Monday, February 19, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to roll along with Black Panther, featuring one of the first black superheroes and a character first introduced in Captain America Civil War. Although I'm not black, I've seen how much this movie has meant to African-Americans of my acquaintance and I saw some very positive reviews, so I hoped it was good. I had President's Day off, so I went to go see it.

And now the review...

The Plot

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the African nation of Wakanda, which despite its rustic, backward appearance has very advanced technology based on vibranium, to be formally crowned king after his father's death. There we meet intelligence agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o)--who is also his ex-lover--his regal mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his smart-alecky tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright).

Unfortunately, the arms dealer and troublemaker Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom we last saw hobnobbing with Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is back. He's made an alliance with Special Forces veteran Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who seeks use Wakanda's advanced technology to avenge the mistreatment of black people by Western society.

Trouble ensues...

The Good

*The worldbuilding is very well-done. I'm not familiar with African culture, music, etc. beyond television documentaries and books for the most part, but the dancing, music, etc. sound very African. This article here goes into more detail about the effort and research that went into developing Wakanda for the film. The use of Lesotho in particular as a basis for "primitive" Wakanda makes a lot of sense--Lesotho retained its independence in part due to its mountains, much like how Wakanda's mountains allow it to maintain itself in isolation from the outside world.

*There are a lot of laugh-out-loud and delightfully smart-ass comments from the characters. I particularly liked Shuri, T'Challa's sister who reminds me sometimes of my own little sister. Even the grim Killmonger gets some snarky lines, which I enjoyed as well. The Stan Lee cameo is also pretty funny.

*The cast in general is very impressive. A lot of big-time names in this movie.

*The political and cultural grievances that drive Killmonger are unfortunately quite real. I have an M.A. in world history with a U.S. History minor and I'm well aware of slavery (and its successor, convict leasing, which is not as well-known), colonialism, the assassination of people like Martin Luther King Jr., guns and drugs in the 'hood, etc. I liked how they made Killmonger, an orphaned child of the ghetto, since that makes him a foil for T'Challa, the wealthy and well-respected ruler of the one African country never to be colonized.

(Ethiopia was briefly conquered by Italy and Liberia was a fiefdom of Firestone rubber despite retaining its political independence.)

*Ulysses Klaue is a white South African and although he's not above doing business with blacks, that doesn't mean he doesn't have his cultural prejudices. He describes the Wakandans as "savages" and refers to Killmonger as "boy" at one point--not necessarily out of any personal meanness or maliciousness, but it's still disrespectful. That's a nice little bit of personality/cultural quirk there.

*The movie is only rarely dull, and those parts are typically at the beginning. Once Killmonger arrives in Wakanda it never lets up.

*Nakia's and T'Challa's breakup seems to have been caused by philosophical differences--T'Challa supports the country's historical isolationism like his father, while Nakia wants to use their technological advances to help others. When we first meet Nakia she's pretending to be the prisoner of a group of African warlord-types who are taking women in headscarves to an unknown but probably unpleasant fate--they reminded me a lot of the women captured by Boko Haram--and one of their soldiers is a child or young teen. That a spy working for an African superpower would focus on solving problems in Africa makes a lot of sense.

The Bad

*Although Wakanda's architectural styles are very African, a lot of the technology they have (monorails, hover-bikes and boards) are the same or more high-tech versions of real-world technologies from outside Africa. Another character is wearing a Western suit and tie, albeit with a rather different color scheme. Wakanda is supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world, but yet they've developed pretty much the same technology tree in isolation from outsiders? Europe got the dhow sail from Arabs and gunpowder and the compass from China; they didn't independently develop them themselves.

In the comics, Captain America's shield was made of Wakandan vibranium, much like how uranium from the Belgian Congo was used in the atomic bombs. There's also back-story of contacts between the U.S. and Wakanda during WWII. It would've been more interesting if Wakanda's wealth and technological advancement was less extreme of a secret--there's trade and intellectual exchange with the outside world, even if the Wakandans hold the best cards close to their chest so to speak. The African kingdom on which Wakanda was based dealt with Europeans from a position of strength due to its wealth and geographic defenses rather than hiding and Wakanda could be the same way. Perhaps they could have alluded to T'Challa's grandfather having met Howard Stark or something similar to build deeper connections with the wider wider of The Avengers and explain the technological and cultural overlaps. Wakanda does have agents, diplomats, etc. in the outside world who could have brought in concepts like bikes, monorails, etc., but there's nothing indicating they brought with them monorail plans, machine tools, etc.

I'd always figured Wakanda was like a petrostate, using the wealth from its vibranium to build an advanced society, but that requires trade. Even if they kept the full extent of their wealth and power secret to avoid getting conquered by greedy outsiders, I think they kind of overdid it a little bit.

*One character is kind of a loose end and we don't know what exactly happened to them. Given their relationship to T'Challa, I would think there'd be even more emotional resonance involving their actions and the film would be sure to mention their fate. Their actions were foreshadowed well, but could have been foreshadowed better and, given their actions and relationship to T'Challa, they'd have more conflict about it.

*There were a couple of look-at-my-watch moments, but not many.

The Verdict

Like a black version of Dune or Game of Thrones and a worthy member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lots of real-world issues are explored without being preachy and annoying. 9.0 out of 10.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Red-White Civil War in Post-WWI Germany?

In our history, although there were Communist uprisings in various parts of Europe after the First World War, when people think of Reds and Whites they think of the Russian Civil War in what became the Soviet Union.

However, there was a Communist uprising in Germany (and even a short-lived Communist regime in Bavaria) that got scotched pretty quickly.

But what if they hadn't? That's the plot of the alternate timeline "Rosa's Reich," in which Communist leader Rosa Luxemburg's people manage to seize power in parts of Germany after the fall of the Kaiser and the end of the war. Luxemburg, to her credit, strongly opposed Lenin's authoritarianism and gangster tactics and seemed to really believe in workers' democracy, so if her Reds manage to defeat the German Whites, such a regime would be much more humane than the Russian one.

And it would be a useful way to remove a young Adolf Hitler from history. Some historians think he briefly served the Communist regime in Bavaria, while other material I found suggested he remained part of the regular German military, joining the embryonic Nazi party to spy on them and drinking the Kool-Aid. Either way, a German civil war would allow for plenty of opportunity to kill him, disable him (which would likely prevent his historical political career), or send him down a different life path altogether. Even if the Communists ultimately lose, a German equivalent of Admiral Horthy in Hungary would be much better than what ended up happening.


*Although Rosa and friends don't go so far as to allow the embryonic Strasserists into their coalition and ultimately don't allow the Social Democrats (SPD) either, there are all sorts of interesting characters who are part of it. Christian Communists, anarchists, etc. Germany's Overton Window hasn't shifted as far to the left as Russia's and leaving out democratic parties like the SPD isn't cool, but this could lead to a very interesting Red regime.

*The battle sequences are quite interesting and well-crafted. So far they're pretty small-scale owing to Germany's military collapse, but they can always get bigger.

*The successful Communist revolutions (and even the less-successful ones) were confined to Eastern Europe in our history (Hungary had a brief Communist dictatorship, there was a Red-White war in Finland, the Freikops helped prevent the Bolsheviks from taking over the Baltic states). However, with the Communists gaining strength in Germany and a strong reluctance of the Allies' tired soldiers to intervene, it's possible the revolution could spread into Scandinavia and possibly even France. Europe could look very different this time around.

*Luxemburg was partly Jewish and partly Polish, so her ruling Germany is particularly ironic given it's actual history. I'm not aware of any non-monarchical female world leaders until after WWII at least, so this is even more interesting.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Predator (1987)

I've been interested in the Predator film franchise for a long time. The original movie was rated R, so I either had to wait until I was older to see it or saw it edited on television. I definitely remember seeing Predator 2, which I might have seen first, on television. I played an earlier version of the Alien vs. Predator video game at the arcade and read Alien vs Predator: Prey and possibly others. I saw both Alien vs. Predator movies and although they weren't as cool as they could have been (Nick and I concluded later they should have been set in the far future like the Alien films to avoid the continuity problems of the Xenomorphs encountering people in the 1990s), I didn't think they sucked like most people.

So when Myopia: Defend Your Childhood chose the first Predator film to discuss, I immediately snagged it on Amazon and watched it for the first time in probably eight to ten years. Although attending a friend's wedding in another state kept me from participating in the podcast, here's the podcast anyway.

And now for the review...

The Plot

Soldier Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a group of his comrades-in-arms arrive in an unnamed Latin American country, having been summoned by Dutch's old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers), once a soldier and now a CIA agent. They're told that a couple officials of a US-allied government have been in a helicopter crash "on the wrong side of the border" and are now prisoners of a group of Communist guerrillas.

Dutch's team sneaks into the country and while following the guerrillas from the helicopter crash site, discovers the skinned bodies of a bunch of Green Berets. They attack the guerrilla camp, killing most of them and capturing female guerrilla Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), only to find themselves being stalked by something otherworldly...

The Good

*The movie gets off to a quick start--eleven minutes in and we're in the jungle.

*Dutch's duel with the Predator displays both his cleverness and pure bravery and balls. Here's how it starts:

*The film's sound engineering is really good. The film goes SILENT except for the most important sounds in several key scenes. This mimics what happens in the natural world when a predator or something else that doesn't belong shows up--all the animals go quiet to avoid being lunch.

*Although the Predator is humanoid, it's not a Star Trek "rubber forehead" creature like a Vulcan or Klingon. It has glowing green blood, it sees primarily in the infrared spectrum, it's significantly bigger than an ordinary human, it has a completely different cranial structure, and given the times it comes to Earth, it hails from a much hotter world. It's not as alien as the creature from The Thing, but they still put work into making it something inhuman. And its physical differences--in particular how it sees--are very important to the story, much like how the Thing's biology played a major role in The Thing.

*Although the movie never names countries (and apparently takes place in a fictional "Val Verde"), the historical context of the film is the Nicaraguan Revolution (U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels against a leftist regime allied to the Soviets and Cubans) and the Salvadoran Civil War (U.S. support for an anti-Communist, often rather cruel and authoritarian, regime against left-wing rebels). The stated reason for Arnold and friends to go into the jungle is to rescue a government official (probably supposed to be a Honduran) who has been captured on "the wrong side of the border" (i.e. rebel-controlled parts of El Salvador) by "guerrillas" (probably the FMLN). You don't really need to know this and the film does a good job providing what you do need to know along with some scenery details, like the American soldiers operating around poor peasant villages and the like, a government official needed to be kept alive to ensure the CIA can operate in the regionthe guerrilla fighters including both men and women, etc.

*I like the parallel combats early in the film. Dutch and his men, through various tricks and superior firepower, reduce the guerrillas to a panicked mess firing in all directions at attackers they can't see before moving in for the kill, even though the guerrillas greatly outnumber them. This isn't long after Billy reports to Dutch that the Green Berets they found dead had been firing in all directions--only it wasn't against a human opponent. The Predator is to the best U.S. Special Forces types what they are to 3rd World guerrillas.

*The fact that dead men and severed limbs will spasm is put to gruesome use.

*Dutch's crew quickly finds their superior firepower isn't particularly useful against something that's (mostly) invisible and has superior weaponry. So they fight the Predator using strategy.

The Bad

*Although the movie is generally fast-moving, the opening contains a rather draggy opening sequence involving Dutch and his crew arriving and driving through the surf in jeeps from the landing zone to the base headquarters. Wouldn't it be smarter to put the HQ nearer the landing zones? Yes it's probably fun to drive a jeep through the surf, but good writing requires you to "kill your darlings."

*The relationship between Blaine and Mac needs to be built up more to explain the characters' behavior later on. It's there in broad strokes (they were the only two survivors of a unit that got wrecked in Vietnam), but more detail and personal interactions would be great.

*Are Arnold and his people U.S. soldiers or some kind of mercenary detachment? They have a particular specialty (hostage rescuing) and seem to have some latitude in determining where they serve that actual soldiers wouldn't, but at the same time they are "under orders," Blaine and Mac served in Vietnam together, and Dutch and Dillon have some kind of previous military history together as well. They could be some kind of proto-Blackwater of contractors with prior military service I suppose (this Aliens-vs-Predator Wiki entry states that's the case), but it's not clear in the film. They could just have made them regular soldiers.

*Although the military tactics are generally sound--"sentry removal" and the like before the big attack--Dutch and his crew are supposed to rescue two hostages. One hostage is killed as they scout the guerrilla camp, requiring them to attack immediately, but given the sheer shock and awe they unleash, they could have very easily killed the remaining hostage by accident. They don't seem to put any effort into finding where he is before, say, Dutch sends a pickup truck rigged with a bomb into the guerrilla leaders' tent, when soldiers in the trees fire grenades into the camp from above, or when they shoot up a helicopter that could be being used to transport the remaining hostage elsewhere.

*When the Predator first attacks, the soldiers' fire discipline completely collapses. They're alone in hostile territory and yet they're using up truly massive amounts of ammunition. Perhaps the goal was to show that they were panicking like the Green Berets or guerrillas had (see my parallel construction bit above), but it would have been better to show them start out using controlled bursts and proper techniques, then slowly breaking down over the course of time as they lose men and as they get more terrified. These men are the best of the best, but an alien big-game hunter is a major outside context problem.

*Given how the soldiers had to leave the base quickly due to nearby guerrillas and the repeated references to how the area is too dangerous for the choppers to get them due to guerrilla activity, perhaps later encounters between the soldiers and the pursuing guerrillas would have been cool. The two groups could even join forces once they realize they're both being hunted. Anna could serve as useful go-between.

*It would have been better if it was Cuban or Nicaraguan advisers supporting the guerrillas, not Soviets. Soviets (i.e. European or Central Asian men) would have stuck out too much, plus there were a lot more Cubans in Nicaragua than Russians. Also, a guerrilla force supported by Russian soldiers would have been a lot more formidable than the guerrilla band Dutch and friends rout early on. During the invasion of Grenada the Cubans were the ones who'd blooded U.S. troops the most, and Soviet special forces would have been far tougher customers than Cuban soldier-engineers. Seriously, the Spetsnaz guys would be the equals of Dutch's people, not a bunch of Third World country bumpkins.

*One character gets a lot of buildup for a Horatius at the Bridge moment against the Predator, but we never actually see the fight. Lame. The later film Predators gave us the scene I'm embedding below, and it would have been cool to see a similar scene in this one:

*The video credits are weird. Here they are below if you want to see them. TVTropes suggested it was to lighten the mood after such a bleak film, but still:

The Verdict

Good, but not as exciting as Total Recall, which we (also did for Myopia). 8.0 out of 10. That said, I've seen the film at least twice before. If you haven't seen the film already, you'll probably like it a lot more.