Black Panther gets slightly undone by the Marvel house style

The villains get the better end of the charisma stick, leaving a bit of a hole at the center.

Advertisements

In Spiderman Homecoming, the far-and-away best scene of the film was staged as a conversation with the villain peering over his shoulder and the hero in the back seat. I remember really liking the Vulture costume design and the high-school setting being a fair bit of fun, but the movie’s lasting legacy in my mind is that nervy little conversation, which feels very much of a piece with director Jon Watts’ previous film, Cop CarGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. II was better as a whole, but its strongest moments still clearly harken to the semi-gross-out subversion of James Gunn’s previous films, such as SlitherThor: Ragnarok was at its best when Taika Waititi was allowed to throw in things like an overly polite Kiwi rock monster straight out of What We Do in the ShadowsIron Man 3 shined when Shane Black got to do his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang thing and let Robert Downey Jr. be a grinch around Christmas, and the most memorable moment from The Avengers was a very Joss Whedon-esque gag about shawarma.

Each director brought a very specific talent to the Marvel films, but notably, few of them had a background in big-budget action movies, skewing towards indie comedy, horror, and suspense. Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, has two dramas under his belt, the humanistic Fruitvale Station and the triumphant Creed. Perhaps its no surprise then that some of its most memorable moments are its quietest, whether they take place in an apartment in Oakland or the birch-laden lookout of a hermit king. What’s a bit surprising is the detail and world-building that Coogler puts in, making a film that with a wholly original aesthetic to the other Marvel films, a sort of Afrofuturistic James Bond vibe. Unfortunately, the fall back to Earth stings all the more because of it, and Black Panther winds up less than the sum of its parts with a tiring and overcrowded third act.

It’s a superhero movie, I recognize that fights come with the territory. But Black Panther is so stock full of fantastic creations on its periphery that any break for some action feels like a distraction. Take Coogler mainstay Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, who is absolutely a top-tier villain thanks to a performance that gives more than the final cut gives back to him. Killmonger’s philosophy is one of rage and justice, and one that would have benefited from more screen time. Killmonger as a character didn’t just leave me wanting more, but really left me feeling like he should have had at least equal focus as Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. Indeed, oddly for a Marvel movie, the villains get the better end of the charisma stick here, especially once Andy Serkis’ endlessly enjoyable Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “CLAW”) is thrown into the mix. While Letitia Wright nearly runs away with the whole damn movie as T’Challa’s younger sister, functioning as sort of a Wakandan Q, the heroes just don’t garner the same level of interest, leaving a bit of a hole at the center.

In a bit of a mirror to Thor RagnarokBlack Panther explicitly questions the ramifications of colonialism and privilege of a history of power, and while it follows through on it significantly better than its predecessor, it still loses a lot of its thrust by concluding with large-scale brawl. It strives pointlessly to give every character a capping moment when only T’Challa and Killmonger needed one (why Martin Freeman’s CIA agent factors in at all to the ending is beyond me). Like the sweeping one-take marvel of a fight in Creed, Coogler is best at staging fights in a close-up one-to-one scale, faltering when the scale gets bigger (a one-take casino fight uses its extra space and ends comes away feels entirely artificial). Weirdly, Black Panther very clearly could have told a strong, personal story with a strong political message, but even without the intrusion of infinity stones and Benedict Cumberbatch cameos, cramming in the Marvel house style keeps it from reaching its potential.

C+

Black Panther (2018)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Michael B. Jordan
Rotten Tomatoes (97%)

I really, REALLY enjoyed Phantom Thread

A beautiful, hilarious movie about egoism, dresses, and breakfast

Hey everybody, just an FYI, Phantom Thread is very very good and if you have a chance you should see it. Oh I know, that trailer makes it look like a pretty dry British drama about dressmaking. If you didn’t catch that the director was Paul Thomas Anderson, of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood fame, you’d be forgiven for writing it off as the beautiful, sparse, dull Oscar bait of the year.

But guys, for real, go see Phantom Thread.

First off, there’s a very strong argument to be made that Phantom Thread is the best romcom of the year. It’s mannered enough to be a bit of a surprise, but it’s a viciously funny piece of work. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is allowed nowhere near the glorious scenery chewing of There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York, but rather *just* unhinged enough to give the whole piece some bite. Also, his name is Reynolds Woodcock, and people mention the “House of Woodcock” in haughty huffs often, and its never not funny.

Oh yeah, there’s also the “rom” part. This movie is billed as a chamber-drama battle between Woodcock and his mistress Alma, and it very much is that. But even as their duel of manners escalates from toast-scraping and putting too much butter on the asparagus to, well, more nefarious means, there is an undercurrent of care beneath it. This is a twisted love story as far as love stories go, but it is very much a romance. In a strong way, it’s a mirror of this year’s mother!, which explored living with a man who holds their work to a higher importance than their home life, but instead of making the woman in the relationship a reactionary character (necessary for mother!‘s wackadoo metaphor), Phantom Thread is just as interested in Alma’s agency, and even more interested in what each character gains from the other rather than them individually. Throw in Cyril, Woodcock’s sister and partner/fixer, for Alma to jockey for power against and casually utter lines like “I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor, understood?“. Cyril is the best.

Oh, and speaking of toast scraping, as much as this is a movie about dresses and romance, it’s also a movie about breakfast. It’s a love story that starts with an order at a countryside diner. It’s a movie that taught me what Welsh rarebit was. It’s a movie where the sound design poured into a spoon hitting a saucer should’ve been nominated for a goddamn Oscar (the wondrous score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood thankfully was). The dresses are very good, don’t get me wrong, but the catering is excellent.

A

Phantom Thread (2017)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

Here’s hoping Father Figures had a nice on-set sandwich table

Ugh, what a piece of utter shit this movie is.

Who exactly was Father Figures made for? It has a number of over-edited road-trip montages despite the fact that the characters go nowhere interesting. Its soundtrack feels like someone walked drunkenly into a studio, shouted “indie”, and took whatever came out. It clearly wants to have deep emotional resonance, but also has no less than three “we’re inside each other” jokes in the first ten minutes. It feels like the kind of inoffensive fluff you can just turn on when you need some background noise while visiting your parents, but it also has a gag about a cat’s giant testicles that seems to exist because, fuck it, they had the animatronic testicles handy.

Ugh, what a piece of utter shit this movie is. In case the obviously photoshopped in-post poster doesn’t make it clear, here is a movie that a bunch of big names showed up to for a half-day to collect a paycheck. Christopher Walken, king of showing up for the paycheck, utters something about “the kitties” in a transparent attempt to pull a Joe Dirt and get something memorable out of the whole thing. In Ving Rhames’ case, he showed up because he was already in Miami I guess? Katt Williams turns up as a hitchhiker, and he’s maybe the only person in the whole thing not phoning it in, and christ I wish he had. He at least sets up an almost-clever riff on a certain pervasive trope that the movie goes absolutely nowhere with. There’s precisely one good gag in the whole thing, involving June Squibb’s delightfully manic reaction to a gun. The rest of the attempted humour just kind wilts into thin air or, like a recurring gag about how loose the central twins’ mom was in the 70s, keeps reaching for the same ineffective tricks over and over.

But then, just when it seems like it’s all ended in an out-of-left-field reveal that, hell, probably sounded poignant when the writer put it on a post-it note, it even goes ahead and has the gall to tack on an epilogue whose sole purpose seems to be undoing every lesson the characters were supposed to learn. Owen Wilson’s Donald (er, Kyle) was supposed to learn to be a bit more responsible? Nah, he manages to convince millions of people to buy a useless app. Ed Helms’ Pete was supposed to open himself up to new experiences? Nah, he’ll stick with the girl who pays him any attention, and convince his son to love him through unclear methods (I’m assuming beating the devil at a fiddling contest). Ugh. Hopefully Ving Rhames had a nice time in Miami.

F

Father Figures (2017)
Directed by Laurence Sher
Starring Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, J.K. Simmons, and Glenn Close
Rotten Tomatoes (25%)

 

The Beguiled makes charm into the monster

Be careful with your v’s,” notes schoolteacher Edwina in a cursive class, in what would be the most hilariously blunt double-entendre of the year were The Killing of a Sacred Deer not hanging out in the rafters. Whereas that film starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman spoke frankly at all times, this film starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman speaks in code until it suddenly doesn’t. “I’m as blunt as I need to be,” says Kidman’s southern headmistress Martha to John, the wounded Yankee she temporarily shelters. Martha is a capable operator, but as the wounded soldier starts healing, starts becoming active, starts looking virile in a group of secluded women, is bluntness effective?

The Beguiled runs only an hour and a half, but it takes its time within that, carefully setting up its dominoes for the first hour as John charms his way into the existing fissures of the boarding house’s ecosystem. It’s Civil War setting provides an interesting feint; John quickly shows himself to not be the enemy Yankee they fear, but he’s hardly an altruist either. It’s final stretch pays off in intensity but lacks some of the previously evident restraint, feeling distinctly like a horror movie at points. But its a beautifully shot film with a talented cast who make this small corner away from the war feel fully realized. It’s not a terribly optimistic film, but it is often magnetic.

B

The Beguiled (2017)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell
Rotten Tomatoes (78%)

The Shape of Water is fantastically, darkly graceful

A brutally violent, lusciously gorgeous film about a sexy fish-man

Within the first five minutes of The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’ mute maid Eliza sets a timer, hops in the bath, and masturbates. The film has been marketed as an adult fairy tale, and the first part of the statement can’t be ignored. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a raunch-fest about fish-sex. But unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, which was an adult fairy tale from a child’s perspective, The Shape of Water is distinctly mature through-and-through, a brutally violent, quietly introspective, and lusciously gorgeous delight. It also happens to feature a sexy fish-man.

Even if said sexy fish-man doesn’t work for you, there’s no denying how stunningly beautiful this film is, with oversaturated blues giving Eliza’s apartment the feeling of an aquarium and neon greens (or is that teal?) frequently blanketing the players. In many fantastic ways, the art design evokes Bioshock‘s Rapture, particularly when combined with its cold-war setting and record-box soundtrack. In a touch that could be viewed as cheap if I had a heart of stone, Eliza lives above a cinema, and The Shape of Water definitely earns the La La Land/The Artist movie-about-how-great-movies-are slot at the Oscars. But it does so in little ways, such as Eliza and her neighbour Giles performing a small couch dance routine, before paying it off in a big, spectacular moment.

The bloody violence might turn some off, and indeed ventures into fairly rough territory at times. Michael Shannon brings a lot of intensity to a fairly one-note heel, finding new dimensions of depravity in every act. One could also fault Del Toro for spending too much time with his side characters, but he paints Giles, Dmitri, and Zelda with a fine enough brush that I wouldn’t want to see them excised even if they occasionally feel extraneous. But the heart lies within Eliza and The Creature, whose sensitive puppy-dog attitude never feels manipulative. If this kind of fantastical twist is what movie romance needs, I for one welcome our new sexy fish-man overlords.

A-

The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Three Billboards should have gotten more than melodrama out of Ebbing Missouri

Three Billboards isn’t interested in great tragedies nor police violence, but maybe it should have been

In a three-act structure, the second act tends to be the one where the good stuff is. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri takes this to heart, beginning well after the murder that incites the action takes place and after the failed investigation has all but folded. Feeling the world is moving on from her still-burning rage, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the titular billboards, personally shaming police chief William Willoughby* (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of cancer and has perhaps the most screenwriterly name ever devised. The billboards scandal ripples throughout the town, perhaps nowhere more than in the police station, where the short-tempered, racist, and punnily-named deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gets angry seemingly on Willoughby’s behalf. But the driving background behind each character, from Hayes’ tragedy to Willoughby’s illness to Dixon’s racism, are all established quickly, sometimes awkwardly, through dialogue to cut to the chase. Director Martin McDonagh isn’t interested in great tragedies nor is he particularly interested in police abuse. He’s interested in how communities function, how defensive they can be to social upset, how putting their members into boxes begets violence. But maybe a bit of interest in the former would have helped.

Three Billboards has been marketed as a black comedy, but never finds an even tone, oscillating drastically between wallowing in melodrama and poking fun at bumpkins. Sometimes this tonal whiplash works: when Mildred’s violent ex-husband escalates a situation only to have it defused by his young girlfriend cluelessly asking for a restroom, McDonagh keeps the scene going for a hilariously uncomfortable amount of time. At another moment, a sudden intrusion of Willoughby’s illness during an interrogation provides the most intimate moment of the film. However, while a few of the performers find the right nerve to strike (notably the now-ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones and Samara Weaving), many others never quite find it. Some, like Peter Dinklage’s alcoholic salesman, serve one scene and otherwise hang out on the margins, which does give the town a nicely lived-in feel. But others, notably Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s far-too-young and implacably accented wife, feel air-dropped in from a movie-of-the-week. Compared to McDonagh’s fantastically odd and dark In BrugesThree Billboards is just too sincere to read as comedy.

Three Billboards commits to its second-act focus in the end, arguably cutting to black pre-climax. But before it gets there, it engages in some acts of forgiveness that have caused a fair amount of controversy, of which a lot of digital ink has already been spilled. A lot of it comes down to whether a certain act is read as redemption or a step forward, and for my money the film engages with the difficulty of redemption even after attaining self-awareness. It builds up a racial element only to unharmoniously sweep it under the rug, but it rather frankly asserts that atonement isn’t simple. The parallels it draws between its two most broken characters are legitimately interesting, although handled less-than-deftly. Thanks to the character of Ebbing itself, it’s certainly not a boring ride to get there. It’s just not as riveting as the material could have been.

C+

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Lucas Hedges
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)