Friday, 16 March 2018

Strange Days: Kathryn Bigelow really wants to you watch

In the near-future of 1999, Los Angeles is on the brink of collapse. Economically depressed and riddled with racial tension, on the eve of the new millennium this city is ready to blow.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop who scrounges a living from selling memories recorded on illegal headsets called 'SQUID'. Originally developed by the government to replace body-cameras, SQUIDs record what the wearer sees and records them on MiniDisks. If you want to experience the adrenaline rush of taking part in a bank robbery, or great sex, or falling off a building, Lenny is your guy.

Hung up on his ex Faith (Juliette Lewis) and stirring trouble for his friend Mace (Angela Bassett), Lenny's life has been following a sad but predictable pattern. That lifestyle is disrupted when Lenny gets hold of a MiniDisk carrying information which could have potentially apocalyptic consequences for the city...

I have never really been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow - there is a sense with all of her movies that what she wants the movie to say and what the movie ends up being about are two very different things. While it is entertaining, visually exciting and features some noteworthy performances (okay, one), but at a fundamental level, Strange Days is a movie of contradictions.

Thinking about this movie post-viewing, I was reminded of Film Crit Hulk's comparison of The Revenant and Mad Max - Fury Road in his essay on the importance of cinematic language to a film's narrative, tone and themes, and - in relation to Kathryn Bigelow's work - Angelica Jade Bastien's review of her last film Detroit.

Technically this movie is a marvel. The POV sequences utilised new kinds of rigs and apparatus to help approximate the sensation of watching someone else's actions from the hot seat. In this era of virtual camera moves and 'seaming' (using CGI to join separate shots into a single extended take), Strange Days' voyeuristic vignettes are jaw-dropping. They are so seamless you do not notice the amount of effort and skill that went into their creation.

That technical precision is also problematic - while the movie wants to come down against the voyeurism of Lenny's devices, the movie is so polished and covers its violence in such a cinematic and visceral way that it ends up glamourising the violence. The movie is trying to juggle a couple of different genres (film noir, cyberpunk and action thriller), but Bigelow's directorial touch is not deft enough to handle the shift in tones and intent.

Beyond Bigelow's direction, the movie feels incredibly conflicted about what it wants to say. On the one hand, this is a 1995 movie (clearly informed by the 1992 LA riots) that pivots around an act of police violence against black people. For a while, the movie flirts with radical politics yet fulfils conventions of 90s actions movies - our heroes get a final reprieve from an honourable old white authority figure, the bad guys die and our heroes/lovers get a kiss-out ending.

And then there is the theme of voyeurism, which seems to be the movie's initial thesis yet this theme gets subsumed by the film's stylised take on violence, and the increasing focus on state violence against minority voices which criticise it. These ideas could have worked together, but they never gel in a satisfying way. Strange Days wants to have its cake and eat it, and it means the movie feels more superficial and less incisive about the ideas it thinks it is exploring.

Aside from its technical elements, the movie boasts a great cast, including Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Vincent D'Onfrio.

Neurotic, haunted and constantly out of his depth, Fiennes is a believable as a noir-style 'fall guy' - a good man who has been unmade. Unlike traditional noir, this is not at the hands of a bad woman, but his own image of who that woman was, an image that he re-plays through his recordings of his own memories.

While the character does not quite fit, Ralph Fiennes is really interesting in the lead role. At a glance, Lenny is a collection of qualities you do not associate with Fiennes - sleazy, anarchic and lacking spine. As the movie progresses, and Lenny's past is slowly (and then clumsily) revealed, Fiennes' casting makes more sense. Lenny feels like a fish-out-of-water among the dealers and hookers because he is - a cop who lost everything, now he is just acting the role of a smooth impresario to make his way in the world.

While Fiennes is compelling as the lead, Strange Days' standout performance is Angela Bassett as Lenny's friend Mace. Playing another Cameron action woman, Mace's relationship with Lenny is an inversion of the traditional action movie gender dynamic. While Lenny is the protagonist, Mace is the character who saves him and - literally - pushes him toward solving the mystery and getting over Faith.

There are parts of the character which are problematic. The flashback to how Mace and Lenny met is ridiculous: she is a waitress who comes home to find her no-good (I guess?) husband getting arrested, and then finds Lenny, previously a cop, comforting her son). It's such a short scene, is played so broadly, and trades in so many ridiculous stereotypes (the hardworking black woman;    absent black fathers; the requisite white saviour (he is good with kids!) that it just comes off wrong. It speaks to the movie's ham-fistedness - the character's relationship is pretty well established without it. All it does is undermine Mace's agency by reducing her to a stereotype.

Mace's desire to be with Lenny is pretty clear already until this point, and the flashback just takesout any ambiguity by turning her into a pretty traditional love interest, one who is pining for man who seems to ignore her interest in him.

As well as being a lovesick romantic, Mace also fulfils another type - the strong black woman who helps the white protagonist to find their way. This might be unintentional, but in respect to Mace's character,  the movie's trading in noir tropes does offer something of a critique of her relationship with Lenny. While Faith is ultimately the femme fatale bringing Lenny to his doom, he is also an emotional leech on Mace. While he is not overtly malignant, he ignores her needs, screws with her job and (consistently) emotionally manipulates her into helping him.

If there is a relationship that recalls classic noir, it is the one between Lenny and Mace - she even calls out how she cannot get rid of her feelings for him, and she knows that it will not end well.

Aside from this relationship, as a neo-noir Strange Days is not that impressive. While James Cameron and Jay Cocks' script flirts with dystopian and film noir themes and motifs, its violent resolution and tidy romantic finale undermine the movie's grab bag of genre influences.

Ultimately, the problem with Strange Days is that it cannot reconcile the action movie it is with the tech noir (to quote The Terminator) it wants to be. All the movie's more complicated (and interesting) threads - Lenny's psycho-sexual trauma, technical addiction and America's systemic racism - are ultimately subordinate to a more conventional catharsis of the bad guys dying in a hail of bullets and our attractive stars making out on New Year's Eve.

While flawed, Strange Days is an intriguing watch and definitely worth a look.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

IN THEATRES: Tomb Raider

Determined to find out what happened to her father, a young Lara Croft (the Vikander) follows a trail of clues to a mysterious island that holds the key to his fate... and the world's! DUN DUN DUHHHH!!!!!

I still can't believe this movie exists. I look at the poster and there is something that does not feel right - like wearing a shoe that is one size too big. The movie is constructed to serve two purposes - one is to re-launch Tomb Raider as a movie franchise; the other is to turn the Vikander into an action star.

In terms of the first goal, the movie feels like a near-miss. The movie's focus on stripping away the supernatural trappings and making everything feel tactile and 'real' pays off as much as it doesn't.

In terms of set pieces, the movie is surprisingly immersive. Director Roar Uthaug and his team focus on hyper-real sound design and old-fashioned camerawork - the trailers imply otherwise, but there are  no gravity-defying CG camera moves, and no weightless character CGI. There is an emphasis on real stunts captured in-camera. There is an admirable level of detail to Lara's struggle that might be the big takeaway.
In this respect, the movie does a good job of building sympathy for its heroine in the immediate sense - when Lara is running from the villains, and struggling against her physical environment, the movie works. But in terms of genuine character identification, in overview the movie fails. And part of the problem is miscasting.

The Vikander has always had an ambiguous quality that has been a strength in her best roles - a humanoid machine with ambiguous motives in Ex Machina; the disintegrating queen in A Royal Affair. This movie's version of Lara is meant to be young, na├»ve and a bit of a smart ass with her heart on her sleeve. The Vikander is never able to get that exposed - early sequences present her as a bike courier, joking with her mates and engaging in adrenaline-pumping hijinks (kickboxing, illegal bike racing).

When the movie tries to make Lara 'relatable', Vikander's inherent unknowability gets in the way. When she tries to crack a joke (and there are A LOT of them), it never rings true. You never buy Vikander as an everywoman, a bike messenger who delivers kebabs and can't pay her rent.
Both actress and character jostle in these early scenes - it would have probably worked better if Croft were presented as a spoilt rich kid who knows languages and kickboxing because she can afford them, and then is forced by the situation to learn how to use her skills and become a relatable person that way. I can see this version of the character working in this story - an arrogant spoilt rich kid forced to contend with the real world. I could also see Vikander working as that version of the character.

This alternative version of the character popped into my head as the movie gets into the Tomb Raiding of it all. The filmmakers make Vikander's unlikely frame and presence an asset, emphasising her limitations, and showing her pain, exhaustion and terror as she is forced to deal with the elements and homicidal mercenaries. Vikander is believably put-upon, but the clumsy first act means she never feels secure in the role.

The movie it feels closest to is Batman Begins - it is an origin story of an icon, stripped of its more fantastical trappings and with a flashback narrative. But whereas the flashback structure of the Christopher Nolan movie were woven into the story, and served the purpose of identifying and building the character of Bruce Wayne, the flashback structure in Tomb Raider serves little purpose other than to re-state that Lara Croft loved her dad. Again. And again. And...

If this project were not Tomb Raider, and was some kind of survivalist action movie starring Vikander as an ordinary woman in over her head, this movie might have had more room to move. Tomb Raider and Vikander cannot occupy the same space for long. The movie is never terrible, but that disconnect means the movie is never as involving as it wants to be.

If the movie has standouts, they are Dominic West as her father, and Daniel Wu as Lara's traveling companion/potential love interest. They don't get a lot to do, but they put Vikander in the shade with about the same amount of character development.

Throughout this movie, I found myself appreciating the movie's aesthetics without ever being able to immerse myself in it. I found myself fascinated by its star as she struggled to gain a purchase on her character. I have no desire to see this movie again, but as a one-off, two-hour exercise in transparent franchise-building it was kind of interesting.

Which is a long way of saying there are better ways you can spend your money.

Monday, 5 March 2018

RANDO REVIEW-O! Predator: Captive (1998)

Predator: Captive is a one-shot comic book from Dark Horse Comics, written by Gordon Rennie and illustrated by Dean Ormston. Published in May 1998, it is the earliest comic book I own. I found it the other day while rummaging through the garage.

I always remembered liking the story for this one - it is a single issue one-shot, more of a riff on the title character than anything, but the central premise always sounded cool.

Billionaire Tyler Stern has managed the unthinkable: he has captured a Predator and has secured it inside a massive bio-dome that simulates its natural environment.

The story opens inside this environment, with an innocent pleb running through the jungle while unseen scientists comment on his vital signs. He tries to plead for help from the scientists, but is quickly killed by the Predator.

It turns out that this little set piece was arranged by Stern as a demonstration for his new head of security, a former government spook named Falkner. Like the characters in the 1987 movie, Falkner is a veteran of a past encounter with the aliens. Unlike Schwarzenegger, he did not emerge unscathed.

Falkner is unimpressed by Stern's demonstration, and during a walk-and-talk exposition dump, he runs through a list of concerns he has about the facility's security arrangements: the bio-dome has suffered recurring black-outs and unexplained pressure drops.

This section of the story is the most awkward: the dialogue is just background information, catching the reader up. Aside from Falkner's revelations about the pressure drops (implying that Predator has already escaped from the dome but has chosen to stick around for some reason), the most interesting thing we learn is that Stern has preserved the Predator's self-destruct device. Before the alien could activate the device, Stern's men had cut off his hand. It now sits in a small tank on Stern's desk.

A few panels after this exchange, the Predator fakes a heart attack and ambushes the med team sent to resuscitate him.

As the Predator tears through the staff, Falkner orders an evacuation and then orders in a special forces unit. He then informs Stern that he is a mole for the government and he is taking the project away from the billionaire. Stupidly, he says this with his back to Stern, who clobbers him to death with the case containing the Predator's preserved hand.

Determined to prove to the Predator who is the superior hunter, Stern enters the bio-dome with the self-destruct device on his wrist. Despite fatally wounding the Predator, Stern is quickly dispatched. The dying Predator then activates his self destruct while mocking Stern with his own words.

Overall, this story is fun but feels way too crammed in. The characters are barely sketches and act in ways that only work to push the plot forward (e.g. Falkner's fatal truth bomb). The bones of an interesting story are there - if you split the story in half, at the point following Falkner's initial briefing with Stern, you are left with an Act 1 and a finale (the rest of the story).

Tyler Stern could be an interesting character - with more flesh, he could be a modern Ahab, obsessed with the Predator. What's interesting about his character is that his obsession is not solely about possessing the Predator, it is about matching its ferocity and killer instinct. Stern is jealous of the Predator, and by fighting it he is hoping to gain acknowledgment that man is the Predator's equal as a killing machine. This is not that well-developed in the story (it is a single issue, after all) but it is interesting.

The best aspect of the story is the Predator. There is something really cool about the way Rennie strips away everything you know about the Predator - the invisibility, the tri-laser, the mask - and manages to create a compelling iteration of the creature. The Predator has never had much personality (and the same is true here), but Rennie's stripped-down, disabled version is maybe the best example of how formidable the Predator can be.

Dean Ormston's artwork is terrific - there is something hi-tech yet lived-in about his aesthetic, which grounds the story. His inks and colours are suitably vivid, reinforcing the sense of Stern's complex as a kind of techno-hell. He also has a good handle on the title character, managing to capture its speed and power with careful angle and framing choices (one tactic I noticed was that he keeps most of the focus on the victims and their reactions, leaving the Predator obscured or in shadow).

The story moves at a good clip, and boasts some great horrific imagery. There is also a nice vein of misanthropy running through the whole enterprise, with none of the glibness or irony I would expect from something from the 90s.

Overall, Predator: Captive a fun little ditty that expands upon the central monster in ways that makes it more interesting as an antagonist. Its only flaw is that it is just 22 pages long.

Predator: Captive is available online. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Propaganda (dir. Dear Leader, 2012)

A look at western media, and how it perpetuates systems of oppression around the world, keeping its citizens compliant and occupied with pointless distractions while corporations corrode democratic institutions in order to retain their economic power. Thanks North Korea!

I had never heard of this movie before. When it was released in 2012, the story was that it had been smuggled out of North Korea. In reality, Propaganda is a New Zealand documentary, made over a decade by Slavko Martinov.

The conceit is ingenious, as it forces the viewer to constantly re-examine the way western views of the world are moulded, it also draws attention to the biases of its 'makers'. The facts about the history of Western imperialism, historical revisionism and America's military-industrial complex are brutally real, and as an indictment of western hypocrisy about notions of good/evil and 'freedom', the film is nigh-perfect.

It's largely made up of stock footage, and the film is composed of various ideas that developed through montage and narration from an anonymous North Korean psychologist.

The movie does start to feel like a lecture at points, as certain themes and issues are hit over the head again and again and again, but the movie is enlivened by a rich vein of dark comedy. The film's takedowns of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tyra Banks' talk show and The Bachelor are hilarious (and true).

The film is not an easy sit. If you are uncomfortable thinking too hard about American history and its impact on the world, this is not for you. Some of the footage, particularly of America's various wars, is horrifying. But it is necessary to the film's effect.

What really elevates the film is the finale, in which all this history is re-contextualised as a reason for the perpetuation of North Korea as the last bastion of freedom. With this final gambit, the film becomes a 95 minute-long treatise on the importance of critical thinking. Everyone uses propaganda to justify who they are, and what they stand for (or stand against) - you just have to maintain an ability to see it for what it is, no matter who the messenger is.

Propaganda is available for free on Youtube.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Something New (Sanaa Hamri, 2006)

Kenya (Love & Basketball's Sanaa Lathan) is a high-flying career woman who has not been able to find that special someone who ticks all the boxes, including being employed and educated to a similar level as herself - and he has to be black.

All her plans go out the window when hunky white gardener Brian (The Mentalist's Simon Baker) turns up to landscape her backyard, and ends up landscaping her heart... 

This movie is the definition of fine. The direction is solid, the evocation of its specific milieu is interesting (and not treated as some kind of ethnographic study), and it features a pair of attractive, likeable lead actors.

All the elements of the production are good - I would say they are better better than the script, but certain gaps in the story make me suspicious that more character beats and context were left on the cutting room floor to make the movie more 'commercial'.

Something New's lack of 'newness' is the key flaw. The premise and first act are laying the foundation for a look at the intricacies of interracial relationships which the movie ultimately fails to explore. I spent too much of this movie wondering what a more incisive version of this story would look like.

The movie is so formulaic that it is easy to start daydreaming about what the movie could have been. It is not a good mindset for analysing a movie (investigate what is there, not what you want to be there), but it did make the movie a little more enjoyable to watch.

Speaking of formulaic, Something New features one of least favourite romcom archetypes: the man's man who reacquaints the intelligent (i.e. emotionally stunted and sexually repressed) career woman with simple, carnal pleasures.

Brian is particularly odd example of this character. There is something kinda oppressive about how intelligent and empathetic Brian is in the early part of the movie. It's a clumsy attempt to make a character who can complement Kenya's intelligence and self-control, but it just comes off as a bit condescending.

The way that Brian is able to counter Kenya's every move was so ridiculous that it felt like the movie is building toward a mid-act twist where it is revealed that Brian is an obsessive stalker who knows how to gaslight Kenya into loving him.

Sounds familiar...
There is something aggravating about a romcom that presents a professional woman reconnecting with her humanity through a man's man, and the addition of race made it feel ever-so-slightly odious. The moment where Kenya learns to loosen up comes after Brian convinces Kenya to go back to her natural hair. Hey, dude. It's her hair - she can do whatever she wants, dumbass.

Eventually there are fractures in the relationship due to Brian's ignorance of the societal pressures Kenya has to deal with. Since she is an high-paying job, he finds it hard to believe that she still has to deal with racism. In this respect, Something New does manage to offer something different from the usual romcom formula.

The problem is that rather than diving into the dynamics of race and the difficulties Kenya has in communicating this to Brian, the movie does not deviate from a predictable third act, where all conflicts are resolved and our lovebirds live happily ever after in wedded bliss. Zzzz.

As stated at the outset,  while it falls short in terms of saying something new about race, Something New is just fine as a formula rom com. Lathan and Baker are a good-looking pair, even if their chemistry is not quite there, and any movie that features Alfre Woodward and Taraji P. Henson is doing something right.

Saturday, 24 February 2018


A group of friends (Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) find themselves in over their heads when their weekly game night turns into a hunt for Max's (Bateman) missing brother (Kyle Chandler).

This movie is awesome. Not only is it hilarious, but it is also well-written (by Mark Perez) and well-directed (by Vacation's Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley). This movie wants to be a comedy and a dark thriller and manages to walk this line without falling over on either side of it. The movie is filled with weird, creepy choices, which feed into the comedy, rather than detracting from it.

The script manages to flesh out the characters and make them all part of the action: Bateman and McAdams are competitive gamers trying to have a baby; Billy Magnusson is a superficial man-child with a rudimentary understanding of how the world works; Morris and Bunbury are soulmates who have been together since they were kids.

This particular game night sees all these characters forced to deal with their own personal crises: Bateman's jealousy towards his brother; Morris and Bunbury dealing with infidelity; Magnusson learning... stuff about how the world works. Kinda.

What makes the comedy and the thriller elements work is that the characters take the situation dead seriously. No matter how ridiculous the situation gets, they always feel like ordinary people reacting to a situation they have no understanding of: car chases, knowing how to operate heavy machinery and treating flesh wounds). There are some really silly things that happen in this movie, but Bateman and the rest of the cast manage to make it feel grounded. And because the stakes always feel real, the laughs always hit harder.

It is so great to see Jason Bateman in a good comedy again. His forte is the middle-class white guy trying to keep it together, and Game Night is one of his best vehicles, giving him and Rachel McAdams a great showcase for their comedic skills. They make so much sense as a couple, and their dynamic gives the movie a baseline for the chaos that ensues.

While they anchor the movie, if Game Night has an MVP, it is Jessi Plemons as their creepy neighbour. A divorcee who was let out of game night for being too creepy, Plemons' performance is terrific: the blank eyes, the lack of obvious emoting on the face... there is something off about his character throughout the movie, and the filmmakers lean into it. When Plemons is onscreen, the movie becomes deeply uncomfortable, in the best possible way.

This movie has so much to recommend it. It may be the best directed comedy I have seen in a while, particularly a big studio production. There is a care and attention to character and tone that is so specific (the bird's eye shots look like pieces on a game board) and idiosyncratic  that keeps Game Night feel singular. I mean, this movie bothers to have a main title sequence. How many movies do that any more? It does not even look like a comedy - nowadays, comedies look more like TV than film - even a great comedy like Spy plays out in static wide shots, with bland lighting that does not convey any sense of atmosphere.

Game Night has a grasp of the fundamentals of dramatic story-telling. The movie is lit like a thriller, with a lot of chiaroscuro and neon. Even the moments of visual panache feel completely functional: there is a sequence involving all of our heroes working together to get a Farbarge egg out of a villain's house, all the while being chased by his goons. The entire sequence is captured in a single take, as the characters throw the egg to each other. The camera tracks down hallways, up stairways, and everywhere else. It sounds like a technical exercise, but it never feels like it. Because the shot is focused on the egg, it begins to feel like we are part of a game, watching our team trying to keep the ball out of the other team's hands. It is funny and tense all at the same time, and it feels effortless.

Even the soundtrack is something to write home about. Cliff Martinez is famous for his dark electronica, and he gives Game Night a propulsive, John Carpenterish-sense of synthetic tension that helps to maintain the sense of peril our heroes are in.

This movie is fantastic. Genre-blending comedies are such a rare commodity, particularly as mainstream releases. Heck, it is hard enough trying to find a good comedy, period. 

I cannot recommend it enough. 

Saturday, 17 February 2018

IN THEATRES: Black Panther

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly crowned king of Wakanda, is forced to contend with the appearance of an outsider, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the American son of T'Challa's uncle. Not only does he contest T'Challa's right to the throne, he reveals a secret that forces the king to reconsider everything he has believed about his family history and Wakanda's place in the world.

If Fruitvale Station was Ryan Coogler learning to fly, Creed was him breaking the sound barrier. Black panther is Ryan Coogler landing on the moon. This is a massively budgeted Hollywood movie, part of THE mainstream franchise of our time, starring a largely black cast and every aspect of the movie is about what it means to be black in the world, both in the past and today: colonialism are white supremacy not alluded to, they are front and centre. It is unbelievably audacious.

Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger will be the focal point of this review, because he is the vehicle for the  film's most pointed criticism. Though he is the son of Wakandan royalty, Erik grew up an orphan in America. Coogler lets the viewer fill in the blanks, but Stevens (or Killmonger) has grown up within a society and a system designed to exclude and oppress people like him. Not only has he lived in that environment, but he has done so with the knowledge that there is a place out there in the world that never felt the impact of European imperialism, where he could be safe. A place that abandoned him, and has isolated itself from the struggles of the people who share the same continent - and their descendants around the world.

Stevens' return to his ancestral home is not just a reconnection with his roots: it is vengeance. Not just against the forces of white supremacy, but against the people with the power to stop it. 

To boil it down, his motive makes complete sense, and Jordan is amazing. There is a righteous fury underpinning every action he takes. Every line of dialogue is a razor blade that cuts deep. This is no comic book placeholder bad guy. Stevens feels like the protagonist of his own story.  

Killmonger is the reality of the African diaspora crashing into Wakanda's utopian image of a world where Africa never suffered under the yoke of European colonialism. His desire for violent revolution and T'Challa's belief in Wakandan isolationism is the central conflict of the movie, and it gives Black Panther a level of depth and moral complexity that you hardly ever get in a mainstream action movie. The movie is dramatically well-structured that it feels mildly aggravating every time someone brings it up as a part of the MCU. This is a movie that feels of a piece with itself.

Phew, there is so much to talk about. I think the portrayal of T'Challa is great. He is not some stoic action hero. Boseman's characterisation is thoughtful, has a sense of self-awareness, empathy and - this extends to the rest of the male cast - emotional vulnerability. I mean this is a movie where men are allowed to cry - there's one scene between Erik and his dad which includes one of the quietist and most devastating moments I have seen in a movie in recent memory ('No tears for me?').

Another thing I really liked was how his character fitted into the story, which is to say, it was his story. There was no white character around with an arc about learning about African culture and blah blah blah. In this movie, the black characters are not supporting players in their own story.

The female characters are also, pound-for-pound, terrific: Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurrira and Letitia Wright deserve all the kudos in the world. I don't want to spoil things so I will focus on the essential things I liked. 

Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright
Danai Gurrira
They all have agency, they all contribute to the story and there is no point where - for plot purposes - they lose that characterisation so that the male protagonist can get spotlight. There are also no damsel-in-distress moments (For variety's sake, I would have liked to have seen a female character who was badass but not a closeted action hero. I live and breath for women kicking men in the face, but it seems to be a default for powerful female characters that they can beat people up).

Shuri (Letitia Wright)
The one who steps the furthest out of this archetype is T'Challa's sister, Shuri (played by Wright). A brilliant scientist responsible for her brother's gadgets and suit (in addition to a bunch of other things that keep Wakanda going). Supper-smart, super-funny and willing to jump into the fray, Wright is probably going to be the most talked-about character in the movie. Here is hoping executives in Hollywood give Wright some big roles in other movies. I am basically an ignoramus about Black Panther in the comics, but I've heard that Shuri eventually succeeds her brother as the Black Panther. Well, here's hoping that happens because on this evidence Wright would make a great lead. 

Black Panther is a great movie that will hopefully have its ripple effects in Hollywood, both in terms of pulling in minority filmmakers on either side of the camera, and in terms of the stories that are made for a mainstream audience. 

There is one thing I did not like about the movie and it is a preference thing. It is the same gripe I have had almost every action movie from the last decade or so: gravity-defying computer-generated fight sequences. The scenes in this movie are filled with great details, great character beats and comedic punchlines. For a large portion of these scenes I didn't feel anything.

When I watch an action movie, I want to feel the stakes, and I want to fear that the heroes are not going to make it. The two scenes where I was totally invested where the ritual duels that T'Challa has to earn the right to the thrown. No super powers, no suits or tech. Just two guys with swords and spears on the edge of a waterfall. 

I do not hold this against the movie. It's an aspect of modern-day blockbusters that is expected, and I'm not into it. It is a testament to the strength of the story-telling and the performances that this is a very minor criticism.

That aside, go see Black Panther. It is awesome. It is important. And it is also boatloads of fun