Movie review: “Black Panther”

When was the last time you got dressed up to see a movie? If you are one of those rarities who teases their hair into tufts for Wolverine movies and paints their face blue to visit the planet Pandora, note that I don’t mean costumed. I mean dressed up: ready for a wedding, or a funeral, or some other occasion of spiritual import. And if you are one of those even rarer birds who still irons their Sunday best to sit in the popcorn-scented darkness: when was the last time you weren’t the only one?

 

This Sunday, in a sleepy suburban theater at a not-so-popular time for movies, I sat surrounded by people who were dressed the fuck up to see “Black Panther”, a superhero movie set in Wakanda, a fantasy African nation not eaten out of its substance by a rapacious West. Its newly minted king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), doubles as its spiritual defender, the Black Panther. Counselled by a coterie of female advisers, including his mother (Angela Bassett), ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), mischievous younger sister (Leticia Wright), and trusted bodyguard (Danai Gurira), T’Challa is faced with a splintered tribal base and a timely conundrum: continue his late father’s defensive policy of strict isolationism, or risk exploitation by opening Wakanda and its high-tech riches to the world? It’s a good question that deserves plenty of chin-stroking thought; unfortunately for T’Challa, a brash challenger (Michael B. Jordan) is prepared to take the throne, and he would like Wakanda to come to the rescue of the less fortunate sons and daughters of Africa right now, please. If the measure of a villain is how close they get to becoming the hero of the story, then Jordan’s Erik Killmonger (sorry, but that is the character’s name) belongs in the pantheon of all-time great antagonists. Squint even a little, and you will find yourself seeing his point.

 

Surrounded by these high-powered actors, Chadwick Boseman underplays his hand, melting into the background of scenes he’s capable of dominating and creating a wide-open space in the movie for other characters to flourish. The result is an abundance of delights: Winston Duke, as mountain tribe leader M’Baku, whose impassive mask melts into sly humor. Letitia Wright as Shuri, crowing over her older brother’s unfashionable sandals. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off the triumph of “Get Out” and scoring another direct hit to the heart as conflicted warrior W’Kabi.  American treasure Forest Whitaker as wise elder Zuri. You want to get to know these characters better; to spend hours admiring the brilliant details of their world; in Shuri’s case, to buy her a drink and spill all your secrets. Knowing that they are fictional smarts; but the movie’s point is not to lament what Africa could have been. It is to celebrate, in dazzling saturation, the joy and complexity of what is. Wakanda walks among us daily. Put on something nice before you see it.

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Movie review: “Darkest Hour”

OK so “Darkest Hour”.

 

How cooked would you like your history? Depending upon your answer, there is a wide range of WWII movies to suit: on one end lies the rawest documentary, such as “Shoah”. In the middle, movies like “Dunkirk”, “Paradise Road”, and “Saving Private Ryan” advertise bloody centers of realistic and harrowing violence, but deliver palatable crusts of hope. On the well-done end of the spectrum lies an increasingly crowded cottage industry of inspiration. “Darkest Hour” belongs here, along with “The King’s Speech”. Oddly, the two movies mirror each other; “Darkest Hour” focuses on Winston Churchill’s struggle to overcome the doubters among his war cabinet and his own private fears, both of which he vanquishes with a rousing speech. “The King’s Speech”, for those of you who missed it, centers on King George VI’s struggle to overcome the doubters of his competency and his own private stammer, both of which he vanquishes with a rousing speech. When, in “Darkest Hour”, the two men come face to face at last, you wonder if they realize they’re in the same movie.

 

None of this is to take away from Gary Oldman’s remarkable performance as Winston Churchill—it is every bit the chameleonic transformation you’ve heard. I found myself staring at the fleshy wattles around his neck, wondering how on earth they’d managed to make prostheses appear to quiver and flush with every breath. Only the eyes retain the feral glint of Oldman, peering out at us from behind a blue wreath of smoke. An extraordinary amount of “Darkest Hour” takes place right up against Winston Churchill; we gaze through his spectacles and at his moistened lips and once, thrillingly, straight up his bathrobe. Perhaps director Joe Wright aspired to be Boswell to Churchill’s Johnson; fair enough, except that the endless close-ups don’t shed much light on why Churchill was the way he was. They only assert, at great length, that he was, which is not a fact much in question.

 

When it comes to whys and wherefores, I regret to say that “Darkest Hour” hasn’t got a clue. The movie takes place during the treacherous period directly after Neville Chamberlain’s ouster, when Churchill (a relatively unknown and untrusted quantity) decided that he alone would steer a panicked Britain on an apparently suicidal course of action: away from peace treaties and negotiations, and straight towards the Third Reich at the height of its military domination of Europe. It happened to be the correct course of action, but no one at the time thought so—except, of course, for Winston Churchill. What did he perceive? Why was he able to grasp Hitler’s threat when so many others were not? What formative experiences guided him to stick to his guns so religiously? What made Churchill, in short, Churchill? The movie leaves these stones unturned, and is the poorer for it. Instead, director Joe Wright invents a tipping point out of whole cloth—the patrician Winston leaves his car in traffic and descends into the London Underground, where he polls a subway car of ordinary Londoners about the “national mood”. When all express a hearty desire to sock Hitler in the jaw, he returns, full of renewed vigor, to Parliament, where he delivers a barn-burning, off-the-cuff address, employing as an aid a matchbook on which he has carefully inscribed the names of the helpful civilians. This is groan-worthy theater, as loathsome as the moment (now cliché) when the President looks up into the balcony at the State of the Union, furrows his brow, and gestures to his ordinary guest, inevitably an electrician from Iowa with three kids who’s fallen on some hard times recently. I might have forgiven the scene if it really happened—after all, every cliché starts somewhere. But it didn’t, and served only to make Churchill look like the one thing he wasn’t: a weathervane.

Movie review: “I, Tonya”

Most of all, I remember the wailing. You probably remember it, too: Nancy Kerrigan, sitting in her white beaded leotard, clutching her kneecap, teeth bared in feral agony. “WHYYYYYYY?” she roared, launching the question again the moment it was done. “WHYYYYYYY?” The clip got played on a near-endless loop on CNN; if you were growing up in the early nineties, it got burnt into your brain the way earlier generations memorized the Zapruder film. Unlike the Kennedy assassination, however, we found out the WHYYYYYYY of Nancy Kerrigan’s mysterious schlonking pretty quickly: it was rival skater Tonya Harding, along with her husband Jeff Gillooly and a motley assortment of clownish acquaintances, each of whom withstood about three milliseconds of police and national scrutiny before giving up every detail of their involvement. The story took a surreal turn when the Winter Olympics fell right in the middle of the investigation, and both schlonker and schlonkee went to Lillehammer. We were all glued to the tube, wall-eyed on the drama—watch them share a practice rink! Watch them go in circles studiously not looking at each other! I didn’t know anyone who was rooting for Tonya—maybe a few deeply disturbed hometown fans in Oregon? Prison blocks? The International Federation of Disney Villainesses? She placed eighth, Nancy placed second, and the story was over. Until this week, I still didn’t know any Tonya fans.

 

That shit’s about to change.

 

“I, Tonya” is that rarest of movies: a biography that gets at the thorny complexity of a real live human being, flaws and brilliance given equal and loving dimension. And the human being they’ve chosen is a handful: crude, belligerent, wildly self-contradictory, clutching an asthma inhaler in one hand and a cigarette in the other, still wearing the regrettable barrel-rolled bangs of the 1980’s, Tonya Harding (brilliantly played by Margot Robbie) is no one’s idea of easy to love. The razor-sharp script, written by Steven Rogers, imitates the SNL treatment of famous buffoons like Sarah Palin, adding little embellishment to the already incredible on-the-record statements of Harding’s abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and loutish self-proclaimed “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Instead, Rogers’s script splices their statements together in a clever braid of past and present that encourages us to question first the characters’ memories—and then our own. As it turns out, while we were all watching the wailing woman in white, there was a terrifying, aggressive, embattled woman in neon who might have needed our attention even more. This weekend, I strongly suggest you give it to her.

Movie review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

OK so “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”.

 

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“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” did not go the way I thought. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Episode VIII features very little in the way of callback to “The Empire Strikes Back”: Luke is the voice of cynicism, sensibly dressed women call all the shots, and the big, mouthbreathing baddie gets it before the end of the first act. These changes alone are enough to spin a certain type of “Star Wars” fan into apoplexy, and indeed they have; the net is awash with indignant alt-right types who insist that the presence of women and people of color means that casting slots owed to white males have been unfairly redistributed to lesser models of humanity. We can safely ignore these guys, at least until they get their hands on the technology to build a Death Star, which shouldn’t be until at least July.

 

In the meanwhile, the rest of us can welcome the return of John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac as Resistance heroes Finn, Rey and Poe, along with outstanding additions Laura Dern (as Leia’s unreadable second-in-command Vice Admiral Holdo) and Benicio Del Toro (as a twitchy thief with a compelling worldview). Less effective additions include Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a nebulously defined Swiss Army character alternately used to lend gravity to losses, provide moral guidance, function as Finn’s sidekick in Rey’s absence, and (in one particularly unearned scene) sacrifice herself physically while providing moral guidance and kissing a surprised Finn all at once. One suspects the screenwriters were so desperate to distract from the faint hint of flirtation in Poe’s first interactions with Finn (“The Force Awakens”, indeed) that they’ve invented a “no homo” girlfriend out of whole cloth. Wisely, she’s been assigned to Finn; perhaps the writers sensed the futility of attempting to place any limits whatsoever on Oscar Isaac’s smoulder. The more likely explanation has to do with the growing chemistry between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who—unbelievably—maintains his character’s knife-edge balance between depravity and pathos throughout the entire second chapter. Just as Rey does, we sense the good in Kylo Ren, but the movie constantly pushes back against that sense, reminding us at every turn that he is a bad person who does worse things.

 

The reminders are necessary because Driver, as an actor, has a gravitational field rivalling Jupiter’s: a fight scene involving him, Daisy Ridley, and a number of Empirical warriors, all bristling with alarming light-based weaponry, reads as pure sex. Watching Ridley and Driver’s choreography, their exquisitely attuned awareness of each other, you are struck by the same urge to look away that Nureyev and Fonteyn could elicit: you are witnessing something raw, something blushworthy, something unmistakably private. The Empire may as well not even be in the room. The magnetic pull Ren exerts keeps both Rey and us in delicious, terrible limbo; once we’re stuck there, the movie asks us a number of uncomfortable questions. For starters:

 

How early is too early to determine that someone has become irredeemably dangerous?

 

Once we’ve identified a mass murderer, are we obligated to kill them at the first available opportunity, lest they do more damage?

 

What if they have not yet committed a mass murder?

 

If not then, when?

 

What if we find them really, really compelling? Mesmeric, even? What if millions of people feel the same way? What then?

 

 

 

Let’s hope we all live to find out.

Movie review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“I want Frances McDormund to be real,” I blurted out after seeing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a dark character drama centering on the tense standoff between a grieving mother (McDormund) and her local police department in the aftermath of her daughter’s rape and murder. Immediately after making my wish, I reached the same conclusion you did when you got to the end of that previous sentence, and I had to backtrack. “Wait. I mean, I don’t want her to be real, no mother should have to go through that, and obviously I’m glad that wasn’t a documented rape-murder-arson case outside Ebbing, although there are also plenty of those—”

Here, mercifully, my companion stopped me. “Babe, I get it. She was a total badass.”

And what a badass. McDormund plays Mildred as a nails-hard prairie mother of the old school—in another era, she would have looked at ease castrating a dozen hogs before cooking enough breakfast to feed a logging camp. Unfortunately, Mildred is stuck living in 2017, selling knickknacks to tourists whilst wearing a dumpy jumpsuit. It’s as if William Wallace, transplanted, were forced to don a Taco Bell polo. A bit of ancient brutality has followed Mildred to modern times, however; her daughter’s unsolved murder dogs her with vicious, unflagging persistence. Mildred is going to make sure the local police feel its bite. Draining her resources, she pays for three vivid red billboards, strung along the road like a dark Burma-Shave sign and addressed very personally to the local police: ‘Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?’ Seeing the signs, her son yelps “Jesus Christ, mom!” But Mildred is just getting started. Her quest for justice brings her into loggerheads with the dying Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his dimmer, meaner deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, the astonishing Swiss Army actor who has never quite become a household name, perhaps because he dissolves so completely into each role that most people can only remember him as “that guy, you know”, with much finger-snapping and “oooh, it’s on the tip of my tongue”ing and references to his other movies). McDormund, Harrelson and Rockwell go into the rock tumbler of the plot together, and Martin McDonagh’s taut, merciless script brings each character’s softest parts up against each other’s roughest edges, to results as brilliant as they are funny—the movie never goes for the easy bloodbath, preferring instead to show people restrained by slightly glitchy moral codes. In one of the finest scenes, Mildred decides to commit arson, but conscientiously rings the phone inside the building three times—just to make sure everyone inside is rousted before the first Molotov cocktail is thrown. It’s a kind, complex gesture, that pays off in complex ways, and I can’t wait to revisit the scene and pick up the microexpressions I missed the first time around. Mildred might not be real, but Frances McDormund is, and that, in 2017, is as close as we get to a miracle.

Movie review: “Justice League”

A long time ago, in an America far, far away, there was a movie adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s jewel-like novel, “Practical Magic”. Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman were wisely chosen to play witch siblings Sally and Gillian; Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, the sisters’ maiden aunts. The actresses got drunk as hell for the scenes requiring them to get drunk as hell. Every detail, from the Harry Belafonte song on the soundtrack to the blossoms on the trees (custom-sewn from silk), was painstakingly calibrated to match the tone and spirit of the book. The movie looked and sounded perfect. It was completely soulless. Something elemental had gone missing between book and script; while Hoffman had used magical realism to intensify the colors of a recognizable world, the movie used magic to distance the audience, reminding them at every turn that this was not their world; that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

 

I was fifteen when “Practical Magic” broke my heart; today, “Justice League” reminded me exactly how it felt.

 

With a tool chest of $300 million dollars; with a capable cast of charming and talented actors; with unfettered access to some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century, “Justice League” manages only to give us a frustrating, tantalizing taste of the better movie that could have been. That better movie comes through in glimpses: the delightful, motor-mouthed Flash (Ezra Miller) realizing that Superman (Henry Cavill) can track him at full speed, surprise nearly knocking the younger superhero ass-over-teakettle. A brief, hurtful conversation between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) where you can see both characters realize—and regret—the moment they’ve gone too far. A recurring joke about brunch. Unfortunately, these gems are buried in a script that feels as if several different screenplays were shuffled, deck-of-cards style, to create it. Conversations frequently feel as though the characters aren’t responding to each other, the disjointed dialogue a hallmark of Zack Snyder’s work. Consider the following exchange between Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman:

“Of course, you took us back here.”

“It’s home.”

“You smell good.”

Are these two even in the same room? Even clunkier exchanges await you, but Snyder’s Mad-Libs approach to dialogue means that many of the worst lines will erase themselves from your memory ere the second you’ve heard them. (This should be regarded as a mercy: the only comparably awful dialogue in modern cinema, Anakin Skywalker’s love scenes with Queen Amidala, cannot be remembered without sustaining brain damage.) To their credit, the actors soldier bravely forward; Jeremy Irons, who deserves better, reminisces about exploding wind-up penguins with only the faintest whiff of a smirk, but even he can’t save us from an exchange like this:

Alfred: “I don’t recognize this world anymore.”

Batman: “I don’t have to recognize this world. I just have to save it.”

Well, bully for Batman, but us poor mortals in the theater seats do need to recognize the world of a movie, especially if we’re supposed to give a damn about it. Unfortunately, this movie’s villain is a generic, greyish CGI goat-goblin with a backstory of “Bwahaha” and a motive of “Mwahaha”, and the climactic battle is set in a barren, reddish, vaguely Russian desert scattered with an afterthought’s worth of unnamed civilians. Who are they? We couldn’t care less, because this movie doesn’t care at all: the civilian characters are there solely to insulate the franchise from the criticism leveled at “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—that Batman and Superman were acting more like villains than heroes, brawling through cities without regard for human life. In “Justice League”, there is a moment in which Superman, caught on cell-phone video as a group of excited children fire questions at him, is asked what his favorite thing is about our planet. Henry Cavill squints off into the distance, chuckles awkwardly, then falls silent. As written, the scene could be an elegant and evocative little grace note. Siegel and Schuster would have had a lot of trouble writing the next line—because their kind-hearted Superman would’ve had difficulty choosing just one favorite thing about Earth. Snyder’s stilted Man of Steel, though, has a different reason for his silence: he can’t think of anything. This is what DC’s come to. I don’t recognize this world anymore.

Movie review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

I am so mad at Taika Waititi right now. I am up late at night, with a staggering head cold, long after I intended to be asleep, having written and deleted over ten different starts to this review. Because as it turns out, reviewing a nearly flawless movie? Is a real bitch.

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so good it barely even registers as a movie—you shuffle in, sit down, and are so thoroughly entertained, and at such breakneck pace, that the two hours feel more like two minutes. There is no chance to reach the bottom of your popcorn, much less murmur to a companion; forget using the bathroom. You will not move until the end, and then you will beg for more. This merciless ride comes courtesy of Taika Waititi, New Zealander, writer/director of (among other things) “What We Do in the Shadows”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, and “Eagle vs Shark”, and my new nemesis. He is the reason I may never sleep again, because now I have to convince you that a movie about the end of the world should be as colorful as an Orlando candy shop; that you can feel emotions about a hammer; that there is an undiscovered application of Jeff Goldblum’s shtick.

 

The tragedy is that “Thor: Ragnarok” has arrived so late in the progression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that those not steeped from the beginning in the studio’s closed ecosystem of interconnected movies will likely pass this movie by, thus missing out on the giddy delight of a fully-matured blockbuster director finally getting his hands on a $180-million-dollar toy chest. Think Spielberg, going from battling a malfunctioning fiberglass shark to getting the remote control for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Waititi has wisely charted a course just a little left of expectations, setting up familiar dilemmas (estranged siblings; a city besieged by dark supernatural forces; what the hell to do with Karl Urban) but solving for consistently unexpected values. The dialogue crackles along like microwave popcorn at the precise moment that everything goes apeshit in the bag—laugh too loud at one punchline, and you’ll miss the next four. But this isn’t a Whedon or a Sorkin or a McFarlane joint; you never get the self-congratulatory reference bingo that bogs down many clever screenwriters. For every joke, there’s a corresponding visual subtlety, a moment of pathos or panic that doesn’t get verbalized, creating a visual story as rich as the dialogue itself, of which a stunning eighty percent was improvised. Perhaps that freedom accounts for the sheer oddness of some of the movie’s conceits: in one setup, a rock-monster with a Kiwi accent carries around a dead slug pal because he “doesn’t have the heart to set him down”. That’s a joke setup. Nothing like that has ever survived a focus group before, but now that “Thor: Ragnorok” has arrived, maybe some more of it will. Welcome, weirdness. Welcome, Taika Waititi. Now please leave. I need to sleep.