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Tomb Raider (2018)

Posted March 18, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

I have some fond memories of “Tomb Raider” and its sequel back in the late ’90s. My dad and I would play the games together, working to solve the puzzles and so on. There was even a time when we got to be part of a test audience for the upcoming 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film. I went to school bragging about the experience the next day, but all anyone ever wanted to know about was Angelina Jolie. Teenagers.

My prime gaming days are long behind me, but I have been keeping an eye on the rise and fall of Lara Croft in the time since. It’s really quite pathetic how the gameplay didn’t age well, and attempts to make Lara’s appearance consistent with archaic graphics technology looked outright cartoonish. It was a shame, considering how badly we need more independent female protagonists of brains and strength, especially in an industry so male-dominated as that of video games.

Lara needed a fresh start, thus the franchise was completely rebooted in 2013. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that a film adaptation loosely based on the game was put into development at roughly the same time. In any case, Square Enix is clearly doing their best to re-establish Lara Croft as a household name and a powerhouse among feminist action heroes. It’s certainly a noble objective, and I’d say that they absolutely succeeded in making Tomb Raider (2018) the best game-to-film adaptation in history. Though that’s very faint praise nonetheless.

When we first meet Lara (as portrayed by Alicia Vikander), she’s living on the streets of London, working as a lowly bike courier, taking up illegal street races to make extra cash because she can’t pay her bills. It’s enough to show that Lara has a mean competitive streak, and she’s tough as nails even if she’s not invincible. But wasn’t Lara supposed to be super-rich? Actually, no — her father was. And Lara can only inherit the money if her father is dead. So if she agrees to accept the money… well, that means she has to admit that her father really is dead and not merely missing after seven years gone.

I have to admit, it’s a nicely poignant touch. Sure, it’s stupid and short-sighted, considering that Lara could simply take hold of her father’s estate and keep it for him instead of letting it get sold off piecemeal. But it’s nonetheless a sweet little touch, and it says a lot about Lara that she doesn’t really need her family’s fortune to be an extraordinary woman.

Anyway, to make a long story short, a new discovery leads our heroine to discover where her dad went. It turns out that in his grief for Lara’s dead mother, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) went looking for some supernatural means of communicating with her and/or bringing her back. What’s even crazier is that he may have actually found something: The buried corpse of Himiko, a mythical queen said to have power over life and death. So Richard went off to this speck of an island surrounded by the most dangerous waters in the Pacific Ocean, trying to get to Himiko’s tomb before her terrible power can fall into the wrong hands.

(Side note: Yes, the story for this movie called “Tomb Raider” literally revolves around efforts to raid a tomb. It’s amazing how rare that is in this franchise.)

Unfortunately, by going out to this island with her dad’s notes, Lara has inadvertently given the bad guys exactly what they needed all along. What makes it even worse is that she did this even though her dad left behind a message explicitly telling her to destroy all of his notes on Himiko so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands and this exact thing wouldn’t happen. Sadly, this will not be the last time Lara makes a boneheaded move, playing into the villain’s plan when she knows better, just because the plot needs her to.

Speaking of which, our villain for the film is Mathias Vogel, played by Walter Goggins. He was sent to this island on behalf of some shadowy cabal, forbidden from rejoining society until he finds and acquires the corpse of Himiko. To date, Mathias has spent seven years on this island, and it’s driven him so batshit insane that he’ll do anything to get off the island and go back to his own two daughters. It’s a solid enough motivation, especially with Goggins’ performance to back it up. It’s really quite compelling how Goggins dials back his trademark unhinged screen presence to deliver a villain who can be charismatic before he spins on a dime and does something monstrous. There’s a desperation to the character that works surprisingly well… right up until the climax.

Vogel’s motivations may be compelling, but they’re not enough to justify the stupid, reckless, short-sighted, dangerous choices he makes in the climax. Right before our eyes, we see the character devolve into a one-dimensional bad guy who acts in accordance with the plot when he should damn well know better, and it’s such a disappointment. This will not be the last time I gripe about the climax of this film.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we have Daniel Wu in the role of Lu Ren. He’s the son of a different Lu Ren, who went missing with Richard Croft, so Lu Ren Jr. and Lara Croft sail out together in search of their missing fathers. But not before a contrast to show that Lu Ren has moved on and accepted his father’s apparent passing while Lara has not. This might have been a fascinating character dynamic and a compelling thematic angle… except that it only lasts for one scene and it’s chucked out the window as soon as they sail out together. After that, Lu Ren is stuck with a thankless job as the male lead opposite Lara fucking Croft. Doing anything memorable with this role without overshadowing the protagonist was always going to be an uphill climb, and it’s not like Wu completely humiliates himself, but he didn’t have the talent or the material to be anything better than “okay.”

And then of course we have Dominic West as Richard Croft. He does a perfectly fine job. The Richard/Lara relationship is truly the centerpiece of the movie, and the two actors totally sell it.

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, fathers and children are a huge recurring theme throughout the picture. It’s a sweet thematic hook to hang the story on, and it provides this high action/adventure with some much-needed heart. Unfortunately, it does stick a lot of our characters with persistent cloying daddy issues. What’s worse, the film gets more heavy-handed on the subject as it runs out of new and creative ways to explore it.

Another prominent topic is the discussion of myth versus reality. For example, we understand at the outset that this Queen Himiko was an undead abomination whose curse could bring humanity to extinction if her tomb was ever opened. But then one character flat-out says that Queen Himiko’s corpse is just a pile of dusty old bones and asks what’s the worst that could happen if the villains got hold of it. And I started to wonder if the filmmakers really wanted to pull on that particular thread. After all, if there’s even the faintest possibility that Himiko’s curse is a myth created by exaggerations throughout history, then it means there was no decent reason to bury Himiko in so deep and desolate a place surrounded by elaborate booby traps, the antagonists spent a decade’s worth of blood and treasure getting to it, and Richard Croft abandoned his daughter and his business without a word, prompting Lara to risk life and limb getting him back… all for nothing. Put simply, Himiko has to be the magical and legendary destroyer of worlds because the whole damn plot would fall apart if she wasn’t.

But that’s not what the filmmakers do.

See, this iteration of the franchise — in the games and movies alike — was sculpted from the “Uncharted” mold, built with a more gritty and mundane focus. And to be entirely clear, it does make the action scenes far more thrilling. Lara may have the inexplicable talent to get a dozen different types of shit beaten out of her and miraculously not die, but there’s a neatly visceral thrill in watching Lara get put through her paces and fight like hell to survive. Even if Lara should seriously be dead or dying after all the abuse she endures, she still visibly hurts with every impact, and it’s made obvious that she’s no superwoman — she has to earn her survival, which makes it all the more satisfying to watch her pull through. It makes the action sequences a lot more compelling, even if we know that Lara will be all right when all’s said and done.

Oh, and also: We get a fight scene in which Lara Croft straight-up punches a guy in the crotch. That should be a recurring thing in all the games and movies. I’m amazed it isn’t already.

That said, director Roar Uthaug cannot shoot nighttime action scenes for shit. The shipwreck sequence at the halfway point is so dark and so frenetic, lit with unpredictable flashes of lightning, that it’s totally incomprehensible. Ditto for a big fight sequence that Lara has at night. Even during some of the daytime sequences, there are editing choices so baffling that they crush the momentum. And in a chase sequence, losing momentum is a capital offense.

But let’s get back to the balance of fantasy versus reality. To be fair, there are huge chunks in which the movie successfully balances high adventure and grounded reality. A great example is in the use of holdovers from the video games — intricate puzzles and even an honest-to-god stealth mission are integrated into the movie. And they’re done in such a way that they feel less like tacked-on contrivances and more like honest-to-god elements of a cracking adventure film. Also, when we finally learn the truth about Himiko’s curse, it blends fact and fiction together in a way that’s seriously quite clever.

The downside, of course, is that this is “Tomb Raider”. The franchise that opened with Lara Croft gunning down velociraptors on her way to Atlantis. I know that “gritty reboots” are still the fashion right now, and I did just say that the more mundane approach has its advantages in terms of character development and visceral action. But at the same time, this source material is inescapably ludicrous in a fantastic way that’s satisfying in its own right. Either approach can work perfectly well, but only if the filmmakers commit. Holding back and half-measures will only get you so far.

Which brings us back to the climax.

The minute our characters finally enter Himiko’s tomb (which was built to keep this apocalyptic evil at bay, yet still opens from the outside for some reason, but whatever), it’s like we’re entering another world entirely. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, if the film’s delicate reality/fantasy balance didn’t get shot to hell as a direct result. It certainly didn’t help that the filmmakers shamelessly lifted their booby traps directly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but somehow even sillier. I was talking earlier about how the filmmakers integrated video game elements into this movie so gracefully — in the climax, somebody actually utters the phrase “It’s a color puzzle!” and I strained to keep myself from facepalming.

Moreover, I was talking earlier about how the filmmakers gave Himiko a “curse” that makes sense in a rational way. The problem is, we’re in an underground crypt that somehow seems to be floating above a bottomless void, and the flying death traps are all still in perfect working order after so many thousands of years. Where’s the sense in pretending that any of this has any kind of non-magical basis? If you’re going to go this “fantasy” route, then fucking go there. Commit.

Then there’s the big shadowy organization that hired Vogel, presumably giving us our overarching franchise Big Bad. I couldn’t care less. Maybe the games can offer some legitimate reason for why a Spectre knockoff is terrifying and dangerous enough to keep us interested in future sequels, but the movies offer nothing. Unless this organization is led by a mob boss who’s going to kill himself with a magical dagger to be resurrected as a giant motherfucking dragon, I’m not especially interested.

All of that said, I can honestly say that I had a fun time with Tomb Raider (2018) in spite of its many glaring flaws. The action scenes — with one or two exceptions — were very satisfying, and I honestly loved how puzzles and stealth missions enhanced the overall movie without coming off as distractions. The movie doesn’t really fall apart until the climax, and even then, it’s nothing more than brainless and derivative. And in the first entry of a CGI blockbuster tentpole franchise, there are worse things.

I credit Walter Goggins — and Dominic West, to a lesser extent — for holding so much of the movie together, but Alicia Vikander is easily the most important reason why the film works as well as it does. She totally succeeded in taking this iconic role and making it her own, bringing us a Lara Croft we can all be proud of. If we end up getting a sequel, she’s the reason I’ll be there to see it. But as for this movie? I’d say it evens out to a solid DVD or second-run recommendation.

Red Sparrow

Posted March 12, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Ever since her breakout hit with Winter’s Bone — to say nothing of her breakout franchise with “The Hunger Games” — Jennifer Lawrence has done a noteworthy job of building her career around strong and empowering female roles. And then, a couple of years ago, she made Passengers. To be fair, the movie looked on paper like it might have been a nuanced and intellectual love story with a smart and proactive female lead, until the filmmakers got into the finer details and fucked it all up so badly that the end result achieved the opposite effect. And that’s not me saying that, that’s Jennifer Lawrence saying that.

Evidently, Lawrence didn’t learn from her past mistakes, because something similar clearly happened with Red Sparrow.

This time, Lawrence plays a ballerina in Moscow whose meteoric career is cut short by an accident act of career sabotage. She’s back up and walking a few months later, but she’s got an ailing mother (Nina, played by Joely Richardson) and a mountain of medical bills, with no backup career. Luckily, Dominika just happens to have an uncle (Vanya, played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s a deputy director in some clandestine government organization.

To make a long and bloody tale short (Yes, this movie gets good and bloody before it even gets started.), Dominika is accepted into a training program for spies who specialize in manipulation and seduction. And when I say “accepted”, I mean that she’s given the choice of providing for her mother by acting as an international prostitute/assassin or taking a bullet to the brainpan.

…Actually, no. It’s really more about succeeding her assigned mission or getting killed. This whole character development stuff with regard to Dominika’s mother is so thin, it might as well not be there. Such a wasted opportunity to give our main character some depth.

The good news is that this is more or less only the first half of the movie. This is, after all, a spy thriller. The plot is very convoluted, with various agendas and secrets dancing around each other in deceit, backstabbing, manipulation, and other skullduggery. And to its credit, this aspect of the movie is perfectly fine. The political intrigue is compelling, the plans within plans are nicely clever, and the big climactic twist is beautifully executed. The whole plot is twisted and complex, but the filmmakers do a fine job of keeping it all engaging and easy to follow. That’s a very tall order and I’ve seen other spy thrillers do it far worse.

Also — aside from a couple of fleeting yet wonky shots — I can’t knock the visuals. Nearly every frame uses the color red somehow, often in lush and beautiful ways. Also, I commend the filmmakers for going all-in on the violence. From the opening leg break to the climactic torture scene, no effort is made to spare us the blood and gore, and it’s very effective. The filmmakers aren’t shy about nudity, either — it’s not often you see a movie in which male and female exposure are more or less equal, but here we are.

As for everything else… whoo boy.

Let’s start with the cast. Jennifer Lawrence’s role was physically demanding to a huge degree, and her commitment here is admirable. Unfortunately, the task of keeping a consistent and convincing Russian accent was beyond her. What’s worse, the stoic and impenetrable nature of this character means that Lawrence is stuck with the same emotion through at least two-thirds of the runtime. Oh, and of course the filmmakers need to keep the profitable A-list face recognizable at all times, which undercuts the whole “international woman of mystery” premise.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, and Charlotte Rampling all sleepwalking through another paycheck. Mary Louise-Parker brings a welcome bit of comic relief, but she only gets one scene in the third act. Matthias Schoenaerts does surprisingly well for himself — after seeing him as so many paper-bland romantic leads, it was good to see him finally make an impression as a manipulative scumbag. As for Joel Edgerton, here playing the actual male lead, he does a perfectly fine job and his chemistry with Lawrence is quite serviceable. But I’m getting really, REALLY tired of seeing Lawrence play romance arcs with men over a decade her senior.

Speaking of which, it bears noticing that the director, the screenwriter, the writer of the book this movie was based on, and seven of the nine credited producers are all male. And with this movie, that’s a huge problem.

Throughout pretty much the entire first half of the movie, we see Dominika’s superiors treating her clinically, as if she is literally just a collection of parts assembled into a weapon to be used and disposed of as she sees fit. At the same time, Dominika (and her fellow trainees, to a lesser extent) are tasked with suppressing all of their instincts to seduce a target and present a 100 percent credible show of sexual arousal. And the filmmakers want to show this as a barbaric act of abuse.

The filmmakers are trying to keep all these different plates spinning, and their plainly visible male gaze brings it all crashing down. The “arousal” element is handled all wrong, such that there’s this intangible element of “Isn’t this sexy?” in the presentation of these young people being forced to strip naked and perform sexual acts in front of their peers. It’s sleazy in all the wrong ways, such that this movie about the objectification of women ends up objectifying its actresses. The filmmakers were trying to construct this visceral and thought-provoking picture condemning the use of women as mere sex objects, and they ended up making unpleasant trash. That’s a pretty huge and embarrassing failure.

(Side note: For comparison’s sake, can you imagine this same movie if it was directed by, say… Lexi Alexander? That would’ve been fucking awesome.)

But as I said before, the filmmakers were going for a highly complex and delicate balance. This premise was insanely complicated and multifaceted enough even without the spy thriller plot, which is highly convoluted by nature. With all of this packed into a 140-minute running time, it seems inevitable that something was going to end up undercooked. And that’s not going to fly when it comes to the subject of sexual abuse. When you drop that bomb, you drop that bomb. The filmmakers should’ve known better than to half-ass such incredibly sensitive subject matter, and the result is inevitably worse than if they hadn’t done anything.

Red Sparrow is a neat little spy romp in the back half, but getting to that point is just awful. The filmmakers were far too ambitious for their own good, trying to take on a highly sensitive subject matter that they didn’t have the runtime, expertise, or good sense to handle properly. I want to applaud the filmmakers in their attempt to make an empowering feminist action flick, but it’s so misguided and wrong-headed that it goes back around to being unintentionally misogynist.

It’s a damn shame that so much talent went into such a promising concept, and it all emptied out into so much wasted potential. Not recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Posted March 10, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

NEWSWEEK: So you’ve seen the movie?
Madeleine L’Engle:
 I’ve glimpsed it.

And did it meet expectations?
Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.

At the time, L’Engle was referring to the TV movie adaptation of “A Winkle in Time”, made by Disney in 2003. L’Engle herself passed away four years later. She never got to see a film adaptation worthy of the book’s iconic place in children’s literature. Cut to fifteen years later, when the unlikeliest director stepped up to give it a shot.

After racking up a few credits in documentary and short filmmaking, plus an impressive career as a publicist, DuVernay came onto the scene in a big way with Selma in 2014. Overnight, she had earned worldwide repute as a bold and hard-hitting filmmaker unafraid to take on the most sensitive issues of social justice. She’s an outspoken, intelligent, talented, and Oscar-nominated (!!!) black woman when the vast majority of film directors (and Hollywood execs) are white males.

So DuVernay was pretty much given free license to write her own check, and of course she had to make it count. Over the next four years, she threw us all a curveball by turning down Black Panther to direct an adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time”. A bizarre choice on its surface, but maybe this project needed someone who could think outside the box. It certainly paid dividends, I can tell you that.

DuVernay’s sensibilities are most plainly visible in the casting of Meg Murry, played here by Storm Reid. Obviously, casting a young black girl to play the protagonist raised a lot of eyebrows, but it adds a whole new layer to the story’s themes of empowerment. This was always a tale about a young woman growing to embrace what makes her atypical, so casting the role with an atypical choice actually makes a lot of sense. It’s not like this Meg Murry is some conventionally attractive young woman buried in glasses and makeup, made to look clumsy in some half-assed and transparent attempt at making her “relatable” (as we’ve seen too many times to name). Simply by virtue of being a young black woman in a white man’s world, brought up to value intelligence over beauty, and deeply hurt by her father’s disappearance, we can clearly see for ourselves what makes her special and why everyone else would try to put her down, relating with her in an honest and authentic way.

It certainly helps that Storm Reid is a phenomenal actor in the making. She really gets put through her paces in this movie and her performance is always strong, even when the material is weak. Yes, there is sadly no denying that Meg’s character arc is your typical monomyth fare, predictable enough to set your watch to. But then again, this is a holdover from the source material and the filmmakers do the best they can with it.

Of course, it helps that Storm Reid has such remarkable scene partners to work with. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Meg’s mother, once again proving herself to be far too talented to be stuck as a supporting player. Oprah Winfrey plays Mrs. Which and she’s… well, she’s there to be the inspirational mentor who brings out the best side of Meg, and that’s what Oprah’s built her whole career around. So basically, Mrs. Which is like Oprah, but she’s this larger-than-life figure with an ostentatious wardrobe and supernatural powers… yeah, Oprah’s playing herself in this, who the fuck are we kidding?

Still, Mrs. Which doesn’t really have that much screen time when you get right down to it. Of the “Mrs. W” trio, it’s probably Mrs. Whatsit that gets the biggest chunk of screen time, and Reese Witherspoon is great fun to watch in the role. Alas, Mindy Kaling is the weak link of the three as Mrs. Who. While the Mrs. Who of the book was always ready with the right quotation, this interpretation has apparently evolved so far beyond language that she speaks almost exclusively in quotations. (They even shoehorn a “Hamilton” reference in there for good measure. Seriously.) It doesn’t make a lick of sense and it’s a tragic waste of Kaling’s talent.

Getting back to the younger talent, Levi Miller (who made his unfortunate debut in the title role of the thrice-double-fucked-with-a-rusty-anchor Pan) is suitably charismatic as Calvin. The character is noticeably weaker on his own merit, working far more effectively as a sounding board/foil for Meg, but their interplay works well nonetheless. Unfortunately, Derric McCabe as Charles Wallace is more hit-or-miss. McCabe is at his most effective when he’s acting like… well, a kid. When Charles Wallace is bouncing around at light speed, excited about something that sounds like nonsense to everyone else, he’s aces. But McCabe never quite sells the notion that Charles Wallace is this prodigy with intelligence on a galactic scale. And when he’s acting like a demon child, it’s kind of unintentionally hilarious.

It certainly doesn’t help that many of Charles Wallace’s more evil moments are shot in super-tight extreme close-up. It’s really the only major misstep in what’s otherwise a visual feast. The production design is marvelous from top to bottom, the camerawork is inspired, and the otherworldly settings and creatures look phenomenal. Yes, the CGI is hardly flawless, but even the most sketchy of shots aren’t bad enough to be dealbreakers. The “tessering” effect is especially cool, watching space and time literally wave and wrinkle around the characters. And yes, it sucks that Mrs. Whatsit doesn’t turn into a centaur-like creature, especially since that’s so iconic to the book, but her transformation here is so beautiful and breathtakingly original that I really don’t mind quite so much.

Likewise, the Happy Medium is totally different here, but in a good way. In the book, the Happy Medium was simply a play on words: a stereotypical fortune teller who just happened to be perpetually cheerful. In the film, the Happy Medium is played by Zach Galifianakis, so we’ve already got a gender-flip going on. More importantly, while this Happy Medium still conjures visions of the present and future, he does so through introspection and discipline rather than reading a crystal ball. Granted, the faux yoga presentation is forced in a way that makes for clumsy comic relief and dated “trendiness”, but it’s far more thematically relevant and fun to watch. Additionally, the character and his home are both far more distinctly alien in their premise, and built around the concept of balance. Again, it’s more interesting to watch and far more thematically relevant. And of course having a shameless goof like Galifianakis as the Happy Medium was a smart move.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Pena, whose appearance as Red is little more than a memorable cameo role. Ditto for Andre Holland — blink and you’ll miss him as Meg’s school principal. Elsewhere, David Oyelowo steps in as the voice for the villainous IT, and his voice acting fits the concept perfectly.

But the real standout of the supporting cast has to be Chris Pine. The filmmakers took the natural step of giving Meg’s father a lot more screentime — both to establish his Tesseract Theory and to establish the personal stakes of getting him back home — and Pine sells every moment like the supremely underrated talent he is. If you want cold hard proof for why Pine should be given more hefty and dramatic roles outside of his work with Star Trek and Wonder Woman, definitely watch his performance here.

(Side note: Better yet, watch Hell or High Water, the excellent film that reportedly inspired DuVernay to cast Pine.)

So are there any other nitpicks? Well, there’s a lot of clunky exposition near the start of the film. It was really quite sloppy how a news story about Dr. Murry’s disappearance four years ago just happened to come up at exactly the right time. Also, kids at school teasing Meg about her father’s disappearance is pretty random even for teenage girls, and it’s baffling how two adults should have such a petty discussion about the Murrys in a public space without knowing that Charles Wallace was sitting within earshot.

Also, while the music wasn’t necessarily bad, the movie’s use of pop songs got pretty distracting. I was disappointed to see so many of the pop songs take front and center, especially when Ramin Djawadi — one of my favorite composers! — had been tapped to write the score. I’d much rather hear more of Djawadi and less of Sia or Demi Lovato, but I guess that’s just me.

Mostly, however, a lot of the film’s problems were carried over from the source material. Yes, the film can be ham-fisted, but the book was never exactly subtle either. And yes, there’s a great load of plot holes and a ton of stuff goes unexplained that would help a lot make sense, but again, that’s kind of the book. Which, as a reminder, was written in 1962 — it was a crazy time.

But then we have the central conflict of the book, and I’m not talking about how Dr. Murry went missing and now his kids have to find him. I’m talking about the grander conflict between Light and Dark, both portrayed as one-dimensional forces that are Good and Evil without any further definition or motivation. One of them wants to spread hope and love throughout the universe while the other ruins civilizations by infecting sentient life with jealousy and hatred.

On the one hand, I like how the movie is at least using binary morality to send a message. If the movie is going to portray good and evil in such dichromatic terms, the least it could do is make a clear and solid statement about what is good and what is evil. Thus it works as a story in praise of integrity and nonconformity, loving our own faults and imperfections while embracing the faults and imperfections in others, denouncing the bitterness and pettiness that brings down ourselves and others. On the other hand, this movie goes a step further, saying that the Darkness is an otherworldly alien force directly responsible for the bitterness and pettiness here on Earth.

…Okay. I think it’s finally time for us to talk about this. We’re ready for a cultural discussion on the topic.

Yes, I understand that this is nothing new. Fantasy has always been used to put a new context on things that make our lives harder. There’s also a degree of escapism involved, using fantasy to show how life’s regular trials really aren’t so bad. That said… well, let me give you another recent example.

From 2011 until 2017, there was a TV show called “Grimm”, predicated on the notion that there are monsters living among us in disguise as human beings. In fact, early in the very first season, we learn that Adolf Hitler was secretly a jackal-like creature who rose to power through possessing magical coins that dated back to the time of Alexander the Great. Consider that the Holocaust was an actual event in which millions of people actually died. All these decades later, the survivors are still grieving for their loved ones who didn’t make it, and an entire nation is still coming to grips with how they could have been complicit in allowing the Holocaust to happen.

And here’s this TV show, presenting a magical explanation for how Hitler and the Third Reich came to power. Like an entire nation of Germans didn’t willfully elect a madman into power, allow him to arrest and murder his own people en masse, and follow him into WWII. No, the good people of Germany were simply under a spell and were therefore totally blameless. What’s more, Hitler — and other homicidal maniacs, according to the show — aren’t really humans who made bad decisions and committed horrible crimes for any number of possible reasons, but they really are the inhuman monsters we imagine them to be!

Do you see how that might be insensitive to those who actually lived through such a thing? How this mythology takes responsibility away from those who actually choose to commit atrocities? Yes, it may be fiction, but these are still very real problems that very real humans are grappling with. Presenting them as magical and otherworldly problems inflicted on us by inhuman forces makes them inherently more simple to deal with. While that does make it easier to get a handle on the issues at hand, it also sweeps aside the possibility of a more complex and nuanced discussion that acknowledges those affected and may yield practical solutions.

Which brings us back to this movie. In which we plainly see that the school principal is closed-minded and more focused on his career than his students, the local bully is obsessed with her self-image, and Calvin’s father is an abusive asshole, all because of the Darkness. Some fictional evil is infecting the minds of humanity, one person at a time, and that is why these people are acting like jackasses.

I get the movie’s allegorical message, saying that the best way to deal with these obstacles is through compassion and integrity. But at the same time, again, these are very real issues that kids today are dealing with, and do we really want kids thinking about these issues in terms of a paper-thin otherworldly demon? The cold hard truth is that there any number of social and psychological reasons why people become bullies and/or abusive parents, and none of those reasons change the fact that these bullies are in fact human. To present them as inhuman is to present an inaccurate picture of what this abuse looks like, which in turn means that kids will be looking for a magical demon in themselves and others when they should be looking for a soul broken in perfectly mundane ways.

By the opposite token, this movie — like the book — name-checks Einstein, Curie, Gandhi, and others as warriors who stepped up for the Light. Do we really want to portray real-life people as superheroes? What does that do for the reality that these were actual humans, as fallible and flawed as the rest of us, however brilliant they may have been? Does it take away from all of their hard work and their hard-won successes if they’re portrayed as divinely inspired messiahs, so heavily assisted by fate and other powers that their victory was all but guaranteed from the outset?

What it all comes down to is this: A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is flawed in many of the same ways that the source text is flawed. A lot of it doesn’t make sense, the morality is simplistic and heavy-handed, and of course there’s the classic problem of cramming so much plot and backstory into so little screen time. Even so, the filmmakers did the best they could with what they had, and what deviations they made were ultimately for the better. Generations of kids and adults keep coming back to the book because it’s a cracking science fantasy romp that encourages the reader to feel empowered, and the film adaptation honors that beautifully.

It’s a fun movie, well-acted and spectacular to behold, with its heart in the right place. It’s hard to imagine a better adaptation of this same text coming out within our lifetimes, for better and for worse. It’s definitely a movie worth checking out, but I’d strongly recommend reading the book first. You’ll find it easier to take the movie on its own terms and you’ll have a more thorough understanding of where the filmmakers made improvements and where they were doomed to fall short.


Posted March 4, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

There were so many reasons to anticipate Annihilation, and foremost among them was probably Alex Garland. While Garland had significant sci-fi bona fides as a screenwriter even before he attempted directing with Ex Machina, the latter was an astounding debut with fantastic visuals and no shortage of cutting-edge sci-fi concepts explored in bold and intelligent ways.

Yet hyped as I was to see this one, Annihilation is still totally unlike anything I expected. And a far better movie for it.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former soldier in the U.S. Army, currently a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins. Her husband (Kane, played by Oscar Isaac) went away for a year on some unspecified mission and hasn’t been heard from since. Lena is deep in mourning for Kane, until he suddenly reappears under mysterious circumstances.

Long story short, something came down from outer space and collided with a lighthouse, yet the lighthouse itself is still perfectly intact. But in the time since, the impact site and the surrounding area has been covered in “The Shimmer”, a kind of aura that’s been expanding at a constant rate over the past three years and threatens to overtake the entire world. Luckily, it’s small enough — for now, at least — to keep the public uninformed.

Multiple attempts have been made at exploring the Shimmer, but nothing and nobody that gets sent over there ever comes back. Except — for whatever unknown reason — for Kane. And he’s rapidly dying of multiple organ failure.

Another team is being put together and Lena wants in. Thus Lena ventures into the Shimmer, along with the paramedic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), and the geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), under the leadership of psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). If you’ve noticed that our intrepid team is comprised entirely of females and scientists, the characters notice that too. The stated reason is that after losing so many teams of men in the armed forces, it was time to try something different. But of course if it means that we get an entire cast full of talented women playing fleshed-out and intelligent characters, I’m not asking too many questions.

The other side of the Shimmer is truly a sight to behold. Without giving too much away, our characters very quickly see that everything inside is very much like it used to be, except that evolution is working in overdrive. Plants, animals, and bacteria are all mutating in ways that shouldn’t even be physically possible. Thus we have flora and fauna that are even more gorgeous, more mysterious, and more dangerous than their more familiar forebears.

The movie was sold as an action/horror film in the vein of Aliens, and to be sure, that is definitely an aspect here. Heaven knows the monsters are terrifying enough, the horror scenes are scary enough, and the kills are gory enough. What’s even better is that while all of the monsters are kind of recognizable as something that might have started as a common animal, they’re just different enough to be far more unsettling. And while none of the beasts in the Shimmer are immune to bullets… well, a common bear is dangerous and hard enough to kill at the best of times, we’ll put it that way.

But in truth, the movie actually has far more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Garland’s own Sunshine. This is very much a story about a group of intellectuals losing their grip on reality as they go deeper and deeper into unknown and perilous territory. Plus, as we learn more about this UFO and see more of its handiwork, the visuals get incredibly trippy.

The filmmakers were smart enough not to make the mistake of portraying this alien as a villain or a monster. It could be a new species of microorganisms acting independently of each other, it could be a hive mind or a force of nature, and who’s to say that it’s even an alien at all? In any case, it’s perfectly clear that this is just a thing interested in propagating itself without any malice towards us. As one character so aptly puts it, this isn’t a force of destruction, but creation. We just happen to be in the way, that’s all.

This is a movie about life itself, in the most basic sense of clinical biology. DNA and the process of cell division are both prominently discussed as forces of creation and destruction. It’s DNA and all of its various mutations that create endless forms most beautiful, while also creating diseases, cancer, dementia, and even the process of aging (see: telomere degradation). This is the stuff that life is made of, defining all the impulses and chemical reactions that lead us to acts of self-preservation or self-destruction.

Yes, people can be “programmed” to self-destruct in any number of ways, from cigarette use to suicide. But then, cells are programmed to self-destruct as well. Oftentimes, it’s the only way to protect the organism as a whole. Out with the old and in with the new, possibly creating a stronger life form in the process through natural selection and evolution.

Mere text could never describe how utterly gorgeous this movie is, or how much creativity went into every shot inside the Shimmer. Even in the mundane world outside, the camerawork and editing are deeply impressive. What’s more, music is frequently used in such a way that it’s the only audible sound, which adds to the dreamlike tone of the picture.

Garland has proven himself to be a wonderful director, but the actors deserve no small amount of credit for making this work. I know there’s been some degree of controversy in whitewashing the protagonist, even though the character wasn’t revealed to be Asian until the second book in the source text. But for me personally, I’ve seen too many dime-a-dozen pretty faces try to pass themselves off as geniuses with serious academic cred. It was such a breath of fresh air to see a professor of biology played by a phenomenal actress who’s also a legit scientist. Portman brings a kind of experience and intelligence that can’t be faked, and her performance as the grieving wife/hardened veteran is wonderful as well.

Oscar Isaac brings all of his considerable talent to bear as… well, he’s a lot of different things in this picture. Depending on the scene, he’s either playing a loving husband on his way to a classified mission, or he’s something that may not even be entirely human. In any case, he’s always got a secret that’s tearing him up inside (sometimes literally), and it’s compelling to watch.

Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in some fine work as the hardened psychologist, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson are a lot of fun as a couple of crew members who take their own paths to insanity, and Tuva Novotny puts in a memorable performance as well. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bennedict Wong, who gets the thankless job of interviewing Lena in the framing device, but at least he does a sporting job of it.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, if there are any, it’s due to the very nature of the film. The movie goes into some bizarre, mind-bending territory with some deeply abstract imagery, especially at the climax. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what the hell is going on, and the unreliable narrator certainly doesn’t help in that regard. That said, it’s all presented in such a way that the opacity of the plot is a feature, not a bug. We’re being presented with something that is inherently unknowable, as strange and multifaceted as life itself. If the filmmakers were trying to portray something of a grandeur beyond what mortal minds could comprehend, I’d say they did a fine job.

Annihilation is spectacular. It’s deeply intellectual and mind-blowing in its presentation of larger-than-life concepts, but in a subtle way that successfully draws the audience in. Moreover, the cast is uniformly solid and the visuals are sensational from top to bottom.

This is a thought-provoking and endlessly creative work of science fiction, a worthy follow-up to Ex Machina. Definitely go see it.

The Post

Posted February 26, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m afraid I have to start this review with a request for you, my dear readers.

Longtime readers might be familiar with Living Room Theaters, a fantastic independent movie theater in the heart of downtown Portland. They filed a lawsuit against Regal Cinemas on February 20th. At the time, Living Room Theaters and Regal Fox Tower 10 — another of my favorite theaters in downtown Portland — were both playing Call Me By Your Name. And the lawsuit alleges that Living Room Theaters had to stop showing the movie at the request of Sony Pictures Classics.

Why? Because according to the lawsuit, Living Room Theaters was outselling the Fox Tower on tickets for this particular movie. So Regal called up Sony Pictures Classics and strong-armed them into pulling the movie from Living Room Theaters.

I am deeply upset that Regal would resort to such an illegal, unethical, outrageous act of cowardice. No company so huge as Regal Cinemas should ever have to resort to such petty bullying against a smaller competitor. There is no excuse for this.

To that end, I am humbly dedicating today’s review to the good people at Living Room Theaters, with all of my support and gratitude for their service to our local moviegoers. I hope you will all join me in boycotting Regal Cinemas for the foreseeable future, at least until this lawsuit is resolved. The downside, alas, is that this will have a significant effect on which movies I’ll be able to review and when.

So here’s The Post, a movie about the journalists at the Washington Post who reported on the infamous Pentagon Papers. Over 4,000 pages of highly classified memos and reports, detailing how politicians and military brass knew for decades that a war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but they kept on lying to the public and drafting young men to die for nothing. So the federal government moved to stop the publication of these documents and there was this massive debate over freedom of the press versus national security. On top of that, the film was directed by Steven Spielberg, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep headlining a cast of seasoned talents… really, the review writes itself.

You already know exactly what you’re in for, and the movie makes little effort to subvert expectations. Except for when the filmmakers padded out the runtime in so many misguided ways. You see, the movie is really at its best when it really delves into the conflict of a free press versus a government that can keep military and diplomatic secrets. The only problem is, that stuff only makes up something like a third of the running time. Seriously, the Post doesn’t even obtain the actual Pentagon papers until the halfway point.

This is a story about investigative reporting, so it’s understandable that the characters will lead the plot into some dead ends while they’re chasing down leads. The movie also comments on an era in which politicians were close personal friends with reporters, which allowed the press to get more access to better sources in some cases but led to a terrible conflict of interest when less favorable stories need printing. Plus, this is right about the time when the Post was going public — a federal lawsuit could destroy the paper once and for all at a time when the Post is at an especially tenuous tipping point, so the stakes are raised accordingly.

I understand why all of this stuff was included. Unfortunately, it means spending the entire first half of the movie bouncing between meetings, looking at different groups of old white people talking about money and family, trading bad jokes, partaking in dialogue that has virtually nothing to do with what we came for. As a direct result, the pacing is shot to hell and it’s boring as fuck.

What makes it all even worse is how this is very much an Awards Drama, and the filmmakers don’t ever want you to forget it. The actors are all mugging for the camera, which swoops right up into their faces so we don’t miss a single teardrop. And that’s not when the camera is swooping around so we can see all the rich white people talking about their first world problems from every angle.

All of this is best illustrated by Kay Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. So much of the tension and drama in this movie stems from Kay’s anxiety, her lack of confidence, and her uncertainty about what to do. She’s not much of a businesswoman, and she’s a woman in a male-dominated world, to boot. None of this is inherently awful, except for two key points. First, while institutional sexism is a timely subject worthy of discussion, it has basically nothing to do with the timely and worthy subject of a free press. The two issues clash rather than dovetail, so both topics come off as half-baked and the feminist angle looks like an unfortunate waste of time.

Which brings me to the second reason this doesn’t work: Kay Graham is played here by Meryl Streep. And the filmmakers want you to know it. Her performance, the camerawork, the script, the editing, everything about every frame of her screen time went toward forcibly reminding us that we are watching a Meryl Streep Performance, as if anyone would have to work this hard to get her another Oscar nod (just look at Florence Foster Jenkins, for fuck’s sake). The effect is that while the filmmakers wanted us to see a woman uncertain in her actions and uncomfortable in her position; they also wanted us to see the most respected, accomplished, and outspoken woman in all of show business (with the debatable exception of Oprah Winfrey). And it can’t work both ways.

It’s very much like that with the entire cast. Tom Hanks, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, David Cross… these are all proven and talented actors. There’s no doubt that any or all of them could have given convincing performances, but the filmmakers were too busy padding out the runtime with scenes of overwrought dialogue and close-up shots, contributing nothing but one Oscar Clip after another.

So is this a bad movie? Well, no. After all, it’s undeniable that a wide array of talents went into this picture, so of course the end result is going to be watchable. And while we do have to cut through a lot of extraneous filler (seriously, this two-hour movie feels twice as long), the picture is genuinely compelling when we get to the stuff that really matters. There’s even a neat bit of comic relief in places — there’s one bit with a lemonade stand that’s especially funny.

All told, The Post is a textbook example of “so good it’s bad” filmmaking. It’s a movie that does nothing wrong because it takes no chances and says nothing new. It stays perfectly within the lines, doing nothing especially well or terribly, but does exactly what it’s supposed to and expects an Oscar as a participation trophy. It’s not poorly made, it’s just boring and too complacent in its own sense of self-importance.

It’s certainly worth seeing for the Oscar completionists, but nobody else should bother.

Paddington 2

Posted February 25, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

I was sincerely thrilled to see Paddington get a sequel. The movie was a delightful oddity that deserved so much better than the advertising and release date it got. So here I am, finally reviewing Paddington 2, and uh… yeah, it’s pretty much more of the same.

The franchise’s trademark sense of humor is still in place, still defiantly self-aware of its own ridiculous premise and still unmistakably British. It’s unrepentently silly and outrageously implausible, and some of the extended “screwball hijinks” sequences can grate one’s patience. Yet the movie gets away with all of that because so much effort was put into the diabolically clever setups/payoffs and the comic timing of every joke.

What’s more, the movie is bright and colorful, with a ton of neat little sight gags tucked away in the corners. A particular highlight is a pop-up book segment early on that’s simply breathtaking. And of course we can’t forget the multitude of talented actors populating the cast, every last one of whom came ready to play.

Of course, this movie is very different from the prequel in that this is not an origin story. What we get instead is… whoo boy.

First off, Paddington (Ben Whishaw, still endearing in his voice performance of the title role) finds a pop-up book that he wants to get as a birthday present for his beloved Aunt Lucy. Trouble is, the book is one-of-a-kind and worth a great deal of money, so Paddington — clumsy, naive, ignorant yet well-meaning Paddington — has to get a job. Hijinks ensue through the clunky first act, but we’re still not done with the premise.

To make a long and ridiculously contrived story short, the book turns out to be a treasure map. The book is stolen, Paddington is framed for the theft, and he gets sent off to prison. Not like a zoo or anything — that would make too much sense — but an actual prison with human convicts. Meanwhile, Paddington’s adoptive family — the Browns, played once again by Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, and Julie Walters — have to clear Paddington’s name and stop the treasure heist already in progress.

You might be able to see the problem here.

To be fair, the central crux of Paddington’s character is that he always sees the best in everyone, he stays cheery and polite through the worst of adversity, and somehow everything works out for him. With that in mind, putting him in a prison makes all kinds of sense. Unfortunately, so long as Paddington — our title character, remember — is behind bars, his ability to directly impact the plot is significantly limited. Yes, the movie pads out the runtime with sight gags and pratfall sequences, showing how our little bear is making friends and brightening up the prison in his own unique way. And while a fair bit of that is setup for plot points that do indeed pay off at the end, it doesn’t change the fact that most of the actual plot is unfolding without a hitch while the freaking protagonist is sidelined.

So Paddington and his antics take up a third of the runtime while our antagonist (more on him later) takes up at least another third, while the Brown family struggles to keep up. And this is only a 100-minute movie, so it’s not like these characters have a lot of screen time to split between them.

The result is a movie that’s very thinly-plotted, bouncing around from one subplot to the next with more concern for speed than coherent storytelling. Then again, the speed adds a great deal to the comic timing and keeps the jokes coming at a good clip. And anyway, this is a movie about a talking bear who stands just over a meter tall on two legs. Coherence was always going to be a dicey notion with that premise, and the filmmakers have shown perfect awareness of that since day one of the first movie.

There’s no way this movie would’ve worked anywhere near as well without the confidence and comic timing of writer/director Paul King, but of course the cast deserves a great deal of credit as well. There are a ton of great cameo players here — to many to name, in fact, and I’d hate to spoil the surprises — but every single one gets a laugh. We’ve also got Brendan Gleeson in a new supporting role, and it’s fantastic to see him chewing up the scenery in such a ridiculous part. The actors playing the Browns all do okay, even if the lion’s share of their development happened off-screen in between films. Seriously, everything we ever need to know about them is given to us in voice-over at the top of the film, which is pretty sloppy storytelling. Though a lot of it does pay off in surprising ways at the climax, so there’s that.

(Side note: Sally Hawkins’ character has apparently been training to swim across the English Channel, so she gets an underwater sequence here. Didn’t expect to see another underwater sequence with Hawkins again so soon, but here we are.)

But the MVP of the cast is unquestionably Hugh Grant, here playing a washed-up actor who serves as our antagonist. Film historians will have to spend the next several years cataloguing all the different ways that Grant mugs for the camera here. He came here to chew scenery and give fucks, and he’s fresh out of fucks to give. By the end of his mid-credits musical number (yes, you heard me), bits of the scenery have already been passed in his stool and Grant has moved on to chewing the goddamn celluloid. It’s truly an over-the-top marvel.

What it comes down to is that if you saw Paddington and you were hoping for a sequel, Paddington 2 will not disappoint. It’s incredibly stupid and thinly-plotted in a way that will keep the kids entertained, but so much energy and creativity went into the presentation that adults will be entertained as well. It’s not easy to hate something this well-intentioned and committed to its own ludicrous nature. Plus, the movie’s basic theme of staying polite and optimistic is so simple and yet so earnestly presented that it’s really quite charming.

The previous film is still probably the better one — certainly the more focused one, plotwise — but if you’ve already taken your kids to see that one, you should definitely give this one a shot.

Black Panther

Posted February 16, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

So. How’ve you been?

Me, I finally decided to step away from the blog so I could make my debut as a playwright/producer. It went great, thanks for asking. I have another script in production right now, but the rehearsal schedule is much less demanding and another company is doing all the heavy lifting on producing. This means I can’t do my usual Oscars festivities this year, but I’m so far behind the curve on this year’s Oscar race it wouldn’t be up to my usual standard anyway. I do want to remount “From the Ruby Lounge” eventually, but in the meantime, I’m happy to get back to analyzing someone else’s work instead of obsessively worrying about my own.

And here I am starting with a critic-proof movie. Though to be fair, Black Panther isn’t just critic-proof in the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe “everybody loves this movie and anyone who doesn’t is obviously baiting the fanbase” kind of way. No, this movie is critic-proof because we need this movie to be good. This movie is so different in so many ways that it’s culturally important on a level we haven’t seen since Wonder Woman.

In point of fact, both movies are very much alike in that they had to present an inspirational and uplifting hero for a massive subset of people who’ve gone so long without proper representation in superhero cinema. Moreover, with Wakanda and Themyscira, both movies had to craft and present a sprawling and vibrant culture that could plausibly live next to and apart from the world at large. These are both surprisingly tall orders, so it’s a mercy that both movies turned out so well.

To be clear, Black Panther does have flaws. To start with, I really wasn’t impressed with the action and spectacle. I found the action to be poorly shot, blandly choreographed, and the 3D effects added nothing. But far more importantly, while the global stakes are well-defined and appropriately dire, the smaller interpersonal stakes mean very little. It’s been established that Wakanda is so technologically advanced and its citizens so well-trained in combat that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his peers are borderline invincible in combat. Hell, the nation is so far advanced that they have gadgets for every conceivable scenario and they can instantly heal wounds that should be damn near fatal.

Throw in the standard plot shield (because of course the title character is never in any serious mortal peril) and the fights become so much more boring. That said, there is at least a nice bit of variety to the action scenes — armed combat, unarmed combat, T’Challa fighting in and out of the suit (not that it makes any real difference, since he still has superpowers either way), aerial combat, car chases, and so on. All that product placement for Lexus got pretty egregious, though.

So, the action’s not all that great. But everything that happens around the action is aces.

See, while T’Challa can more than handle himself against weapons and fists, he’s a freshly-coronated king who doesn’t really know how to rule his people. It’s quite impressive how the movie takes us through the different tribes, feuds, agendas, alignments, and royal family politics of Wakanda. Hell, the filmmakers did a fantastic job of making Wakanda feel like a lived-in place with its own massive culture, history, traditions, language, and style. This is a huge part of why this movie absolutely needed a black director: a white filmmaker could never have gone remotely far enough in crafting an African culture with such a painstaking level of detail, certainly not without inducing some cringes. And all of this is done in a very expedient way, showing and telling just enough to draw the audience in without slowing the movie down.

But then we have the ethics of Wakanda itself, and that’s where this movie truly shines.

For those who aren’t up on their comic book lore, Wakanda was built around the world’s only source of vibranium. The people of Wakanda can access whole underground mountains of this miracle metal, resulting in a nation so wealthy and technologically advanced that they’ve been able to hide themselves from the rest of the world. The people of Wakanda pride themselves for being an African nation that’s never been conquered, a futuristic paradise in a deeply troubled continent.

Comic book fans have been asking for nearly a century why Superman — with all of his godlike powers — doesn’t simply take it on himself to assert his will and solve all the world’s problems. In this movie, the characters ask a similar question of Wakanda. The difference is that Superman’s arrival (in-universe, anyway) was relatively recent, and Wakanda has literally been around since the dawn of civilization. Think of all the shit that’s happened in Africa and all around the world over the past five thousand years. Think of all the shit people have been doing to each other, and especially to people of color; all the nations in Africa and the Middle East getting invaded and colonized; all the people getting captured, forcibly trafficked and sold into slavery, raped, exploited, and killed in the process of manual labor; all the people of color who are dying and killing because they don’t have enough… and Wakanda could’ve solved all of that. But instead, Wakanda kept its wealth and technology secret, and watched all that shit happen without saying a word. Kind of a dick move.

Then again, even the vast resources of Wakanda are not limitless. There’s the very real possibility that Wakanda could only grow into such an incredible power precisely because it stayed isolated for so long. More importantly, there’s a line that has to be drawn: At what point does Wakanda become just another colonizing power? At what point do they become every bit as awful as the first-world countries who’ve sacked and pillaged Africa, abusing people who come from someplace else and/or look different?

All of this is stuff that T’Challa has to wrestle with, and Boseman is a perfectly charismatic actor who’s more than fit to play royalty. But what really makes all of this work is Michael B. Jordan, here playing the single greatest villain in the MCU to date. Yes, even better than Loki. By a mile. No contest.

Erik Stevens alias N’Jadaka alias Killmonger spent his entire life training to take the throne of Wakanda. But he’s fueled by such righteous anger and his family tragedy screwed him over so completely that the character’s motivation is deeply compelling. This is a character who’s seen pain and suffering up close, from the mean streets of Oakland to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a lethal fighter and a cunning tactician, even if he’s short-sighted enough to burn the whole world down purely out of spite. As a person, as a king, and as the custodian of Wakanda’s legacy, T’Challa is challenged by Killmonger in every conceivable way, pushed to the breaking point as only a truly great supervillain could do.

By comparison, I’m sorry to say that Andy Serkis is totally wasted as Ulysses Klaw. Yes, Serkis is milking every second of screen time for all it’s worth so long as he’s onscreen and out of a mocap suit, but his character is still a tragic letdown. Oh, and Martin Freeman playing an American still doesn’t work. I don’t care how bland his accent is, Freeman is still so quintessentially British that there’s no possible way he could play an American, much less a plausible CIA operative. It’s admittedly quite nice that he got a sweet action sequence in the climax, but this is still a huge step down from Agent Coulson.

The rest of the cast ranges from solid to middling. Forest Whitaker could play this role in his sleep, and he appears to be doing precisely that. Angela Bassett doesn’t have much to do as T’Challa’s mother, but she does it well. Winston Duke takes what could’ve been a flat background role and turns his character into a neat bit of comic relief. Lupita Nyong’o plays one of the stronger love interests among recent entries in the MCU, but it’s still hard to imagine that the film would’ve played out much differently if she had been cut entirely. Danai Gurira shines as the general of the royal guard, very nicely portraying Okoye’s dilemma between her duty to country and her duty to whomever happens to be sitting on the throne.

John Kani gets a delightful cameo role as the late king T’Chaka. They even got Kani’s son — Atandwa Kani — to play a young T’Chaka in flashbacks. Sterling K. Brown has a sadly brief yet memorable turn as Killmonger’s father. Daniel Kaluuya plays a character with so many deeply held friendships and personal desires that it’s genuinely intriguing to see what he’ll do and how his decisions are influenced.

But the standout of the supporting cast (save only for Michael B. Jordan) has to be Letitia Wright. She plays a bona fide scientific prodigy who’s got the gadgets and she knows how to use them. Shuri is a smartass comic relief and a badass combatant. On every level, this character totally works.

As for miscellaneous notes, I was a bit disappointed by the music. While the score has a suitably African sound to it, I’m always let down by a superhero score that doesn’t leave me with an iconic theme stuck in my head as I exit the theater. There’s a Stan Lee cameo and it’s just okay, ditto for the two post-credits scenes. There’s nothing overt to set up Avengers: Infinity War, but given certain Wakandan rituals that we see and Wakanda’s prominent appearance in the trailer for Infinity War, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Soul Stone is hiding in the background somewhere.

While Black Panther does have the action and CGI spectacle that we expect from a superhero romp, that isn’t why this movie succeeds. Rather, this movie works because it puts a significant emphasis on developing Wakanda into a fleshed-out world of its own, at the expense of further developing the greater MCU. Moreover, the plot’s conflict is primarily focused on sociopolitical racial commentary, with a subtle yet wickedly incisive statement about our own “America First” policies of late. These are all bold choices for a billion-dollar superfranchise to make, never mind a multimillion-dollar franchise based on an obscure comic property making its cinematic debut (Civil War notwithstanding). But because these choices were so bold and timely, and because the movie was crafted by so many intelligent filmmakers, it all totally works.

I wouldn’t recommend the 3D option, but I’d totally recommend the movie.