26 February 2018

First Impressions: Black Panther

I finally got around to seeing what everyone else in the country has seen or will see over the next few weeks - Black Panther (2018). Its success is the combination of a lot of things - nothing else currently in the theaters, a build-up of superhero anticipation, high quality blockbuster film-making, and actual underserved representation on screen. Who knew all this could lead to a hugely profitable movie? This shit really isn't that hard.

Let's riff on this for a while, SPOILERS forever, so go watch it, then come back and we'll discuss. It shouldn't take that long.

So many jacked shirtless dudes, too.

That was fun, right? This is a super-enjoyable film although it didn't necessarily blow me away like The Winter Soldier (2014) or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Yes, I just re-watched Vol 2 and that is really one of the best Marvel movies ever. While Panther doesn't reach those high notes, it's definitely a Top Third Tier superhero flick.

It succeeds by playing its completely ridiculous premise relatively straightforward. In its own way, the idea of a magical meteor striking Africa and creating a technologically advanced but still socially and cultural tribal civilization led by a king who eats Heart-Shaped herbs to gain the powers of the Panther God and fight crime is way crazier than talking raccoons or Norse space gods. We're finally in an age, though, where we can just run with this shit. Panther powers? Sure, bury him in the dirt, give him Panther powers, it's all good. Vibranium technology literally making anything possible from floating trains to sound blaster guns to explosion-absorbing cat suits? Put it on the bill. I mean, he has like, a giant Panther-Mouth cave where his Panther Jet launches. It's campy as hell.

We've finally gotten the MCU caught up with stupid-level comic book technology. Just in time to fight Thanos in Infinity War (2018). Tony Stark had a lot of fun stuff, but it was all somewhat grounded and practical, even if it was just really advanced AI. Black Panther's young, black, female Q, Shuri does whatever she wants. Where this succeeds, though, is how much it doesn't just help the plot for its own sake. Unlike a THOR: Ragnarok (2017), where unmotivated shit happens constantly to just make the movie more fun, most of the technological adaptations have a sincere motivation and pay-off. Except for those sneaky shoes. He never uses those sneaky shoes.

On that note, we ought to hop on to the characters. Chadwick Boseman is reliable as a proud and stable king, with just a hint of swag, but he's not the star here. That goes to literally everyone else. Lupita Nyongo, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett prove that black women actually exist. Ellen Cleghorne's dream came true. It's amazing to watch a film create four female black characters with their own arcs and agencies, even if they are still ultimately in service to their male king. There does seem to be some evidence to show that if they wanted to, Lupita could challenge T'Challa for his right to the Throne in ritual combat, but she doesn't (for plenty of character reasons).

And real quick on that note - we really need a better government system to decide leaders other than ritual combat. This is basically that episode of Futurama where Fry accidentally kills the Emperor and so becomes the Emperor. I picture Wakanda having over a thousand kings in the past ten years.

But anyway, it's great to see representation and everything - but the film is also so matter of fact about it that you quickly forget that the only white people you've seen for over two hours are the two whitest people of all time - Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the weirdest Hobbit reunion ever. They're both enjoyable characters and I would have liked to have seen more of Serkis' Klaue, who is not only having a ton of hammy fun, but seemed like a good recurring low level thug to beat up. Marvel never really cares about that and always kills their villains, though.

There is some weirdness with Martin Freeman. He's clearly up to some shady shit, trying to cover up some more Sokovia bullshit by going behind Wakanda's back and dealing with Klaue, but T'Challa seems to get over that fast and brings him to get his back healed. He's still always a weird awkward white outsider, which is great.

And she's got TRON disc blade things
Getting back to the black chicks, I really want to see Angela Bassett in everything. Her African white hairdo was really making me yearn for her dream casting in that failed 90s X-Men movie where she could have played Storm. She doesn't do ALL that much here, but has instant gravitas. There is of course a lot of weirdness to consider here when you remember that Black Panther marries Storm in the comic books. AWKWARD.

I also wanted to see more of the Wakandan super-spy movie this movie pretends to be for its first hour or so. The role of black female James Bond suits Lupita Nyongo surprisingly well, and their South Korean casino playground looked totally like the Macau set from Skyfall (2012). Gurira I didn't even remember as Michonne from The Walking Dead and she plays a similarly stoic character here, but one who is also allowed to laugh and express emotion like an actual human being.

Aside from a surprising slew of lazy-eyed old black man actors, the cast is rounded out by Daniel "Get Out" Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown playing the blackest character I've ever seen, and Michael B. Jordan. Much more on MBJ in a bit, but let's stick with the others for now. If Boseman is Black Panther, Kaluuya is basically Blue Rhino, and Winston Duke plays M'Baku, the White Gorilla from the comic books. It all gets into this Legends of the Hidden Temple thing, that works really well in the final fight when all these color-coded armies are clashing and you can actually tell what's going on with real people and real stakes instead of just dispensable armies of robots or bug aliens. Part of the reason why this film resonates and is so effective is because it's so personal.

Alright, Michael B. Jordan. He takes over the screen whenever he appears and the film's biggest fault is that he disappears for a huge stretch in the middle and dies like a bit of a punk. And that he dies at all. It's still bizarre that his army nickname, "Killmonger" becomes his official name - like T'Challa just calls him that, which is kind of a forced way of integrating his comic alias. But he's still a fearsome threat with his own style, impressive credentials, essentially unstoppable because of both his intellectual and physical competency.

He's also right. How often do you see that. He has a great point to make about the responsibility of a well-to-do portion of a maligned people having an obligation to enfranchise the rest of the race. Of course, inspiring world-wide revolution may not be the best way (not entirely true, this has been an advocated response to global racial oppression), but it's significant that by the end his ideology essentially wins. Black Panther shifts his thinking. Here's a better video essay than I can say that discusses how both protagonist and antagonist actually shift each other's beliefs, which is rare for any film and crazy to pull off.

It's through Killmonger where the film is pulled out of its Africa techno James Bond fantasy and into the real world. It says, "Hey, you can't do this shit while your people around the world suffer." It's rage and hate and struggle in reaction to abandoning global needs for isolationism. There is surprising Trump-ism to be read into the superior walled-off society, although the core of the film rejects this attitude by its end.

And he doesn't even flame on
Instead, the film goes way far into a specifically anti-Trump message, which is where it lost a little of its timeliness for me. When Killmonger looks like he's going to become king it might as well be Election Night 2016. There's a frantic immediate reaction, one of revolution and tearing down their entire society rather than following the procedure that put them here. Okoye remains loyal to the state over her personal feelings, echoing our need to believe in institutions, even if a leader comes to power that we don't agree with. Of course, Killmonger's literal burning of everything Wakanda holds sacred feels "Drain the Swamp"-ish and his striking of all tradition feels so damn Trumpy. This is all of course ironic, because he's a hardcore black revolutionary and about as far from Trump as you can get. Further irony within its own movie world is how Killmonger as a black revolutionary is more Black Panther Party than Black Panther.

And he totally grabs that yellow suit and becomes Yellow Panther. Or just...Normal Leopard. Coogler did a nice job of giving him a lot of motivation, background, and character conflict than normal villains, but he's still just a mirror image of the protagonist. You know, like Obadiah Stane, Abomination, Red Skull, Justin Hammer, Whiplash, Winter Soldier, Yellowjacket, Kaecilius, and Baron Mordo. So you know, typical. Anyway, the fact that when he's stabbed you still want to see more of him is a fantastic achievement. I think some of that is the fact that his position is so well-articulated as well as one we can identify with and even root for.

All of this really grounded and real racial work balances out the complete fantasy elements and ultimately makes Black Panther a referendum on itself. This is to say nothing of the greatness of having black folk tell black stories. I'm still left wondering a little about what Captain America was doing hanging out in the cellars of Wakanda this whole time, but it's probably good he was left out to give Coogler room to tell T'Challa's own story.

This is definitely upper-level Marvel stuff. It's frankly endless amazing to me that Black Panther beats up Batman v. Superman (2016) and Justice League (2017). Like, we have way more hype for this shit. I don't think anyone could have predicted this, but like I said in the opening paragraph, it really wasn't that hard, was it? Wakanda looks to feature heavily in Infinity War, so we'll see if those sound blaster guns can fight Alien Monsters! Wah-hey!

20 February 2018

Hey! It's Black Panther!

I haven't talked much about Black Panther (2018), which is strange, I know. I've actually had a pretty busy actual life lately and kind of missed the boat on previewing the biggest film of 2018 so far. Hell, I haven't talked about anything in a few weeks. That leaves us now in a kind of weird position - can I preview something that came out last weekend but I haven't seen yet?

Preview's the wrong word. It always is around here I guess. "Ramble incoherently" is more accurate. So let's ramble a bit about Black Panther.

Get off that hood right meow
First, the obvious - I can't believe this exists. Like, really. There was a time when even a B character like Iron Man seemed a stretch, but Black Panther has always been this tertiary Avenger that Marvel has subtly begun to place more and more in the spotlight over the last few years through its other comic and cartoon media. As you sink into him more he's a good character, even if his surface novelty is his blackness and African-ness.

Therein lies Black Panther's challenge. How does he rise above just being a token black superhero character? Well, first off, he's not. We've had Blade and Spawn and Steel and War Machine and Luke Cage dating back to the 90s. Still...all of those are pretty shitty, right? Falcon? Let's get real. Black Panther for better or worse has become not the only Black Superhero, but the only black character to be able to lead a mainstream superhero movie. All respect to Blade, but that's a niche vampire action movie rather than a major tentpole. And...we probably shouldn't have mentioned Steel (1997). The point is that all black expectation of representation boils down to Black Panther, which is a good and a bad thing. Good because it's happening at all, bad because all other justification aside, it's really all we got.

One amazing move Marvel did was to actually had this over to an all-black cast (plus Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis - the two least black actors ever) and a black director. Far too often we get black stories told by white folk or to stretch it more, women stories told by white males, or well, just about everything told through a white male gaze. Black Panther gains so much authenticity via its genuine perspective. Now, this is also a fallacy, because Ryan Coogler can't speak for all black people, and so becomes another token director. I keep seeing this with the liberal internet's constant love of Ava DuVernay. She's really not great, but as the only major mainstream female black director she ends up as this example of diversity for everyone to follow. And before I sound really racist, that's great, but you and I both know that A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is going to suck asshole.

The point is, we need more. Ryan Coogler can't be the only major male black tentpole director. DuVernay can't be the only major female black tentpole director. Patty Jenkins can't be the only female superhero film director. If they are then it's this feeling of "Well, see, we have Coogler, that's enough. Racism is solved!" That's not quite how it needs to work.

It's also a wonder that this actually hasn't been a major source of conversation around Black Panther. Perhaps its greatest feat is overshadowing the racial conversation by how good it really is. And I haven't seen it yet, but apparently it's a wonder. I feel like I'm the only one in the world who actually wasn't all that impressed by the trailers. It just looked like another superhero movie to me with a villain who's an inverse copy of the protagonist. Apparently Michael B. Jordan as said villain rises above this common Marvel villain problem and I gotta see it.

I will give you that Chadwick Boseman exudes cool effortlessly and Black Panther himself as superhero cat-king of isolated technologically advanced Africa country is a really bizarre concept. I'm curious about the problematic fantasy aspects of installing the wealthiest country in the world in the middle of Africa, but I hear this is also kind of addressed. I need to see this damn thing.

Continuing the trend of former Human Torches now
appearing in much better Marvel movies.
Also, because everyone else has seen this thing. Seriously, this debuted second among Marvel movies only to The Avengers (2012) and is rivaling like, Jurassic World (2015) numbers. How is that possible? Is that the biggest fuck you to Justice League (2017) or what. For Black Panther?! In February? First of all, it's folly to underestimate black audiences who are constantly undeserved (and when they are served, it's usually some Madea movie), in addition to the typical white folk who eat this shit up. And again, Black Panther is pretty cool.

It's actually a perfect movie for white people - they get to appropriate all that cool blackness and watch T'Challa in a full body-covering outfit so they can project themselves into the character without ever getting caught up in his black skin. And black people get to project themselves into his genuine blackness. What crossover appeal! But still...this beat Batman v. Superman (2016). What kind of world is this? Maybe it's just one where good-looking fun movies of high quality are actually rewarded. What an age.

It certainly helps that Wakanda looks to feature heavily in Infinity War (2018). And everyone on earth will be checking that one out. Marvel is rolling even more than they ever have and certainly got something special on their hands with this one. It's mind-blowing to think about. I'll watch it soon and see if any of my fears or hype or halfway rumours are justified. For now, what did you think?

09 February 2018

First Impressions: Phantom Thread

Ah the first movie I've seen in theaters in the year 2018. In any world I would not be interested in Phantom Thread (2017). I generally don't go in for heady fashion dramas or non-pornographic adult-oriented films. The existence, however, of Daniel Day-Lewis' purported final film role, plus anything new by Paul Thomas Anderson is pretty enticing.

This is a weird movie. I generally liked it, but it's all kinds of bonkers. SPOILERS forever, so turn away, mortals. While this is undeniably a PTA film, made more apparent by the fact that he handled his own cinematography, the concept seemed drastically far from anything he's ever done. For one, it wasn't set in the United States. It also foregoes the sprawling cast and epic story in favor of remarkably efficient storytelling. He's done this before in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and had a somewhat limited cast in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), but those were both long, epic character studies that took place over lifetimes or in the case of the latter, an undisclosed period of months. Phantom Thread sort of has that, but is laser-focused.

Will brylcreem to spare
All of this had me wondering what the hell attracted these two titans together again. It's not like they're Scorsese and DeNiro or Scorsese and DiCaprio cranking out a new film every year. Both DDL and PTA are on the movie production installment plan and new works from either are rare. PTA has actually done decent recently, having made films in 2017, 2014, and 2012, but had two five-year gaps before that. DDL has only made eight movies since PTA began his feature film career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for four of them and has won two (his other win being My Left Foot [1989]). These dudes are selective. So why did Phantom Thread appeal to them?

Apparently, DDL had a lot to do with his character's development. You've got to think that after he's made a career out of playing great 19th-Century overtly masculine characters, part of why he was so enticed with Reynolds Woodcock is precisely because he's a mid-20th Century fop. It's such a different role than what he earned his three statues for, but he's also a really intriguing character, with levels of insecurity layered upon contrasting confident and controlling veneers.

While Woodcock is ostensibly the main character, Lesley Manville's Cyril and Vicky Krieps' Alma hold their own in the constantly shifting and conflicting power dynamics. It's notable that these two ladies dropped into the impressive pedigree of DDL-PTA and hold their own on the acting side, if not outright outshine the three-time Oscar winner.

That's all part of the film itself, too. Woodcock seems like a giant within the film - wielding unstoppable power over his House and expressing finicky fussiness over every aspect of his life. The film dives into the whims and routines of the mostly self-tortured genius and the balance between being a beautiful artist and a personal asshole. Alma tries to go along at first, enamored by her new role, but quickly isn't having this nonsense, and begins to disrupt the carefully established order.

These shifts in relationship dynamics are subtle at first, but then have a big shift in the form of some poisoned mushrooms. Alma wrecks Woodcock through some bad yellow mushrooms, and oddly enough, it seems as though they both treat each other better from it. It's as if Woodcock actually gets off by being treated like a little baby and cared for, as if Alma is his long-dead mother, whose ghost visits him in a hallucinatory fever dream. See where this movie starts to diverge from other stuffy period dramas? Alma gets into this, too - seeking to become an equal to Woodcock rather than just another disposable muse.

Throw sister Cyril into this, who at times shows that she will indulge most of Reynolds' idiosyncrasies but puts her foot down and demonstrates how much power she really has whenever she needs to. She seeks order amidst Reynolds' at times bizarre and specific demands, but is also balanced enough to let Alma push him when he needs to be pushed, although not without some convincing. It's all a fascinating work of three characters jostling for their own social standing with their specific circle, and in that way, is also totally PTA.

Let's get back to that poisoning, though. I really had to sort through that last scene where Woodcock is totally into it. It's like this battle of wills or a big game of poison mushroom chicken. Reynolds seems to get off on both Alma besting him and turning him into a big pukey baby. That's the only rationale I could come up with, because with a man so particular about his asparagus, it seemed drastically out of character that he'd be so into his routine being wrecked (plus the chaos the first poisoning caused - almost causing a stumbly Woodcock to ruin the German Princess' dress). I'd be eager to hear other interpretations.

Lastly, amidst all this heady fashion drama and intricate personal battles over relationship control, this film also somehow finds way to be extremely funny, in really wry and subtle ways. The preposterousness of Woodcock's particular habits contrasting with Alma's ever increasing boundary-pushing prove to be pretty damn funny. It's dark in a personal, edgy way, although not straight black comedy. There's not much else like it out there, and this is undoubtedly DDL's funniest role.

In the end, this is an enjoyable flick, but I do think that both PTA and DDL have done better. That's a ridiculously high standard, though, and to dig into every nuance of this film would reveal layers and layers higher than most anything any other director-actor pair can achieve.
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