Friday, February 16, 2018

Fear Of A 'Black Panther'


There have been, and will be, many excellent think pieces and critiques written about Black Panther, and it's likely anything I would have to say about it, or even could say about it in the short amount of time I have between seeing it and having to write a review, is going to (pardon the terrible pun), pale in comparison. So, I'm skipping a traditional review this time.

But I still have thoughts about it!

* First, all the hype, cultural importance, and expectation aside, Black Panther is an excellent comic book movie. Perhaps one of the best I've ever seen. That it can stand alone, completely apart from the Marvel Universe, and is accessible to anyone who has never seen a single Marvel movie, may irk some of the more diehard comic book fans. But I think it's one of the movie's greatest strengths.

* Last year’s Wonder Woman finally brought an iconic female superhero to the big screen. While the movie wasn’t perfect, what it symbolized was important: finally an opportunity for girls to see themselves in the superhero movies that permeate the theaters year after year. There’s even more expectation for Black Panther. Sure, there have been movies featuring black comic books characters and superheroes before (Blade; Hancock), but none have been based on a classic character, or been part of a major franchise. That the world has been craving this should not come as a surprise, and neither should the fact that it is a certifiable hit even before its actual release.

* I believe that anyone who isn’t descended from slaves can’t fully understand why black America would be craving this kind of story. So many American families have the luxury of being able to trace their culture all the way back to a village their ancestors might have lived in. But much of the African American quest for cultural identification ends at the point their stolen ancestors landed on the shores of America. Seeing a film that not only embraces and celebrates African culture, but presents it as the ultimate strength (Wakanda is, after all, the most advanced nation in the world), is important.

* Black Panther is an amazingly beautiful film. Director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who has been nominated this year for an Oscar for her work on the film Mudbound) present the land of Wakanda as an illuminated, shining fantasy of Afrofuturism, bordered by waterfalls, with cities steeped in traditionalism and hi-tech advances. Brightly colored open air markets are surrounded by elevated trains and the occasional passing space ship. Citizens are dressed in traditional garb, while utilizing the latest in tech gadgetry. It requires more than one viewing to soak it all in.

* There's an amazing fight scene in an underground casino, where Coogler has the camera follow various characters around the room as they fight the bad guys, that's seamlessly edited to look like a single shot, and it's glorious. It's followed by a car chase in Korea that ends with one of the film's biggest laughs (and there are many laughs to be had throughout).

* The cast is almost entirely people of color, with two exceptions. One is the evil arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and the other is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). I could have done without the token addition of Freeman, who serves no integral need to the plot. On the other hand, I appreciated Serkis's villain only in that he is ridiculous and completely expendable, giving way to the film's real baddie, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

* Killmonger is an extraordinary villain. He's not some alien superbeing with a goal of destroying the world. He's a human with some completely valid and rational beefs. And while what he ultimately wants to do is a little extreme, my main reaction was, "He has a point! Maybe it's worth a try!"

* Speaking of destroying the world: The destruction in Black Panther, when compared to the massive damage done to entire cities in so many Marvel movies, is relatively small beans, and that's really refreshing. It does not suffer from too many villains and too much destruction, (although the stakes for the characters themselves, and much of the world, couldn't be higher).

* Wonder Woman may have given little girls a superhero to relate to, but Black Panther gives them an entire army, in the form of the Dora Milaje, the all female special forces that serve as Black Panther's bodyguards. And how much did I love the casting of Danai "Michonne" Gurira as the head of the Dora Milaje? A LOT. She may risk being typecast as a strong black woman who knows how to swing a sword, but as long as she's OK with that, I am here for it.

* In fact, every single woman in the film--which also includes Angele Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o, and the delightful Letitia Wright, seen recently in the "Black Museum" episode of Black Mirror--is presented as strong, smart, and independent. None are there simply to serve as eye candy or as a disposable love interest. And that is, in every sense of the word, marvelous.

And so is Black Panther.



Friday, February 9, 2018

'Fifty Shades Freed' Is The Ultimate In Anti-Climax

With this butt plug, I thee wed.

The Fifty Shades trilogy comes to its end (oh, please let this be the end!) with Fifty Shades Freed, and it has me wondering more than ever just who these movies are for.

Clearly, the Fifty Shades books were beloved by millions of women who discovered you can read dirty books on the subway without anyone knowing, as long as it's on a Kindle. I could only get through the first one (barely) but I could understand the appeal to the same kinds of readers who enjoy romance novels, but want the sex a bit dirtier and rougher. Those women weren't afraid of dicks.

But apparently, the creators of the film adaptations--two male directors, and a male screenwriter (E.L. James's husband, Niall Leonard)--are. The posters promise you won't want to miss the climax, but that climax does not feature even a peek at Christian Grey's ultimate weapon, and that's some serious bullshit.

Three films without any full frontal male nudity isn't an accident. That's a conscious decision, and a clear indication the filmmakers do not fully appreciate the dirtiness of the books. Or perhaps Jamie Dornan has something to be ashamed of, and had a no-dick clause in his contract. To that I say, then hire someone else, because it's not like his performance couldn't be easily replaced. He's been a leaden presence (and not the good kind) through the end, further proving how much Dakota Johnson has had to carry the franchise.

Indeed, Johnson's Anastasia has been the series's only saving grace, while also being completely frustrating. She gives Anastasia a knowing sense of humor, never taking any of Christian's sex games too seriously and being snarky when it's required. She's one of the film's only sources of comedy, surrounded by plotlines and performances that are completely lacking in it.

The frustration comes in her Anastasia accepting the narcissistic asshole that is Christian Grey. It's obvious Dakota Johnson is smarter than the character she is playing, and she can only push through that stupidity so far before plot dictates she do something dumb, like marrying Christian Grey, which is how the film opens, with the wedding vows taking place over the opening credits, and Christian and Anastasia knowingly pronounced "man and wife," and not the more acceptably modern "husband and wife."

A honeymoon in Paris and Nice follows, with make-out sessions overlooked by the Eiffel Tower, and Ana's beachside toplessness frowned upon by Christian. It isn't long before their romantic interlude is cut short by the needs of the film's ridiculous thriller plot.

Fifty Shades Darker ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, with Ana's former boss Jack Hyde (HYDE!) stalking her and seeking revenge for his firing after he attacked her at work. Hyde is played by Eric Johnson, who was good on Showtime's The Knick, but is utterly terrible here, playing a perpetually red-eyed and unshaven character who began as a book editor, but has somehow turned into a master criminal who can easily sabotage helicopters, break into secure office buildings, and perform acts of cyber theft and arson. Of course!

Fifty Shades Freed's aim at the sexual thriller genre is as subtle as a Lifetime movie, and clearly filler; something to give the audience in between Ana and Christian's arguing over Christian's jealousy, and the sex, which, after three films, is no longer shocking in any way, even if Ana still manages to react to things like handcuffs like she's never seen anything like them before.

The Ana of Fifty Shades Freed is supposed to be stronger and assertive, insisting she have things like a career, and friends, and an equal say in her marriage. But she gets none of that without consistent pouting and push back from Christian. She never truly challenges the notion that while domination may be fun in the "playroom," it will get very old very quickly in every day life. And a marriage centered on sex and arguing with a domineering man about his constant needs can not be saved by babies and butt plugs.


Friday, January 12, 2018

'Phantom Thread,' Caught In A Gothic Romance

"I want your drama, the touch of your hand..."

There's something about putting on a perfect dress that has either been made for you, or at least feels as if it has. It can feel like somehow, this dress knows who you are; what you want to accentuate and what you want to hide, dress and wearer both bringing out the best in the other. The perfect dress can be a silent exclamation of self, helping you tell the world, "This is me, at my best."

It's almost a romance.

P.T. Anderson's Phantom Thread, centered on mid-1950's haute couture dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), is also an odd romance. Woodcock, along with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, manicured perfection), runs the House of Woodcock from the same multi-storied, London building they both call home. Their clients include royalty and socialites, and Reynolds lives a rigid life that allows for a live-in muse, though not marriage.

As the film begins, he sits down to breakfast with his sister and the latest in what is clearly a long line of women who he keeps around as long as they provide some kind of amusement and inspiration. Once they become annoying, he is through with them. "Is there nothing I can say to draw your attention back on me?" his latest muse asks. There isn't, and it doesn't take long before Reynolds has moved on to another muse, instantly infatuated with the slightly gawky and endearingly clumsy waitress at a hotel near his country home.

Alma (Vicky Krieps), a German immigrant at least half Woodcock's age, appears to be the perfect muse for Reynolds, eager, open, and with the perfect shape. (Sister Cyril can't resist telling Alma "he likes a bit of a belly," as she records Alma's measurements at the end of Alma and Reynolds's first date).

Being fitted for a dress, and being praised for perfect proportions, ("It's my job to give you breasts," says Reynolds, after Alma apologizes for her small size), is a form of seduction Reynolds has likely used before, and Alma is not immune.

But Alma shows some steadfastness from the beginning, never letting him get the last word he so desperately seeks in almost every conversation. She questions his aesthetic, and challenges his rigidity. It's clear Alma will not be discarded so easily.

"I want your horror, I want your design..."

I've seen Phantom Thread twice now. I initially went into it with perhaps too much enthusiasm directed at the wrong thing. Combining one of my favorite filmmakers with a story centered on my favorite period of fashion (almost every dress I own is older than I am by decades), seemed like something too good to be true. I was expecting too much from the fashion in the film, which, while beautiful, is nothing that would have made it into the history books.

Upon second viewing, I realized that's kind of the point. Anderson and costume designer Mark Bridges did a lot of research, and were influenced by the work and lives of couturiers Balenciaga, Dior, and Charles James. But they didn't choose to just copy some of their most elaborate gowns. What Reynolds Woodcock creates is beautiful, but in many ways as staid and stiff as he is.

Near the end of the movie he goes on a rant after hearing a longtime client has begun to shop at a different house, searching for something new and "chic." He screams about how much he detests that little word, chic. Reynolds has singular vision, but he's been at it for years, and he doesn't seem too interested in innovation.

Once I got past obsessing about the clothes, I was better able to appreciate the intricacies of the story and the very, very, weird and Gothic romance at the center of it. Reynolds, like many a self-centered man, has major mother issues. He designed the dress for his mother's second wedding, and he is forever haunted by her, designing for her approval, which will never again come. A romance with someone like that might seem doomed from the beginning, but Alma's solution drives the film firmly into the realm of sublime dark comedy.

The film is not only about a romance, but is itself deeply romantic. Johnny Greenwood's classical and ever-present score is lush and almost a character unto itself; I can't imagine the movie succeeding without it, so integral is the mood it sets. Anderson was his own cinematographer, and photographs the film so that it frequently seems to take place on an overcast day, with muted light that allows its jewel-toned fashions to pop off the screen. (See it projected in 70mm if you can).

Daniel Day Lewis has famously said this will be his last acting role. Whether that's true or not, it's interesting to see him attempt to leave on a note of subtlety. This is not like many of the bombastic roles he's played in the past, but it is no less impressive. The way he is able to convey utter annoyance and contempt by merely flexing his jaw and turning his head illustrates more than screaming ever could.

His scenes with Vicky Krieps have a magical frisson, and it's fitting that a relative unknown should be cast against him. It's easy to assume she might wilt opposite someone like Daniel Day Lewis, but like Alma, Krieps doesn't do the expected in any of her scenes with him. In one of those scenes, an epic battle over a home cooked meal, its clear much of their dialogue is improvised, which gives the whole argument the sting of painful reality.

Two viewings of Phantom Thread may not be enough. Like the reaction to a well made dress, first you are taken in by its aesthetic. Then you can appreciate its construction. After that comes the joy in slipping it on again, and again...


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Is Funny, Heavy, And Challenging

The welcomed return of this Rey of light.

While I loved The Force Awakens more than any Star Wars sequel or prequel since The Empire Strikes Back, I couldn't exactly argue against anyone who criticized its story structure, and how it's as much a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope as it is a sequel. That argument is valid, but that type of movie is what I, and many Star Wars fans burned by the prequels, needed.

So going into The Last Jedi, I was a little worried the story might take the same route, essentially giving us a soft remake of Empire. My worries were unfounded. While The Last Jedi acknowledges the inevitable comparisons to that second (or fifth, whatever) Star Wars movie by setting up some similar scenarios, it then does original and surprising things with those moments.

Yes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who found the elusive Luke (Mark Hamill, at full intensity) at the end of The Force Awakens, much like Luke finds Yoda in Empire, is all set to do some similar Jedi training with the aging master. And much like Yoda, Luke shows reluctance to be a teacher. But his reluctance isn't a mere test. He really doesn't want anything to do with the Jedi or the Resistance.

And as in Empire, our beloved band of players spend the majority of the movie separated. Finn (John Boyega), after initially recovering from his injuries on board the ship led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, sniffle), ventures on a quest with newcomer Rose (a great Kelly Marie Tran). And Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), demonstrates he's even more of the cocky pilot he appeared to be in his first outing. His first scene in the movie, with Domhnall Gleeson's smarmy General Hux, is also hilarious, and a perfect introduction to the film's comedic tone.

There's a lot of humor in The Last Jedi, and I imagine some may criticize it for it. But it's the kind of smart humor that was also present in the original trilogy, and sorely lacking in the prequels. (Which isn't to say the prequels were lacking in any attempts at humor; it's just that the humor usually relied on Jar Jar Binks saying something stupid or stepping in alien shit.)

Hello comic relief!

But the movie is also surprisingly heavy. Rian Johnson doesn't shy away from some basic facts. Luke and Leia are growing older, and the weight of their experience has them questioning the worth of the Resistance, especially since the Resistance has suffered some major losses. Are more worth it?

Rey continues to question her place in all of it, with the longing to find her parents as strong as ever. And Kilo Ren (Adam Driver), whose inner conflict can't be hidden from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), begins to question his place as the Supreme Masked Baddie. Almost all of the characters face moments where they must make some pretty tough decisions, and it all adds genuine tension to the film.

More tension than a lot of the battle sequences, to be honest, of which there are more than enough, with most centered on the need to stall the enemy so the Resistance can get something done in time. This is the longest Star Wars movie yet, clocking in at 150 minutes, and it has at least one ending too many, and a middle that sags a bit.

Still, its longer length does allow us to spend some time in some beautiful new worlds, like Luke's lushly green island, which is also home to some native creatures, including Porgs, the big-eyed, pot bellied birds that might convince you to become vegetarian; a gaudy planet filled with the galaxy's equivalent to one-percenters; and my favorite, a salt-covered world that reveals its blood-red center, a color that permeates the film.

It also leaves room for some good cameos. Along with the hyped cameos of Princes William and Harry (who, them playing storm troopers, are impossible to spot), also look out for Chewing Gum's Michaela Cole, model Lily Cole, and Justin Theroux. (I'll also have to see it again to figure out how director Rian Johnson worked the theme from The Long Goodbye, which was co-written by composer John Williams, into the movie, as the song title appears in the end credits)

One of my best movie-going memories is seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1981. Seeing it on a weekend required standing in line for hours, so my family didn't get to partake in one of those opening weekend showings. But one weekday not long after it opened, my dad woke me up to get ready for school, and when I gave the usual complaint of "Ugh! I don't WANT to go to school" he said, "OK. Do you want to go see The Empire Strikes Back instead?" And we did.

Watching The Last Jedi, despite its faults, still managed to make me feel, more than once, like that excited eleven-year-old ditching school.


Friday, December 8, 2017

I, Tonya, You, America, Us, Guilty

You like me! You really like me!

Watching I, Tonya, I was reminded how batshit crazy the 1990's were. Along with acid washed jeans, platform sneakers, and crispy hair, the 90's were a golden age for tabloid stories. The internet didn't exist in the way it does now, and despite the emergence of the 24 hour news cycle, attention spans were longer. Tabloid stories were allowed to slowly build over weeks and months into craven dramas that captured the nation.

I'm talking things like Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco; John and Elena Bobbitt; the suicide of Kurt Cobain; Bill Clinton and Monica Lewlinsky; O.J. Simpson; and, of course, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, a story that includes tabloid gold and acid washed jeans and crispy hair.

I, Tonya takes an unconventional approach to that ice skating drama, mirroring the tabloid coverage it originally received. People weren't paying attention to the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story because of a sudden national love of competitive ice skating. It was because the story was perfect in its symbolism (she tried to break the leg of her competition?!), and at times completely absurd (a key player is named Gillooly?!).

Play the story straight, and you've got yourself a Lifetime movie. But play up the story's absurdities, add a dash of GoodFellas-era Scorsese-style editing and music cues, and you've got yourself a surprising movie that will make you laugh while your heart breaks a little for Tonya Harding.

Set up as a mockumentary of sorts, I,Tonya opens with titles asserting it is "based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly." These interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie) and Jeff (Sebastian Stan) are reenacted, with both of them in separate locations, both offering their completely unreliable retelling of the story.

Tonya's interview takes place in a dirty kitchen, dishes piled in a sink behind her. It's a nice nod to how an interview's setting can often illustrate an interviewer's intent, an intent often unbeknownst to the subject. From the moment Margot Robbie opens her mouth, and you hear her flat, West coast accent, you can tell this will be a performance that's a far cry from her work in films like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Robbie has at least five inches on the 5'1" Harding, who also had a strong, muscular athlete's build. Harding in her heyday could probably take down ladies a lot taller than herself (and likely did during her short stint as a celebrity boxer). But Robbie manages to make you forget those physical differences by channeling Harding's essence. She's got the trailer trash swagger, paired with the vulnerability of a woman who has been beaten down her entire life, both literally and figuratively.

The story follows Tonya from the age of three, when her nightmare of a mother, LaVona Golden (an Oscar-worthy Allison Janney), insists the local figure skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), take her on as a student. Diane doesn't take girls that young, but can't deny the little girl has a gift.

LaVona's bullying doesn't stop at figure skating coaches. She's an objectively horrible woman, without a nice thing to say about anyone, especially Tonya, who is subject to her verbal and physical abuse throughout her childhood.

Of course LaVona insists it's all for Tonya's good. To her, this is what an effective stage mother does, and she offers no apologies for it during her interview moments, which are some of the best scenes in the film. Allison Janney talking to the camera, smoking, hooked up to an oxygen tank, while a pet parrot on her shoulder constantly badgers her has got to be part of her Oscar reel. (And the parrot deserves an award for Best Supporting Performance by a Bird.)

As Tonya leaves one abusive home she falls into another, marrying Jeff Gillooly, the first man she ever dates. It's not long before he's smashing her face into the wall and pointing guns at her, and while Tonya does fight back on occasion, the cycle of abuse assures she stays in the relationship way longer than she should, especially since it's Gillooly who eventually sets The Incident into motion.

"The Incident" is how the characters refer to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and seeing the ineptitude of the people involved--Paul Walter Hauser steals every scene he's in as Gillooly's idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt--it's amazing they got away with it for as long as they did, which, granted, wasn't very long. (One of I, Tonya's best choices is to limit Nancy Kerrigan's place in the story, giving her maybe three lines in the entire film, with one one of those lines being "Whhhhhyyyyy??????!!!!!")

The film takes Tonya's insistence that she had nothing to do with The Incident as fact, and makes a compelling case for that as truth. But ultimately, it didn't matter whether she had or not. Harding had a target on her back within the snooty skating profession from day one, never living up to their beauty standards, or their idea of respectability. It didn't matter that she was the first woman to do a triple axle in competition. She didn't fit the part, and they would never let her forget it. Eventually, and with some glee, neither would the world.