Black Panther

Hail King T’Challa!

The Black Panther character was an exciting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War and his appearance headlining his own story does not disappoint.

The opening scene beautifully sets out the story of Wakanda with some gorgeously crafted imagery to aid the story-telling. Wakanda is a beautiful country. It has rolling fields ideally suited to agriculture, snow-capped mountains, and cascading waterfalls. It is a peaceful nation, with its five tribes putting their differences aside and working together to maintain a civilisation that is largely untroubled by violence. It is also a technologically advanced society, untouched by colonial invaders, which has chosen to keep its technology to itself rather than run the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. As a result, Wakanda has gone to remarkable lengths to keep its true potential hidden, allowing itself to be regarded globally as a third world nation.

What is especially pleasing about this set up is that none of the above information is required from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Black Panther can be enjoyed as a standalone movie in its own right, although it does touch on enough references for the knowledgeable audience to see where the connections are.

The cast is extremely strong. Chadwick Boseman is every inch a leader as T’Challa – charismatic, honourable, but perhaps flawed. He commands allegiance. His nemesis (or at least, one of them) is Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan); also charismatic but slightly less honourable. It’s a sign of good story-telling that the ‘villain’ here has understandable reasons for wanting his revenge, to the extent that it’s not a great stretch to accept that some people might even take his side.

The threads of kinship and culture, bondage and oppression are woven throughout the story, as parallels between Erik’s childhood experiences in California and the African peoples enslaved are drawn.

I’ll admit that I am deliberately skirting around the obvious talking point here. The buzz around how important this film is with regard to its black cast, its messages of anti-colonisation, anti-slavery, anti-oppression and empowerment, is not lost on me. But I genuinely feel that it’s not my place to even try to convey the significance of this; as a white person who has clearly no idea of living a black experience, I don’t feel qualified. I’ll leave that to those who can more eloquently express the impact this will undoubtedly have.

Where I do feel I can lend my voice though is in delivering praise for the writing and portrayal of the female characters. Not one of them is there for purely decorative reasons. Although there are vague romantic connections these are not the main reasons why the women are there. They are all strong in their own right, with well-defined roles, purpose and agency. It’s hard to choose a favourite – it could easily be Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, an intelligent spy and kickass warrior. Or it could be Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of King T’Challa’s bodyguard and fiercely loyal to Wakanda. (Also, she goes out for the evening anticipating having to fight – and wears flat shoes like a boss!!) It could even be Angela Bassett just for being Angela Bassett (T’Challa’s mother Ramonda). But the woman who brought me most joy was Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s scientifically gifted younger sister. She is enthusiastic, funny, clever and kickass, and always has just the right comment at the right time. She’s kind of like a cooler version of Bond’s Q and I loved her.

If I’m being very picky, I thought some of the CG was a little lacking in places – mostly during battle scenes, where there didn’t always seem enough physical weight to the fighters. I also missed some of the Black Panther’s feline moves which seemed to be more prevalent in Captain America: Civil War.

This is, though, a very different snapshot of the Marvel Universe. There is very little movement around the world in Black Panther; the majority of the story takes place inside the borders of Wakanda, and spending so much time there makes it feel truly real. Ryan Coogler has carved himself his own niche in the MCU, and it is a joy to behold.

A version of this post first appeared at The Movie Isle

Нелюбовь – Loveless + Q&A

A week in advance of the official UK release, Manchester’s leading independent cinema (and my own personal favourite) HOME brought the cinema-going citizens of the region a preview screening of Loveless followed by a Q&A with director Andrey Zvyagintsev and producer Aleksandr Rodnyanskiy. Loveless is nominated for an Academy Award this year in the ‘Foreign Language Film’ category and is the director’s second nomination – his first being three years ago for Leviathan.

The film follows a mother and father – going through an acrimonious divorce and both already with other partners – who find themselves thrown back together when something terrible befalls their son.

We spend time first with one parent as they navigate the working day and then move on to their evening date, and then the other parent, picking up clues as to why their relationship has failed along the way – and realising that neither one is probably entirely to blame. We’re not meant to take sides. Love – and the ensuing failed relationships – are complicated. Complicated enough for the adults at their centre. But in one short devastating shot, we see just how traumatic the breakup is for the couples’ son. It’s brief, but plunges a dagger into the heart.

While there is no doubt that the film’s title is an apt one, pockets of the full audience laughed quite heartily at some moments which occasionally puzzled me – until it became obvious during the Q&A that these were Russians, or people who know Russia well, and who were clearly picking up on cultural references which just didn’t come across in the subtitle translations. I love that kind of thing – it always brings something extra to a screening.

Zvyagintsev said on more than one occasion during the Q&A that he did not regard himself as a political film maker. And yet I have the impression he was being a little crafty in his responses; I see no way that political commentary on contemporary Russian life is not present in this film. It’s there in the disinterest of the police, the proliferation of vanity and consumerism among the rising middle classes, radio broadcasts of events in Ukraine. While the official public authorities are next to useless in the crisis, a group of local volunteers does the most to help and support the parents. It’s also interesting to note the amount of times technology intervenes in, or sometimes gets in the way of, communication. Selfies, Skype and cell phones abound, serving to emphasise the distance and often coldness between friends and relatives.

Wrapped in some beautiful, glacial cinematography, Loveless is a personal story with a political undertone which haunts long after the final image.

A version of this post first appeared at The Movie Isle.

Phantom Thread

About half-way through Phantom Thread, Alma (Vicky Krieps) exclaims “I don’t know what I’m doing here” and I heard myself muttering under my breath “No, love, I’m sure I don’t know either”.

And that was the beginning of the end for me as far as this movie was concerned.

Reynolds Woodstock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of those privileged man-baby geniuses for whom change to routine is intolerable. He is enabled by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who not only supports his tantrums but runs the home in which they live, and the couture house which bears their name. Reynolds is also a coward. When he tires of whichever muse he has picked up, his sister will ask her to leave. He does none of his own dirty work and is a deeply unlikeable character.

Which makes it very difficult to understand why Alma is intent upon staying with him. I can see why she may have been attracted to him in the first instance, but if someone is abusive to you because of the way you butter your toast, then it’s just not worth the hassle. And it’s definitely not love.

I can’t even agree with the takes on the power dynamic which I’ve been reading.  Perhaps because I have difficulty in seeing the sense in a relationship which is about constant abuse and struggle for attention. The truth is that at the end, the power hasn’t switched from him to her. He is complicit in her actions; she has some element of power only because he allows her to do so.

The other major disappointment – and I believe this is more to do with the quality of the actual screen I was watching, is that there was no trace of the sumptuousness I had been expecting. I’m not an expert, but I think the actual screen was dirty, and the colours seemed dull.

So this may be a contrarian view, but I don’t view this as a masterpiece. I find it to be a very masculine idea of what it is like to cede control in a relationship – but only by still retaining that control at a fundamental level. It wasn’t ever obvious to me why Alma would want to stay once she learned his true character – there were inklings of something peppered throughout, but never enough for me to understand. And I think that’s deliberate – because the story is about him not her, and he always wins in the end.

Downsizing

I like this!

I mean, it’s by no means perfect, but I like what it’s trying to do with strange solutions to issues such as global sustainability, and how what was intended as a solution to a problem ends up being used as a method of punishment or political torture as well.

Matt Damon’s Paul has some major life-changing to adjust to more than once – firstly the decision to downsize, then the decision to help a woman he meets, and finally a much bigger decision. It’s a role Damon often portrays – finding himself out of place and trying to understand where he fits in and what his conscience is guiding him to do.

Downsizing raises some really interesting questions about how we treat our world, about inequality, about wealth, and although not entirely successful, it deserves more credit than it’s being given.

Dick Tracy (1990)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

Well hello Shouty Al!

I probably should have realised, but I hadn’t expected my quest to find the ‘shouty caricature of later years’ to bear its first fruit here – with Al playing a shouty caricature.

Big Boy Caprice is a pantomime villain who allows Pacino’s  inner scenery-chewer to finally explode – and because of the comic book style of this film, it fits perfectly. In fact, his coaching of the dancing girls is one of the best scenes in the movie.

I love the bright colour palette, and the mix of graphic backgrounds and live action, and the array of actors assembled to over-play the customary gangster roles is impressive, although I did find most of the grotesque prosthetics difficult to look at – but that’s just me.

Madonna, however, is terrible when she’s not singing.