Black Panther

There are probably many reasons why most of our classic adventure fiction heroes are white males.  But of course, the most important reason, and probably the only one that fully explains it is prejudice.  The creators and distributors of this stuff have traditionally been white men and their perception of their audience has been that it is composed of the same.  If these creators thought about it at all, they probably would have concluded that as a whole minority groups didn’t have money to support heroes that looked like them.

This issue has been with us for years and there has been a lot of pressure for more diversity in the action/adventure genre.  Often this takes the form of casting a minority actor in a role that was originally a white male.  This can work if the conditions are right.  There is no reason that Dr. Who can’t be a woman, or black for that matter.  That possibility is built into the premise of regeneration.  (However, he/she must be English.)  Recently in comic books, Thor and Iron Man have been women.  Spider-Man has been a black Hispanic.  They found ways to make this work without violating the concepts of the original premise.

Adventure heroes last and are popular because they’re cool.  And part of that coolness is their identity.  Anybody can wear the Iron Man suit, but Tony Stark is irreplaceable.  Therefore, I think the best way to increase diversity is not to co-opt old heroes but to create new ones and infuse them with their own coolness.

Marvel actually tried to do this in 1966 when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther.  This was the height of the Civil Rights movement and those two were never ones to let a trend go by unexploited.  Over the years T’Challa has persisted but he hasn’t really captured the coolness that adventure heroes need to become permanent fixtures in the culture.

Until now.

The MCU’s newest entry, Black Panther is a triumph of coolness.  The main credit for this goes to Chadwick Boseman who plays the role with thoughtful compassion and vulnerability.  When the character first showed up in Captain America: Civil War, I knew he could carry his own movie.  Boseman is a charismatic actor who has a big future ahead of him.

The rest of the cast is made up of a who’s who of current African-American stars.  They all do a fine job filling out the well written characters.  Even the main villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, has a compelling motivation for his actions.

The excellent script was written by Ryan Coogler, who also directed, and Joe Robert Cole.  It deals with heavy themes that resonate with current events.  The Wakandans have all this power due to their good fortune to be in a country that has the only source for vibranium, the rarest and most powerful metal on Earth.  But for centuries they have isolated themselves, believing that the source of their strength would be taken from them if the world at large knew of it.  It is a technologically advanced nation that pretends to be a backward third world nation.  But there are some in Wakanda who are beginning to believe that it is their duty to use their great power to help oppressed Africans around the globe.  This is the theme that the plot revolves around.  What results is a pretty good tale of palace intrigue.

Coogler, whose previous films were Creed and Fruitvale Station, keeps the pace moving and draws out those tremendous performances from his talented cast.  The effects are, of course, great and the costumes and sets are an exciting mixture of modern and traditional African.

Black Panther isn’t just a competent entry into the MCU, it is one of the best.  And I suspect that it will be wildly popular.  At the showing I saw, the audience applauded, not just at the end, but also as the film was starting.

The creators of the Black Panther, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were Jewish, which means they knew what it was like to be a minority, but not specifically African-American.  Coogler, Cole and Boseman are black and intimately familiar with the African-American experience.  They make Black Panther real.

And most importantly, they make it cool.

 

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Call Me by Your Name

In the summer of 1983 a young smart 17-year-old kid named Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet, lives with his parents in a villa in the north of Italy.  His father, Mr. Perlman, played by Michael Stulbarg is an academic, studying Greco-Roman culture and his mother Annella is a translator.  Elio spends his days transcribing music and engaging in other pursuits at which he is very accomplished.

His world is turned upside down, however, when Oliver, Mr. Perlman’s summer intern, played by Armie Hammer, arrives.  Oliver is 24 years old and extremely handsome.  This awakens something in Elio and the two spend the rest of the summer exploring it.

If that doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting premise, believe me, Call Me By Your Name is worse.  There is very little conflict.  Sure it’s 1983 and they are in a small town but society is well past the “Love that dare not speak its name” era.  Elio’s parents are extremely permissive and would not care if he were gay or even if they were carrying on under their roof.

The main obstacle to these two guys getting together is themselves, or mainly Elio who is experiencing these feelings for the first time.  The film is structured as a series of conversational snippets, which I guess are supposed to be profound.  They don’t really build dramatically and are exceptionally dull in and of themselves.

The result is a sit-com season’s worth of “will they or won’t they” packed into two hours and twelve minutes, and which wind up seeming like two season’s worth.

At least there’s some nice scenery to look at.

Phantom Thread

This is going to be a short review.  How can I review a film when I can’t really talk about the plot?  The trailers and other promotional materials for Phantom Thread lead us to believe that it is a conventional drama, almost a Merchant Ivory production, beautiful and sedate.  And it is those things.  The settings and especially the costumes portray a classier time and milieu.  The performances are underplayed and subtle.  But the beating heart of Phantom Thread is something much more dangerous and cynical.

Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, in what is supposedly his last film (Personally, I don’t believe it.) is a high-end dress designer in 1950’s London.  His clients are rich society matrons and the daughters of royalty.  He’s built a reputation that is second to none and makes a comfortable if not lavish living.  With his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, he lives in a townhouse that is also where he designs and manufactures his creations.  They have a cottage in a small village somewhere on the coast too.  Reynolds is temperamental and even somewhat childish if his routine is broken in the slightest.  His emotions are extreme but predictable, rising and falling with the cycle of his work. From designing to making to completion, each phase has its accompanying mood.

Cyril understands this and knows how to deal with it, but the parade of beautiful models who inhabit his bed and serve as his temporary muses often don’t.  It’s Cyril’s job to move them out of the house when Reynolds tires of them and runs to his cottage.

And it’s there in a picturesque country inn that he meets Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, who waits on him at breakfast.  At first it seems like she is going to be another in the long line of ephemeral affairs but Alma is made of sterner stuff.  She adjusts to his moods, buttering her toast and pouring her tea quietly so as not to disturb the quiet that Reynolds demands at the breakfast table when he is designing.  Then she begins to assert herself.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot.

Do I have to mention that Daniel Day Lewis is absolutely brilliant in this film?  I didn’t think so.  He’s working with his native accent so he’s probably not going to get his usual accolades but there are a thousand subtle things about his performance that other actors just can’t be bothered to do.  It’s in the way the character interacts with a world that he sees differently than other people.  I’ve seen it in real life and it really comes across in this movie.

Vicky Krieps is a relative newcomer, at least to English language films, but she does a wonderful job of peeling off layers of her personality to reveal depths.  She starts as an ingenue and finishes as something very different.  And her performance almost matches Day Lewis’ for subtlety.  You only realize the foreshadowing when you think about it later.

Lesley Manville turns in her usual great performance as Cyril, a loyal sister and business manager who is also the only person who can nag Reynolds when he needs it.

Writer director Paul Thomas Anderson is talented with many terrific movies under his belt.  Phantom Thread is probably not among his best.  It has pacing problems and the dissonance between the tone of the film and the plot is problematic.  I really can’t put my issues with it in words without spoilers and I’m not sure I can articulate it anyway.  It may very well have been a choice.  In any case the first half of the film feels like set up and most of the action happens in the second half.

I guess my advice is to go into Phantom Thread, knowing that you are not going to see the movie that has been advertised.  It’s a bait and switch.  Some people may like that.

The Post

In 1971, I was too engaged in the serious business of being an eleven-year-old to pay much attention to politics or the news in general.  I vaguely remember hearing about the Pentagon Papers but I was not much interested in such things.  There were too many TV shows to watch.

So, I have to look up what happened just like most everybody else.  Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys, was a military contractor who had been involved with several operations in Vietnam back in the sixties as an observer for Secretary of State Robert McNamera.  The Secretary commissioned a top-secret study of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.  The study proved that multiple administrations had been consistently lying not only to the public but to congress.  Perhaps more damning was the fact that McNamara knew that the war was unwinnable as early as 1965 and yet did everything he could to continue the county’s involvement.  Ellsberg leaked the study to the New York Times but the Nixon administration found out about it and got an injunction forbidding them from publishing the papers.

Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, is the editor of the Washington Post.  He gets word of the leaked documents and manages to get his hands on them.  Bradlee is a chain-smoking newspaper man from the old school.  He believes in the function of newspapers to be a watchdog over the government.  He knows first hand how important the First Amendment is to this function and he’s not intimidated by the bullying tactics of the Nixon administration.

The Post is owned by Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, the daughter of the long-time owner and publisher of the paper.  Her husband had run it after her father but committed suicide, leaving the responsibility to her.  Newspapers are very much the domain of men at this time and Graham is unsure of herself.  She is trying to raise capital by taking the corporation public while at the same time leaving control of it in her family.  There is a clause in the contract to go public that stipulates that the banks financing the deal can pull out if there is a catastrophic occurrence.  An injunction from the government over the Pentagon Papers might qualify.

So, when the inevitable happens and the administration tries to block the Post from publishing the papers, Graham must decide whether to fight it or acquiesce.  She is being preached at and bullied by the men on both sides of the issue.  Even Bradlee isn’t above this.  It’s a serious issue because the question will go all the way to the Supreme Court and if they loose Bradlee and Graham could go to jail and Graham could lose the paper.

Newspaper dramas are a staple of Hollywood.  One could even argue that Citizen Kane is in this category.  I think The Post will go down as one of the best.  The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer is tight with almost every word advancing the plot.  The film runs almost two hours but the time passes unnoticed.  Spielberg’s direction is also impeccable.  He directs his high-powered cast perfectly and the look of the film is dark but plush as befits the settings of the seats of power.

The acting is the film’s strength, however.  Hanks delivers a great performance as a man who is both pragmatic and idealistic.  You can see his faults even if he can’t.  At the beginning of the film he regards Graham lightly, mostly because she’s a woman.  His casual sexism is a tough thing to play but he does it brilliantly.  You also believe it when he realizes that he’s been wrong.

The real treat, as almost always, is Meryl Streep.  Katherine Graham is a smart capable woman, but nobody realizes it, not even her.  This is a woman brought up in a time when roles for women were limited.  In one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen Streep deliver she describes how she was brought up to never expect to run the paper; how she was so happy when her father appointed her husband to run it.  She was content, even happy to host parties and run charities.  But then life thrust her into the world of men.  It is inspiring to see how intimidated she is but she doesn’t give in and she never lets go of the fact that she knows she’s right.  The Post is really about Katherine Graham.

1971 was a long time ago but we are still dealing with the issues brought up in The Post.  There is an administration staffed by bullies and hardliners that want to squash the press and go about their business uninterrupted in the shadows.  According to The Post, in 1971 the First Amendment was saved only by a Supreme Court decision.  At eleven I was too young to be scared by this.  Now it’s different.

I, Tonya

Here’s the thing that has always bothered me about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan situation: There’s a classist element at work here.  Harding was very much stereotyped both by the powers that be who were running her sport and then by the press and society at large.  Everyone went with the easy lazy narrative of a bit of trailer park trash with her low rent crew of yahoos in tow invading the purview of the ice princesses and blundering around, ruining everything for everyone.

The truth is undoubtedly more complicated.  Let me say that I, Tonya is a movie and therefore not the truth either, but it does present a little more of Tonya’s side of the story than we got on TV news and hints at that complexity.  For one thing to get to the Olympics in any sport takes a level of talent and dedication to hard work that most of us don’t understand.  Tonya Harding, here played by Margot Robbie, achieved that twice.  What’s more, to do it she overcame a deprived background with a mother, LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney, who while paying for skating lessons and sewing the outfits, never let Tonya forget it, never offered anything but negative criticism both on and off the ice and hit her repeatedly.  To assert her independence Tonya married Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, who also did that last thing.  The marriage didn’t last.  And we all know what he did to try and get her back.

The film covers Tonya’s life from age three when she proved to be a prodigy on the ice to the “incident” in 1994.  For the film they interviewed Tonya, LaVona, Jeff, and others and then recreated the interviews with the actors playing them using actual words from the interviews.  Snippets of these are interspersed throughout the film.  Also occasionally characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera.  These are hardly new or innovative techniques but they are used to good effect here, moving along a plot that most people are already well acquainted with.

They do use the easy lazy narrative some in depicting the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.  Jeff and his buddy Shawn Eckhardt, played by Paul Walter Hauser are played pretty broadly in those scenes and the movie feels like an early Guy Ritchie film.  Eckhardt, in particular is played as a nerd with a rare talent for self-delusion who seems to actually believe that he is a hyper-competent international assassin.  According to the film he is the one responsible for elevating the plot from a simple psychological dirty trick to an out and out assault.  But all of them were in a sense culpable.

All of the performances are excellent but Margot Robbie and Allison Janney deserve special mention.

I, Tonya is a film that is hard to love, mostly because the main character is prickly and flawed.  And that’s the point.  Tonya Harding was never able to hide or smooth out her rough edges and she had the misfortune to be talented in a sport that is made up of many subjective criteria, where the ideal is pretty, well-behaved and proper princesses like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.  That ideal just wasn’t inside Tonya Harding and she suffered for it.  Both in her sport and in life.  At one point in the movie she approaches one of the judges and asks, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?”  He doesn’t have a good answer.

Tonya brought a lot of her troubles on herself, namely by not taking responsibility for her mistakes.  She’s constantly saying, “It’s not my fault.”  Often it actually is but sometimes it isn’t.  Our media crazed world tries to fit people into easy lazy narratives, and when they won’t go easily they are cast as villains or objects of ridicule.  There is a point in the interview segments where Tonya says to the audience, “You now are my abusers.”  It’s a provocative point and I don’t think it’s true.  But it is easy to see how she could feel that way.

All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World is probably going to be forever linked with events that have nothing to do with the production or the true story that inspired the screenplay.  You probably know what I’m writing about.  Kevin Spacey was cast in the role of J. Paul Getty.  The film was in the can; publicity was in full swing.  There were posters in movie theaters featuring Spacey.  Then credible accusations of sexual imposition and attempted rape cropped up against Spacey.  This was in the considerable wake of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.  These are serious enough to apparently end Spacey’s career.

Instead of pulling the film, the producers let director Ridley Scott reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer.  Plummer had been considered for the role in the initial casting phase so he was familiar with the project and willing to do it.  Something like this would not have been possible in the days before high definition video.  It would have taken months instead of weeks to overcome the technical obstacles.

I’ll say up front that Plummer does an excellent job and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  Getty is the centerpiece of the story despite being a supporting role and Plummer nails it.  Putting this switch in at the last minute was both a tribute to the skill of the filmmakers, particularly Scott and to Plummer’s talent and professionalism.

As a whole the film isn’t bad.  It drags somewhat in the middle but is in the end a pretty taut thriller.  And since Ridley Scott is directing, it goes without saying that it is a pretty film.

All the Money in the World is about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, played by Charlie Plummer, the 16 year old grandson of John Paul Getty, at that time the richest man in the world.  Getty, who was notoriously stingy, at first refused to pay the ransom and since JPG III’s mother Gail, played by Michelle Williams, had married into the family, she had no independent wealth of her own.

The performances are universally excellent.  Michelle Williams does a terrific job.  She finds herself between the kidnappers and her father-in-law.  They both prove equally hard to deal with.  Mark Wahlberg plays Fletcher Chase, an ex-CIA agent who is now Getty’s head of security.  He is assigned to handle the matter.  The role isn’t really different from other things we’ve seen Wahlberg in but he does a good job.  Charlie Plummer shows equal parts pluck and vulnerability as the hostage.  Romain Duris plays Cinquanta one of the kidnappers who believably develops some sympathy for the hostage.

I suspect that whatever Oscar buzz this film has is due to the circumstances surrounding the production.  Christopher Plummer may very well get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  That may well be earned but I think his prospects are being helped by these other factors.  This isn’t the type of film that would normally get that type of recognition.

All the Money in the World is worth seeing but you can definitely wait for the DVD.

Downsizing

Downsizing is a high concept project from Alexander Payne, who is normally known for dry comedy/dramas like Nebraska, Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants.  He now turns this approach to a science fiction scenario.  In order to combat climate change and other ecological ills, scientists have developed a way to shrink people to about five inches tall.  This way they use fewer resources and take up much less room.  But it is a one way process and it is difficult for shrunken people to interact with the full size.  People who downsize must sever ties with friends and family.  The advantage is that whatever money you have goes a lot further.  Full-size people with moderate incomes become fabulously wealthy when they downsize.

Paul Safranek, played by Matt Damon, is intrigued by the process.   His wife Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig, is less enthusiastic but willing to go along with it because she is unhappy with their cash-strapped middle class existence.  Unable to overcome her doubts, she backs out at the last minute.  After the divorce Paul is left without the means to afford the rich lifestyle he thought he was signing up for.  He has to get a job and move into an apartment, selling the palatial house they’d bought.

He does make a few friends, though.  His upstairs neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic, played by Christoph Waltz, is a bit of a huckster, dealing in ethically questionable items.  Despite that Dusan is a good guy who genuinely likes Paul and tries to help him.  Dusan’s cleaning lady is Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chou, a Vietnamese dissident, who was shrunk against her will.  Paul, a trained occupational therapist in the full-sized world, tries to help Ngoc who has an old and badly adjusted prosthetic leg.  While trying to fix it, he breaks it and agrees to help her get her work done until a replacement arrives.

Damon turns in a good performance as a man with middle class sensibilities, who is also a little naïve.  He’s likeable enough even if you want to scream at him for making stupid decisions.  He means well.

Hong Chau’s performance has been criticized for being stereotypical.  Ngoc is bossy and a little prickly and I can see why people would think that the performance is one dimensional.  But I thought she found layers and vulnerabilities in the character.

The best thing and the worst thing about the movie is the thought that went into the concept of shrinking people.  I won’t say that they thought of everything but they thought of enough interesting aspects to make it seem like a realistic extrapolation.  They establish a believable timeline for the development of the technology.  It takes years from the original breakthrough to full implementation.  Little details are included.  People with artificial hips aren’t eligible because the process only shrinks living matter.  The entire body must me shaved and any fillings removed.  The effects were good and a lot of the visuals did a good job of portraying the odd world of the downsized.

All that information, while cool, also bogs down the plot after a while.  I could have done with less of it.  There’s no reason that this film needed to go longer than two hours.

So in the end I think you can probably wait for the DVD to see this one.

 


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