Christopher Maher: Heyo. Welcome to our February Round Table Round Up, where we expand on some of the films we saw this month and allow ourselves to get a little more spoiler-y – so if you haven’t seen Black Panther and Annihilation yet, watch out! We’re joined by contributor Brian Russell and our pal Christian Kozlowski. So, Sam, know you were trying to rewatch one of these this week. Get around to it?
Sam Russell: Yeah I rewatched Black Panther.
CM: Nice, nice, how was the second time through?
SR: Ugh. Really boring. Wish I hadn’t.
CM: That’s a bummer.
SR: I mean part of it was seeing it through Liza’s eyes ya know. And just noticing how dumb so much of it was. Honestly the cinematography is atrocious and some of the special effects are embarrassingly bad. I really wish I hadn’t seen it a second time. I would have preferred to live in the cultural High that was liking Black Panther.
CM: You know I was no big fan of those rhinos.
Brian Russell: I’ve only seen Black Panther once but I really enjoyed it — I like that it had a point of view and something to say. Though I was annoyed that Killmonger felt more cartoonish than the other characters … he was well motivated and had the makings of a really great antagonist, but didn’t have to be a true villain … I feel like Marvel didn’t trust the audience to understand the nuances and made sure he killed unnecessarily and burned flowers so we would understand “this is the bad guy.” And Sam may have disliked it the second time, but he hates everything superhero. These movies are made for the masses and we need to factor that into our analysis.
CM: I don’t know if Killmonger felt more cartoonish to me (that was Klaue). Maybe more performative? But I’d agree with you that the film was working against itself when it came to him – he was a nuanced character and a nuanced performance who was still stuck on this prescriptive rails, because he had to do all the things a Marvel villain does. Its the same thing we say (and discuss) every Marvel movie : its good or its bad, but always “for a Marvel movie”.
BR: Maybe cartoonish is the wrong word (Klaue certainly fit that bill.) I guess I thought Killmonger was over the top … his motives were SO GOOD … but his “blowin’ shit up” mentality made him less real for me. Certainly more performative. And I don’t think Marvel will ever offer truly great films. These things are money machines and that comes first. BP is on a race to pass a billion dollars … clearly the people love it. And to be fair … Black Panther has to serve a lot of masters. I applaud it for directly taking on race, oppression and poverty. Those elements were so well done, and no one was hiding behind superheroes on the issues. But this guy feels differently.
CM: I have read a lot of criticism of Black Panther along those lines actually and it is exactly what I was saying about Killmonger being a nuanced character in a movie that forces him to be less nuanced. What place does violence have in fighting oppression? Historically, a huge place. Killmonger isn’t wrong, but the movie needs him to be in order to fulfill the formula. It’s exactly what happens in Marvel movies all the time. They flirt with complexity and then strip it away in Act 3. It happens here. It happens in Civil War in the debate in personal responsibility, and in Winter Soldier re: surveillance. And it’s not just with political issues. What does it mean to be Bruce Banner and lose your personhood to the Hulk? It’s an interesting question Ragnarok asks and then never gets around to answering.
BR: Whoa — Ragnorok is a Marvel classic with brilliant comic book colors and CLASSIC humor! Not to mention one serious costume for Cate Blanchett. Oh yeah — and the best Jeff Goldblum performance since The Fly! But Ragnarok’s indisputable greatness aside, I do think it is futile to expect Marvel to give us something beyond big budget dripping with butter popcorn entertainment. The fact that we get films like Winter Soldier, Civil War and Black Panther at all seems miraculous to me. Stories with something big to say are a bonus in their arena. It’s a multinational studio that just doesn’t trust it’s audience. Unlike The Commuter, another February release that really let’s it’s audience make up it’s own mind about public conscientious issues like ageism, police corruption, high-tech surveillance culture and data security. As for Annihilation: it was super weird and confusing and maybe is about depression but I didn’t really get it. I must be one of those movie viewers that Paramount didn’t trust to understand a movie this cerebral.
Christian Kozlowski: So, ya like jazz? Annihilation has no jazz, but it was still great.
CM: Yeah. I guess I actually haven’t given any thoughts on it since Sam you wrote the review. I liked it a lot – maybe not a 10 out of 10 but definitely interesting and I imagine further rewatches will make me like it more – Ex Machina was a film I liked fine the first time and have come to appreciate more each rewatch. What are your thoughts CK?
CK: I really liked it. A real slow-burn sci fi film. I can’t remember the last time a film made me so stressed out. And I think that stress came from all the questions I had about the film, but at no point did I feel short-changed about all these questions I had. Clearly these loose ends were intended by the filmmakers and weren’t tacked on to make the film more bizarre.
CM: Yeah I grabbed dumplings with a friend after the film and he suggested that he thought it was okay but that essentially what you saw is what you got. Which again is how I felt about Ex Machina at first, only to discover on rewatches I was wrong. There are a lot of moments of “why” through out the film but I think they’re all intentional: the film suggests answers for them, they’re not, like you said, just spikes of randomness. I keep thinking of the opening of the film. It opens with cancer cells multiplying, and talks about how immortality is actually a mistake in the genetic code, as well as how all life on earth evolved from just one cell. I think those are both good clues for the rest of the film.
SR: Chris it’s 2018, you can’t just go around grabbing dumplings anymore, you need to ask first. Also I think you mean “mortality” not immortality?
CM: No I meant immortality. Cells are meant to live and then die. Its when they fail to die and keep growing that they become a problem. That’s what cancer is!
SR: Oh I thought the film said aging and death is a cellular mistake? I’m curious what you two thought about the film from a genre point of view. Chris, awhile back you wrote about how Spring Breakers, a highly unconventional film, follows the “hero’s journey,” a system thought of as a sort of template for conventional storytelling. I felt Annihilation did a similar thing. It follows the same general structure of genres we know well, it deals in those tropes, but on that framework builds a very strange, unconventional film.
CK: For sure. I’m still thinking about the film a week later and I feel that’s bc of the subtle visual motifs that reinforce ideas like cancerous cells multiplying, and the conclusions I have had to make with the info the film provides and also what it excludes. If these were just spikes of randomness then yeah, it’d be “essentially what you saw is what you got”.
CM: From the genre standpoint I don’t even totally know what to call this movie. Its almost a creature feature? Survival flick? Honestly those were the parts I found least interesting, unfortunately. The screaming bear was intriguing, especially Tessa Thompson’s dissection of what it meant, but the alligator sequence for example didn’t really feel like anything to me. I don’t know, really, what it added to the film itself. To me it was a film about change and incomprehension, and I don’t know what a giant alligator adds to that other than a moment of adrenaline. It’s not that I disliked the second act, it was just difficult for me to reconcile with the beginning and end.
SR: I felt there were scenes of horror peppered throughout, and an ongoing feeling of dread in general. But the overall structure felt like a sci fi/fantasy adventure to me. A team of experts are thought together, each with their own purpose and motivation for being there. They venture into the unknown with a mission to solve a problem. In that way it reminds me of Lord of the Rings. I agree Chris, it’s about change and incomprehension. The film ends and we now know Kane is not his original self. And we don’t know if Lena is herself or her echo, but it doesn’t matter because the events inside the Shimmer were so intense that even if she is her original body she is forever a changed person. (Not unlike the Hobbits at the end of Lord of the Rings, particularly Frodo who decides to leave Middle Earth all together.)
CM: Yeah, that’s really what struck me thematically. Even if it’s not the original Kane or Lena its echoes of them… and that would be the case regardless of if they’d kept their original bodies or not.