Bond villains, ranked

Jacob Hall, writing for Esquire:

While England’s top spy has gone head-to-head against a variety of foes, you can’t deny that some have served as meatier adversaries as others. That’s why we have to do what any Bond fan must do: rank every single James Bond villain in a big list.

Bond fans will spend a half-hour or so scrolling through this list. While I quibble with Mr. Hinx’s #77 ranking, the list and each write-up are great fun. Also, as John Gruber opined, Blofeld’s seven manifestations (to date) should be accorded separate listings; some are much better then others.


The Final Scene of Avengers: Endgame

Shirley Li, The Atlantic:

Yet the Endgame finale—with its heart-stoppingly romantic last shot, of Steve and Peggy dancing in their living room, reunited sometime in the past—has made Captain America a target of some less-than-Cap-friendly commentary since the film’s release. His final scene, one critic argued, “makes no sense.” On Twitter, he’s #notmysteve and #notmycaptain, with the word selfish brought up the most.

The difference between a fan and a fanboy is that fans can still cast a critical eye on the object of their fandom. Fanboys are blinded by their fandom. And yet these critiques are not critical. They are unseeingly petty.

A shameless minor cadre of fanboys–I’m going out on a limb guessing there aren’t many women fans chiming in on this one–are masquerading as wanna-be movie critics, decrying one of the longest-wished-for yet least-expected scenes in an otherwise over-stuffed three-hour movie. They ought to give the character a chance to enjoy being more than the avatar of their pent-up frustration at being pantsed so often in middle school.

Li concludes,

How remarkable, then, that Avengers audiences get to watch a hero wrap up his story the way he wants to, by being as loyal as he’s always been and fulfilling a promise he once couldn’t keep. How refreshing that we get to have him be human, out of costume and out of action. How marvelous to see him retire, no post-credits sting necessary, having lived a full life with someone he missed ever since he woke up from those decades frozen in ice.

Just so.

Leave it alone, guys. It was nice to see a well-loved character, born of sacrifice and dedicated to what he believed in, finally get his reward.

To fuse and paraphrase Tony Stark and James Darrell Edwards III, these people need to move their bum asses out of their moms’ house and get a life.

(kudos if you know who James Edwards is without Googling it.)

#AvengersEndgame #CaptainAmerica #fanboys

∴ Finally, an Avengers of consequence

I went to see the premiere of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Thursday night. I walked in with middling expectations, but I emerged impressed. It was really very good.

There are no spoilers in this article (I lie), but perhaps there’s a hint or two if you read between the lines. Like this: Infinity War is the first Avengers story of any actual consequence. It’s about losing. Ultimate loss. It opens with Thanos speaking of it, and it ends with it.

The story is well-written and well-directed, keeping my attention throughout its two-hour, thirty-minute-long runtime. In this way it exceeds Black Panther, which dragged at times. I was as enraptured by Infinity War as I was by Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Action fans will not be disappointed, either. The CGI was seamless, and fit right in with the story-telling. There was no FX for its own sake; this was good, modern film-making.

The theater was full of cheers and laughter as the plot moved toward a dreaded possible conclusion, but fans expected the Avengers to save the day. That’s how it’s supposed to go, right?

That did not happen.

Gasps heard throughout the theater during the final twenty minutes of the film were loud and in unison from fans not expecting what they were seeing. As the picture faded to black and the credits rolled, I heard cries of “no!” At the very end, where Marvel Studios often deposits a trailer of things to come, there was again unexpected, impactful loss, and bewilderment among the audience.

Fans were subdued as the lights came up. Many were looking at each other, slack-jawed. Did that really just happen? Quiet discussions ensued before people moved out of the theater.

I loved it. After two Avengers stories bearing little consequence for the main characters, this time out not everyone lived happily ever after.

This film clarified that the lack of consequence amid the battles and destruction of previous movies is what left me expecting another ordinary experience last night. It’s the difference between a film akin to an amusement park ride and one that tells a story worth hearing. Tragedy and comedy should appear on opposite sides of the same coin. A story without one or the other is out of balance.

Let’s review.

The Avengers: ok, the title of this one snookered me. Somehow I thought this film was to be a remake of the 1960s British TV spy series starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Imagine my disappointment.

Regardless, the plot involves the god Thor’s crypto-adopted brother Loki leading an alien invasion of New York. The Big Apple gets beat up, the Avengers save the day, and they eat shawarma. Joss Whedon wrote and directed, which made it entertaining, but still. Tony Stark as Ironman actually almost died at the end, but no cigar. The Hulk shocks him back to life with a scream. No lasting consequence to the Avengers; fans knew they’d triumph.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: I liked this one primarily because of James Spader’s voice-over of Ultron. He’s a terrific actor and he played Ultron almost identically to his Raymond Reddington character in the TV series The Blacklist, which Kelly and I enjoy.

Ultron does some bad things leading up to dropping a city back upon the Earth, which the Avengers must blast apart lest it creates an extinction-level event like the one that killed the dinosaurs. The plot ends with Sokovia (the city) destroyed, but the residents safely evacuated by the Avengers. Sucks if you’re from Sokovia, or the Scarlet Witch’s brother what’s-his-name, but not too bad for the Avengers. They even get a new superhero pal, Vision. So there’s that.

Thursday night things didn’t end too well for the Avengers, and that made it a complete story.

Actions have consequences. Lives are not fairy tales. This film takes comics fun and smears it red across the screen. Well, there’s no red blood to speak of, though Black Widow did get a few drops of someone’s blue blood on her, but you get the idea. Tragedy complemented comedy, with plenty of action as the backbone of the story.

Not to worry, there’s much more money to be made off these comics characters. A look at the cast of the fourth Avengers film, due out next year, reveals that some characters just can’t stay away for long. I’m glad of that for Black Panther and Scarlet Witch, kinda meh for others, like Dr. Strange. Love Cumberbatch, not so sure about the Doctor.

I was bummed about the Panther. Black America clearly had a moment going after Black Panther debuted, only to see him …

Ok, enough sorta-spoilers. Go see the film. It is the best of the three Avengers films extant, and given the casting of the next outing my satisfaction at seeing consequence befall these characters, though grim, will be short-lived.

#TheAvengers #deadNotDead #TonyStarkShouldHaveBeenVictimNumberOne

∴ ‘Isle of Dogs’ and Japan as a Plot Device

Nina Li Coomes—The Atlantic:

Critics and viewers might argue that this invented city, which exists in a parallel universe 20 years in the future, eases the story’s burden of faithfully representing Japan. But even given this leeway, Anderson’s Megasaki at times slides dangerously close to tokenism, and often fails to truly bring to mind the country the director claims to invoke

My first awareness of a filmmaker’s flawed use of Japanese culture as a plot device came in a Medium article about Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation a couple of years ago. It was an awakening for me because that film revolves around the alienation of its two main characters from their families and their chosen lives while immersed in a confusingly alien culture, but I’d completely missed its slights to the Japanese people. The Tokyo of Lost In Translation is mentioned in this article as another example of Japanese culture and settings appropriated as a sort of Stranger In a Strange Land backdrop. It is also, as is pointed out, a caricature of a real-world culture and people.

I’m of two minds about this. While not having seen Isle of Dogs yet, I’ve watched and re-rewatched Lost In Translation. Its theme of alienation as a backdrop to Johansson’s and Murray’s Charlotte and Bob finding one another resonates powerfully with me; it is one of my most beloved stories rendered on film. At the same time, I’m somewhat taken aback and disappointed that I didn’t recognize the negative appropriation of Japanese cultural elements to tell the story. Once you see them, though, they’re impossible to miss. And yet they successfully convey a sense of disorientation through the eyes of the characters.

A better criticism asks why that is so. Is Japanese culture so different to Western eyes as to be incomprehensible, and if so does that make it an appropriate plot device?

I’d answer the former question, yes. Clearly, significant cultural differences exist and dropping a character from one into the other for his or her first time can render a comedic or even frightening, disorienting effect. Amplifying the differences for effect, though … there’s a fine line between whimsical caricature and insult.

I’m reminded of the old TV series Amos and Andy, in which caricatures of two black Americans and their interaction with one another are used to the same comedic effect. Rather than rendering their unique behavior and black American culture as a way of understanding them, they’re amplified to clown-like effect. That’s what takes place in short bursts during Lost In Translation and, I take it, in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

I like to think I’ve become more sensitive to the differences between us in positive ways, but I’m still on the fence about this storytelling trope. Humor directed at ourselves is fair. The same directed at others says something about the “us” characters, the filmmaker, and ultimately about ourselves. And who is truly an “other?”

The degree of comedic amplification is at the heart of the question. How much is too much? How much otherness is each of us willing to tolerate in the service of humor? My answer to the latter question a few paragraphs back is I don’t know what makes for an appropriate plot device, but I can take a stab at it.

Does it insult without any sense of familiarity or affection? Does the caricaturing work to move the story along? Answering yes to the first question makes the device inappropriate. Answering no to the second makes it bad storytelling.

I do know that I simply like Lost In Translation’s story, Wes Anderson’s films in general, and expect that I’ll enjoy his Isle of Dogs. I don’t know what that says about me.

Comments are welcome.

#IsleOfDogs #LostInTranslation #culturalAppropriation

∴ The Afrofuturism behind ‘Black Panther’

Brent Staples—The New York Times:

The cultural critic Mark Dery galvanized a generation of artists and intellectuals when he argued during the 1990s that African-Americans whose histories had been obscured by slavery and racism were in danger of being written out of the future as well — unless they engaged the areas of art, literature and technology through which that future was being envisioned.

Mr. Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” to describe the work of artists who used the tools of science fiction to imagine possible futures.

The genre of Black Panther, among other properties and arts, was unknown to me until the film debuted and I began reading the word “Afrofuturism.” ‘What is this?’ I thought and later realized what a rich field of work could inhabit the genre. Imagine an Africa uncolonized and untouched by the slave trade. Even without the incredible superhero-like resources and technologies of the comic, the mind boggles at the possibilities.

Would Africa have developed similarly to South America? South Asia? Something world history hasn’t seen? We can never know. Afrofuturism is akin to gaming out a battle or a war by changing one decisive event—the act or the death of a general, the introduction of a new weapon, say—and second-guessing succeeding events and outcomes in light of that change. Wakanda is an extreme example of playing “what if,” but as the film and the comic portray we would certainly live in a very different world.

England would never have known the profit enjoyed from the slave trade. America would never have known rapid economic expansion, and then the ethnic and racial violence and strife of the twentieth and 21st centuries. Black and brown Africans would never have known genocidal disaster and their descendants would not have known marginalization in a distant, white-majority country.

What would all of our histories look like in retrospect? The mind boggles.

#BlackPanther #Afrofuturism #Marvel

Annihilation is a gorgeous movie that went terribly wrong

Annalee Newitz—Ars Technica:

Annihilation desperately wants to be about the fragility of human identity and the existential dread of the unknown. Unfortunately, it’s just a movie about scientists being stalked by magical DNA bears and tripping out about how love is, like, super hard. And that’s before the silver body paint and interpretive dancing. I wish I were kidding. Garland strains to make something like the original Solaris, with its bizarre exploration of alien and human consciousness, but he’s lost his way.

I’m sensing a trend in these reviews. You?

#Annihilation #scifi #NebulaAwardWinner

‘Annihilation’ Review: A beautiful heap of nonsense

Christopher Orr—The Atlantic:

Ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing in a motion picture. But Annihilation, the director Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, is so resolutely vague, so eager to confound, that its ambiguity becomes itself ambiguous.

Or, as the subheadline states it:

The director Alex Garland’s followup to his debut feature Ex Machina is frequently a pleasure to look at, but lacks structure and coherence.

I’ve not yet seen the film, but I read the book shortly after it received the Nebula Award for Best Novel, in 2015. Nebulas are awarded by a majority vote of science fiction authors; this is no popularity contest winner. Of the story, I’d say the subheadline captures its essence well. I finished the book not exactly sure of what I’d just read.

I’ll see the film, if only for Natalie Portman’s portrayal of an emotionally and intellectually tortured character in an alien-on-Earth landscape. I expect to emerge puzzled.

#Annihilation #scifi #NebulaAwardWinner

Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are teaming up for a new movie

Danette Chavez—AVClub:

Time and again, Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler have proved to be a winning duo—the actor and director are currently celebrating the runaway success of Black Panther, the third film they’ve made together. There’s no resting on laurels here, though, as Variety reports Coogler and Jordan are teaming up once more on the big screen. And this time, they’re bringing Ta-Nehisi Coates with them.

Adding of Ta-Nehisi Coates as the screenwriter should produce a meaningfully consequential result. Coates, a national correspondent to The Atlantic magazine and perhaps the most thoughtful and articulate contemporary writer on ethnicity, race, and America’s broken social contract, is also the current author of the Black Panther comic book series. His script—well executed—should emerge from the screen and swathe the audience in familiar, if uncomfortable sounds and furies; his writing is, ultimately, about all of us.

#Ta-NehisiCoates #RyanCoogler #MichaelBJordan #WrongAnswer