its elders, going so far as to have another dimension of sorts that exists at the nexus of technology and magic. Dubbed “the Ancestral Plane,” its purpose is for new kings to visit their deceased forebears for the sake of imparting necessary wisdom. Wakanda also treats its women in high regard, as they no big deal serve essential roles in government, science, and diplomacy. It may be true that the throne may not appear to be an option for woman (at least in this outing), but the monarchy is not as unilateral a position as it could possibly be. Considering all that progressiveness, it is disheartening that so much of Wakanda honor is bound up in a code of fighting and a culture of combat. That is not a complaint against the movie; in fact, what we have here is an appreciably complicated look at the difficulty to be a paragon of a nation.

The Black Panther is not just T’Challa, but rather a mantle that he holds currently. Accordingly, Black Panther the film is very much an ensemble piece, with attitude- and passion-driven performances from all the Wakandan tribes. The particular breakthrough is Letitia Wright (probably best known for the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s spitfire younger sister Shuri, who manages to be both the comic relief and the Q to his James Bond.

Black Panther fits squarely within the overarching narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though it can stand firmly on its own. Furthermore, it is nice to see it sidestep the easy template of the typical origin story that most solo superhero cinematic debuts tend towards. It has the standard two post-credits scenes, and weirdly enough they fit in the the MCU’s next chapter more squarely than other recent post-credits stingers. The last one is also more satisfying than those recent examples, perhaps because Black Panther takes care of its own, and we are ready when it stretches out.

Black Panther is Recommended If You Like: Shaft, Captain America: Civil War, Fruitvale Station

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Headwraps

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Breathe’ Advocates Overcoming Polio for the Sake of Picnics

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CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street/Participant Media

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander

Director: Andy Serkis

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Medical Realities of Treating Polio

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Limited)

It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do. After Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield)  is confined to a hospital bed due to paralysis from polio, he is all set to be resigned to a quick death. But then his wife Diana (Claire Foy) springs him out against doctor’s orders and gets him set up more permanently with a ventilator at home. They gradually become even more adventurous, lugging Robin (and the machine keeping him alive) along on a vacation to Spain and a medical conference in Germany. With Diana, their son Jonathan, dog Bengy, and plenty of other friends and family accompanying him on all these experiences, polio is no big whoop. He has plenty of reasons to live and remains unfailingly his slyly humorous self, now with an extra added gallows edge.

As dramatized in the film, Cavendish died in 1994 at the age of 64, 36 years after contracting polio, making him one of the longest-living responauts in British history. “Responaut” refers to someone who is permanently dependent upon a ventilator for breathing. It is also just a cool word in and of itself. Unfortunately, Breathe only uses that word once. It is simply an unconscionable fail to leave that opportunity on the table. This could have been a much more twisted and radical movie if its most commonly used word were “responaut.” I think the real Robin would have approved.

As it is, though, it is a perfectly agreeable film about defying the medical status quo and basking in the English countryside. The latter especially. Breathe would probably claim its raison d’ȇtre is the power of convincing medical professionals to go deeper and see towards the future. And indeed there are so many scenes of people being amazed that polio patients are actually able to go outside. But I see what Englishman Andy Serkis, in his directorial debut, is really up to. His message is clear: if you’re a Brit, paralysis is no big deal, so long as you can go out and picnic while taking in all the lush greenery, dense trees, beautiful fountains, and cricket matches. Do we have some stealth environmentalism going on here? Let’s learn from the past and not let Mother Nature contract polio!

Breathe is Recommended If You Like: Beautiful vistas, A Beautiful Mind, Inspiration to get yourself through medical school

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Disabled “Prisoners”

This Is a Movie Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Makes for a Bleak But Transfixing Spectacle

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller

Director: Matt Reeves

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Violence Shot Artfully Enough to Avoid an R Rating

Release Date: July 14, 2017

The prequel/reboot Planet of the Apes series has been doing a fine job at that most pervasively needless of tasks: providing origin stories for elements from the original that never needed to be explained. The trick is to make those explanations part of their own particular tales that are compelling enough on their own. In the latest entry, War for the Planet of the Apes, the spotlighted origin is humankind’s loss of speech, which is essentially something that inexplicably and uncontrollably just starts happening, but is also presumably related to the virus from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that began to wipe out humanity and boosted apes’ intelligence. Far from a minor plot point, this provides the essential motivation for those who seek to stand in the way of nature.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rest of the apes have been living mostly happily in the civilization they have constructed for themselves, but the peace between species they have brokered has only ever been uneasy. There is a vestige of what remains of intelligent humans that is intent on reasserting their dominance, most ferociously in the form of Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless fighter who justifies his tactics with a form of genetic engineering tinged with desperation. When a sneak attack by McCullough kills several of Caesar’s loved ones, the stage is set for an ultimate standoff. While Caesar’s reaction flirts somewhat uncomfortably with revenge territory, the conflict remains more generally compelling, as his larger motivation is protecting apes and simply wanting this war to end. The bleakness of ending war with more war (even in self-defense) is not ignored.

War for the Planet of the Apes can easily be read as a metaphor in which a dominant social group finds the status quo upended and tries to swing the pendulum back. Those moments can easily be found now and at many other points in the history of society. But what is remarkable is how much that is a side effect. This series is primarily devoted to commenting upon and analyzing itself more than anything else. That commitment extends to the thorough chilliness of the vision. It is never specified if the setting is in a particularly wintry area, or if the future is eternally snowy, or both. Either way, the effect is oppressive. There are moments of levity (most memorably from Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape,” a jittery former circus animal who has gone a little loopy from cabin fever), but overall, this is a film that takes days to swallow to bear appreciating its majesty.

War for the Planet of the Apes is Recommended If You Like: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Apocalypse Now, The Searchers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Machine Gun-Toting Apes