Black Panther: An Empowering Fantastical Legacy

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther is easily one of the most anticipated superhero films of 2018 and I must say, it was worth the wait. The film begins with a brief history of how Wakanda (a fictional kingdom nation in Africa) and the tradition of the Black Panther came about. Within a few flashbacks, we see that the kingdom of Wakanda is rendered heirless, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) next in power to become King of Wakanda. When faced with an unexpected enemy Erik Stevens (Michael B Jordan), T’Challa must fight to protect his kingdom alongside his main supporters, including his bodyguard and commander-in-chief Okoye (Danai Gurira), his sister and resident scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright), and his “ex” and an intelligence spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

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Amidst the political atmosphere of hate crimes and police brutality against African Americans in the US, Black Panther is a superhuman social commentary on racism, oppression, colonization, and African diasporic experiences, raising questions about connection, responsibility, and identity. Writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole excellently weave this underlying thread throughout the film, framing it as both a serious issue that demands attention and inserting it into witty one-liners as satiric comedy. Here’s hoping and wishing that a nation as technologically advanced and culturally rich as Wakanda exists not only in futuristic fantasy and science-fiction but can in due course become a reality in Africa, proving that Western industrialization and colonization need not be a benchmark for progress and development in the world.

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Black Panther is a holistically African film, deriving visual elements from various different African countries, tribes, and subcultures. From village squares and streets resembling North Africa to jewelry and costumes like East African tribes, the makers of the film have clearly put in a great deal of effort in doing background research for this superhero spectacle. I particularly loved the connection to ancestors as a source of strength, support, and healing for Wakandans. The growth and use of the innovative technology of the imaginary element vibranium was also amazing to see onscreen.

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Needless to say, the visuals and cinematography by Rachel Morrison is absolutely brilliant, giving folks who have been to Africa all the feels and a serious dose of nostalgia. In his background score, Ludwig Goransson uniquely combines an EDM base, hip-hop beats, and traditional African drumming, singing, and instrumentation to create a sound that is representative of African and African diaspora cultures.

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Black Panther features all-star cast members who have all essayed their roles well. While the characters themselves may be fictional, fantastical, and transcend reality, their motivations, intentions, and actions are realistic and demonstrate the essence of human nature. One of my personal favorites is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), whose strength, power, and sass as a scientist steal the show.

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Final Verdict: Black Panther is a unique superhero movie that traces the narrative of a historically ignored people through mind-blowing visuals and powerful thought-provoking storytelling. Bearing some resemblance to the Hindu epic Mahabharata and the recent multilingual two-part blockbuster Baahubali, Black Panther is so gripping and engaging that I wanted the film to continue. As always, stay till the very end for a sneak peak into Black Panther in Marvel’s next flicks!

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

After the release and popularity of the book in 1981 and the Robin Williams film in 1995, the Jumanji franchise returns in the 21st century, with more action and adventure than ever before. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle begins by showing the lives of four teenagers in Brantford, New Hampshire, who happen to end up together in detention and subsequently embark on an adventure into the video game world of Jumanji. The bulk of the film focuses on the characters’ journey through the video game, as they work together to advance through the levels and save Jumanji while trying to stay alive.

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This standalone sequel is a great blend of comedy, action, and adventure. We enter into the world of Jumanji with the characters, feeling their emotions and experiencing the roller coaster of navigating the game with them. Despite the fact that it is an enjoyable time-pass movie, there are some philosophical words of wisdom interspersed in the script here and there. Since the characters embody the roles and bodies of avatars in the video game, there is a clear emphasis on the idea that appearance is not everything. The limited number of lives for each character in the game brings in an additional existential element of only having one life to do what you want to do and be who you want to be.

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In any kind of theater, be it cinema or live performance, actors take on roles and bring their characters to life onscreen. In this film, there is an interesting inception of roles within roles, as each teen character and personality exists inside the video game avatar role. So essentially, Dwayne Johnson plays the character and personality of Spencer inside the body and characteristics of Dr. Bravestone. For the adolescent characters in the movie, taking on the roles of Dr. Bravestone, Ruby Roundhouse, Mouse Finbar, and Professor Oberon in the game gives them a different perspective about and insight into their real lives as Spencer, Martha, Fridge, and Bethany.

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As someone who has not seen the first Jumanji film, I thoroughly enjoyed this latest edition, which features a stellar star cast of Dwayne Johnson as Spencer, Kevin Hart as Fridge, Karen Gillan as Martha, and Jack Black as Bethany. It was a pleasant surprise to see Nick Jonas onscreen as Alex, the boy who disappeared on account of being stranded in the video game for years. The chemistry and evolution of friendship between Spencer and Fridge is incredible, and Jack Black slays as a self-obsessed teenage girl inside a man’s avatar body. Special shoutout to cinematographer Gyula Pados and the beautiful nature, scenery, and Hawaiian locations where the movie has been filmed.

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Final Verdict: Jumanji is an entertaining and humorous flick with an appropriate balance of action-adventure and comedy. It is definitely a little scary in bits with certain scenes that could make you jump out of your seat, but ultimately you may find yourself cheering on the teenage characters within the video game avatars to face their fears and overcome the challenges in front of them. A fun (PG-13) movie that will transport you to another world!

Thor Ragnarok: Stunts, Superheroes, and Strength

One of the most anticipated superhero movies of the year, Thor Ragnarok is shattering the box office with its billions of dollars in revenue and raging reviews! Continuing where the previous movie left off, Thor Ragnarok begins with a scene of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) captured and held prisoner by the demon Surtur, who explains the prophecy of Ragnarok impending on Asgard. The rest of the story revolves around the family conflict between Odin’s children – Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Hela (Cate Blanchett) – regarding the rightful heir to the throne of Asgard.

As someone who is not very familiar with characters from Marvel Comics, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie but some context from previous films is certainly needed and helpful, especially in the beginning scenes. (Pro tip: read through the Wikipedia summaries of the first two Thor movies just before watching this film). A perfect blend of action, comedy, and drama, there is much to appreciate in this superhero flick. Deep moments of interpersonal connection between characters are immediately followed by fight sequences and fantastic comic timing to lighten the mood and add an extra dose of entertainment for viewers. I appreciated the interspersing and special appearances of other Marvel characters like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), in addition to the Avengers insiders here and there.

In any superhero movie, a series of different mythical worlds and time periods often serve as backdrops and settings in which the plot takes place, and in Thor Ragnarok, there were several. From the faraway mystical castle of Asgard to the cluttered junkyard of Sakaar, each planet is characterized by unique lifestyles that invite the viewers into an ethereal experience transcending reality. The visuals and animations in Thor Ragnarok are amazing, and due credit must be given to the entire team of artists, designers, and animators for all their hard work.

The characterization in this film is absolutely brilliant, with the undertone of a shared humanity in each individual despite their magical powers and superhuman abilities. Even though Thor is God of Thunder, he is essayed by Chris Hemsworth as someone who is eternally on a journey of self-discovery and developing self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses (as a warrior and otherwise). Both Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson slay onscreen as the two powerful female leads in the film, although the makers ought to have given a proper name to Tessa’s character, who is simply known as the Valkyrie/Scrapper 142. I definitely appreciate the lack of any clear or established romance between the Valkyrie and Thor, as the love and attraction angle is stereotypically portrayed and/or expected when heterosexual characters of the opposite sex fight side by side in any action flick.

The relationship and chemistry between Thor and the Hulk is adorable, endearing, hilarious, and filled with many “aww!” moments. But by far one of the most interesting characters is planet Sakaar’s Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), whose quirky comments, spunky personality, and self-obsessed narcissism provided much needed lightheartedness and laughs throughout the movie.

Final Verdict: Thor Ragnarok is a supremely entertaining film that could be classified within the broad Indian film genre of a “masala movie”. Equal parts action and comedy, this movie has all the ingredients of a Marvel movie – stunts, superheroes, and strength. Definitely stay till the end of the credits for a sneak peek of what is to come!

Doctor Strange: Marvel in Mystery, Magic, and Mysticism

Marvel Studios returns to the cinemas with their much awaited adventure film, featuring the ever-so-glamorous Benedict Cumberbatch in and as Doctor Strange. After experiencing a nearly fatal car accident and suffering severe forms of incurable nerve damage, Stephen Strange travels far and wide to receive tools for healing and training in the mystic arts from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). As he develops his skills and talents in Kamar-Taj, Strange ultimately finds himself caught between returning to the comfort of his previous life and taking the path less traveled.

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*Note: As someone who is not familiar with Marvel’s comic series of Doctor Strange, I write this review based solely on what was depicted in this feature film.

On that note, for someone who is entirely new to Marvel’s world of Doctor Strange, this film has a lot to take in. Integrating holistic Eastern and Western principles of health and medicine with philosophy and spirituality, this adventurous superhero flick is gripping right from the start. From the witty hilarious dialogues to the Matrix-like stunts and special effects, Doctor Strange commands and sustains the attention of viewers throughout its running time of 115 minutes.

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An aspect of this film that I truly appreciated was the lack of cultural appropriation with which Asian philosophies and practices have been depicted and interwoven. We literally enter other worlds, or multiverses, ones where the concepts of physics, time, and gravity intersect with chakras, spirits, and astral bodies to create a forcefield of magic and energies that is only imaginable. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Framestore, Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Rise FX, Crafty Apes, and SPOV bring this supernatural imagination to life with their amazing visual effects in the film.

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From a psychological perspective, what I particularly loved about Doctor Strange is how beautifully flawed and perfectly human each and every character is. It shows true strength and courage to admit and accept one’s past wrongs while working hard in the present to create a positive impact on the future. The traditional trope of overcoming arrogance in a magical and spiritual training arena is very much present and needed for egotistical Strange to accept and surrender in order to regain control. Needless to say, Benedict Cumberbatch was the perfect choice to play Doctor Strange, coming across as a combination of haughty, curious, and creative. His chemistry with Wong (Benedict Wong) is simply fantastic, adding light humor to this action-packed adventure.

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Final Verdict: Doctor Strange is a mind-blowing film where director Scott Derrickson and Marvel Studios take you on Strange’s journey of self-discovery through magic and mysticism. Stay till the end after the credits to check out Marvel’s sneak peak of what is to come!

Khoya: Loss, Belonging, Meaning

Khoya. Lost. The word lends itself to feelings of sadness and abandonment. Experience all these emotions and more in Sami Khan’s poignant drama Khoya, which follows the journey of Roger (Rupak Ginn) as he sets off from his hometown in Canada to find his birth family in India.

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Khoya is a deeply evocative film that takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster with Roger through India. From encountering the consequences of corruption firsthand to traversing the road with nothing but the clothes on his back, Roger goes through significant trials and tribulations in his quest for family and belonging. As an audience member, I felt an immense amount of sympathy for Roger as he,a brown-skinned foreigner with a linguistic barrier, experiences in India for the first time. Issues of forged adoption papers and child trafficking bring in social messages about serious matters that are seldom spoken about but nevertheless plague the adoption industry worldwide.

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Metaphors and symbolism are galore in this profound film, particularly with subtle subtextual references to different religious and spiritual traditions. The cinematography by Kevin Wong beautifully captures realistic imagery of India in ways that are unlike the colorful over-the-top visuals often portrayed onscreen in mainstream cinema.

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There is a lot to unpack in Khoya, from Roger’s identity struggles as an Indo-Canadian unaware of his Indian roots to his feelings of shame about being adopted. The film’s pace is mellow and contemplative, seeming slow at times, but it intentionally flows with the protagonist’s internal struggles throughout his journey. Contributing to the reflective vibe of the film, there are minimum dialogues so much of the story moves forward in silence through body language. Needless to say, Rupak Ginn has done an excellent job essaying the role of Roger. The directorial technique of flashback to introduce bits and pieces of Roger’s past is an interesting touch that adds more dimension to this ruminative drama.

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Final Verdict: Khoya is a film that requires more than 100% of your attention while watching. Because there is so much to absorb, a thorough understanding and analysis of the film can only emerge from multiple watches. Visually grey and hazy with thought-provoking and reflective content!

Venue: 3rd i South Asian Film Festival (San Francisco, CA)

Finding Dory: Memory Loss and Self-Acceptance

In 2003, Pixar released Finding Nemo, a classic animation that has become somewhat of a cult film for people of all ages. 13 years later, Disney Pixar and team are back with Finding Dory, the much awaited sequel about our favorite blue fish in the ocean.

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Finding Dory follows the tale of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a friendly fish with short-term memory loss. In the prequel, she accompanied Marlin (Albert Brooks) on the journey to find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). This time, Dory finds herself searching for something closer to her heart – her family and her home. What ensues is a series of adventures that leads Dory to realize her potential, while remembering old friends and making new ones.

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This movie follows a very similar arc to its prequel, and the filmmakers have utilized a similar formula of comedy + action + sentimental emotion to deliver a powerful message with entertainment. Structurally, the film swaps between present and past, cutting to flashbacks of adorable baby Dory with her parents. Dory’s memories have been interwoven and tied into the story at appropriate times to further plot development and help Dory on her journey.

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Finding Dory is a film about many things but at the core, it tackles the issue of amnesia and short-term memory loss. We see Dory portrayed as an outgoing, bubbly fish who gets along with just about anyone. Yet, Dory too experiences embarrassment and inferiority complexes about her memory problem and its impact on others. The difference is that she forgets about and does not ruminate over her insecurities. Thus, in a way, her memory loss makes her more determined to overcome obstacles with a positive attitude.

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One thing that is great about most Disney Pixar films is that folks of any age will thoroughly enjoy them. Animation movies like Finding Dory allow viewers to get in touch with their inner child. More often than not, such films also feature an exemplary cast faced with the challenge of capturing all the characters’ emotions through voice. Ellen DeGeneres has done a marvelous job voicing Dory, and we feel ourselves crying and laughing with her throughout. As a sequel, the film also features honorary guest appearances by some characters from Finding Nemo, including the righteous turtle Crush and Mr. Ray.

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Final Verdict: Finding Dory is a very cute, kid-friendly film that is all about finding your roots and discovering your potential. An inspirational watch if you’re in need of a motivational self-esteem boost. Definitely check out the Pixar short just before the feature film begins!

The Jungle Book: A World of Wonder

The jungle is a unique world that has an aura of its own. Despite being ridden with lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), there can be harmony and order even among the greatest of chaos. From the picturesque landscapes to the hierarchy in food chains, Jon Favreau shows us all this and more in his take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book.

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The basic premise of The Jungle Book follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy who has been raised by a panther and a pack of wolves. The threat of the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) forces Mowgli to leave his home. As he journeys throughout the jungle, guided by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli comes across many interesting animal characters along the way, who have their own reasons for seeking out the boy.

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At its core, The Jungle Book focuses on self discovery and self acceptance. Throughout the film, Mowgli finds himself struggling to find his place in the jungle, somewhere he really wants to belong and wishes to call home. This internal conflict is somewhat of an existential crisis most humans subconsciously experience on some level. Mowgli’s desire to fit in is so intense that he is taught (and trains himself) to do everything like a wolf without taking shortcuts or using “tricks”.

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The chemistry between Mowgli and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) is very cute and endearing. The interactions between the two bring a turning point in Mowgli’s life, as he is forced to accept and see his unique ways of surviving and defending himself as assets (rather than liabilities) in the jungle. This journey of self-discovery is beautifully charted over the course of the two-hour film.

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As it is set in a jungle, the film also focuses on power relationships and hierarchy in food chains among animals. On one hand are Shere Khan’s threats to get rid of Mowgli, while on the other hand, King Louie (Christopher Walken) tries to entice and sweet-talk Mowgli into helping him reach the top of the food chain by procuring the red flower. The emotions related to these power struggles and inter-animal relationships have been very well captured on the animals’ faces, a difficult feat to accomplish with visual effects.

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The Jungle Book has many strengths to its credit. The cinematography by Bill Pope is intense and breathtaking, showcasing the beauties and secrets of jungle living. Complementing the cinematography was excellent background music by John Debney. Even though it is a children’s film, there is quite a bit of scary action and violence, with the animals attacking and fighting with one another at certain points. Debutant Neel Sethi has fabulously essayed the role of a lost young boy in a wild and dangerous jungle.

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Final Verdict: In The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau transports us to the diverse jungles of India. While the pace feels a bit dragging at times, this is a tale of power, love, and human discovery that has much to offer for viewers of any age. Immerse yourself in nature and escape into a world of wonder!