Posts Tagged ‘angela bassett’

On the face of it, I’ve set myself a fool’s errand here : to review Avengers : Endgame on its own merits, completely divorced from its cultural context and all which came before it, may not even be possible. But once we get a few particulars out of the way, that’s precisely what I intend to do, those particulars being : This. Is. The. Biggest. Thing. Ever.

We’re talking the cinematic equivalent of your wedding day or the birth of your first kid — or so the Disney/Marvel marketing machine would have you believe, not that they’re necessarily wrong, depending on your own circumstances. The so-called “MCU” came into being when I was in my 30s, but I can only imagine what this must mean to people who literally grew up on this stuff. Ten years of big-budget spectacle after big-budget spectacle, all leading up to this — the spectacle.

And, on that level, not to give too much away too quickly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver. This movie is as big a production as anything Cecil B. DeMille could have dreamed of, plus a whole lot more. The scale is simply staggering. It starts — and ends — in surprisingly quiet, dare I say intimate, fashion, but in between it really is everything and the kitchen sink.That can be good, that can be bad, that can be some of each — and, on balance, the brothers manage to make the most of what amounts to a raft of corporate and circumstantial mandates. There’s no need to donwnplay the scope of their achievement, no matter how badly I despise the media conglomerate behind it all. They had a job to do, and they did it exceedingly well.

Long-time readers here will no doubt be surprised to read those words, given my long-standing antipathy toward most of the Marvel flicks, but once they started coming up with villains that posed a worthy challenge for their heroes — a process that took the better part of nine years — it seems as if a corner was turned. The stamp of auteurship afforded Ryan Coogler with Black Panther is nowhere to be found here, it’s true, but this also isn’t the by-the-numbers extended television episode that so many other MCU flicks have been. It’s probably fair to say it inhabits a middle ground — a “house style” production that nevertheless uses the strictures imposed upon it to its advantage. That takes some doing.

But, again, its own merits only is the rule of the day here. I do, however, need to preface that by saying I was not very enamored of this film’s predecessor, Avengers : Infinity War. After the aforementioned Black Panther I felt it was a massive step back, a reversion to the norm, a dour reinforcement of the status quo. So I was not expecting to like its “back half” very much at all.

Cue some genuine surprises : a central role for Karen Gillan’s perpetually under-utilized Nebula. Several unexpected “ultimate fates” for Josh Brolin’s cosmic baddie, Thanos. A turn toward the nearly likable for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton taking on the “conscience of the team” role usually occupied by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. A time-travel plotline that re-visits a number of key events in “MCU” history without once feeling like a nostalgic “greatest hits” reel or, even worse, a victory lap. And a sense of consequence hanging over every scene that nevertheless avoids becoming a Sword of fucking Damocles.

I’m gonna take a minute, at this point, to single out screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a praise — they had a lot to stuff into this particular stocking, both in terms of the “B” they had to get to from “A,” but also in regards to figuring out how to give a hell of a lot pf people something to do. Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Angela Basset, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Natalie Portman all draw a shorter end of the stick than the rest of the cast, but damn — in addition to the already-name-dropped Evans, Downey, Brolin, Gillan, and Renner, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lilly, Chris Hemsworth, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Rene Russo, Chris Pratt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danai Gurira, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper all have important shit to do in this story. That’s pretty remarkable any way you slice it, and the logistics of the whole thing — well, I can scarcely being to imagine. Our intrepid authorial duo must have been keeping Excedrin in business for a good while there.

As for the stuff everyone really wants to know about, well, I’m going to keep things “spoiler-free” given the movie literally just opened at the time of this writing, but any long-time comics reader can tell you — death is never permanent, especially death on as large a scale was we were left with in the last flick. And it’s not even the folks who did die that necessarily have the most to worry about — it’s the ones who didn’t, because they’re the ones who’ll be called upon to pay whatever price is required to bring everyone else back. Which means that, yes, certain “character arcs” do come to an end here — and these are all pitch-perfect, whether tragic in nature or (here’s a glimmer of hope for those who haven’t seen it yet and may be rooting for a favorite or two) otherwise. Every hero gets a hero’s ending at the end of their hero’s journey and — forget it, that’s enough of the word “hero” in one sentence.

Production design, cinematography, costumes, locations — all are scaled to fit here, which is to say big, but the surprising amount of personality that finds its way through to the surface is what I think is this film’s most noteworthy feature. Against all odds, you’ll find yourself invested in these proceedings, even if you’re as far away from being a Marvel fan as yours truly. I didn’t go into the theater actively looking to find things to pick on when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, but I didn’t think they’d be too hard to find. To my more than pleasant surprise, apart from a handful of stupid plot holes, nothing to add to the negative side of the ledger leaped out. Believe me when I say — I’m still trying to figure out how the hell that happened.

As to whether or not this is the “end” of something, as its title suggests — I’ve gotta say that, on the whole, it doesn’t feel like it is. More like the culmination of a whole lot of “somethings,” in preparation for the next act. The Marvel blockbuster machine shows no signs of slowing down — and for the first time probably ever I actually find myself interested to see what it has in store for us next.

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Let’s be honest — as was the case with last year’s Wonder Woman (in fact probably to an even greater degree), Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, and in future it will be examined as such. As something more than a movie. As something that resonated within, and reverberated throughout, the zeitgeist. Its trajectory in that regard is largely unwritten to this point, but can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty : near-universal praise will come first, followed by the inevitable backlash, followed by an almost apologetic, “ya know, maybe we were too hard on this thing that we loved at first” sort of acceptance. If we could just skip all that, and take it as a given, it would save us all a lot of time and effort — but it’s on the way, so tune in or out of all that as you see fit. My concerns here are considerably more prosaic : to talk about the movie as what it began “life” as, to wit — “just” a movie.

For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I’m tempted to agree, to an extent, with those who are pointing out that simply seeing this flick is in no way an act of “resistance” in and of itself : after all, if the fact that the first thing that runs in theaters before the film starts is a commercial for Lexus cars featuring Chadwick Boseman in full Panther gear isn’t enough to clue you in to the reality that, at the end of the day, this is much more about profits than it is about politics, then the product placement within the film itself should do the job — and at the end of the day, one of the largest corporations in the world, founded by noted racist Walt Disney, is still the one making all the money off it. If, then, shelling out ten or fifteen bucks to watch Black Panther is an inherently defiant or dissident act (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s a highly commodified and co-opted one.

All that being said, when a film is released out into the world, particularly a film with as much fanfare attached to it as this one, there are gonna be ripples that emanate out from it — and among the millions of kids, in particular, who watch this flick, the seeds of an interest in African culture are sure to be sown, and the more they follow the metaphorical stalks that grow and flower from those seeds, the more they’ll discover things like historical resistance to colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the like. So while Black Panther may not be a radical (or even a particularly political) work in and of itself, it may inspire some radicalism in the future — one can only hope, at any rate.

But that’s pure speculation at this point, so let’s talk about what we know for certain.

One thing anyone who follows this site, or my work anywhere else, absolutely knows is that I’m no fan of Marvel Studios product in general. Unlike, apparently, most people, I find the overwhelming majority of Marvel flicks to be hopelessly redundant, formulaic, lowest-common denominator fare directed in a flat and lifeless “house style” with no particular visual flair, no particularly standout performances, no particular vision to do anything but get audiences keyed up for the next one. They exist as a self-perpetuating celluloid organism, one with no distinct personality but a lot of business sense and promotional muscle. This has been going on for so long, and with so much box office success, that I went into flick essentially expecting more of the same — sure, I knew it had a predominantly-black cast, and was set in Africa (albeit in a fictitious country), but that doesn’t mean that director Ryan Coogler was going to break the mold in any appreciable way. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that he would be allowed to do so. Happily, my pessimism was turned on its ear almost from word the word “go” here.

Black Panther looks different, feels different, because it is different. Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole certainly capture the dynamism, the energy, the Afro-futurism that has been a part of King T’Challa’s backstory since Jack Kirby created the character and his world (nope, we don’t lay any credit at Stan Lee’s feet around these parts, but I’m not getting into the “whys and wherefores” of that right now because, shit, I don’t have all night), but advance it all considerably, absorbing the extra layers added onto the mythos by the likes of Don McGrregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the years, and coming out with something uniquely suited to cinema and very much of the “now.” There’s a hard-driving and kinetic sense of energy to this film that the so-called “MCU” has been missing since it inception, and if you’re among the small number of those who agree with my assessment that most of these flicks play out more like two-hour TV episodes than proper movies, you can relax : this is as bold, brash, and big as it gets. This is blockbuster fare not only in name, but in execution, with visual effects that amaze, sets that inspire awe, cinematography that commands attention, action that sizzles, a script that charges forward, and music that slicks that trajectory along. This is arresting cinema that doesn’t even give you the option to leave your seat.

But what of the acting, you ask? It ranges from good to great, and thankfully the great includes the key players : Chadwick Boseman is regal yet human, fallible, relatable in the film’s central role: Forest Whitaker embodies aged wisdom tinged with regret as high priest Zuri; Michael B. Jordan is the first truly formidable villain, crucially one with a compelling backstory and some entirely valid philosophical viewpoints, as Killmonger; Martin Freeman not only reprises, but considerably expands, his already-extant “MCU” role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross with heart, humor, and brains; Sterling K. Brown makes the most of limited but significant screen time as T’Challa’s late uncle, N’Jobu; Andy Serkis — as a human this time! — chews up the screen with dangerous charm as Ulysses Klaue (or “Klaw,” as the comics would have it). These guys are all tops, really. And yet —

It is the women that carry this film. Whether we’re talking about Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a determined, fiercely independent, and soulful force that isn’t just her partner’s “equal,” but his conscience; Danai Gurira as General Okoye, head warrioress of the Dora Milaje, who embodies martial discipline and loyalty with the controlled fury of a hurricane ready to strike at any moment; Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda, a living embodiment of grace, stature, and tradition; or Letitia Wright as younger sister Shuri, part “Q” to T’Challa’s “Bond,” part grounding and humanizing influence, part Moon Girl-style intellectual prodigy — as in life, it is the women that both make this movie’s men what they are, while also being complete and fully-realized in and of themselves. African history is far less patriarchal than is commonly believed, and in Wakanda that proud matriarchal lineage is exemplified, modernized, magnified — and honored.

Most films reflect the moment. Others define the moment. Black Panther goes one further by creating the moment. It’s as near to flawless as big-budget blockbusters get and eschews the too-common-flaw that movies made on this scale have of dumbing things down to appeal to the masses. Coogler and company instead trust those same masses to be intelligent enough to meet them on their level, and to respond to being talked “up,” rather than “down,” to. By believing that the world was not just ready, but eager, for something that goes far beyond mere spectacle — something that challenges the intellect while speaking to the heart — they have woken what could very well be a sleeping giant.

Now, let’s just keep our fingers crossed they’ve spurred that giant to do something more than simply go out and buy luxury cars.

Seriously, folks, where’s all the hate coming from? I’ve seen these summer superhero blockbusters, and you’ve seen ’em too — please tell me how director Martin Campbell’s  cinematic adaptation of the venerable DC comics property Green Lantern is any worse than the rest? In fact, I’d argue — and not just to be contrarian, although I’m certainly not above such behavior — that it is, in fact, a damn sight better than most of them. And yet the word seems to be out — boxofffice.com, in fact, went so far as to call the buzz on this movie “toxic” — that even in a genre expressly designed to be nothing but eye-candy crap, Green Lantern is especially bad.

I say pshah (or however you sell that) on that. GL  is a goddamn blast.

All of which is not to say it doesn’t have its flaws. They are many, and they are varied — from Ryan Reynolds’ poorly-executed costume to Blake Lively’s thoroughly nondescript (to put it charitably — although she is easy on the eyes) performance as love interest Carol Ferris to the TV-movie-the-week “quality” of James Newton Howard’s musical score,  this movie has a shitload of problems.

But it’s also tremendously ambitious and not afraid to use every penny of its purported $200 million budget bringing summer braindead audiences exactly what they want, and probably a great deal more than what they expect. Sure, you can quibble about the movie’s overall unnecessarily somber tone, its few attempts at humor falling absolutely flat, the general unlikability of central character Hal Jordan, its ham-fisted attempts at dwelling on the metaphysical nature of fear itself, etc. — but why dwell on the negatives with this flick while giving all the other mega-blockbusters a pass when they throw in everything but the kitchen sink and most of it doesn’t work?

I think Green Lantern is coming in for extra criticism for a couple of reasons, one obvious and one less so. The first is that pre-release buzz to a large extent defines critical and audience perceptions of a film these days, and this flick was in deep trouble on that front from the word go (and even before it). At the concept/pre-production stage it went through all kinds of bizarre transmutations (at one point it was even envisioned as a straight-up farce to be directed by Jon Favreau with Jack black as an incompetent superhero) before the steady hand of James Bond veteran Campbell was brought in to provide sensibility and stability. The seas were calm until that first disastrous preview trailer hit, which again made the whole thing look like a half-assed comedy of some sort, and required an almost-immediate response in the form of a new, CGI-heavy trailer designed to calm all the fanboy nerves out there. The reaction to the second trailer was mostly positive, but the damage had been done — this was now perceived as a movie with problems.

Secondly, and this is where we get just a little bit theoretical so please bear with me, Green Lantern, rather than trying to eschew the inherent implausibility (and, frankly, absurdity) of its premise, which is something all self-respecting blockbusters just plain must do in order to provide a thin veneer of supposed “respectability” to their outlandish scale and nature, not only embraces, but flat-out flaunts how fucking impossibly crazy it is. This is a movie about a guy with a magical green ring that can do anything fighting a giant goddamn space octopus made out of pure fear energy, for God’s sake! I say screw the supposed “respectability” you’re never going to get anyway, and go for the gusto — and that’s exactly what Green Lantern does.

On a practical level, sure, there are some nice performances from Peter Sarsgaard as the demented villain Hector Hammond (and this is a flat-out great insane movie baddie, folks), tim Robbins as his morally and politically corrupt US Senator father, and the criminally0underutilized Angela Bassett as alien-researcher Dr. Amanda Waller. Mark Strong is also solid as bad-add GL Corps member (and future bad guy if they ever do a sequel) Sinestro. But the main star here is the CGI, as is always the case with this stuff, and it’s straight-up awesome to look at. Yes, what’s unfolding on the screen is patently, even hysterically, absurd — but then so is what we’re seeing in Thor, Transformers, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, you name it. But the scale and scope of the story here is such that you can’t really run and hide from the absurdity and pretend it’s not there — you’ve either gotta embrace it all the way, or go home. Give Green Lantern credit for never shying away from what it is and for not being afraid to fail. It’s as if Campbell knew that some of this shit was gonna hit, some was gonna miss, and he had no choice but to go all in and put every one of his cards on the table. He shoots for the moon each and every time and if he doesn’t get there at least he sure as shit tried.

And that’s where I think this movie ultimately succeeds. What it lacks in brains and believability it more than makes up for in sheer balls. This is a movie that knows what it’s supposed to do and occasionally isn’t afraid to try to be even a bit more than what it is. there’s no cruise control setting here, folks — Campbell and his cohorts got up every morning and went the fuck to work. The end result isn’t high cinematic art or even anything close to it, but then that was hardly the goal. Their objective was to hit you with everything they’ve got and then some, and while admittedly a great number of their punches miss, those that hit really wallop the hell out of you. Why waste your time with movies that insult your intelligence by even pretending for a minute that they have any? Go all out, embrace your inner 12-year-old, stick your brain in a formaldehyde jar in case you decide you need it again after the movie, and kick back and enjoy the spectacle. That’s all these summer superhero mega-monoliths are — at least Green Lantern has the guts to admit it and drag you along for a thoroughly entertaining ride. A guy in the seat in front of me summed it up best when he said “Fuckin’-A right” as the credits rolled, and it occured to me that somewhere Martin Campbell should be smiling, as I can’t imagine a more perfect reaction to his handiwork.