On Rewatching “The Last Jedi”

Like many, I was disappointed with Rian Johnson’s recent Star Wars film. I thought “The Force Awakens” was a great film, evoking the spirit of the original trilogy while also adding new characters and moments to the mythos. Yes, it borrowed its plot too heavily from “A New Hope”, but the core dynamics of story and character worked and, after the disaster that was the prequels, it was a great improvement.

Upon first viewing “The Last Jedi”, I found myself distracted by story inconsistencies and the pacing. Comedic scenes such as Luke tossing the lightsaber behind him or Finn walking through the command ship naked and leaking in his coma suit didn’t work for me. New characters like Holdo and DJ seemed unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Certain scenes seemed strange and grating such as ghost Yoda blowing up a tree and Leia using the Force to guide herself back to her spaceship after it is attacked. And the revelations of the mysteries posed in the previous installment were trite and uninteresting. Rey has no connection to the Skywalkers? Snoke is unimportant?

Certain moments I did enjoy. Some of the action scenes were interesting and the moral of the story, that anyone can be a hero and hope never truly dies, is solid. But the whole structure of the film felt mismanaged.

Upon rewatching the film in the comfort of my own home without the high expectations from my initial viewing, I found myself with a more positive view of the film with some of the same old qualms still.

The interaction of Luke, Rey and Kylo is the heart of the film. Every time those characters are on screen, the story sings. Fallen mentor, fallen student, new student, forbidden love. It’s the Shakespearean dynamics that Star Wars is known for. I’m okay now with Rey not being a Skywalker or a Kenobi or a Solo. I just wish her involvement with the story was more invested. Perhaps the story could tie in to the prequels a little bit (just a little) and the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force. In “Force Awakens”, Luke’s lightsaber calls out to her. She’s destined for something, but “Last Jedi” doesn’t focus on this aspect of her character. She doesn’t need to have important parents, but she does need to be important.

Some of the action scenes of the First Order fleet chasing down the Resistance are interesting and exciting, but as a whole, the subplot of the story is dramatically lacking. The plot is basically bad guys chase good guys and good guys try to escape. It’s not very interesting. The good guys should initiate action of some kind. Perhaps an assassination mission against Snoke. Perhaps a trip to a neutral world to try and recruit the natives to your side instead of the First Order’s. Perhaps a quest to decimate the First Order base by recruiting spies on the inside, someone that Finn knows. Poe, Finn, Leia and Rose need something to do other than just run away.

And perhaps the film’s biggest detriment is that it doesn’t feel like the middle chapter of a trilogy. It feels like the end. Luke is gone, the Resistance has escaped and will live on, Kylo has lost all sense of who he is. The story feels completed. The middle chapter should build on the previous’ questions and set you up for the finale, not leave you wondering what else can come from this story. There’s no intrigue with the tale anymore. Basically all we have is Kylo is evil and Rey and the Resistance must stop him. If there was a tie-in to the prophecy, that would at least promise something climactic to follow this adventure, but there’s not. If this were the final film of the saga, it would indeed end the new trilogy on a strong note thematically: anyone in the galaxy can be a hero, no matter how destitute you are., and hope will always live on The final shot of the kid using the Force to manipulate his broom and looking to the stars is how Star Wars should end. But instead we have another chapter still. Where do we go from here?

Whatever fans may feel about “Force Awakens”, JJ Abrams was able to replicate the magic of the Star Wars universe in his film more than anyone else has (even older George Lucas). Where he goes from here, no one knows but perhaps his ending to this trilogy will make “Last Jedi” more complete in the whole saga. In another two years, perhaps how I view the film will improve even more.

Advertisements

“Flatliners” a boring mess

When the horrible reviews for the new “Flatliners” film came out, the natural assumption was that the film was gloriously bad, full of funny deaths and ridiculous jump scares. What a disappointment to find out that “Flatliners” isn’t just not fun, it’s downright boring.

Five medical students, led by Courtney (Ellen Page), engage in a dangerous game of inciting near-death experiences by stopping their hearts. While “dead”, they get a glimpse of the afterlife and a world outside our own. What Ray (Diego Luna), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), Jamie (James Norton), Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and Tessa (Madison Brydges) don’t realize however, is that they all suffer from waking nightmares from their past, their sins coming back to haunt them in the present after they go under.

A remake of a 1990 film of the same name, “Flatliners” can’t decide what exactly it is. Is it a cheap horror film made for exploitative death scenarios and random sex scenes? Is it a “smart” thriller that plays with sci-fi tropes and presents interesting ideas about consciousness and the afterlife? The film toes the line between both and comes out a mess, not clever enough to present intriguing ideas nor creative enough to give us inventive kills and scares.

With flat characters and an uneven plot, the film is instantly forgettable and a shame considering the concept is somewhat interesting.

Consider the following approach:

– Five medical students, whose background of deception is hinted at before they meet, accidentally stumble upon a way to venture into the afterlife. Blind with power, they rush headfirst into this new world, seeing a world of possibility and potential, never taking a moment to recognize the danger lurking for each of them. The dead start to grow envious of their ability to leap between worlds and kill them one by one in creative ways in the afterlife. As they realize what is happening, Courtney, the protagonist, must go in one more time and try to fix what’s been broken, but it is too late, her dead sister coming to get her, and they are all captured, punishment for their hubris.

That’s the classic, horror approach to the narrative. You could also have the smart, interesting approach below:

– When five students discover they can flip back and forth between the afterlife and reality, they begin a quest to figure out life’s mysteries, digging deeper and deeper into the dead world, looking for some answers. When Courtney is finally trapped by some force in the dead world, it’s up to her friends to try and bring her back to life. Their love and commitment through the journey is tested as they realize the folly of their way. The strange force in the dead world speaks to Courtney, terrifying her with its knowledge. She is saved before he can claim her and they all learn not to mess with the eternal forces of the world.

Instead, the movie we have is a boring, mind-numbing mess, put together without ingenuity or grace, an empty, emotionless slog.

 

Analyzing the First Round of the NHL Playoffs 2018

The first round of the NHL playoffs start on Wednesday and given the unpredictability of the regular season, fans could be in for a wild ride. Who would have thought that the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers would miss the playoffs and the New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche and the freaking Vegas Golden Knights would? So while it may seem that everyone is waiting for a Cup final between teams such as Boston, Winnipeg, Nashville and Tampa Bay, it’s far from a sure thing. Looking at the first round, there are some intriguing matchups that should produce some compelling hockey.

(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (WC2) New Jersey Devils

Storylines: After both teams missed the playoffs last year, the Lightning and the Devils return to the postseason in different stages of team development. The Lightning are bonafide contenders, with depth at every position. The Devils surged ahead in their development primarily because of star winger Taylor Hall’s MVP-worthy season. As one of the few Stanley Cup-favorites, Tampa will face all sorts of pressure while New Jersey will be looking for the upset.

Offense: Boasting perhaps the most lethal attack in the league, the Bolts are led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, each eclipsing 85 points this season. Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson provide a nice measure of secondary pressure as the Lightning cruised to an average of 3.5 goals per game.

New Jersey meanwhile is led by Taylor Hall and his 93 points, a whopping 41 points better than the next highest scorer on the team. The Devils have nowhere near the depth of the Lightning.

Defense: Lightning defender Victor Hedman is a likely finalist and potential winner of the Norris Trophy as best defenseman. His blend of defense and offense from the back powers the team on both sides of the puck. Paired with Anton Stralman, a steady and sturdy rearguard, the team is also manned by solid contributors such as Dan Girardi and newly-acquired former Rangers captain, Ryan McDonagh.

New Jersey has a collection of solid, if unspectacular defensemen including Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher and Andy Greene. They are a sneaky good group capable of limiting chances on their own net, but lack the versatility of the Bolts blueline.

Goaltending: Cory Schneider and Thomas Kincaid have worked well together to get the Devils to this point, but their skills will be surely tested against Tampa’s attack. Schneider has the ability to get hot and carry a team and that might just be needed for New Jersey to advance.

Andrei Vasilevsky started very strong for the Lightning before cooling off the second half of the season. He’s never dealt with a full season schedule before so it will be interesting to see how he handles the workload of the NHL playoffs.

Pick: Tampa in 5.

If Tampa Bay can shutdown Taylor Hall, a large chunk of New Jersey’s offense in neutralized. Add in their superior overall depth and New Jersey can’t compete with the East’s best team.

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Toronto Maple Leafs

Storylines: The last time these two met in the playoffs was memorable to say the least. In game 7, down 4-1 in the last ten minutes of the game, Boston roared back with three goals to force overtime before Patrice Bergeron won it in a win that sent the Maple Leafs into a long rebuild for years to come. The fruits of that rebuild are evident now as the young guns of Toronto will take on the experienced Bruins looking to add another championship.

Offense: Boston boasts three 30-goal scorers, plus another ten players who hit double-digits. Led by star two-way center Patrice Bergeron and super pesky sniper Brad Marchand, Boston’s offense is an imposing group.

Toronto, however, may be even more dangerous up front. Austin Matthews (34 goals), James van Riemsdyk (36 goals) and Nazem Kadri (32 goals) give the Leafs a lethal core full of skill. Add in Patrick Marleau, Tyler Bozak and William Nylander and there may not be a more talented group of forwards in the NHL.

Defense: Jake Gardiner is a talented puck-mover and there are some interesting pieces on the Leafs blueline, but it lacks the veteran experience of Boston’s rearguards. Between Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo, the Bruins have the slight edge in efficiency.

Goaltending: Tuuka Rask of the Bruins and Frederik Andersen of the Maple Leafs are both capable, quality netminders, but Rask has been to a Stanley Cup final before and Andersen hasn’t. Both are capable of carrying their teams at a moment’s notice and it may simply be a battle of wills during this potentially long series.

Pick: Toronto in 7

The storyline is there for Toronto to avenge the playoff disaster of five years ago. Whether it happens is up to Toronto’s young guns and Mike Babcock’s coaching. The Leafs put quite a scare into Washington last year before losing in overtime. Perhaps that experience will help them as they take on a powerful Bruins squad looking for another shot at glory.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC1) Columbus Blue Jackets

Storylines: Last year was supposed to be the Capitals’ year. They went all in, trading for star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline and winning their second President’s Trophy in a row. Instead, they blew their chance again against the Penguins in the second round. Expectations are much lower this time around, but perhaps that’s right where the Capitals want them. Columbus, meanwhile, followed up last year’s surprise playoff showing by catching fire late in the season and enter the playoffs as a potential upset team.

Offense: Alex Ovechkin still powers the Capitals’ attack as he nearly put together another 50 goal season (49). Along with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie, Washington can still generate an impressive attack.

Columbus is more of a one-man ship with Artemi Panarin (82 points) providing most of the offense. If Panarin is off his game or shut down, goals could be hard to come by for Columbus.

Defense: Columbus’ strength is their depth on defense. Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray are big and mobile and drive the opposition crazy.

John Carlsson in Washington has had a career year offensively and there are some interesting puck movers in Washington in Matts Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, but no one to really control a game or shut the other team down.

Goaltending: Both Brayden Holtby of Washington and Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus have each won a Vezina Trophy as top goaltender so even though neither are favorites for the award this year, they are both fully capable of stopping the puck.

Neither has exceptional playoff numbers though and that will need to change if they hope for postseason success.

Pick: Washington in 6

Columbus’ defense and goaltending will keep things close, but they don’t have the offensive talent to compete with the Capitals. It could be bumpy, but I see the Capitals moving on.

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Philadelphia Flyers

Storylines: Now this is playoff hockey. The Penguins and Flyers hate each other and another chapter will be written in the bloody battle of Pennsylvania. Sidney Crosby and company will be looking for their third straight championship while the Flyers would like nothing more than to eliminate their biggest rivals.

Offense: A Penguins offense that utilizes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel has few equals. Add in Patrick Hornqvist, Brandon Rust and Jake Guentzel, plus trade deadline acquisition Derick Brassard and it’s downright scary. They’ve replaced the talent they lost over the summer and look deep and dangerous on every line.

The Flyers meanwhile counter with their own MVP candidate in Claude Giroux and Selke candidate Sean Couturier. Jakub Voracek and power forward Wayne Simmonds compliment a group of strong, but less deep forwards.

Defense: Kris Letang missed last year’s playoffs and everyone assumed the Penguins were done for. They won the Cup and Letang is back, meaning that this group may be even better than last year’s. The rest of the defense are solid, playoff-proven performers.

The Flyers have Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov to power offense from the back end and Andrew MacDonald to shut things down from there. It’s a group that is on its way, but not quite there in development.

Goaltending: Penguin’s goalie Matt Murray has had an up-and-down season, but after guiding Pittsburgh to back-to-back titles, you can’t count him out. Flyers goalie Brian Elliot is back after an injury and remains a huge question mark. Behind him, former Red Wing Petr Mrazek would need to regain his form of year’s past to stop the Pens.

Pick: Pittsburgh in 5

The Penguins are too experienced, too deep and too star-laden for the Flyers to beat and should coast to a series victory.

(1) Nashville Predators vs. (WC2) Colorado Avalanche

Storylines: After coming so close to a title last year (and probably deserving it if not for injuries), the Predators won the President’s trophy as the league’s best team this year. Deep at every position, well-coached and healthy for the moment, they are the Stanley Cup favorite. Colorado is just happy to be here, but in a balanced, salary-cap world, never truly count anyone out.

Offense: The Predators have a balanced attack powered by Victor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris. Though they lack a true superstar, the depth down their lines is impressive and hard to contain.

The Avalanche boast perhaps the single-greatest performance of the year in star Nathan MacKinnon’s 97-point season. He nearly single-handedly dragged the team into the playoffs and must be stopped by the Predator’s defense.

Defense: The Predators have the best defense in the league in a top-four that employs Roman Josi, PK Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. They can shut down their opponent, run a powerplay and score with regularity, a rarity to find in the league nowadays.

Tyson Barrie has been an offensive dynamo for Colorado and Erik Johnson is a good shutdown defenseman, but the Avalanche are still in rebuild mode and lack that elite player on the back end.

Goaltending: Pekka Rinne turned in a potential Vezina Trophy-winning season for the Predators, putting up some of the best numbers of his career. He’ll be a force for any offense to puncture.

Semyeon Varlamov is a capable goalie who has put together some good seasons, but is far removed from his best days. He might be able to catch fire at the right time.

Pick: Nashville in 5

Nashville has the clear advantage and it would be shocking if the Avs were able to beat them. Their depth and talent at every position has them uniquely primed for another Cup run.

(2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (3) Minnesota Wild

Storylines: The Jets enter the playoffs as one of the Cup favorites even though the franchise has yet to win a single playoff game. With the second most points in the league and a balanced lineup after years of drafting and developing, the team is beginning to see the fruits of their labors. The Wild have quietly had a very good season as well, bolstered by a return to form for center Eric Staal, but face injury trouble that could derail their chances.

Offense: The Jets are powered by a lineup that includes Blake Wheeler (91 points), Patrick Laine (44 goals) and five other players who cleared 40 points this year. They are deep, large and fast. Throwing in deadline acquisition Paul Stastny just gives them even more center depth.

The Wild are no slouches though. Eric Staal shocked everyone by scoring 42 goals this year to go along with 76 points. Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker provide more offense and don’t forget about Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu either.

Defense: The Wild took a huge blow when defenseman Ryan Suter was lost for the season to an ankle injury. He had the highest average ice time of any player in the league (again), and he’ll be near impossible to replace. There are other solid contributors in Minnesota such as Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, but the loss of Suter may prove fatal.

The Jets counter with a deep four of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom. They are an imposing group of size and skill that’s taken years to cultivate.

Goaltending: Devan Dubynk has put together another solid though not spectacular season for Minnesota. He’s a quality netminder, but may be missing that extra gear when in comes to the playoffs.

After signing Steve Mason during the offseason, the Jets were pleasantly surprised when backup Connor Hellebuyck snagged the number one spot and put together a .924 save percentage over 64 games. He’s never faced the postseason rigor before and the pressure on him to deliver will be enormous.

Pick: Winnipeg in 6

The loss of Ryan Suter is just too hard to overcome for the Wild. He is their best player and there is no one who can fill his roster spot. The Jets should advance with a couple of hiccups along the way.

(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (WC1) Los Angeles Kings

Storylines: The Knights weren’t even expected to contend for a playoff spot in their first season and all they did was win their division. Though they cooled down the stretch after starting so hot, they roll four solid lines and have a Stanley Cup-winning goalie in net in Marc-Andre Fleury. While the Knights brim with youth, the Kings ooze experience. This is still the same core that won two championships in three years not that long ago and though they may be the wildcard, many look at them as the favorite in this series.

Offense: Who would have thought that a team of castoffs from other franchises would somehow flourish in the desert, but the Knights have gotten major contributions from William Karlsson (43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault (75 points), Erik Haula (29 goals), James Neal (25 goals) and David Perron (66 points). Whether it’s a flash in the pan or the group continues to put up points is the question, especially come playoff time.

The Kings are led by a resurgent Anze Kopitar (92 points), in his best season, and Dustin Brown (28 goals). Now back from an injury, Jeff Carter has potted 13 goals in his last 27 games, giving the Kings another strong scorer.

Defense: Drew Doughty has been an absolute beast for LA this season, putting up 60 points, a plus-23 and playing in all situations. He should be in line for at least another Norris nomination if not win.

The Knights have a collection of unspectacular rearguards, headlined by Nate Schmidt. They must be able to shutdown Anze Kopitar to succeed.

Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury has been strong and steady with his new team and for the Knights to have playoff success, he’ll need to be fantastic. He’s got a Cup to his name and the added fire of taking Vegas this far with more to prove.

Jonathan Quick has had maybe his best regular season to date and comes into the playoffs as unequivocally one of the best money goalies of the playoffs. With two Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy on his resume, he’ll be hard for Vegas to beat.

Pick: LA in 6

The Kings are just too experienced for the Knights to handle in theory. Quick, Kopitar, Doughty, Brown and Carter all bring star power and a winning-pedigree to a series that could go any number of ways. No one has been able to pin down Vegas’ success yet and they may turn a surprise regular season into a surprise playoff run.

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Storylines: The Ducks squandered for most of the year due to injury, but are entering the playoffs on a good run, still seeing their cup contention window open. The Sharks are likewise in the same boat, after adding Evander Kane at the deadline and see this year as perhaps their best shot with this current group of players.

Offense: The Sharks have a balanced attack that includes Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Brent Burns on the backend. If Joe Thornton is able to return from injury, they’ll be an even more intimidating group.

The Ducks still have their one-two punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry along with a breakout year from Rickard Rakell and good forward depth with Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg, though they lack a game-breaking scorer.

Defense: With Cam Fowler currently injured, the Ducks took a big hit on the backend. Health, as it has been all season, will be the biggest concern for the team.

The Sharks’ Brent Burns is the highest scorer on the team, an offensive force who’s a threat every time he’s on the ice. With Marc-Edouard Vlasic to back him up, the Sharks have a great balance on defense.

Goaltending: Both Martin Jones of San Jose and John Gibson of Anaheim are solid netminders with varying degrees of success. It’s a close matchup with either capable of carrying a team.

Pick: San Jose in 7

The series should be close as both teams are talented and borderline Cup contenders. San Jose has a bit more firepower though and that might power them through to the end.

 

Ultimately, I’m predicting a Stanley Cup Final between Tampa Bay and Nashville with the Lightning emerging victorious in 7 games. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll discover over the next two months.

“Black Panther” a cultural milestone for cinema

Director: Ryan Coogler

Producers: Victoria Alonso, Jeffrey Chernov, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Stan Lee, David J. Grant, Nate Moore

Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole

Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison

Editor: Debbie Berman, Michael P. Shawver

Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani, Andy Serkis, Letita Wright

 

Synopsis:

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home of Wakanda after the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani). Wakanda is a technological marvel hidden in the heart of Africa, powered by a precious metal called vibranium. After going through the ritual ceremony to become the next king, T’Challa dons the persona of the Black Panther, a superhero figure of legend and myth. He sets out to find Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few outsiders to know of vibranium and a killer of the Wakandan people and bring him to justice, along with his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) and with the help of his sister, Shuri (Letita Wright). Little does he know though that a new enemy, the dangerous commando, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), lurks in the background and seeks to usurp the throne.

Background Info:

The Black Panther character was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1966. The first mainstream black superhero, the character was moderately successful during his initial run and bounced around with general comic’s popularity over the coming decades. In this age of superhero film mania, it’s surprising (disappointing) that a film starring a black lead has taken so long to get to the big screen (18 years since the first X-Men film though it’s important not to forget the “Blade” trilogy even though they never quite had the superhero budget treatment). With Ryan Coogler, after his success with “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”, and the Marvel movie machine behind the production, the hype for releasing the film was tremendous as it has become the highest grossing superhero film yet and the third-highest grossing film ever in the United States.

General Review:

The film feels different than the other Marvel films in its single focus and intimacy. You don’t have Iron Man or Thor showing up for a comical cameo or a whole lot of universe building that sets up future films. T’Challa himself is a very serious character with no quipping, no clever lines and no camera winking. It’s a relatively simple story of a son atoning for the sins of his father and learning about the responsibilities of being a king. It’s a path Marvel should take more often.

The look and feel of the film is impressive, bringing a new culture to life that is both new and familiar. When the film lags or stutters from time to time, it is still never boring or uninteresting as the viewer is immersed in this new world, part sci-fi, part African tribe, part dream.

Many point to the film as Shakespearean, which is indeed the case with the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger. The familial line and feuding brothers and a fight over the throne all add different dimensions to a film that tries desperately to break the Marvel mold. It elevates the story beyond just another fun time at the movies.

There are points when the film feels a bit aimless and trying to find its way as in a car chase sequence in South Korea or a bank robbery in London, almost as if such sequences were pushed on by the studio to make the film more action and adventure when it doesn’t really need it, but the dynamics of incorporating some James Bond-esque scenes are nevertheless intriguing. You can still ride the ride of the film and feel the power of the story. Taking root in mythology and family gives the movie added emotional weight and featuring the “black experience” in today’s world makes the film timely.

What matters most from a cultural standpoint is what Black Panther represents. Much like “Wonder Woman” last year, seeing a different type of superhero (not a straight, white male) is inspiring. What he represents is in some ways more important than who he is. The film does a good job of balancing that expectation of illustrating the image of a black superhero without playing it up for selfish reasons. Add to that the representation of strong female characters who fight alongside him and serve as his preeminent bodyguards and you have a fully diversified film, still a rarity from Hollywood.

SPOILER SECTION

Plot Breakdown:

  • Inciting Incident: T’Challa returns home to be crowned king.
  • Act One Climax: T’Challa decides to find Ulysses and bring him back to Wakanda for justice, his first act as king.
  • Midpoint: KIllmonger defeats Black Panther and throws him over the waterfall’s edge.
  • Act Two Climax: After rising from the dead, Black Panther concocts a plan to take down Killmonger using the help of his sister and loyal subjects.
  • Act Three Climax: T’Challa retakes the throne and decides to share Wakanda’s technology with the world.

Analysis:

An argument can be made that Killmonger is a more interesting character than T’Challa. His position that the world has turned its back on those of African heritage and they must seek to overthrow the world is interesting. The betrayal of T’Chaka against Killmonger’s father adds further fuel to his anger and gives him empathy. His role could have been expanded more and truly represented the repressed African spirit. Perhaps we see glimpses of his youth and the hardships he endured. Perhaps he comes to Wakanda and presents them pictures of the slums of LA and Washington, DC, showing how the colonizers are still abusing Africans and how the Wakandans have turned their backs on their own people. This would have really elevated the film more as an ethical examination. The film nearly breaks free of the superhero genre in the way that “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” have before, but doesn’t quite get there.

T’Challa is a strong character, but a little too perfect. He has no inner challenges in regards to character. Perhaps if he was fearful of the throne and the burden it will bring to him. Perhaps if he failed in a more dramatic fashion than his inability to capture Ulysses and the tribes grumbled about his lack of leadership. Maybe he considers letting Killmonger have the throne as it has brought him nothing but misery. Such plot points are hinted at in the film, but could have been enhanced even more.

Another thing missing is a representative character of the Wakandan people, someone who witnesses the events of the plot as a spectator. Perhaps T’Challa meets a young child on his first stroll through the city as king and talks to him, encouraging him to be a doctor or engineer like his sister and reminding him not to fight with his siblings as peace is the way. As the battle over the throne commences, we see the conflict among the common people through his eyes as different families take Killmonger or T’Challa’s side and conflict erupts on the street. The boy sees peace as the way and forms a group that refuses to go along with Killmonger’s war plans, bringing the people to T’Challa’s side as the final battle begins.

Wakanda is a dream representation of an African utopia, a place of beauty, innovation and peace, a black Camelot in a way. It represents a world that could have been were it not for colonization, racism and genocide and all the negative forces of the globe. Seeing that representation is a hope for all peoples, not just Africans, but everyone who believes in an ideal world full of culture and peace. The film does an admirable job of creating a world that many dream of and hope to create. For so long, Camelot was a place of Anglo-Saxons, but seeing a new type of El Dorado and Atlantis onscreen is important. That will ultimately be “Black Panther’s” legacy. The final shot of the film, an impressive T’Challa in his regal robes and spaceship next to a young boy playing basketball, is an uplifting image of hope.

 

 

 

What to do with the Red Wings

For the second consecutive year, the Red Wings will miss the playoffs. Having grown accustomed to playoff streaks, rosters filled with Hall of Famers and Stanley Cups, this is a strange, surreal feeling for Hockeytown. For as long as I’ve been a hockey fan, heck as long as I’ve been alive almost, the Wings were the pinnacle of NHL success. So with this middling roster again failing to make the cut, what changes need to be made to elevate the Wings back to the level of success we’re accustomed to?

th

At the top of the list of questionable returnees are GM Ken Holland and coach Jeff Blashill. All indications are that both will return next season to much chagrin. Holland has done an admirable job in his 20 plus years running the team, with four Stanley Cups on his resume and thousands of regular season wins. When the Wings were expected to crash and burn following the labor strike of 2005, the team surprised many by continuing to contend, winning a Cup and making it to another final, based largely on the team’s ability to draft impact players in latter rounds (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom) and their strength in signing free agents to smart deals (Rafalski, Drake, Hossa), a testament to management. Since Lidstrom’s retirement though, the team has seemed lost and unable to break themselves free of also-ran status. Mike Babcock leaving as coach also seems to have left the team rudderless. And Holland’s string of free agent successes and drafting has been want in recent seasons (gone are Jiri Hudler, Valterri Filppula and Tomas Tatar, busts include Stephen Weiss, Tom McCollum and Brad Richards). With the recent trades of Tatar, Brendan Smith and Petr Mrazek, all indications are that the Wings are entering a new state of flux. Are Holland and Blashill the tandem to lead this team back out of the wilderness? My gut says no.

Holland has never overseen a rebuild and his questionable contract decisions (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm) have put the team in a salary cap dilemma. Again, this is not to say that he is a bad manager, just perhaps the wrong one for this team at this time. A new GM (perhaps assistant GM Ryan Martin or Kris Draper or someone outside the organization) might evaluate the team with a new perspective and make the necessary decisions to change the overall direction.

Blashill has had much success at the minor league level, but little to show at the national level. When the Wings have trailed entering the third period this season, they have won once and lost 24 times. That speaks to coaching more than anything else, an inability to properly motivate a team. Perhaps with a team with more talent, Blashill would be able to string together impressive numbers, but the best coaches in the league still ice competitive teams despite their struggles. The Wings just don’t seem to respond to Blashill in the way they did to Babcock and Bowman. Perhaps they need more of a taskmaster or just a different perspective behind the bench.

Regardless of management decisions, the Wings need improvement on the ice. Virtually every position needs to be upgraded.

Jimmy+Howard+Detroit+Red+Wings+v+New+York+3m0pJea0P96l

Let’s start in net. Petr Mrazek was tagged as the goalie of the future, but his poor mindset and diminishing performance left him exposed in the latest entry draft and traded at this year’s deadline. What was once a solid position of strength is now an open question mark. Jimmy Howard has been pretty solid this season, as he has been in the past, but how much longer can he be the Wings number one option? He’s signed for one more season and could be brought back after that on a much cheaper deal for a couple of years. If he can play into his late thirties at the standard he has now, then great. That gives the Wings several years to draft and develop a whole slew of potential goaltenders in their farm system. If Howard’s injury issues reappear however, the Wings will find themselves desperately seeking short-term, veteran options to keep plugging holes in the ship. Sometimes you find a great goalie who goes undrafted and signs as a free agent who can carry your team, but more often than not, you need to draft and develop that starter and prepare him for the tough grind of the NHL. The good news is that the Wings needn’t be afraid to use their later round picks on goaltenders. Pekka Rinne (8th round), Ben Bishop (3rd round) and Frederik Andersen (7th round) were all drafted later in the draft. Unless you’re selecting a surefire star goaltender (Marc-Andre Fleury, Carey Price), it’s best to use your early picks on forwards and defensemen and gamble with your latter picks on goalies. With some prospects in the minors in this department, the Wings need to continue taking chances and seeing if they can develop their next goalie of the future. Perhaps last year’s third round pick Keith Petruzzilli, another huge goalie, can develop into that kind of performer.

The Wings greatest area of concern is their defense. Ever since Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retired, Brad Stuart left and Niklas Kronwall injured his knee, the defense has lacked the all-world ability so long a staple of championship’s past. You can never just simply replace a defenseman of Lidstrom’s caliber overnight, but a defense by committee is necessary in today’s NHL and the Wings current crop (Mike Green, Danny DeKeyser, Nick Jensen, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley and Xavier Ouellet) are just not cutting it.

Mike Green should leave the team over the summer, freeing up some valuable cap space. He adds a nice degree of offense, but is too expensive to keep and his production will only decrease with age. Danny DeKeyser needs to be shifted down the lineup to a second-pairing role. He’s not suited for a job on the top line and should serve as a safe, shutdown player. Trevor Daley is an interesting piece that adds some mobility and is useful on the second pairing. Ouellet should be traded or let go after this season to make room on the roster. Jensen has regressed since his freshman season, but is a right-handed shot and might just need a boost of confidence. Then there’s Ericsson. After signing his huge deal, Ericsson doesn’t serve much use outside the penalty kill. He’s never been the most physical player and his skating seems to have slowed. He’s signed for two more seasons at $4.25 million, another albatross of a contract on the team. Trading him would be the best option, but no one will take that contract. Burying him in the minors is another path, but it seems the Wings are stuck with him for another couple of years.

Ideally, the dream scenario would be the Wings landing the top pick in this year’s draft and drafting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. It’s far-fetched and unlikely to happen, but such a development would give the team the game-breaking rearguard they need. Otherwise, high-end defensemen don’t hit the free agent market. If Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Erik Karlsson became available via trade, that could be another option, but the price for those players would likely include Dylan Larkin or Anthony Mantha, a non-starter. The only choice therefore is to draft and develop one. There are several promising prospects in the minors such as Joe Hicketts, Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski. None are likely number one defensemen, but one or two might surprise as numbers 2 or 3. Teams such as Pittsburgh and Nashville have done well with a plethora of rearguards who can move the puck and who do not necessarily serve as all-world players in the way Nicklas Lidstrom or Chris Pronger were. Such an approach could work well for the Wings. Currently on the roster, there are no players of that puckhandling caliber so drafting is the only other course. Even latter picks though can produce that defenseman that teams covet (Karlsson was picked 15th, Roman Josi 38th, Duncan Keith 58th) so it’s up to the Wings draft team to find that special player who slips through the cracks.

DSC6584-195

Finally, in terms of offense, the Wings find themselves in better, if not great, shape. Young players like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Andreas Athanasiou (if he resigns this summer) give the Wings some valuable forwards with top-six potential. Larkin has developed into a responsible defensive center in the mold of Jonathan Toews, capable of using his blazing speed to create offensive chances. Bertuzzi is a gritty, Holmstrom-esque player who digs pucks out of the corner and goes to the front of the net. Mantha is a power forward-in-waiting, bigger than most everyone else on the ice, a decent skater and a great shooter. Athanasiou has blazing speed and some silky hands, but needs to work on his defensive game and his attitude. Together, they give the Wings one and potentially two strong scoring lines if they develop along the right path. It’s just ensuring their success that is important.

The problem is a lack of other high-end prospects and an abundance of serviceable, but expensive veterans. Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen and Luke Glendening all are too expensive for their team contributions. This is not to say that any of them are bad players, just overpaid and in a salary-cap world, being overpaid for too long means long-term headaches for the team.  Ideally, the Wings would find a trading partner for at least one of these contracts to clear some valuable cap space, but it seems unlikely. Whether it’s injury history (Helm) or lack of production (Abdelkader), the contracts are most likely unmovable. That said, crazier things have happened and teams at the deadline may value someone with Abdelkader’s ability to cause havoc or Glendening’s penalty killing acumen. Buying one of them out seems drastic since they are not anchors of the kind that Stephen Weiss was, but it may ultimately be necessary, especially if young players demand larger contracts.

How much longer Zetterberg keeps playing is an open question. His cap hit is high, but his value to the team is much greater than just points. An invaluable leader, he has three years left on his deal, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he left at any point and retired or was placed on long-term injured reserve.

Martin Frk’s shot keeps him a viable option on the powerplay and he’s cheap enough to be worth the roster spot. Gustav Nyquist has seen his stock go up and down throughout the years, having good games and poor games. He’s never been able to replicate his breakout scoring in his sophomore season and will always be viewed as somewhat of a disappointment in comparison. Not great defensively nor offensively, he’s just kind of there and should be considered a trade chip, especially at next year’s deadline. The Luke Witkowski experiment has failed as he is more detrimental to the team than helpful.

With Tatar traded, that opens up a winger spot for next season. Prospects such as Evgeni Svechnikov and Michael Rasmussen will get a long look in camp barring free agent acquisitions. The Wings need to get younger, faster and more skilled to compete in the modern NHL, similar to teams like Nashville, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

Those teams are built in the following way: strong center depth (three deep), serviceable wingers who are fast, a mobile defense and a solid goaltender. For the Wings to succeed in that style, they need another high-quality center, two more scoring wingers and three to four puck-moving defensemen. That seems like a lot and it should be noted that not all teams need to organized this way (look at the success of teams who rely on offensive prowess like the Toronto Maple Leafs or defensive acumen like the LA Kings), but depth at all positions is imperative and the Wings simply do not have it.

The dream scenario would be the following: Star center John Tavares signs this summer with the team at a reasonable contract. The Wings are able to trade a combination of Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm for a set of low round draft picks or troublesome contracts they can bury in the minors. They get a solid first round draft choice (maybe even Rasmus Dahlin if luck is on their side). Or they put together a package for Erik Karlsson that includes both of this year’s first round draft picks, Michael Rasmussen and Gustav Nyquist or something to that effect. Ken Holland is promoted and Jeff Blashill canned in favor of new leadership. Mantha, Athanasiou, Larkin, Bertuzzi and newcomers Svechnikov and Hicketts show themselves as the next wave of Red Wing stars. And unicorns parade around the ice during intermission.

As much as Wings fans want to dream about the above scenario, it’s not going to happen. The best case is the following: Holland and Blashill do not return and are replaced with new voices unattached to any personnel. The draft is spent not only making good selections, but the new GM also sees if there are potential burdensome contracts he can unload. He also looks into the free agent market for a quality winger or depth defenseman. Youngsters are given every opportunity to make the team and transition to take lead roles, relying on veterans such as Howard and Zetterberg to guide them. Draft picks are continuously accumulated and the team gets faster, younger, cheaper and more skilled. It’s not much of a change from this past season, but other than shedding contracts to make room for the next wave of players, there’s just not a lot the team can do. It’s drafting, developing and coaching, potentially with a new vision at the top to succeed in today’s game. That’s the key to success in today’s NHL and pretty much the only one. Big free agents don’t hit the market that often and trades are dollar for dollar and talent for talent. You rarely get more than what you gave away. The Wings’ priority should be the draft table and accumulating as many picks as possible. The current version of the Wings is just not going to cut it.

Sometimes quick turnarounds happen. A year after winning the draft lottery, New Jersey looks like a good bet to make the playoffs this year. The Colorado Avalanche are fighting for a playoff spot after being the worst team in the league last season even after trading away their number one center. The Vegas Golden Knights, a team of literal castoffs, have won their division. Strange things happen and some of it is due to luck, but it’s better to put yourself in a position of depth to succeed. The Wings need to put together a plan to succeed that’s different than their current course.

New “Tomb Raider” leaves much to be desired

When you’re making any movie, it is important to establish a strong plot and deep characters. A film based off a videogame usually requires some beefing up of those elements to compensate for their lack in general gameplay. The new “Tomb Raider” does none of these things and while I’m sure it is better than Angelina Jolie’s previous fetish films, it is still a boring, monotonous “action-adventure” flick.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is the daughter of the archaeologist Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West). When he goes missing during her youth, she faces years of anguish and wonder about what happened to him. Discovering clues to his exploits, she takes it upon herself to follow his trek and hopefully find some answers. The tale pushes her to a mysterious island and a secret organization called Trinity who seek a powerful, medieval weapon. Led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), Lara must stop them before a WMD falls into their hands.

To say the film is uninspired is an understatement. It’s a perfect example of by the numbers, formulaic action film. Insert protagonist. Give goal. Give backstory to drive character. Plug in antagonist. Make him seem evil. Action sequence #1. Action sequence #2. Midpoint revelation. On and on. It’s as stale as four-week old bread. The inability to create fun and exciting sequences hampers the film even more as even if the plot were boring at least it could be fun, but it’s not. We’ve seen the dangling over the waterfall, the boat crashing into a rock and the booby trap temple before. It’s all so boring.

Imagine this instead. Perhaps the film is a commentary on the action-adventure genre. Lara Croft has a sidekick who continuously points out the tropes of the story as they are about to happen (Do you think those shrunken heads spit poisonous darts? I bet they do), playing the comic relief to her serious persona, adding some fun to the proceedings. Throw in some interesting action sequences that take place in exotic temples and you’ve got a fun hit. Or perhaps the film is full on serious, ditching the campiness for an intense, gritty drama with Croft beaten by thugs after being captured, having to heal herself a la “The Revenant” after her escape, facing death in her quest for truth as she goes up against a small band of mercenaries with guns in the jungle. The villain is a complicated lunatic with an interesting backstory with a personal connection to Croft’s father. The quest to stop Trinity is given added weight because of what this villain means to Croft. Just something interesting for the audience would have gone a long way.

Films need deep characters and ingenuity and surprising revelations. Just because a movie is part of the action genre or horror genre is not an excuse to avoid basic filmmaking effort. “Tomb Raider” is devoid of anything memorable or inspired, a purely cash-grab effort. It’s a shame for anyone who enjoys archaeological action films.

 

“Annihilation” is bizarre, challenging and awe-inspiring

Writer and director Alex Garland made a name for himself with his brilliant film “Ex Machina” (2015). As one of the bright new names in science fiction, expectations were sky-high for his follow-up film. Even if no one really went to see it, “Annihilation” is something you’ve never seen before in a big Hollywood production: a sci-fi film with brains, macho feminism and big ideas that challenge the viewer long after the experience.

After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a combat mission and proceeds to convulse after behaving strangely, Lena (Natalie Portman) learns the backstory to where he’s been for the past year. A strange area of land in the Northeast United States has been enveloped by a strange entity called the Shimmer. Her husband is the only survivor of an expedition that went in, sent in by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head of an organization called the Southern Ranch. With the area growing, the concern is that the Shimmer will overtake the world before they can stop it. A new team, led by Ventress herself, is set to take the next mission inside and reach the lighthouse, the hub of the Shimmer. Lena, looking to learn what happened to her husband, joins the team with Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Anya (Gina Rodriguez).

Based off a book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film is a mix of science fiction and horror, and the audience is never really sure what is going to happen next and what to believe. The result is a nerve-wracking mind melt that challenges you throughout the story. For audiences who like everything explained to them and a plot that goes from point A to B to C, it’s a difficult experience, but for those willing to think through the film as they watch it, it’s a rewarding science fiction journey. It’d be interesting what a repeat viewing would reveal and whether it would reinforce your first notions of what the film represents or contradict them.

The film is set apart by its visuals which, considering it’s $40 million budget, are spectacular. Whether it’s the shimmer, the lush foliage or the exotic, horrific creatures, the film is a beautiful, terrifying work of art.

Dealing mostly with the abstract, the story is meant to be absorbed and analyzed more than related through with a standard protagonist. Does it represent the duality of nature? Our interconnectedness with the universe? The perverseness of time and space? It might be different for every person.

 

Not for the faint of heart, “Annihilation” is an exhilarating tour-de-force, a sci-fi epic that’s imbued with more terror than most horror films.

Understanding films from all angles