Marvel Studios’ latest film Black Panther is a marvelously entertaining and engaging film that works on many levels–levels of plot, character development, symbolism, and meaning that make this more than your average superhero movie.
Created by comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, first appeared as a Marvel comic book character in the 1960s in an issue of Fantastic Four. T’Challa comes from the fictional African country of Wakanda, home to an unusual substance called “vibranium” which has allowed the country to prosper in remarkable ways–so remarkable, that its leaders decide to keep the country’s very existence a secret from the rest of the world. T’Challa has some mad physical skills and abilities achieved through drinking a special “heart-shaped herb” exclusive to Wakanda; he also relies on his own hard work with his studies and physical training to take out his enemies and to protect his people.
Black Panther’s first appearance in a film within the current Marvel Studios’ “Cinematic Universe” was his memorable introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (highly recommended viewing if you haven’t seen it). For this new film, the story picks up shortly where Captain America: Civil War left off: T’Challa/Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) is grieving the death of his father, King T’Chaka (played by John Kani), who was tragically killed via the big baddie of Civil War, Zemo (played by Daniel Brühl). T’Challa returns home to hidden Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. However, trouble and intrigue lurk when T’Challa’s cousin Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) decides to travel from America to Wakanda and make his move on the throne, too.
As T’Challa is about to face this serious threat, he is taking on the heavy burden of deciding the fate of his country–should Wakanda stay hidden to the world or should it share its abundant wealth and technological resources with other nations and, importantly, other Africans around the world to help them with their struggles and needs, too?
What follows is a genre swirl of a political and family drama, a high energy action film, and a Shakespearean tragedy that all work surprisingly well together. The script is so solid on every level. And the entire story is presented with unflinching honesty and generous humanity towards African history, racial strife, and many other challenges facing people around the world today.
Writer and director Ryan Coogler pulled together an incredible team both in front of and behind the camera. The cast is universally terrific. I was also taken with the stunning African-inspired art direction and production and costume designs. This letter penned by Ryan Coogler after the film’s record-breaking opening weekend has been making its way around social media this week.
“Wakanda Forever” is not only a battle cry, but an idea, a hope, and a prayer for a better future for all people of African descent, and, hopefully, for all mankind. Black Panther shows through its levels of excellent storytelling and filmmaking that the struggle is real, compassion and charity never fail us, and that a positive outlook on the future far outweighs carrying forward the sins of the past.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
As an added bonus, here’s a Black Panther poster I love by artist Kaz Oomori.
Studio Ghibli, the wonderful Japanese animation studio founded by animation legends Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, is sending more of their classic films to U.S. theaters again in 2018. After a successful run of screening six of their films last year on the big screen under the guise of “Studio Ghibli Fest 2017,” Studio Ghibli along with the film distributor GKIDS will be screening a whopping nine films in over 700 theaters across the U.S.A. for their upcoming Studio Ghibli Fest 2018.
If you are a Studio Ghibli or anime fan (or both), you will love seeing these digital prints of these beautiful films on the big screen. Theater listings and tickets are now available on the Fathom Events website. Both English dubbed and subtitled versions will be shown (check the Fathom Events site for details). Here’s a graphic with the full lineup (courtesy of the GKIDS Facebook page) so you can save the dates on your calendar.
GKIDS also provided these official film summaries and images, too.
Ponyo – 10th Anniversary Sunday, March 25; Monday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 28
When Sosuke, a young boy who lives on a cifftop overlooking the sea, rescues a stranded goldfish named Ponyo, he discovers more than he bargained for. Ponyo is a curious, energetic young creature who yearns to be human, but even as she causes chaos around the house, her father, a powerful sorcerer, schemes to return Ponyo to the sea. Miyazaki’s breathtaking, imaginative world is brought to life with an all-star cast, featuring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin, Liam Neeson and more.
The Cat Returns Sunday, April 22; Monday, April 23 and Wednesday, April 25
Haru is walking home after a dreary day of school when she spies a cat with a small gift box in its mouth crossing a busy street, and she jumps in front of traffic to save the cat from an oncoming truck. To her amazement, the cat gets up on its hind legs, brushes itself off, and thanks her very politely. But things take an even stranger turn when later than night, the King of Cats shows up at her doorstep in a feline motorcade.He showers Haru with gifts, and decrees that she shall marry the Prince and come live in the Kingdom of Cats!
Porco Rosso Sunday, May 20; Monday, May 21 and Wednesday, May 23
Porco Rosso is a world weary flying ace-turned-bounty-hunter, whose face has been transformed into that of a pig by a mysterious spell. When he infuriates a band of sky pirates with his heroics, the pirates hire Curtis, a hotshot American rival, to get rid of him. But with the help of the teenage girl Fio, an aspiring airplane designer, and sultry lounge singer named Gina, Porco takes to the skies for what may be his final high-flying showdown.
Pom Poko Sunday, June 17; Monday, June 18 and Wednesday, June 20
From the legendary Studio Ghibli, creators of Spirited Away, and Academy Award®-nominated director Isao Takahata, comes an action-packed ecological fable about the clash between nature and human civilization.
The tanuki (raccoon dogs) of Tama Hills find their fun-loving community under attack when their quiet woodlands are threatened by encroaching developers looking to create still more houses and shopping malls. Desperate to survive, the tanuki band together and learn the ancient art of transformation, shape-shifting into a comical variety of humans and spirits as they undertake a last-ditch plan to scare away the humans and save their home, in this deeply-affecting, funny and heartfelt look at what it means to live in the modern world.
Princess Mononoke Sunday, July 22; Monday, July 23 and Wednesday, July 25
Inflicted with a deadly curse, the young warrior Ashitaka heads west in search of a cure. There, he stumbles into bitter conflict between Lady Eboshi, the proud people of Iron Town, and the enigmatic Princess Mononoke, a young girl raised by wolves, who will stop at nothing to prevent the humans from destroying her home and the forest spirits and animal gods who live there.
Featuring the voices of Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith and Billy Bob Thornton.
Grave of the Fireflies – 30th Anniversary Sunday, August 12; Monday, August 13 and Wednesday, August 15
Directed by Academy Award®-nominated Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies has been universally hailed as an artistic and emotional tour de force.
As the Empire of the Sun crumbles upon itself and a rain of firebombs falls upon Japan, the final death march of a nation is echoed in millions of smaller tragedies. This is the story of Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, two children forced to fend for themselves in the aftermath of fires that swept entire cities from the face of the earth. Their struggle is a tribute to the human spirit. Presented in its digitally remastered and restored format, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the rare films that truly deserves to be called a masterpiece.
My Neighbor Totoro – 30th Anniversary Sunday, September 30; Monday, October 1 and Wednesday, October 3
Celebrate the 30th anniversary of My Neighbor Totoro, from the legendary Studio Ghibli, creators of Spirited Away, and Academy Award®-winning director Hayao Miyazaki. When Satsuki and her sister Mei move with their father to a new home in the countryside, they find country life is not as simple as it seems. They soon discover that the house and nearby woods are full of strange and delightful creatures, including a gigantic but gentle forest spirit called Totoro, who can only be seen by children. Totoro and his friends introduce the girls to a series of adventures, including a ride aboard the extraordinary Cat Bus, in this all-ages animated masterpiece featuring the voices of Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, and real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, in a classic tale of magic and adventure for the whole family.
Spirited Away Sunday, October 28; Monday, October 29 and Wednesday, October 30
Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award®-winning masterpiece Spirited Away was the biggest box office hit of all time in Japan and helped redefine the possibilities of animation for American audiences and a generation of new filmmakers.
Chichiro thinks she is on another boring trip with her parents. But when they stop at a village that is not all that it seems, her parents undergo a mysterious transformation, and Chihiro is whisked into a world of fantastic spirits, shape-shifting dragons and a witch who never wants to see her leave. She must call on the courage she never knew she had to free herself and return her family to the outside world.
Combining Japanese mythology with Alice in Wonderland-type whimsy, Spirited Away cemented Miyazaki’s reputation as an icon of animation and storytelling.
Castle in the Sky Sunday, November 18; Monday, November 19 and Wednesday, November 20
Castle in the Sky is a timeless stor of courage and friendship, with stunning animation from acclaimed Academy Award®-winning director Hayao Miyazaki.
This high-flying adventure begins when Pazu, an engineer’s apprentice, spies a young girl, Sheeta, floating down from the sky, held aloft by a glowing pendant. Both Sheeta and Pazu are searching for the legendary floating castle, Laputa, and they vow to travel there together to unravel the mystery of the luminous crystal. But their quest won’t be easy, as soon they are being pursued by greedy air pirates, the military, and secret government agents, who all seek the power Sheeta alone can control.
The English-dubbed cast includes the vocal talents of Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Cloris Leachman, Mark Hamill, Mandy Patinkin and more.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of the Star Wars saga that began with George Lucas’ original film from 1977, hit theaters last week. The internet has been abuzz about the movie (to say the least; more on that at the end of the review). More importantly, the world has another Star Wars film to enjoy, dissect, and ponder upon. The fact that in 2017 we have yet another all-new Star Wars movie in theaters is a modern-day miracle which I definitely do not take for granted.
The new film begins right where 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (aka Episode VII) left off. The evil First Order is still ruling the galaxy with an ever tighter grip, even after their Starkiller Base was destroyed by the Resistance fighters. Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) has been tasked by General Leia (in the late Carrie Fisher’s final time in the role) to go to the ancient Jedi temple on the planet of Ahch-To where her brother Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) has been in hiding for years to try to recruit him back into the fight and restore hope to the Resistance. As we saw in The Force Awakens, Rey arrives on the island, hands Luke his family lightsaber, and awaits for his response.
What follows is an unconventional, thought-provoking, emotional, surprising, and highly entertaining cinematic adventure. Writer and director Rian Johnson (and, clearly, the story group at Lucasfilm) made some bold and controversial choices for the film’s narrative and for all of Star Wars moving forward. And, frankly, as the stewards of the Star Wars universe, the choices were theirs to make.
First, the decision to portray Luke Skywalker as a broken, bitter man was an unorthodox one. Devastated that his nephew Ben Solo (played by Adam Driver) turned to the dark side of the Force while under his tutelage, Luke carries a burden that completely shuts him down. He retreats from the Force and from life, existing in a state of numbness. When Rey shows up and basically wakes him up out of his deeply depressive condition, Luke has some decisions to make. Should he return to his sister Leia’s side and to the Resistance? Should he train Rey in the ways of the Jedi? Or should he continue on his current path of nothingness?
It’s difficult to watch your fictional childhood heroes go through a painful, and very human-like, trial. Yet, by making Luke more human, he ultimately becomes more heroic. After Luke re-opens himself to the Force, his Jedi master Yoda (again voiced by Frank Oz, and in puppet form!) visits him as a Force ghost and, in his inimitable style, frees Luke of the burden he’s been carrying. The burning of the Jedi tree and library looked to me like a representation of the Resistance symbol and, more importantly, of a Phoenix rising.
Next, the “wars” part of Star Wars is in full force, so to speak, as the Resistance continues their losing battle against the First Order. After General Leia gets severely injured, Vice Admiral Holdo (played by Laura Dern) takes her place. Hot-shot (and hot-headed) pilot Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) clashes with her on how to run things. When it’s discovered that the First Order can track the Resistance fleet through light speed, Poe secretly sends former stormtrooper Finn (played by John Boyega) and Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) on a dangerous mission to disable the tracker.
This subplot with Finn and Rose was also an interesting decision. While some (myself included, initially) might view this as a waste of time and space, upon further reflection, I believe this part of the storyline was crucial in Finn’s character arc of figuring out how he fits in to the overall picture of the Resistance. It helps him solidify what he believes in and what’s he willing to sacrifice for it. When the mysterious DJ (played by Benicio Del Toro), a rogue that Finn and Rose meet on the casino planet Canto Bight, teaches Finn about the complications of war and how both sides are buying weapons and machinery from the same people, Finn’s eyes are opened and he is able to make a more informed decision about how he wants to live his life.
The most dynamic and interesting relationship in the film is between Ben Solo/Kylo Ren and Rey. Both characters are on parallel paths with different destinations. Kylo has chosen the path of the dark side of Force, while Rey continues to be a ray of light. When Supreme Leader Snoke (played in performance capture by Andy Serkis) uses the Force to bring the two of them together in multiple conversations and interactions during the course of the film, the chemistry between them is electric. The story effectively gives both characters the chance to switch alliances, so to speak, in a compelling way that furthers the storyline and shows what Rey and Kylo are truly made of. (And get ready for one of the coolest fight scenes in any Star Wars film when Rey and Kylo join forces for a moment to fight against Snoke’s Praetorian Guards.)
For me, The Last Jedi was a continual wonder. The plot and decisions were logical yet unpredictable. The production design, art direction, and all special effects were top notch. If I have a complaint, the runtime of The Last Jedi was perhaps just a bit too long.
About the internet backlash surrounding the film, the New York Times has a nice summary about what’s been going on. I’m sorry that something as marvelous and miraculous as a new Star Wars movie has made people so angry and sad. I mostly just wish that people could evaluate something on its own merits rather than putting their individual expectations on something that they had no input in creating. And I wish for civility and decency in all online communications from all sides and from all viewpoints (myself included).
Go see The Last Jedi on the biggest screen possible, leave your preconceived notions at the door, and enjoy the ride.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Bonus Posters! Here are three fantastic posters for Star Wars: The Last Jedi designed by Japanese artist Kaz Oomori for PosterPosse.com.
Welcome to my new movie blog. I thought it would be appropriate for the first entry in my blog to honor my all-time favorite movie, Warner Bros.’ classic Casablanca (1942) which recently celebrated its 75th birthday.
Casablanca is in the national filmgoing consciousness, whether one realizes it or not. The number of quotable quotes from the film alone make it probably one of the, well, most quoted films ever (just a sample: “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and the often misquoted line “Play it, Sam”). But it’s the film’s themes of duty, honor, self-sacrifice and finding love within a world gone mad that keep me coming back for more.
Although Casablanca took home three Academy Awards in 1943 for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, according to an article on TCM.com, “Casablanca did not truly strike a resounding chord with American culture until about 20 years after its 1942 release. In the 1960s, a few years after Humphrey Bogart’s death in 1957, a movie theater called The Brattle [which still shows classic films; I’ve added it to my bucket list] in Cambridge, Massachusetts started reviving Casablanca for three weeks every year, drawing enthusiastic and increasingly larger crowds. Eventually, fans started showing up wearing trench coats and snap-brim hats like Bogie. These fans would even recite dialogue with the film…”