Black Panther (2018) Review

Black Panther

7.5/10

Black Panther tells the origin story of the superhero Black Panther, a King of the fictional African hermit kingdom Wakanda. Although, his origin is quickly told: as the heir to the throne of the nation, he inherits the superhero powers that are given to each king. The story itself is much more about an internal power struggle within the kingdom in which the new king T’Challa fights for his throne and figures out what kind of ruler he wants to be. Although this is part of the Marvel universe, it is a standalone film.

The kingdom of Wakanda itself is more interesting than the Black Panther himself. Although Chadwick Boseman is a charismatic person, his character is a bit bland, and Wakanda is such an intriguing place. It is a highly developed, hidden kingdom with technology and riches that surpass the rest of the world, and it is presented as an Afro-futuristic world which is fascinating to see. I do feel though that the African identity elements in this movie only focus on visuals.

The two contenders for the throne also represent two different visions of Wakanda’s future. King T’Challa, originally taught by his father to keep the country save and sealed against the outside world, is now influenced by his ex-girlfriend to use Wakanda’s riches to help other Africans, refugees and to reach out to struggling communities abroad. The American trained soldier who usurped his throne instead wants to use Wakanda’s power to conquer and colonize. Through this very personal struggle between two men, the very role of Wakanda in the world will be decided.

I suppose the forces of good and evil are conveniently aligned with that of the native man versus the outsider and that of the calm person versus the murderous one. This makes for a very straightforward tale, a safe tale, but imagine if the sensibilities and opinions of the characters had been switched. What if T’Challa had wanted to conquer and the outsider wanted Wakanda’s riches to aid the community he came from? That would have made for a far more complex story. I think that would make for an interesting thought experiment, but one that doesn’t fit with the superhero they wanted to create. We’re not filming Blood Diamond here.

And by pointing out all these conveniences I feel like I am missing the point anyway. Black Panther is supposed to be exciting and inspiring. A figurehead to cheer on. Muddling everything up with complex moralities has no place here. This is a film filled to the brim with messages. And I do think that Black Panther the superhero and Wakanda the nation are established here in an exciting and inspiring way. Wakanda’s technology is visually stunning, it’s existence is intriguing and Chadwick Boseman is a charismatic man. I’m surely interested in future instalments set in Africa.

All in all, the story is a nicely epic, emotional one that is easy to feel invested in. But the story of Wakanda the nation is more interesting than King T’Challa himself. He is still figuring out what kind of king he wants to be, but that struggle isn’t felt that much in him. Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist makes a stronger impression on me, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister plays a funny, cheeky sidekick who’s a pleasure to see acting.

I thought the story was simplistic and by the book, but it hits on all the elements that you want to see in a superhero movie, including good action scenes, excitement, good visuals and the African identity feels like a fresh take. I didn’t miss all those annoying quips that plague other Marvel movies. And fresh takes is what we need in the superhero genre. I just hope that future sequels on this theme will have a more complex storyline.

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My limbo of unfinished book series

Does it ever happen to you that you read the first novel of a series – usually a debut novel that at the time that you bought it had no sequels yet – and then you never read the rest of the series but you often think about buying that sequel?

That happens to me a lot.

There are many, many books which in my opinion are just “ok”, and when I am standing in the bookstore and I see the sequel, I think: “maybe not today. I’m not feeling it”. And then it just never happens.

It is the completionist in me that wants to read finished series. And since everything is a trilogy nowadays I often feel guilty about not completing series.

Here are unfinished ones I feel particularly on-the-fence about:

  • Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series
    The lies of Locke Lamora (read)
    Red Seas under Red Skies (not)
  • Mark Lawrence’s Red Queen’s War
    Prince of Fools (read)
    The Liar’s Key (not)
    The Wheel of Osheim (not)
  • Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles
    Name of the Wind (read)
    Wise man’s Fear (not)
  • Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers novels
    The long way to a Small Angry Planet (read)
    A Closed and Common Orbit (not)
  • Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire
    Ninefox Gambit (read)
    Raven Stratagem (not)
  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen
    Reaper’s Gale (not)
    Toll the Hounds (not)
    Dust of Dreams (not)
    The Crippled God (not)

I could go on. But with every one of these series, I fear that I will just be reading an “ok” book to complete a series. And if I were to complete everything, I would resign myself to a whole year of potentially mediocre reading experiences.

With the exception of Steven Erikson’s series, all these uncompleted series ended up in limbo because the first book just didn’t blow me out of the water, and then a sequel will be more of the same or often worse, and at that point a novel enters the benthic zone of “not worth the effort”. Especially when we’re talking about huge novels having hundreds of pages. This especially goes for the fantasy writers out these.

Are there any books you’d still recommend me to pick up from this list? I want to be swayed. Maybe I need some outside encouragement.

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Kameron Hurley – The Stars Are Legion (2017) Review

The Stars are Legion

8.5/10

The Stars Are Legion starts with a staggering feat of world-building and an intriguing premise. We meet Zan, a military leader who keeps losing the same fight and each time is sent back with her memory wiped. Each time she wakes up in what seems to be a spaceship made of living biological matter. The inhabitants recap what her fight is about and then she leaves again for the next round. The living spaceship is the size of a planet, and swirls around a sun together with countless other planet-sized decaying biological ships in a gigantic moving fleet named Legion. Her fight is about obtaining one of the dead planet-ships that “escaped” orbit

The setup brings to mind the novels of Gene Wolfe: a protagonist with memory loss, stuck in an utterly alien world which rules we do not understand. Part of the momentum of the story is simply discovering the true backstory of Zan, and the secrets whom her “sisters” hold about her story and all the hidden plans in motion. Simultaneously we learn about the strange disintegrating society of Legion and the creepy biological worldships. I’m sucked into this novel through pure fascination as if a tentacle reached out and pulled me in deeper.

The tone of the novel is very dark and grim and, er, icky. Zan is surrounded by violent people and her whole situation feels like a place you’d like to run from. On top of that, it’s full of biological creepiness and gooey biotechnology, with spongy walls, leaking, purring space ships and recycling monsters. There are themes of giving birth that overlap with creating technology, and humans themselves are part of this cycle, because all the characters are female while the worldships themselves may be the masculine part, together forming a species or a symbiosis, but this is never explicitly stated. The worlds are literally dying, and a literal birth may be needed to save the Legion.

The story somewhat unexpectedly turns from a political thriller into a travelogue. It’s not a twist, but simply what Hurley apparently had in mind: an exploration of the organic worldships. As a biologist, I’m not complaining. I love biotechnology, but Hurley’s descriptions are brutal and gruesome, especially when it concerns women giving birth to all kinds of things and cannibalism and so on. And the political thriller storyline suddenly feels abandoned.

Much has been said of the fact that it has an all-female cast and all the real-world politics surrounding that; but I’m more interested in whether the story is any good. I feared that today’s politics would break my immersion into tomorrow’s world, but thankfully the all-female cast feels like a natural part of the world-building because it is part of the biomachine of the worldships. Other than that, the characters do everything that males also do, including egoism, assertiveness, unhealthy relationships and so on. I remember when Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) came out, some people criticized it for being “obviously written by a woman” because the characters were all so awfully nice to each other. I would like to recommend The Stars Are Legion to these people because everyone here is quite horrible.

The story seems to have two faces: the political story of the character Jayd and the travelogue of Zan, and they don’t overlap enough in meaning for the story to feel whole for long stretches of time. It does come together nicely and all in all this is quite a unique story, leaving aside that the amnesia theme is used a lot in fiction, but it is used effectively and appropriately here.

I really liked this novel for its fascinating worlds, intriguing puzzle of a story and the twisted relationship between Zan and Jayd. Hurley’s writing is good enough, albeit a bit businesslike which makes the characters a bit distant. A bit more atmosphere, introspection and deeper side-characters might have pushed this novel into the league of the very greats. Nevertheless, among the best novels of the past year for me.

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The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) Review

the cloverfield paradox

5.5/10

The Cloverfield Paradox is a nice ride of creepy events happening. That is most of what this movie is. A crew is stuck on a disabled space station, and one by one the crewmates are confronted by something horrific and creepy happening, which sometimes ends their lives. That’s most of the middle part of the film.

The setup is that in the near future, we are experiencing an energy crisis, and all hope now lies with a dangerous experiment involving a particle accelerator. The experiment is so dangerous that they decide to build a space station in Earth orbit for that exact purpose. When the experiment finally succeeds, a rift is accidentally created to alternative universes, and that will be all the explanation that we will ever get for all the supernatural events happening on the space station.

Coincidentally, that event will also “explain” the films Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, since this one is set in the same series. However, I can’t shake the impression that this film was conceived as an unrelated science fiction film first. Similar to, for example, Life (2017) or Geostorm (2017). It’s simply part of a trend, but then taken up by J.J. Abrams to mold it into a Cloverfield entry. For that purpose, a second storyline is set on Earth that ties the fallout of the experiment to the appearance of the Cloverfield monster and so on.

The scary events on the space station don’t make much sense, but they are creepy enough for a nice thrilling evening and they are put on film with some effective storytelling and solid camerawork. Just don’t try to find any logic behind these events. We get to hear that “this dimension is eating us alive” and the space station seems to act of its own volition, or as if it is possessed by some malignant spirit, but the story never explicitly mentions these ideas, so it is just a bit weird why impossible things happen. Similarly, I don’t think space works the way the creators of this film think it works. Also similarly, some characters make bloody strange decisions.

Despite all these badly-thought-out moments, the film does add some nice character moments. The main character Ava is played quite strongly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a smart woman in an emotional, vulnerable role. Daniel Bruhl gives a solid performance, but a character named Jensen by Elizabeth Debicki is strangely robotic and the conflict surrounding her feels artificially forced by the writers.

The film received quite a backlash, but unfairly in my opinion. I can’t be too negative about a film that feels like an unexpected gift, given the way it was released. It is a solid horror science fiction story with adequate characters and acting. The connection with the Cloverfield “universe” actually works against it, because it doesn’t engage much with those monsters and feels put in only for marketability. That might have let people down.

And I do admit that the horror elements didn’t make much sense. The explanations simply lacked for making a good story, especially as the film entered its second half. The film started out with a fast-paced plot and an intriguing setup, but as the strange horror kept going on and the final act began to unfold, my interest waned. In the end, I fear that this film just isn’t very memorable, and compared to the other Cloverfield films that is a shame.

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Embrace of the Serpent (2015) Review

embrace of the serpent

8/10

Seen from the perspective of a tribesman living in the Amazon jungle, an ailing white man is delivered by boat on his doorstep. The man, a German researcher named Theodor, is sick and dying, and asks the tribesman for help. The tribesman is hesitant at first, but agrees to travel with him to a place of his ancestors where a medicinal plant grew, named yakruna. We skip ahead a few decades, and our tribesman is old now. But then, another white man arrives in a boat. He asks about the yakruna plant that he has read about in a book written by Theodor, and the tribesman again agrees to take this young man on a search for yakruna.

And so the film jumps back and forth between the tribesman as a young warrior and an old man, both times accompanying a white man. As a young man, he is highly suspicious of Theodor and standoffish. He mocks him, and shows his anger towards white people. However, Theodor is an open, inquisitive and vulnerable man, and slowly wins some respect, and our tribesman has his own troubled past that slowly surfaces. He lives alone, separated from tribe and family, and so his own role in life is unclear.

Their journey through the Amazon is quite a view of Western culture making inroads into the Amazon jungle. This is a Colombian movie that shows snippets of events that represent the winds of change in the jungle, a bit like Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez did in One Hundred Years of Solitude. That attitude to magical realist storytelling across large time scales may well have been in the back of the director’s mind. We see the effect that Western technology has on Amazonian tribes and while Theodor wants to keep his technology away from the tribes, our tribesman criticizes him for withholding important knowledge. But on other occasions we see Amazonian people working as slaves on rubber plantations or Christian missions gone wrong.

The film is not subtle in its message. Decades after Theodor, in the second voyage, things are even worse than they were before. The serpent of the title may very well be Western civilization, come to embrace the Amazon. Or is it the river itself?

The journey is also a spiritual journey for both men, as they learn from each other and are confronted by their own preconceptions. Most of all, our tribesman tries to teach Theodor and his predecessor how to find themselves, as they are sick and “cannot seem to dream”. The search for this healing plant gains extra meanings. Maybe there is something sick in Western culture on a fundamental level, and the tribesman is there to teach us about the serpent.

The story is part realistic, part magical realism at times, yet always beautifully grounded. Nicely shot on location and without music, it has the feeling of a documentary. Especially the sounds make you feel like you are right there in the Amazon with them. The story is inspired by the actual diaries of Theodor, who was an actual man. For a cinematic journey, I thought the story was rather thin. It is more like an idea. A mood that it wants to convey. It’s a very nice idea to show the arrival of white people from the perspective of a tribesman, but I wished the film had deepened out the characters a bit more. Still, if this sounds interesting to you, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 

 

 

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Dan Brown – Origin (2017) Review

Origin

I made it two pages in before grinning ear to ear and rushing to the computer to make notes. Dan Brown’s writing is already both hilariously overwritten when it comes to adjectives and strangely flat and blunt when it comes to explaining the plot and circumstances. Everything is intense; dizzying, stunning, shocking. I never came across the word ‘illuminated’ this often.

The opening chapter sets the tone by making stock characters converse in exaggerated, unrealistic ways, so you know precisely their every opinion and philosophy on life within five lines. We are given a comprehensive curriculum vitae of characters right when we meet them. Strangely, the characters also give mental notes on Brown’s own descriptions, as if they can hear his omniscient narration.

The story itself has been marinated in a thick soup of Brown’s personal travel notes and then glazed over with the glamour of money, fame, art, religion and technology; elements that pop up everywhere in the structure of story and characters. It takes Brown five pages to describe Robert Langdon entering the Guggenheim museum because Brown needs to expound on every sight with exaggerated metaphor. His idea of creating atmosphere when a rabbi enters a synagogue is to mention the date of construction and the precise capacity of the building. Most of his tourist notes are irrelevant.

The story concerns itself with a scientist who apparently made a discovery about our origins that would undermine every religion in the world, but the scientist is murdered before the discovery is made public. Brown sets himself up for failure because whatever idea he will cook up or copy for this novel will end up disappointing. In any case, he invests heavily in the cliche of religious leaders dismissing science versus militant atheists.

He also engages with many modern themes, such as social media, fake news, political correctness, computer science and of course many modern products: Tesla, Uber… approaching the level of product referencing of a Transformers movie. I’m glad he didn’t forget about Langdon’s Mickey Mouse watch.

If there is one thing Dan Brown is adept at, it is plotting for maximum excitement. He uses effective techniques but the story feels copied and simple. The story is smeared out over many short chapters, nearly all of them ending in cliffhangers. But, compared to the opening chapters of Inferno or his earlier novels, Origin has less twists and turns and has a rather simplistic, straightforward story. Take Inferno’s opening with Robert Langdon’s amnesia and flight through Florence; that excitement is missing in Origin.

What is most annoying is that Brown insists on explaining every little turn of the story at least three times: a detailed explanation of what just happened, a second explanation but shorter, and finally Langdon summarizing things in a quick soundbite. This goes for every minor realisation that is made. In addition, Brown keeps summarizing the entire plot of the novel every few chapters. Maybe he does it for himself.

Even setting aside that Dan Brown’s writing style is lacking (putting it mildly), Origin is still a subpar effort compared to his other novels. I knew what to expect, but this is getting ridiculous. The story is in many ways a carbon copy of earlier work, such as Langdon being on the run with an attractive young woman, but the story is a lesser, smeared-out version. Worst of all, it’s rather boring. Halfway through the novel we are still at the start of the story.

Origin was an immensely painful reading experience where Brown constantly annoyed me with his irrelevant infodumping, transparent namedropping, fake mockups of websites and news stories, dumbed down overexplaining, hamfisted treatment of themes, cliche characters and boring story.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Review

Three Billboards

9.5/10

Director Martin McDonagh is better known from his black comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, which combined comedy and violence in very effective ways. Three Billboards also has comedy but overall it is a much more serious film than his previous ones and is much more humane and closer to actual life. Three Billboards is a study about anger and grief and the subject matter is so serious that it made me wonder how he made this film so funny at times. The story switches effortlessly from deep tragedy to comedy in a way that feels quite natural – not jarring at all.

As the film starts, you’ll probably have a certain idea about what kind of film this is going to be. It has the sharp language of In Bruges and the kind of comedy that you’d find in a Coen Brothers film. Combine that with the western setting of Missouri and a Western sense of outlaw justice and hillbilly folk, and a Coen comedy seems to unfold. But none of the characters turn out the way you would think they’d turn out.

Sam Rockwell plays a dumb, aggressive, racist cop with a bad temper and he’s set up to be the film’s villain, but he has a very satisfying character arc. Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a woman full of grief, shame and most of all anger. She starts out as the hero of the story, the brave, strong woman who stands up to the incompetent police force, but her arc takes her along the edges of anger and flirts with those moments when anger and revenge takes you too far. Rockwell and McDormand play mirror images of each other in some ways. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson plays the incompetent police chief, but he turns out very considerate and in the middle of the film he narrates a couple of letters that almost made me tear up.

In other words, the film starts from Mildred’s perspective and shows a black-and-white story of good and bad people, but Mildred’s anger does not take into account that the so-called bad people are actual humans in their own right. The simple revenge story is then subverted when Mildred’s stalwart campaigning for police action causes a lot of grief in itself.

For the viewer this causes quite the journey too. We start out rooting and hoping and supporting some people and their actions, but our own feelings get challenged along the way. I greatly appreciate how clever and adult the film handles these transitions. There are no great dramatic moments of redemption and nothing is broadcasted so bluntly, but we feel all the significant moments as they happen.

For me this is really one of the best films of the year. It is beautiful, funny, sad, touching, shocking and unpredictable. The film is written in such a way that it follows the natural and messy way that real life plays out, instead of following the standard beats of Hollywood scriptwriting. Not to mention the great performances, especially by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. Both roles feel as if written for the performers. Director McDonagh admitted in interviews that that was indeed the case, and the actors completely inhabit their roles.

Hardly ever did I care so much about characters in films and I ended up caring about some whom I didn’t even expect to care about.

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