Terrible Reviews: Black Panther


black_panther_head

Black Panther is probably the smartest movie Marvel has made yet.

We saw it the other night. I’m writing this knowing that my review is going to be terrible, because I loved the movie so much. It’s too much fun, it’s too well done, it’s too socially savvy, for me to give it a thrashing. I spent most of the movie grinning like a maniac. So rather than “The Good, The Bad, The WTF,” I’ll just focus on a few points that the movie executes like an olympic figure skater on uppers, hopefully without spoiling too much.

So here’s what’s awesome about it.

black panther GIF by Marvel Studios

The Characters

The film is beautifully cast with characters to love, and to love to hate, all around. Sterling K. Brown turns everything he touches to gold. We didn’t even know he was in the movie when we bought our tickets — and he’s just a minor part. Here you’ve got the likes of juggernauts like Forrest Whitaker, playing a damaged prime minister type; Angela Bassett, the widowed queen and mother to the new king — and these, again, are only the supporting cast.

If you don’t leave the theater loving Shuri (Letitia Wright) and quoting her (“What are THOOOOOOOSSSSEEEEE??”), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t leave the theater conflicted as hell over the fate and the idealism of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (horrible name but fantastic villain), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t pump your fist and grit your teeth every time Danai Gurira’s Okoye puts the smack down on some hapless dude, there may be something wrong with you.

Of course, the titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is dashing and conflicted and awesome. He’s believable and sympathetic, and he anchors the picture admirably. But the standout really is the supporting cast; especially:

The Women

Okay, so Black Panther is the figurehead, but the movie is less about the single superhero and more about the network propping him up. Of course, they can’t call the movie Black Panther’s Support Group, but trust me when I say that the real heroes of this movie are the women. Shuri is the Q to the Panther’s James Bond: her inventions have BP on the cutting edge of keeping bad guys down. His first lieutenant, Okoye, doles out enough beatdowns on her own to deserve her very own film. And his mother, the former queen, is the glue holding her family — and the country — together in the face of a series of national crises.

They don’t just support the hero, they do virtually all of the heavy lifting. If not for the women, the Panther would be beaten, killed or captured in the first twenty minutes, movie over.

black panther trailer GIF

But what’s refreshing about the way this movie treats its women is that there’s not a single moment of condescension or disbelief that the world of Black Panther works in this way. Of course Shuri is the head of technology in Wakanda; why shouldn’t she be? Of course Okoye is the first lieutenant — just look at her fight. (There’s a fantastic moment where one of the male warriors realizes he’s about to have to fight with Okoye, and he is visibly shook.) There’s not a whisper of any futzing about with the “but she’s a girl!” nonsense — from the people in the immediate circle, anyway — they just are what they are.

The Villain

So it’s sort of an understood rule in storytelling that a good villain can’t be a mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world evil bastard in black. The villain has to be sympathetic, their drives must make sense, there must be an element of there but for the grace of God go I. Every character, and every villain, is the hero of their own story, after all.

But unlike most movies, this villain is particularly problematic. Because if you flip the script around, and imagine that the story we follow is not the story of T’Challa, but is instead the story of Killmonger (god, what a stupid name), the story works just as well — just with a different ending. Killmonger’s goals are entirely sympathetic, and are particularly troublesome for T’Challa: so much so that the king actually has to change the way he thinks about the world.

Killmonger fights for what he knows to be right. He’s a villain only because of the forced perspective the film gives us. That’s good storytelling. And Michael B. Jordan’s performance is really something to behold.

The Social Side

It’s hard to read about the movie without hearing about the social commentary, but what I really love about Black Panther — why I think it’s Marvel’s smartest movie yet — is that the commentary is less sledgehammer, more dagger in your ribs. It’s so easy for movies “with a message” to come at you, guns blazing, with everything but a flashing neon THIS IS IMPORTANT marquee over the screen. Black Panther doesn’t do that. In fact, if you prefer your superhero movies divorced from social commentary, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Black Panther just as much. The meta level is just another layer in a billionty-layer cake of goodness: ruminate on it if you like, ignore it if you don’t. The movie will be just as sweet either way.

But assuming you’re like me and you don’t mind — you actually prefer — to think about what a story is trying to tell you, here’s a taste: Wakanda isn’t a backwater country in deepest Africa. It’s America. Technologically advanced beyond every other nation, yet mired (and maybe even hamstrung) by archaic traditions and religions. Turns a blind eye to the suffering of untold millions across the world in the name of self-preservation. Righteously nationalistic.

Then: the nation finds itself in turmoil when an outsider unseats the king and threatens to blow up the status quo. The second half of the movie is about the power struggle and the existential question of whether the country and its people must adhere to tradition and law or whether they must do what they believe is right.

So … yeah. Let me not spoil things any further.

The Verdict

Look, I love a good superhero movie. I even enjoy a bad superhero movie (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman, which I did not hate). But even a guy like me, who theoretically cannot get enough superhero movies, is sort of suffering from superhero movie fatigue these days. Pretty soon we’ll be on our 5th Spider-Man reboot and Netflix will be launching its original series about Wolverine’s cousin’s daughter’s step-sister. It’s hard to ignore that Marvel is milking the current cash cow for all it’s worth.

But this is a movie worth getting milked over. It’s not just a good superhero movie, it’s a great superhero movie — and a darn good movie, whether it’s about a superhero or not.

black panther marvel GIF

Do yourself a favor and see it.

Final verdict: Five out of five cooler-than-you salutes.

All images are obviously the property of Marvel.

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Rock Salt


This is a story about rocks.

Quinn loved rocks.

It wasn’t such an unusual thing for a young boy to love rocks, although maybe it was unusual for a young boy to love rocks as much as Quinn did. Every day, after school, Quinn would go into the woods behind his house, follow the leaf-strewn path down to MacIntyre Lake, and play with rocks for hours.

He’d seek out thin, palm-sized rocks smoothed by centuries of flowing water to skip on the lake. Largish rocks with flattened edges cracked by time to stack into teetering towers. Tiny, dense pebbles to wing at the occasional squirrel (he hit one, once, and watched it twitching on a bed of pinestraw for almost thirty minutes before it got up and stumble-ran off into the woods again). He even had a special collection of rocks that he just liked to look at.

Quinn’s mom thought his geological fixation was a bit much. But she also knew that her friend, Cheryl, had a husband who kept a collection of rocks in a cabinet in his basement. He was known to take them out and polish them and write the odd column about responsible rock ownership in the slower midweek editions of the town paper. “Quaint, but harmless,” was the thing most often said about him, and she could deal with her son being quaint, but harmless.

That all changed when Quinn took his rocks to school.

The first time, he didn’t do anything with them — just stowed them away in his backpack to prove to himself that he could do it.

The second time, he showed them to a few of his friends. They didn’t really understand why he wanted to bring rocks to school — school was school, after all, rocks didn’t really have much to do with it.

The day before the third time, Will Barrett tripped Quinn in the lunch line (his buddies dared him to trip the weirdo kid bringing his rocks to school). For the rest of the day, everybody called Quinn “Potato Face” (you couldn’t say a lot for the creativity of your average school kid, but what they lacked there they made up in tenacity).

Quinn showed up the third time with a bag brimming with good throwing rocks, waited til Will and his buddies were face-deep in cafeteria Sloppy Joes, and let fly. Will lost a tooth. Terry caught a sharp one in the eye and had to wear an eyepatch for a month. Finn took one in the head and thought he was fine, but later in the day they had to call an ambulance for him when he kept falling over. A little girl sitting at the next table — a third grader Quinn didn’t even know — got her forehead gashed open.

Of course, Quinn was suspended, but more surprising, the school board immediately moved to ban rocks in all schools. “Rocks have no place in the classroom,” the press release read, “and their presence can only serve at best to distract from the learning environment, and at worst to pose a threat of tangible physical harm to our students.” But the very next day, Cheryl’s husband (the rock collector) penned his midweek column and argued that rocks did have a safe place in schools under proper conditions, and even made the (admittedly in poor taste) joke that if some teachers had been carrying some good throwing rocks of their own, they might have taken Quinn down before he could do more substantial harm to his classmates.

A heated debate bubbled up in the community. The school board’s office became a regular site for heated arguments between previously civil members of the community. Some were angry that their kids, suddenly enamored with the idea of bringing rocks with them at all times, should be punished for doing so. Others were incensed at the possibility that their child might be in the same room with a rock without their knowledge. Still others argued that access to rocks was a fundamental right not to be impinged regardless of how anybody else felt about it. The ban was lifted, then reinstated, then lifted with restrictions, and there were regulations proposed about how many rocks a student could bring to school, or how long a student had to wait between applying for a rock permit and actually receiving his rock, until very few people actually knew what the specific rules were on rocks in the first place.

While that was going on, a strange thing happened. Kids at the school began bringing rocks to school anyway. Rocks could be found everywhere, after all, and were easy to conceal. And you didn’t have to be a rock enthusiast to recognize the advantage a rock in your backpack could provide in a schoolyard scuffle. Before the month was out, rock-related incidents between students had skyrocketed.

Even worse, the kids were innovating. One student proudly kept a thirty-pound rock, practically a boulder, in his backyard, just for the purpose of dropping it off the roof onto tin cans. Another devised a contraption — basically a forked stick with a bit of rubber tubing strung between its extremities — with which he could fling stones much faster, much farther, and much more accurately than anybody could throw them before. “Why would you ever need such things?” People asked them. They could have talked about the primal urge to domination, the hard-coded mine-is-bigger-than-yours urge, even the simple fact that having such things meant that you could seriously hurt somebody who messed with you, even if you didn’t want to. But all that tended to be ungainly and hard to explain to those asking the questions, so they answered “for sport” instead.

Worse still, an economy had sprung up around the enterprise. Some individuals found it worth their time to go out in search of the biggest rocks, or the most streamlined, or “rocks you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of,” and sell them for a profit. There was no shortage of demand, after all — since everybody, especially bad guys, had access to rocks, it only made sense to consider having some rocks yourself, just in case.

And kids continued to bring rocks to school, not always because they really liked rocks, but because rocks, being well-and-truly everywhere and the focus of so much discussion by now, seemed like the answer to all problems.

But little by little, kids — strangely, it was the kids and not the adults — decided they’d had enough of living with the fear that somebody could just walk into their school and start throwing rocks. It wasn’t fair to them that their education, to say nothing of their health and well-being, was suddenly viewed as secondary to the rights of a handful of students to tote rocks all over the place.

“But it’s for sport,” came the arguments.

“We have rights,” they continued.

“You can’t just –” they protested.

“Bullshit,” responded the students, and they went and laid down in the lawns of very powerful people, hoping somebody would notice them there.

They are laying there still.

But they are not entirely unnoticed.

It’s entirely about rocks, and not about something else. If you think it’s about something else, that’s your problem, not mine.

This story was born from a prompt by my writing spirit animal, Chuck Wendig: “a world without guns.” Even though this story is obviously about rocks, it was inspired by recent events surrounding things which are not rocks. Probably it doesn’t end quite as cleverly as I would have liked, but it’s hard to write endings for things which seem to have no end in sight.

Still, maybe there’s something different this time.


I Can’t Just “Watch Movies” Anymore


It’s no great secret that being a writer — well, being an artist at all, but specifically being somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling — warps the way you see the world a bit. In fact, part of my general unease of late centers on the fact that the real world functions so very decidedly unlike a story.

Still, it’s hard to help how you think, and while I’m hairline-deep in the editing process trying to make my drivel readable and coherent (a task that seems more in need of a blowtorch than a laptop most days), I can’t help seeing story everywhere I look. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what does that mean when every problem you see looks like it could be solved with a bit of narrative restructuring?

Anyway: my wife and I are sitting down last night watching Wonder, one of those feel-good movies designed to play on your heartstrings at the expense of a satisfying narrative. (See also: Parenthood, This is Us, or any other contemporary drama starring a big cast with a troubled family and scored with the sounds of a sweet, sweet soulful acoustic guitar. My wife will give me heck for not liking the movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just don’t feel satisfied by it. Emotions are not my thing since I’m basically a robot in a skin-suit. But it was fine. HONEY IT WAS FINE.) And, as we’re watching, in my head I’m silently going down the list.

Call to action: check.

Meeting the mentor: check.

Crossing the threshold: check.

(What? This is how I watch movies now.)

And we get to the final third of the movie, and — no big spoiler here — the family dog gets sick, gets taken to the vet, and dies. (Okay, spoiler-for-everything alert — if the family pet is shown to be exceptionally adorable or loyal in the first act, it will die by the third act. Call it Chekhov’s Canine.) I jump up from the couch, pointing like Sherlock Holmes discovering the crime-solving clue, and shout “THE WHIFF OF DEATH!”

See, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and I know that there comes a moment toward the second half of the story where somebody or something close to the hero dies, reminding the hero of their mortality and spurring them to make the change necessary for the resolution of the central conflict. Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” and for whatever reason, I forgot about it, or wasn’t expecting to see it in this movie, or maybe it’s vacation so we were a couple of adult beverages in and I got a little enthusiastic. Anyway, the moment dropped like a a blue whale falling through the stratosphere and I HAD TO POINT IT OUT TO SOMEBODY.

My wife is unimpressed. She’s puzzled, and a little affronted, since she’s in her feelings watching the dad come home, sad-faced and apologetic, to deliver the bad news to the kids. It’s kind of a bolt-from-the-blue moment in the story. The dog isn’t really relevant to the narrative at all. But I saw it — and SEE it — for what it is: a cattle prod up the posterior of the protagonist to get him hustling into the final third of the movie. I try explaining this to her with lots of full-bodied gesticulation and noises about character development and guttural grunting. “THE WHIFF OF DEATH,” I exclaim again, both hands flung out toward the TV in a can’t-you-see-it gesture.

“Yeah,” she says. “The dog died. It’s sad.”

Which is right, too, I guess.

I have no idea how the movie ended; writing was so much on my brain by that point that I had to stop watching in favor of jotting down several book-saving ideas that I had failed to write down earlier in the day because I am an idiot.

Just kidding: (spoiler alert!) everything works out okay for the kid in the end, and everybody in the kid’s orbit learns some important lessons about life. See? It’s uplifting, and not at all like real life!

Now to figure out what we’re going to “watch” tonight.

 


Terrible Reviews: Otherworld


Here’s a book with a concept you’ve heard before: *a video game that’s realer than real life.* Do Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller freshen it up or drag its corpse behind the jalopy for a few cheap miles? Let’s find out!

Otherworld (Otherworld, #1)

Summary:

We’ve got this immersive VR world created by a shadowy company literally called “The Company” (which is an attempt at a joke every bit as disappointing as it seems) and piloted by this Elon Musk-ish figure. Owing to recent advances in technology, the game — which was failing monetarily — is rebranded and re-opened as a virtual reality world-substitute — an “other world,” GET IT? — for people suffering from disabilities who are otherwise unable to function in the real world. Of course, to open such a venture on the large stage requires lots of beta testing, and since living, breathing human test subjects are difficult to come by and legally problematic (the technology might-or-might-not kill people in the real world when their avatars die in the game world), The Company opts to make its own human subjects by staging accidents that send hapless victims into comas, and then administering chemical cocktails to keep them locked-in.

(If that sounds a bit mustache-twirling and far-fetched, well, just buckle in.)

The novel centers on Simon, a protagonist you’re going to hate, but not, I think, in that love-to-hate-them way. (More on that in a moment.) He’s enchanted with the idea of the Otherworld game but becomes obsessed with it when his kind-of-but-not-really girlfriend, Kat, becomes one of The Company’s victims and finds herself trapped in the game. His quest to save her and blow the lid off The Company’s secrets leads him through the immense and twisted Otherworld.

Critique (not exactly constructive):

I’ll keep my spoilers vague, since this book is fairly new, but much like my other recent read (Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties), the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is: meh. Otherworld is a softer take on The Matrix, a harder take on Tron, and it wants to be a gamer-geek’s take on The Hunger Games. The setup is fine, the premise is good; it just never seems to deliver in any satisfying way.

The biggest problem: the characters are a let down. The protagonist, Simon, is a jerk of the highest order. Not a jerk that you love to hate, a la House or Frank Underwood or Loki, but a jerk who you really wish would just go away. He’s rude to absolutely everybody he encounters in the real world with the exception of Kat, the girl who makes the mistake of giving him some attention (naturally, he’s completely in love with her). And there’s no good explanation for this ball of hate rolling around in his guts; he’s the child of fabulously wealthy parents whose only complaint is that his parents don’t pay attention to him. So he goes out sunbathing on his lawn in the nude to make his neighbors angry, knowing they’ll call his mother at work (…really?) to kick up a fuss. The authors want him to be an anti-hero, but he’s really just an a-hole.

His love interest, Kat, seems at first like this tough, troubled girl — you know, that elusive Strong Female Character type — but after the first third of the book, she’s relegated to the damsel in distress. Simon chases her into Otherworld, but there she’s just a mirage; always just out of reach, just out of sight. Further, upon reflection, I’m not sure we see a genuine interaction between her and another character in the book. She hangs around with some people Simon hates (yeah, I know, that narrows it down exactly zero) and seems like she might be dating some deadbeat (when she could have Simon, the … not deadbeat?), but don’t worry — she’s playing a long con, and they spend the final fifth of the book kissing every chance they get. Often when it’s totally inappropriate. (It’s gross.)

Their love story, by the way, is as ludicrous as you could hope. Never mind the ridiculous flippance and disdain Simon flings at everybody else he meets or the fact that Simon tells us, again and again, that he’d destroy all of Otherworld and everybody (real people, too!) living in it for her. They’re literally driven apart by an evil stepfather. I just … yeah. I’m moving on.

The continuity is suspect. Simon and his crew flit from one locale to another with no explanation of how they did it or how long it took. Sure, they’re in a video game so the rules could be bent, but there’s also very much the sense of — much like your average video game — okay, here’s the ice level, here’s the desert level, here’s the jungle level. At one point, Simon gets whipped away from his companions and beamed, Star Trek-style, to the other side of the world to die. But before long, one of his companions finds him. How? Don’t ask, she just does; and just in time to save him from certain death, besides. How fortuitous!

And of course, there’s the issue that most of the book takes place in the game world. Well, what about your body in the real world? To its credit, the book deals with this issue on the one hand — every time our hero wakes up in the real world, he finds he’s soiled himself and he’s starving. (Somebody in the real world even gives him diapers to help himself with this problem, which is actually pretty funny. But because he’s a class-A jerk, he doesn’t bother using them so that he can deliberately run around smelling of urine and feces.) But at the same time, he is somehow able to dip in and out of the game for days at a time, and his physical body is never found, never disturbed. This beggars belief.

Then, there’s the ending. Without spoiling it, the ending is a non-ending; a straight cliffhanger leading into the next book (as yet unreleased). Not a resolution to the conflicts opened by this book, but a continuation of them. Wholly unsatisfying.

Finally, I don’t know who the book is really aimed at. The premise and execution have a decidedly YA flair to them — Simon is of high school age, after all, going on a grand (virtual) adventure so save the (virtual) world. But the tone of the book is not at all YA. The main character’s thoughts and speech are littered with profanity, and it’s regularly intimated (and here and there outright stated) that Otherworld is a haven for orgies and all manner of devilish perversions. Not that I have a problem with that stuff, but I’m not sure a YA novel is the right place for it.

Verdict:

So — is the book any good? Well, despite my laundry list of complaints, I didn’t hate it. To be fair, I don’t think I liked it all that much, though it did tickle my geek-bone well enough to keep me turning the pages. And this concept alone is entertaining enough to me that I’m willing to dip my toes in just about any waters that explore the idea. The novel does try to explore some themes about the dark side of human nature. But it’s a bit like tossing frogs into boiling water rather than trying to cook them properly. There’s no wading in, there’s no gradual transition; we just find ourselves in the midst of cannibals and gladiators. The end result is less “oh, wow, that’s deep” and more “what the hell am I reading?”

Still, I can’t help feeling like *Otherworld* is trying to ride on the coattails of some other recent successes *cough Ready Player One cough* rather than trying to forge its own way. It’s a decent enough bit of escapist literature (and goodness knows we need that these days), but that’s about all it is.

The verdict: Two out of five smelly, peed-in pants legs.


Toddler Life, Chapter 329: Washing Machines Are Surprisingly Effective at Destroying Books


You’re a dad. You’re forgetful. It’s only natural. Your spawn deprives you of years’ worth of sleep with their abject refusal to recognize and observe an reasonable bedtime. Dehumanizes you through endless cleaning of their bodily fluids. Abuses you with an interminable barrage of questions and demands and gibberish statements. If you didn’t love them, it could reasonably be called torture.

So you can be cut some slack when you forget what day it is, or fail to turn in that permission slip, or leave the extra change of clothes at home. And it’s probably no big deal if you don’t notice things that the sharper members of the species might pick up on: the expired milk lurking in the back of the fridge, the due date for your next oil change, the fact that your kids’ clothes don’t match. You’re a dad. You’ve got a lot going on. I feel you.

But I also have you beat.

Through absolutely no fault of my own*, I put my daughter’s favorite book through the washing machine the other day.

In a fit of cleaning house, I spirited the laundry basket downstairs, dumped it in the machine, and shuffled back upstairs to lay down in the bed for thirty seconds pretending I’m the sort of guy who can lay down for a nap in the middle of a Saturday.

Have you ever done that? You haven’t, because even if you’re a sleep-deprived, tantrum-weary guy like me, you at least know to check what’s in the laundry hamper before you dump it in the wash.

Not me.

Advance the tape an hour.

Wife: Hey, did you mean to put a book through the laundry?

Me: What? I didn’t put a book through the laundry.

Wife: Yeah, you did.

Me: I’m sure I wouldn’t.

Wife: Well, I didn’t do it. Did you put this load of clothes in?

She holds up a wad of laundry. It looks like a toddler’s papier-mache project, if the toddler chewed up the papier-mache and spit it out again before starting to sculpt it.

Me: (thinking long and hard about what I could possibly say that isn’t “yes” because I obviously did) (replaying dumping the laundry into the washing machine in my head) (seeming to recall that there may have been a “clunk” that I didn’t bother to investigate) (recalling watching my daughter drop the book into the laundry basket earlier in the day and not doing anything about it right then because for god’s sake, it’s Saturday and I just can’t) …yeah.

Wife: (nodding in a way that’s not entirely sympathetic) …So.

Me: (nodding for lack of anything useful to say) …yep.

Wife: You know that’s her favorite book, right?

Me: I did not know that.

Wife: Uh-huh.

Me: In my defense —

Wife: No.

Me: Sorry?

Wife: You’re about to say, “in my defense, what’s a book doing in the laundry basket?”

Me: Yeah, obviously.

Wife: So it’s the book’s fault?

Me: …Kind of?

Wife: Just clean it up.

When a book gets wet, it goes all soggy and wobbly and wavy as the pages try to expand but can’t, really, as they get in each other’s way. Then when it dries out, it stays kind of wobbly and wavy and, strangely, brittle, forever bearing the mark of whatever negligence caused it to become wet in the first place.

When a book goes through the washing machine, it basically explodes. Half the book — the bit nearest the binding, including much (but not all) of the cover — was intact and in soggy-book state. The rest of it looked like it had been shredded for confetti and fired out of a high pressure cannon into the washing machine at close range. Bits of pulpy paper were stuck to the inside of the basin. The clothes were saturated with the stuff, soggy paper gluing the load of clothes together like a giant, nasty hairball. Fragments of the illustrations glared at me with disembodied eyes and wings and feet. (How they stared with wings and feet isn’t my problem — I felt thoroughly glared at. Though that may have just been my wife.)

Point is, dads, we have it rough. We catch a lot of blame for things that aren’t our fault.

But at least you didn’t wash your daughter’s favorite book.

*may have been entirely my fault


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