W.B. At the Movies: Black Panther

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We finally caught the first big film of the year, Black Panther, a couple of weeks ago to see what the fuss is all about. It’s as much of a triumph as you’ve heard – or, more likely, you saw it long before Red and me, and now you’re reading to see if we agree.

If you thought it was an epic story, a great adventure, and a masterful achievement in world building, we’re on the same page. The nation of Wakanda with its miraculous technology, warrior women and peaceful ethic seems fully realized as it is introduced and explored.

The central conflict resonates through the ages, as Wakanda emerges from its long disguise as a third-world nation. One royal (and our hero) considers sharing that amazing technology with the world, while another royal (our somewhat sympathetic villain) sees a chance to use the fabulous Wakandan weapons to conquer other nations in revenge for the oppression they rained on its people for centuries, establishing Wakanda as the One True Superpower that will rule the world The Right Way.

The story is a good allegory for those who remember a USA that renamed its Department of War as the Department of Defense, to emphasize that the Leaders of the Free World would only use their fabulous weapons for defensive purposes, would never again launch a first strike of the most terrible weapons, and would even share their defensive shield technology with their adversaries to ensure all would feel safe. Conquer and occupy the world? “That is not our way.” Good guys only use violence as a last resort and always only to defend themselves, after all.

The film has far too many scenes of chaotic battle where the action is framed so tightly it’s virtually impossible to determine what exactly is happening, other than that a lot of people are fighting. But that’s pretty much my only complaint. The climax has the classic “Star Wars” style structure with three interconnected battles taking place simultaneously with everything at stake. When it’s all resolved, there’s the requisite amount of triumph, relief and tragedy.

It’s great world building, terrific storytelling, and thought-provoking while maintaining its function as adventure entertainment. (Tangent: It’s amazing how much blood and gore can be implied – with much slashing and stabbing action – without actually showing blood and gore. That is NOT a complaint, necessarily.)

This is a film of grand spectacle, big themes, big story – it’s no wonder it has been so acclaimed. Black Panther is as good and as important a film as everyone says. I do wish those who celebrate the film would go deeper than celebrating the color of the cast’s skin and the gender of its mightiest elite warriors, because what it has to say about violence and the uses of technology is so much more important.

I also look forward to the day when we can stop talking about “what a great comic-book movie this is” and simply recognize “what a great movie this is,” without the caveat. No doubt that day will come; I remember a time when I felt I had to make a case that stories from comic books or science fiction can be worth telling, as if there was some stigma to overcome. Now some of our best and most popular entertainment is from comic books and science fiction.

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W.B. at the Movies: The Star Wars flicks

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I had a joyful experience watching the latest movie in the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi – more fun than I’d had since the second installment of the first trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.

Looking back, I think I can categorize the films in four levels. Mind you, I really have enjoyed all of these movies, even the much-maligned prequel films from 1999 to 2005, so I like even the least satisfying ones, but I like some more than others and would probably say I “love” only two, including the latest one.

Top tier – The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi (“Oh, that was awesome!!”)

Second tier – Star Wars*, The Force Awakens, Rogue One (“That was great!”)

Third tier – Return of the Jedi, Revenge of the Sith (“That was terrific but not quite perfect.”)

Fourth tier – Attack of the Clones, The Phantom Menace (“The story is interesting but the movie was kind of disappointing.”)

My general observations: The real home runs were hit in the middle chapters of the first and third trilogies, and I don’t think the first two third episodes quite connected as well as they should have (although Revenge of the Sith is clearly the best film of the prequels.)

The pressure is on for the next film, which needs to wrap up many arcs while setting the table for the next round.

* You can call it A New Hope if you want, but it will forever be Star Wars to me and, I dare say, most everyone who became a fan in 1977.

W.B. at the movies: The Cloverfield Paradox

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I love the idea of The Cloverfield Paradox. J.J. Abrams produced the film in secret, and Netflix released it unexpectedly – right after the Super Bowl after promoting it only in two short trailers during and after the game.

I love it because they pulled off a surprise in this techy world where everyone can know everything about upcoming pop culture projects. I love it because it disrupts the movie industry – not disruption for the sake of disruption, but because it’s something new that might be an improvement on the old ways – releasing a major film without much hype and direct to our living room.

It doesn’t matter if the film is any good – if it isn’t, one day a great film will be released in this way.

And now that I’ve watched it, The Cloverfield Paradox is better than some of the reviews led me to expect. It’s perhaps not the most compelling of the three Cloverfield movies but it’s easily the one with the most answers. We finally see the threads that tie together the giant monster dismantling New York and the bizarre stuff the denizens of the 10 Cloverfield Lane bunker see when they climb back to the surface.

The reviews I’ve seen say we aren’t motivated to care about the characters – but I cared – and complain about what the reviewers perceive as plot holes – but are they plot holes? The plot isn’t tied up in a tidy bundle, and some things don’t seem to make sense, but how is that different from the first two Cloverfield movies? Hmm?

The Netflix model is fun – so many projects waiting to be discovered, often unexpected, often quite good, with an undeniable edge. This may be the future, migrating from the walls of movie theaters to our family rooms, although few shared experiences are as delightful as watching a brilliant movie with a large and appreciative audience.

Whenever I hear the classic line, “Round up the usual suspects,” my heart returns to the moment when I first heard it, in the early 1970s at a Friday night screening filled with college kids who had never seen the film. The triumphant roar from that packed crowd was exhilarating.

2017 saved the best for last

W.B. at the Movies/W.B.’s Book Report:

I’ve been tracking the books I’ve read since 1994, and no year in this recorded history have I read as many as the 66 books that I devoured in 2017.

Michael Connelly accounted for 21 of those books, and my re-immersion into audiobooks (with a new 45-mile commute starting in March) is responsible for 44 of them. I became addicted to Connelly after deciding to sample his work after falling in love with the Amazon TV show Bosch, based on Connelly’s detective hero Harry Bosch. The books are as binge-worthy as the show, and the latest, Two Kinds of Truth, may be the best yet.

I also discovered Craig Johnson’s series of mysteries about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, and for essentially the same reason: I thoroughly enjoyed the Longmire TV show on Netflix and wanted more. The best thing is that Johnson’s regular reader, actor George Guidall, embodies Walt Longmire even better than Robert Taylor does on screen, so the novels I’ve “read” (the first five of 13 so far) have been a delight.

Unbroken-coverThe last book I “read” in 2017 was Laura Hillenbrand’s page-turner biography, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. I don’t read many biographies, but I was taken by Hillenbrand’s earlier book Seabiscuit and heard good things about this one.

Her story of Louis Zamperini – who carried the Olympic torch in 1990 through a town not far from the Japanese prisoner of war camp where he lived a hellacious existence for nearly two years – is as good as it gets.

Zamperini lived a remarkable 97-year life that saw him compete in the Olympics, survive 47 days in a liferaft on the Pacific Ocean after a bomber crash, struggle through the POW experience and post-war alcoholism, and emerge to find a way to forgive his tormentors. Hillenbrand’s prose more than does justice to an uncommon man.

Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi-posterI don’t keep track of the movies or TV shows I’ve watched (there are too many), but I do know my favorite movie theater experience of 2017 was also the last one: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. This film starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker was the most fun I’ve had in that long-ago, far-away galaxy since 1980 and The Empire Strikes Back.

Writer-director Rian Johnson filled the story with surprises, some more breathtaking than others, and we had a ball. This is just me, but you should know that back in the 1970s and early ’80s I watched the first three Star Wars films six to eight times each on the big screen. I even watched the much-maligned prequels of 15-20 years ago multiple times in the theater.

The 2015 revival film, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, was tremendous, yet I didn’t watch it a second time until a couple of weeks ago. It was great, but it didn’t draw my inner geek back for repeats. As this latest film reached its climax, however, I felt that old familiar tug of wanting to get back in line for another ride on the roller coaster.

I wholly recommend Unbroken to people who love a great book and Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi to people who love a great space opera. I know some people think Johnson took too many liberties with what they consider the Star Wars canon, but I don’t agree in the slightest. Last Jedi is a rousing flick that adds a small handful of exclamation points to the legend.

W.B. at the movies: Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

A giant sea creature is burrowing up a crowded urban river, tossing boats aside like confetti and generally killing and maiming everyone in its path.

The government calls a meeting. And there, everyone considers forming a committee, which will build a coalition, which will discuss creating a task force that will develop a report. All along, interchangeable faces earnestly debate the options regarding what should be done. And when the time comes to act or die, no one can make a decision.

Meanwhile, the big monster just keeps on a-coming. Continue reading