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.