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Front Row at the Movies

Film Review Black Panther
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Chadwick Boseman in a scene from Marvel Studios' "Black Panther."

Film Review Peter Rabbit-1
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Shirrel Rhoades

Friday, February 16, 2018

“Black Panther” takes superheroes to new territory

In 1998, as then-publisher of Marvel Comics, I helped launch Marvel Knights, a project designed to revitalize four fallen-by-the-wayside superhero characters — Daredevil, The Punisher, The Inhumans and Black Panther. A Daredevil movie came out of it. Now, 20 years later, Black Panther has his own movie.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 100% rating.

Entertainment Tonight calls it “The most anticipated Marvel movie … ever!”

It’s another Marvel blockbuster, f’sure.

Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack “The King” Kirby, the comic world’s most celebrated writer and artist, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics.

Wesley Snipes had long wanted to star in a movie version, but his association with Marvel’s “Blade” made that problematic. So Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Get on Up”) was tapped to wear the costume.

Directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), this is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

A Marvel Studios exec described the film as “a big, operatic family drama centered around a world of international espionage.”

Following the events in “Captain America: Civil War,” we find T’Challa (Boseman) returning home to the African kingdom of Wakanda, a verdant Eden with scenic landscapes, magnificent waterfalls, and blue skies filled with spaceships that resemble tribal masks.

As king of Wakanda, T’Challa holds the title of Black Panther and has a fancy form-fitting black costume to prove it.

However, T’Challa finds his sovereignty challenged by Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an Afrikaner arms dealer with a weaponized arm, and his dangerous henchman, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

Killmonger’s James Bond-ish name should be a hint about the action to come, jumping around the world from Wakanda to South Korea and back again. During these travels, we witness car chases and rhino stampedes and hand-to-hand battles galore. One even takes place in a casino royale.

Klaue’s global threat compels T’Challa to team up with a CIA agent (Martin Freedman) and call on the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces.

Among the supporting characters are Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former lover and a member of the Dora Milaje; Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as T’Challa’s mother; a female general (Danai Gurira) acting as the king’s bodyguard; his baby sister (Letitia Wright) who provides gadgets à la James Bond’s Q; and Zuri (Forest Whitaker) who comes across as an African version of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Also, legendary creator Stan Lee makes his traditional cameo appearance. Fanboys can easily spot Stan against the largely black cast.

While anchored in MCU continuity, much of the film’s gravitas comes from the never-before-explored-onscreen fictional country of Wakanda. A militaristic monarchy that somehow comes off as being fair and democratic, Wakanda has never been conquered or known the ravages of colonialism. Far from being “a third-world country,” it is replete with techno-wizardry and an economy based on a secret sound-absorbing element called vibranium. Thatch-covered skyscrapers rise against the jungle backdrop.

Yet the film’s themes attempt to reflect the cultures of Africa. While most Wakandans seem to speak English, the country’s official language is based on Xhosa, a Nguni Bantu tongue with click consonants.

Screenwriter Joe Robert Cole noted that all the countries in Africa have “different histories, mythologies and cultures so what we tried to do was hone in on some of the history, some of the cultural influences and then extrapolate out in our technology ... we wanted to root it in reality first and then build out from there.”

Black Panther manages to ignore racial divides, appearing as a role model to black youth while proving acceptable as a superhero to families of all ethnicities.

A few years back Black Panther ranked No. 51 on IGN’s list of the “Top 100 Comic Books Heroes.” It will be interesting to see if the character moves up the popularity scale following this blockbuster movie.

•••

Peter Rabbit returns as modern 3D animation

My mom used to read me stories by Beatrix Potter about Peter Rabbit.

The stories had been around awhile. The first edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” appeared in 1902. The publisher referred to it as “the bunny book.” These tales about a mischievous and disobedient young rabbit became an immediate success. To date, more than 45 million copies have been sold.

Potter refused to give the rights to Disney, but nevertheless the story was loosely adapted into a Merry Melodies short.

In 1971, Peter Rabbit appeared as a character in a ballet film. In 1991, HBO aired an animated version narrated by Carol Burnett. The next year, a BBC animation was released. And in 2012 Nickelodeon premiered an interesting CGI-animated version.

However, as we all know, any classic children’s story demands retelling over and over again.

So now we have a 3D live-action/CGI-animated comedy adventure film simply titled “Peter Rabbit.” 

Late-night comic James Corden provides the voice of Peter. Domhnall Gleeson plays Thomas McGregor, the farmer who pits himself against the troublesome bunny. And Rose Byrne appears as the kindly animal lover next door, adored by both.

The cast is impressive: Peter’s sisters are voiced by Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki. Rachel Ward and Bryon Brown pop up as Peter’s mom and dad. And Sam Neil is trotted out as Thomas McGregor’s uncle.

The story is familiar enough, but children won’t care: “Peter Rabbit’s feud with the McGregor family reaches new heights as he and Thomas McGregor compete for the affections of a kind animal lover who lives next door.”

Hints of this new film version appeared in the Sony Pictures emails hacked by North Korea. The first trailer for the film met a negative reaction, with Metro commenting: “You can just about hear the sound of Beatrix Potter, turning furiously in her grave.”

Rotten Tomatoes clarified: “Peter Rabbit updates Beatrix Potter’s classic characters with colorfully agreeable results that should entertain younger viewers while admittedly risking the wrath of purists.”

True enough. The 3D-modeled rabbits are sharp depictions that match the live-action performers. Kids will love them. But I still miss the gentle color illustrations by Beatrix Potter of that bad-boy bunny in his blue jacket feasting on Mr. McGregor’s vegetables.

Shirrel Rhoades is the movie reviewer for Cooke Communications North Carolina. Contact him at srhoades@aol.com.

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