Tag Archives: women in film

Terrible Reviews: Black Panther


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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.

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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.


Terrible Reviews: Ghostbusters (2016)


So, the Ghostbusters reboot is out. And it’s gonna be hard to talk about the film without also talking about the six-hundred pound elephant in the room, which isn’t an elephant so much as it’s the manifestation of insecurities accumulated over decades.

There’s a bit of controversy around this film. I don’t know if you’ve heard. It has the dubious distinction of being the most downvoted trailer in film history, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t a thing until somebody who was determined to hate the movie went and counted to solidify his point. And, much like politics, the reasons for that largely depend on whom you ask.

Ask somebody who’s optimistic or indifferent about the reboot, and they’re likely to say the people downvoting the trailer and panning the film before it ever saw the light of day are antifeminist manbabies who, uh, tickle themselves to Pete Venkman getting slimed every night before they tuck in. These misogynists, they would have you believe, are just butthurt about the beloved franchise of their youth being repurposed with a female cast, and they are VERY VERY ANGRY ABOUT IT.

Ask somebody who’s not happy about the trailer, and they’ll blame it on any number of things: that the special effects look dopey, that the jokes aren’t funny, that the performances look flat, and the list goes on and on. Then there are those who insist that the film is “ruining their childhood” by remaking something that should never have been touched again, as if films, once they’re made, should get cast in bronze and locked in a hermetically sealed chamber until the rapture comes and Jesus himself uncorks them all for his own jolly consumption.

Then, of course, there are the actual misogynists, who literally say that it’s a bloody travesty for their beloved film to feature women in the lead roles.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s actually pretty damn tough to compare the 2016 Ghostbusters to the original, because they are not in any way the same film. They share the same conceptual core, the same nougaty center of “oddball scientists fighting ghosts and saving New York from the supernatural,” and pretty much diverge in every other way.

Whatever. Let’s get to the (spoiler-free!) review first, and we’ll get to the gender meta-analysis later. And I’ll go ahead and disclaim now that the original Ghostbusters is comfortably one of my top-5 films of all time. (And I didn’t hate this reboot.)

The Good:

Whatever else this film might be, it’s designed to be a summer blockbuster, which means action, some laughs, and a big, climactic showdown, probably one that causes millions of dollars in collateral damages and destroys most of a city.

And this film delivers that. The action sequences are pure eye-candy, with the redesigned but classic proton-packs slinging hot ghost death around willy-nilly, and a full load-out of new gizmos and doodads for the ‘Busters to show off. Proton Grenades, a Proton Shotgun, Proton Pistols … it’s all good and it’s all fun. (We’ll discuss the merits of this stuff later, but the visuals are top-notch.) McKinnon’s fight sequence with her Proton Pistols was a total wow-moment in the film, and her character is sure to be an audience favorite.

The comedy will be a sticking point for some people. The original had a dry, deadpan humor to it; this film is much more in the trenches. There’s slapstick. Poop and fart jokes. Ridiculousness. And a lot of people will hate that. But this film knows what it is, and that humor fits right in with the tone of this film, which is goofier than the original right from the start.

Then, the showdown. Buildings get smashed. Ghosts run amok. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, and it looks pretty great. I almost just typed that the final baddie was a bit ridiculous, but then I checked myself. We’re talking about a film in the original whose final showdown was with the StaPuft Marshmallow Man. So forget it. Last showdown is right in line with the tone of the film.

Finally, a note on the story: the main through-line of the story gets established a lot sooner in this film than in the original. Within the first twenty minutes or so, we see the guy (who will later become the big bad) messing around, acting weird, and his role is gradually fleshed out. In other words, we get an idea of what’s actually feeding the problem much earlier in this film than we did in the original (where we don’t really learn about Zuul or any of that until after the halfway point), and I think this film is better for it.

The Bad:

For me, the film has one critical flaw, and that’s the pacing. It’s forty-five minutes into the film (almost halfway) before the ‘Busters catch their first ghost, which is too long for my tastes. Those first forty-five are spent introducing characters, investigating hauntings, and in short, getting the team together. I felt like the introduction of the central two characters (McCarthy and Wiig) was entirely too drawn out, while the other two (McKinnon and Jones) get relatively little intro: then, all of a sudden, the four of them are together, on a gig, busting a ghost … and THEN the film takes off.

A related, but lesser, complaint is the development of these characters. Only one character really changes through the events of the film, and that’s Wiig’s — but the change doesn’t come at the climax of the film, rather it comes in the first thirty minutes. The film’s climax is therefore not transformative for any of the protagonists, which leaves a story wonk like me a little disappointed. Come to think of it, I could just as easily say the same of the original film, sooo….

Then there’s all those weapons I mentioned up above. Storywise, they’re a waste: the McKinnon character rolls them out, not because the proton packs are inefficient, but “just in case”. Every character gets one, and every character waves their altered boomstick around during the final showdown. They’re nice eye-candy, but that’s about it: in fact, the only non-proton-pack weapon that ends up having any story significance is a freakin’ Swiss Army Knife.

The Tough-to-pin-down:

Chris Hemsworth’s character is a big question mark for me. He’s so over-the-top stupid that it really stretches disbelief that the characters would allow him to stick around. Then again, he has some so-stupid-it’s-hilarious moments (the phone in the aquarium for example) which kinda make me rethink complaining about him. So he’s hard to nail down. Then again, my wife points out that he is the male equivalent of a worthless secretary hired just for her looks, so I guess that’s just my gender-blinders falling right into place.

Then there are the ghosts themselves. A lot of folks complained when the trailer came out that the effects on the ghosts looked lame or cheap. Hogwash, if you ask me. They look a little over-the-top, maybe, but this entire MOVIE is over-the-top. Still, the first ghost they catch is not so much a ghost as a freaking winged green devil monster. Maybe I’m nitpicking too much, but that seems less “ghost” and more “demon”. Regardless, in their first attempt to capture a ghost, they go up against this monstrous thing and they bring it down with relatively little trouble. It felt a bit like too big of a victory, too early, against too powerful an adversary.

Outside the Frame:

I said at the outset that you can’t really talk about this film without acknowledging the gender controversy. You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned it at all (well, a little bit around the Hemsworth character). There’s a simple reason for that: gender couldn’t be less of a factor in the movie. Which kind of makes this film the height of a feminist accomplishment.

How’s that, then? Easy. The protagonists are women, but it doesn’t matter that they’re women. The film would work just as well with the original cast of Spengler, Stantz, Venkman and Zeddemore as it does with these four ladies, as it would with any four male actors from today, as it would with any permutation of players and genders. That’s because these characters are not strong female characters, they are simply strong characters who happen to be female. There is no chest-beating, bra-burning moment of “look what we women have accomplished! See how we have thrown off the patriarchy!” No, these are simply capable women, going about their business, kicking ass and saving the day. They don’t need to prove how “feminist” they are. They just do it.

Then, there’s the fact that the film is a reboot (not a remake). Obviously it will be compared to the original, even though to do so is an exercise in futility. This will never be the same as the original, which means that the haters crying that the movie got remade at all will never be wrong. Still, the movie pays homage to the original in the form of cameos from the original cast and callbacks to well-known gags from the original. You still have the hilarious moment when they crank up the “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in a backpack for the first time, and the other characters slowly edge away. Rehashed again is Bill Murray’s yank-the-tablecloth-off-a-set-table gag that he can’t resist, only this time it’s Kirsten Wiig being dragged out of a restaurant by security, grabbing the tablecloth as a last resort. Some will claim that these callbacks show the film is unoriginal, that it’s simply scavenging the corpse of the first film. Nonsense. They are little head-nods to fans of the original, they are winks-and-nudges to the folks who recognize them for what they are.

The Verdict:

The fact is, this is a perfectly ordinary film. It’s not going to change your life. It’s a good time with some funny ladies and some pretty excellent explosions and light shows along the way. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, outside of the sheer balls it took to retool the original so completely. That said? It isn’t a bad film. Not on its own merits and not by dint of re-inventing a film that, truth be told, probably didn’t need to be reinvented.

But when did “need” have anything to do with the movies being made in Hollywood? This is a perfectly good film with a lot of controversy around it. The fact is, your experience of the film will almost certainly depend on the baggage you bring to it. If you come to the film determined to compare it to the original, you’ll be disappointed. This film isn’t trying to improve upon the original; it’s trying to spin the yarn anew for a younger generation. If you come to the film with a more or less blank slate, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a visually delightful take on a true classic.

I’ll reiterate here something I said when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and the purists were jawing about “IT’S NOT A SEQUEL IT’S JUST A REMAKE,” “YOU CAN NEVER IMPROVE UPON THE ORIGINAL HUR HUR HUR”. Which is: at the end of the day, Ghostbusters is not just a film, it’s a franchise. Movies, TV shows, video games, toys, motherfargoing Ecto-Coolers. And that franchise? However much you may love it? However much it may have influenced you in your youth? It owes you nothing. Star Wars owes you nothing, and Ghostbusters owes you nothing. If you loved the original and think any new take on it is an abomination? Well, for yourself, you’re right, and this film isn’t for you. But if you are willing to take a chance on something a little different, a little less heteronormative (and I just broke the word bank with that word), then hey, holy sharknado, you might have a little fun along the way.

Finally, just look at this viral photo of Kirsten Wiig greeting some young fans at the red carpet:

If the looks on those little girls’ faces don’t make this film worthwhile, then I don’t know what does.

All images are the property of Columbia Pictures.


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