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Film Review: The Florida Project

April 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Florida Project (2017; Directed by Sean Baker)

A joyously tragic child’s-eye view of the precarity of American poverty, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project dances with giddy sadness back and forth across the line between peculiar indie movie and contemporary film classic. Following playful, innocent children, their thinly-stretched underemployed mothers, and a harried but fundamentally decent manager subsisting together on a rainbow-hued motel and retail strip on the poor margins of Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Baker’s emotionally-expansive film is fundamentally about the broken promises of the American pursuit of happiness, a happiness made expensively manifest in the constructed simulacra of arrested childhood known as the Magic Kingdom. But The Florida Project is fantastically and sincerely attuned to a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of the exciting playground of the world at the same time as it notes and quietly laments the shabby dishonesty with which the purportedly more serious and mature adult world fails to deliver on those promises of happiness.

Central to Baker’s generous vision is Moonee (the remarkable, naturalistically mercurial Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her tattooed, hair-dyed, rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a pink-painted pay-by-the-week motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida. Free all day due to summer break from school, Moonee goes on wild excursions of play on the strip and its abandoned environs with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and later their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). It’s mostly joyful and innocent fun but sometimes tips over the edge into real trouble (Jancey is befriended when the other two are caught spitting on her guardian’s car and enlist her cooperation in cleaning it) and even danger, but it’s shot by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe as a kaleidoscopic and glorious adventure (they pass a gift shop whose front facade is a huge bearded wizard, for example), and always from the perspective of the children themselves. The Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, in a video essay arguing for the film’s importance in light of its Academy Award snubbing for a Best Picture nomination, likens its kid-level viewpoint (which often persists in low angles even when the kids are not onscreen) to the old Little Rascals short films.

But Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, introduces the dire consequences of poverty into this innocent wonderland with a faucet-drip of seriouness. Halley brings Moonee along with her as she discusses her recent dismissal from an exotic dancing job and hawks wholesale perfume at knockdown prices to tourists in a tonier resort’s parking lot. Moonee collects bread and other nourishment from a local church’s travelling food bank, and she and Scooty make daily stops at the back door of the diner at which the latter’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works to receive free servings of waffles. As these workarounds evaporate (Halley is chased from the resort by security, Ashley cuts out Halley and forbids contact between Moonee and Scooty after the kids set a fire in an abandoned housing lot), Halley turns to prostitution to make ends meet, thus threatening her custody of her daughter.

Baker (also serving as his own editor) depicts Halley’s downward descent without judgement or dramatic acknowledgement of how momentous it is in her life or in Moonee’s; it just happens, like life itself. The little girl is simply shown in a series of shots spending more and more time playing alone in the bath, until a strange, unseen man bursts into the bathroom and is shocked that a child is present (the camera never leaves Prince’s face, as she is alarmed and surprised). This sense of fairness and understanding towards poverty and its effects pervades The Florida Project, almost as a rebuke to a society (and to a public and entertainment discourse) that painfully does not share such a sense, and engages in broad, condescending caricatures and moral opprobrium of the poor on the occasions when it pretends to. This marginal, precarious America is not merely ignored and disavowed by the more respectable and comfortable classes, it is actively shamed and punished for its own marginalization by public discourse and political policymaking. The poor are even blamed for the foolish sins of the better-off: it is this disadvantaged class that was fingered for making Donald Trump president, while the comfortable, prejudiced white middle class of the suburbs and exurbs really turned out to put him in the White House.

Baker does not romanticize poverty, either. The Florida Project operates on a moment-by-moment realism, pregnant with weight and consequence and the ever-present possibility of collapse. It does not elide the truth that Halley’s problems are greatly exacerbated by her own decisions and personality, and are not simply pre-determined by political, social, and economic superstructures beyond her control or understanding. This is made awkwardly clear when she shows up at Ashley’s diner after the opening of the rift between them and torments her ex-friend as a belligerent customer, treatment which Ashley endures with an on-the-edge customer-service-professional stoicness that the more brazen Halley cannot so much as fake for a minute. Maintaining a paycheque and supporting her son is more important to Ashley than defending her own dignity in the face of abuse, while Halley will stand up for herself, right or (more likely) wrong, regardless of the cost. The scene demonstrates the difference between these two woman as well as part of the reason why the system will sooner catch up to Halley, but it’s also a dramatization of the agonizing, debasing choices necessary to survival at the bottom of the pyramid of late capitalism.

The miracle of The Florida Project is that it imparts the crushing devastation of this situation of poverty without ever sacrificing beauty and joy at the altar of realism. Zabe’s camera finds aesthetic poetry and leaping gorgeousness in this depressed strip of Florida, bursts of the visual sublime contrasting with hints of socioeconomic hopelessness like a magic-realist work that nonetheless never skimps on the reality. It finds determined goodness as well, in the quasi-reluctant efforts of the Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to offer Halley and his other tenants some measure of protection from the harsh world that seeks to make them account for their unforgivable lack of wealth: he chases away a likely pedophile as well as a disgruntled john of Halley’s, and looks the other way on any number of violations of rules, policies, and laws by longer-term hotel guests despite the insistence on enforcement expressed by the stingy motel owner (Karren Karagulian).

The magic realism becomes quite nearly explicit in The Florida Project‘s final scene, as Moonee and Jancey flee the agents of the state Department of Children and Families about to remove the former from Halley’s care all the way into Disney World itself. It’s a fulfillment of the desire for escape into a realm of wondrous, untouched innocence that they approximate with creative imagination (ie. when the girls “go on safari” earlier in the film, they look at a herd of cows) because the more elaborate capitalized simulacra is not affordable to them: although there’s no way that two children without a cent in their pockets could make it through the theme park gates with its USD$200-ish admission fees, we do not quibble for the sake of the metaphor.

The brief closing moment was clandestinely filmed on an iPhone without the resort’s knowledge or permission, much like the notorious indie psychological horror flick Escape from Tomorrow was. Like that unquestionably lesser film, The Florida Project conceives of the hermetic Disneyfied commodification of childhood happiness as a particularly American process, and one revealing of the damaged core of fractured promise at the heart of the nation. But where the clumsier Escape from Tomorrow, with its moody film-noir black-and-white cinematography and disturbing but half-baked surrealist weirdness, reflected personal and collective psychic wounds, The Florida Project emerges from its pastel-emblazoned vision of a forgotten America with its hope and goodness intact. There can be a tendency for art that interrogates the essential hypocrisy of corporate capitalism’s mantra of individual happiness to cede too much ground to the exploiters of joy, but Sean Baker hearteningly avoids surrendering that sunny glow to those who would bottle it, water it down, and sell it for profit. They do not own innocent happiness, The Florida Project says emphatically; children like Moonee do. How magnificent that possession is, and how terribly sad it is that we’ve collectively built a world that is too quick and eager to take it away.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

April 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Beauty and the Beast (2017; Directed by Bill Condon)

I feel like it’s safe now to admit to a certain childhood fondness for Beauty and the Beast, one of the critical and commercial pinnacles of the 1990s Disney Renaissance and the first animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (and the only one prior to the post-2009 expansion of the annual list of nominees to more than five films). The 1991 film now seems a naively romantic film with broadly old-fashioned (and even a little troubling) gender roles, and the technical and creative leaps in animation over the past quarter-century have largely left it in the dust. But in its time, it was a grand and sweeping entertainment, with imagination and vision, resonant if simple symbolism, and a fine musical score, for those to whom the showtune style appeals (you might have guessed that I am no Broadway showstopper devotee, but the Oscar-winning title song provided me with an enduring mnemonic device for recalling the direction of the sunrise, so it must be worth something). It even provided one of the signature shots in the movies, and an early harbinger of the computer animation that would soon render the film’s sumptuously old-fashioned drawn style obsolete: that famous CG-assisted dolly shot of Belle and the Beast dancing in the ballroom, a moment of pure, unalloyed wonder.

In a pop culture age of heavily-leveraged, almost weaponized nostalgia, and in the wake of the crushingly successful (if only average) “live action” remake of The Jungle Book, Disney’s decision to remake its Renaissance era colossus should not have been surprising. But the big issue here is that it isn’t surprising: indeed, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is practically a beat-for-beat retread of the 1991 movie, extrapolating a bit in backstory, design, and supporting characters (along with some deeply forgettable new songs) but otherwise quite nearly replicating the beloved original. Remakes, even slavishly faithful ones, need not be short on inspiration or even originality, but despite its massive success, this Beauty and the Beast comes across as a pale imitation of its now-classic model, and as a superficial and inconsistent movie to boot.

For those unfamiliar with the story (which, again, is almost exactly the same as that of the movie it’s remaking, itself based on a mid-1700s fairy tale mostly read in abridged versions), a plot synopsis would not go amiss. In a fairy-tale version of ancien régime France, a vain, haughty prince is cursed by an enchantress to whom he callously refuses hospitality. Transformed into a hirsute, horned, bipedal creature, the prince is confined to his fantastical château along with his many servants, who are likewise transformed, with a touch both sinister and whimsical, into moving, talking household objects of varying levels of anthropomorphization. If the curse is not lifted in time, the beast and his servants will be trapped in their bewitched forms forever, their core spark of humanity lost. Represented with a basic poetic elegance by a red rose under a glass case slowly losing its enchanted petals, the curse can only be lifted by mutual love between the Beast and another.

So much for the Beast (played through CG motion-capture by Dan Stevens); enter the Beauty. Belle (Emma Watson) is a lovely, bookish young woman who lives in a  provincial French village with her artist and tinker father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who fled to the country after an initially unspecified calamity took his wife and Belle’s mother. Both are thought eccentric outcasts by the conservative-minded villagers, although they are hardly odder than any other sensitive, inventive creatives. Belle does have one fervent, troublingly-determined admirer, however: Gaston (Luke Evans), a hunter and former soldier with an absurdly puffed-up ego who steadfastly refuses to take Belle’s persistent and increasingly direct refusals to his marriage proposals as anything resembling a “no”.

Belle and the Beast are drawn together when Maurice becomes lost in an enchanted wintry forest and wanders into the Beast’s castle, where he is taken prisoner. Belle searches him out and selflessly takes his place as the Beast’s captive, which sets into motion the inevitable, predictable clockwork of the Hollywood romance plot: he is rude and dismissive of her, she resents and dislikes him, but they draw gradually together, bonding over his magnificently large library and a tentative, sweet attachment to the finer things. The fussy, comedic efforts of the servants to push them into each other’s arms don’t hurt either. When the mean-spirited Gaston and the parochial townsfolk learn of the Beast’s existence, however, their budding love will face a dire mortal threat.

Beauty in the Beast, in both its animated and CG-enhanced live-action form, owes much to influences beyond its specific French literary source. The Beast is characterized as a full-on brooding Byronic hero requiring an education of experience to render him an acceptable match for the Beauty (Stevens leans capably into this obvious-enough character arc), the softening of his brusque animal nature presaging his climactic return to handsome-prince status (if this is a spoiler to you, you must be new to this “narrative” thing). The romance between him and Belle owes as much to Jane Austen plots (and thus to the modern Hollywood romantic comedies so superficially influenced by them) as to fairy-tale conventions, turning on small domestic mannerisms and interpersonal interactions as much as on grand heroic gestures (he saves her from a vicious pack of wolves, suffering painful injuries in the process). In terms of visual design, the Beast’s castle is leaping fantasy-Gothic on the outside and pure fanciful Rococo on the inside, with Art Nouveau touches in its rambling, darkened neo-classical garden grounds, while the village (cheekily named Villeneuve after the female French novelist who originally set down the tale) is altogether more medieval in character, to emphasize its comparative backwardness. There are some largely-unacknowledged politics of class simmering in these thematic contrasts, not to mention in the literally-objectified servants remaining loyal to their self-involved aristocratic master, but Beauty and the Beast pays them no heed.

Beauty and the Beast doesn’t dispense with the problematic captor-captive aspect of its leads’ romantic attachment. But given its casting of the famously socially-conscious feminist Watson (who “studied” the contours of Stockholm Syndrome abusive situations and concluded that Belle’s did not qualify before accepting the role), the film does at least attempt to enhance Belle’s intelligence, independence, and agency, qualities that the 1991 animated version made a big show of in her introduction in a bustling village-life musical number bearing her name but failed to seriously follow through on, consigning her to damsel status in the eventual testosteronic standoff between the hulking Beast and the villainous Gaston. Watson (by all accounts a genuinely remarkable person, but unfortunately not yet a thespian of any particular distinction) gives Belle a radiant, acute dignity but can only do so much about what the still-traditional contours of the story require of her .

In Gaston, the 1991 film achieved a subtly subversive reversal that this 2017 remake retains: the handsome, dashing man of action might have been the heroine’s object of affection in a more traditional fairy tale, but Disney pushed those heroic qualities into preening, egotistical ridiculousness and an aggressive, cruel disregard for others. Furthermore, Gaston is so used to being admired and fluffed by his crowd of hangers-on (the primary example being his mooning right-hand man LeFou, played here by Josh Gad, whose role ginned up no small amount of controversy upon the film’s release for being either too gay or not gay enough) that Belle’s rejection of him in favour of a reclusive beast-man smashes his inflated-yet-brittle veneer of masculine self-confidence, revealing the violent sociopath lurking underneath. The casting of Evans should have proven a masterstroke for this character, but the final result is hardly as thunderously successful as it ought to have been. The comedic focus of Gaston in the first two acts (which Evans handles with grinning aplomb) doesn’t pivot believably to mob-leading, pistol-clutching villainy in the last act.

For a two-plus-hour feature, Beauty and the Beast often feels rushed, pushing through key plot and character junctures to furiously unspool household-servant whimsy and spectacular musical sequences. The latter are better when replicating, with occasional embellishments, the original numbers (the new songs, as mentioned, are all rather bad): “Belle” and “Gaston” are lusty, rural-folk-inflected romps; “Be Our Guest”, headlined by Ewan McGregor (who simply has not been allowed to sing enough since Moulin Rouge) as the flamboyant candelabra/butler Lumière, takes the original scene’s elaborate Busby Berkeley rotating visual geometric arrangements into the CGI age with a dizzying (if drained and abstracted) affect (it’s not certain that it quite overcomes its now-equally-legendary Simpsons parody, however). Only the title song suffers particularly in comparison: Emma Thompson as the maternal teapot/housekeeper Mrs. Potts cannot hope to match the grandmotherly warmth of Angela Lansbury’s vocal performance, and the visual accompaniment – Belle and the Beast dance in a ballroom veritably choked with chandeliers, whose candles transition into sparkling coloured pinlights on a night sky background at the high moment – cannot hope to approach the suddenly-soaring technical/artistic virtuosity of that glorious crane dolly shot in the original.

But it’s the former element – the castle servants in their household item form – that proves the trickiest element for director Bill Condon to get right. There’s a previously-unconceived-of uncanny valley problem in rendering such inherently cartoonish characters in the more photorealistic CG style, and it’s never solved. The object/servants just look and feel off, all of the time. The concerted work of the CG artists manages to evade the dark promise of early promotional images, which suggested that the visualization of the clock/steward Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) at least might be trespassing into the territory of the nightmarishly grotesque. But neither their appearance nor role in the film ever quite coalesces, even in the goofy climactic battle between them and the castle-invading village mob. When the actual actors behind the technology appear in the coda, it’s a palpable reminder of the presence that is missing. The brief shots of Stanley Tucci as a kooky-coiffed music maestro, who spends the film trapped in a harpsichord and whose opera-diva wife, played by Audra McDonald, has been turned into a wardrobe, are the most tantalizing: even in these throwaway glimpses, the ever-underrated Tucci is floridly wild-eyed and totally switched-on.

If only this Beauty and the Beast, so handsomely staged, nicely cast, and opulently expensive-looking, could flip that same switch. Audiences responded enthusiastically to its re-envisioning of the beloved animated original, and Disney now has similar live-action/CG remakes of Renaissance-era favourites The Lion King, Aladdin, and Mulan in the works as a result. But outside of the commercial impetus (which is always already there with Hollywood blockbusters, and therefore hardly bears examination or holding up as a hammer of criticism), what’s the point of this retread? Creatively and artistically, despite the talent and effort and technical alchemy poured into it, there isn’t much. The 2017 film does next to nothing that the 1991 film did not do, and some of those things are not done as well here. In this tale as old as time, the hold of tradition and textual expectation is just too strong, and any nascent sense of magic suffers as a result.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Mudbound

April 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Mudbound (2017; Directed by Dee Rees)

The opening scene of Mudbound features two white brothers digging a grave in the sodden earth of their farmyard in 1940s Mississippi. It is revealed that the hole is for their father when elder brother Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) unearths human remains and realizes that a slave’s grave is located on the spot. There’s nothing that the bigoted old man (played in life by the current master of deep-grained crusty menace, Jonathan Banks) would have despised more than being buried alongside a black person, but with a saturating rain coming on, younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) notes that they have little choice but to finish the trench, and thus lay their racist pater eternally beneath the ground with the people he considers his inveterate inferiors. As the deluge begins, Jamie is consumed with anxious fear that Henry will leave him in the grave, stranding him fatally in this drowned, unwelcome delving into the painful past.

This sequence foreshadows events and themes of Dee Rees’ shaded and powerful adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, but it also sets down Mudbound‘s significant method of weaving its characters’ dominant qualities and psychological cores into the larger social forces of racial and gender hierarchy in the segregation-era American South. Given its early-’40s setting, the film also productively introduces the perspective-widening exposure of American GIs to World War II-era Europe’s differing (though hardly non-discriminatory) cultural norms as well as to the mentally-disfiguring horrors of combat carnage. These unfamiliar elements, when gradually introduced into the hardened psycho-sexual gauntlet that was the rigid order of the Deep South, have brutal and tragic consequences for the men and women of different races brought tentatively together in the crucible of a hard country life.

After Henry McAllan asks for the aid of his African-American tenant farmer and amateur preacher Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family in burying the deceased old man, Mudbound flashes back a few years to before America’s entry into the war. Henry meets and proposes to his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who finds the dashing, handsome, liberal-arts-educated Jamie a bit more attractive but is glad to be plucked from nascent spinsterdom by his duller, seemingly more dependable brother. The initial happiness of their growing family in Memphis is cut off when Henry makes a unilateral decision to move them back to small-town Mississippi to start a farm and care for his aging father. Henry is constantly thinking he has told Laura of his often-poor decisions and middling ambitions before he acts upon them, which he never has, perhaps because he does not value her opinion or consider it worth his consideration, perhaps because, despite his bluff matter-of-fact entitled manner, he does not value his own judgement. He also seems always to be away when crises descend and he is needed most by his family. As an upholder of a tradition ideal of Southern masculinity, Henry is an inept and foolishly diminished embodiment of white patriarchal privilege, and emotionally and morally insufficient to every challenge he faces.

The more sensitive and romantic Jamie goes off to war, traumatized in a flying metal coffin as a bomber pilot but also shaken from his culture’s racial assumptions by the experience of fighting alongside African-Americans. Upon his return, he connects with Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a tank sergeant under Patton who also saw death in mechanized boxes but found love overseas too, with a white German woman with whom he fathered a child. Building a friendship over pulls of a whiskey bottle (alcohol dulls Jamie’s shell-shocked unease) and combat veterans’ reminiscences, their hopes and frustrations forge a common bond that, much like Ronsel’s unwisely open disdain for the South’s racial segregation when compared to the relative openness of Europe, will prove extremely dangerous to both men when it collides with those dedicated to violently upholding these hierarchical norms.

Mudbound can be a little on-the-nose when dealing with the racial violence that sustained an unequal social order in the South (not that lynching was ever especially subtle as a tool of influence on social behaviours). Banks’ villain Pappy McAllan is a sneering old backwoods racist with a posse of Klansmen backing him up, while the film takes pains to note early on that the most sympathetic and least bigoted whites, Jamie and Laura, are also the most educated and well-read (Laura insists on keeping a piano in their rural shack, as a single token of civilization in this near-wilderness). In Laura, the patriarchy is shown to cruelly oppress women in a manner similar to but different than the white supremacist order cruelly oppresses blacks. Literally stuck in the mud of the farm, she is inculcated in the violent dramas of others and in family disasters of her own: whooping cough afflicting her daughters, an agonizing miscarriage.

With Henry increasing emotionally unavailable, Laura can only find (fleeting, forbidden) comfort in the largely-broken Jamie, but more so in Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), who nurses her children back to health and tends to her in her abortive pregnancy. Even this tentative female compact across colour lines, however, is compromised by systemic mechanisms of racism. Florence is hired as domestic help by the McAllans, her paid service to them, like a mule rented almost forcibly by Henry to an injured Hap so that he can complete his harvest on time, constituting a web of pecuniary obligation between white landlords and their black tenants that serves to perpetuate a deep-rooted system of economic subservience undergirding the brutally-enforced social hierarchy.

Mudbound is part and parcel of a recent renaissance of ambitious and eloquent African-American films that are addressing historical and contemporary injustice in bold new ways. Despite its four Oscar nominations (two of them came from Blige, for Supporting Actress and Best Original Song, along with Best Adapted Screenplay for Rees and Virgil Williams and Best Cinematography for DP Rachel Morrison, astonishingly the first woman ever nominated in the category), Mudbound found itself lost a bit among some of these other, more forceful pictures, like Get Out, Black Panther (which Morrison also shot), and even last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. As the grave, handsome, and serious realist historical drama out of this list (one might include Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to these recent annals as alike films of that type), it might be surprising that Mudbound did not leapfrog some of its thematic brothers and sisters, but then genre films are breaking down old prestige-film distinctions more each year (or perhaps more film observers are belatedly recognizing the oft-glorified realist drama as simply another genre among many).

Still, Mudbound is a fine and significant work, intelligently and movingly communicating the injustices of racial discrimination and hierarchical society as enacting upon the lives (and bodies) of sympathetically-drawn and beautifully acted individuals. There is no Best Ensemble Oscar, but Mudbound ‘s uniformly excellent cast snatched up awards and accolades from various critical bodies that do hand out such honours. Watching them work small wonders in Dee Rees’ exquisitely-crafted examination of inequitable social and economic forces working on mid-century Southerners grants Mudbound a particular appeal of its own, regardless of its relative position in any conceived wave of social justice films.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Free Fire

March 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Free Fire (2016; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

After an early-career period of gritty but underseen Britside crime films, bewhiskered English director Ben Wheatley has assumed a decent critically-noticed profile as crafted of tense and graphic bottle-episode movies. This phase began with the black-and-white A Field in England, about 17th-century Civil War soldiers bickering and slaughtering each other in a pasture, and followed it with the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, about a luxe apartment building whose privileged residents descend into chaos.

Given this genre-film niche Wheatley has carved out of depicting strong personalities clashing with verbal heat and violent physicality in confined spaces, Free Fire seems an almost-too-obvious next step. Portraying the sharp banter and deadly gunplay that ensues when a 1970s-vintage arms deal in a Boston-area abandoned factory goes disastrously south, Free Fire is a dead-simple movie in concept and only slightly more complex in execution.

The buyers in this deal are led by IRA-connected Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and supported by bumbling local Irish-American relations Stevo (Sam Riley), an imprudent chatterbox, and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), a good-natured simpleton. They are buying semi-automatic arms for the Republican cause from a smarmy South African dandy named Vernon (Sharlto Copley, because who else could match that description?) and his ex-Black Panther partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). The go-betweens are smooth criminal-world operator Ord (Armie Hammer) and the inscrutable Justine (Brie Larson). Initial personal friction (the boastful Vernon is a bit much to take, even for his partners) worsens when the wrong merchandise is proffered, and then a slow-burning fuse is lit and eventually explodes when Stevo and Vernon’s henchman Harry (Jack Reynor) turn out to have had a violent altercation over the former’s abuse of the latter’s cousin in a neighbourhood bar the night before.

Triggers begin to be pulled and bullets begin to fly, and bare survival for all involved becomes the modus operandi, with the added bonus of a suitcase full of cash to any who manage to endure the fusillade. Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump come up with a series of exchanges and scenarios to keep the most-of-the-movie-length shootout fresh and engaging (ie. Martin brings along a couple of snipers as secret back-up, one of which Ord recognizes; a phone starts ringing in the building, with the promise of calling for aid, etc.). That said, exciting as it generally remains, Free Fire never wins back the enervated momentum it whips up at the commencement of the shooutout, especially as the participants are hobbled by an increasing number of wounds and are reduced to crawling along the dirty floors and attempting to dispatch their similarly-crippled foes.

This sort of potboiler is hardly prime material for political applicability (and outside of some Troubles-related insults being thrown around, Free Fire offers none) or for fine performances, but some of the actors manage some decent-to-strong work, with Hammer especially all movie-star confidence and swagger as the cool, collected, witty Ord. There’s also two memorably transgressive applications of John Denver’s “Annie Song”, both as left-field footsteps-of-doom anticipation of calamity and as post-calamity ironic summation. It’s an enjoyable trifle that is soon forgotten, however, and Wheatley seemed to be moving in quite an opposite direction as a filmmaker with his recent work. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of violent, clever fun like Free Fire, but for a director beginning to indicate that he is capable of a great deal more, it feels like a bit of a step back.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: A Cure for Wellness

March 22, 2018 Leave a comment

A Cure for Wellness (2016; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

What a tantalizing clutch of opportunities A Cure for Wellness decides to waste. This is a one-sentence summary verdict that could be applied to almost every movie Gore Verbinski has directed since he burst to prominence with the first (and still best) Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl (that “almost” qualifier is set aside for the consistently brilliant and subversive animated western Rango). What’s notable about A Cure for Wellness is how Verbinski – working from a story he co-wrote with Justin Haythe, who alone is credited for the screenplay – manages to squander his creation’s potential in entirely novel ways. After spending an act or two building up a creepy, unsettling gothic-horror atmosphere with intelligent care (he did direct The Ring, after all) and seeding a fast-flowering hybridized critique of capitalism and health and wellness culture, Verbinski closes his film with a lurid “twist” of rape-incest sensationalism and an operatic inferno-lit climactic battle between his protagonist and his hideous-visaged villain like something out of a second-rate Frankenstein flick.

What leads to that deflating compromise of a climax, though, is generally absorbing, often crisply and beautifully shot, and sometimes even inspired. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a rising young sales exec at a massive Wall Street finance firm whose board has eyes for a power-move merger/expansion but requires its missing CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), to both sign off on the deal and take the legal fall for certain accounting irregularities which Lockhart himself had a hand in. To stave off jail for himself, Lockhart is compelled to retrieve Pembroke from a remote mountaintop castle spa and “wellness center” high in the Swiss Alps (specifically inspired by the setting and thematic milieu of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a reference point that is typical of Verbinski’s highbrow artistic and intellectual influences).

Stymied in his haste to fetch Pembroke back to New York by the bureaucratic diffidence of the spa’s staff and then laid up in a patient room after breaking his leg in a spectacularly visceral car crash, Lockhart begins to learn more about the operation and its dark history. A medieval baronial castle, the whole structure was burned down two centuries prior by locals angered by the Baron, a pure-blood fanatic who renounced God, sought to marry his own sister (who was killed in the fire), and may have been performing gruesome experiments on the peasants for his own nefarious ends. One of the almost-uniformly elderly patients is an amateur historian (Celia Imrie) who suggests to Lockhart that these past horrors have a connection to the superficially-pleasant curative-waters institution run in the castle by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Lockhart meets and befriends the only other young patient, a budding teenage girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who is called a “special case” by her guardian Volmer, but he also begins to experience strange and disturbing visions of eels swarming in the aquifer waters, and encounters ever more nightmarish things as he ventures ever deeper into Volmer’s health centre.

I’m usually loath to specifically spoil any such thriller’s big plot twist, although A Cure for Wellness seems particularly keen to spoil itself by utterly telegraph its hardly-shocking turn. Verbinski leaves a trail of breadcrumb clues the size of wholes bread-loaves, and embeds persistent Freudian oedipal symbols and suggestions throughout his movie. Lockhart’s high-powered trader father committed suicide in front of him, while his mother crafts fragile feminine music-box ballerina figures in her retirement home, waiting to die; she does so, apparently simultaneously with Lockhart’s car crash (caused by a galloping stag, masculine-coded iconography which recurs in Volmer’s office and around the castle premises), and he dispassionately attends her cremation, although he is evidently unconscious for days after the crash (perhaps this is a flashback, but the editing is a bit vague on this point).

Elsewhere, in Hannah’s first two scenes with Lockhart, she is shot consistently mirrored in reflective pools, anticipating her mirroring relations to the Baroness’ horrible historical fate. A similar, even trippier doubled image immediately follows the title card, as Lockhart’s bridge-traversing train and its dualized reflection snap to unity as it careens into the black maw of a mountain tunnel (a callback to Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious sexual innuendo image at the close of North by Northwest, with similar penetrative implications in mind, doubtlessly). Most suggestive of all is a sequence of Lockhart’s post-crash hydration therapy at the spa, which sees him submerged in a metal tank as if a fetus in a womb, sperm-like eels swarming around him while his distracted minder self-pleasures to the sight of a nurse’s bare chest (in a later horror-movie moment, these sperm-eels gain ingress to Lockhart’s body via a tube thrust into his mouth, a disturbing quasi-fertilization).

One supposes, indeed one can be very nearly certain, that all of this Freudian imagery and psychological disquiet is intricately linked to Verbinski’s conception of ambitious capitalist striving as a virulent sickness that must be therapeutically purged. This is purportedly the purpose of Volmer’s alpine retreat and its hydrological treatments, to “cure” wealthy aged global plutocrats of the constricting stress and anxiety of grinding overwork that goes hand-in-hand with vaulting success in neoliberal capitalism (and that, in the film’s otherwise-uncontextualized opening scene, claims the life of the analyst whom Lockhart replaces at Pembroke’s firm, and whom the latter expected to be sent to retrieve him).

But the truth of Volmer’s centre is that it is the nexus of a final, self-serving system of corporeal consumption, literally processing patients into an elixir of life that fuels a multi-generational continuity of arcane incestual perversion. The ceaseless, frantic locomotion of the new world is thus chemically transmuted into the vital sustaining nutrients for the twisted, atrophying fantasies of the old world. The machine that carries out this process is, of course, a faded old-world relic, the alpine spa retreat where the unwell “take the waters”; an American member of the board of Lockhart’s employer scoffs at the continued existence of such facilities as inherently vestigial in its old-fashioned-ness. Volmer claims to “cure” the damaging assumptions of the hegemonic socioeconomic order at his time-capsule enclave, but he only leeches off of it to feed an undead evil that sleeps in its chest cavity and beats on like a tired old heart, pumping poisoned blood out to its twitching, reliant extremities.

A Cure for Wellness, sadly, never really rounds out this potentially deep and broad critique of capitalist elites and wellness culture (the latter is used very much as a mechanism for probing the former). In much the same way that the comprehensive critique of the colonialism of the Old West in The Lone Ranger (the huge-budget failure of which sent Verbinski scurrying off to Europe for backers of this production, which also flopped badly) became swallowed, partly digested, and ultimately neutralized by the Hollywood action-blockbuster monster and the historical assumptions of the Western genre, A Cure for Wellness loses its intellectual criticisms in grotesque horror-movie shocks (what function, really, is the dental-torture Marathon Man homage serving, for example?) and the generic trappings of the gothic thriller. It also drags on too long, and its frothy ending is particularly bad, a definite deflation that undoes nearly all of the exquisite arrangement of symbols and ideas that precedes it. I stated at the outset that Gore Verbinski manages to squander the potential of A Cure for Wellness in fresh ways, but perhaps its failure is unfortunately archetypal of the director’s work, of the particular manner in which his vision and ambition lead to a certain unwellness when manifested in genre-movie form.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Barton Fink

February 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Barton Fink (1991; Directed by Joel Coen)

Like their later (greater) film Inside Llewin Davis, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink is a cinematic limerick about the failure of art, its dialogic rhyming and thematic repetitions containing dark ironies and unsettling truths. In 1941, the titular playwright-turned-frustrated-screenwriter, played by an intermittently dazed and frantic John Turturro and based on Depression-era Jewish-American dramatist Clifford Odets, pens an acclaimed New York City stage triumph of mid-century proletarian realism entitled Bare Ruined Choirs (it’s about fishmongers). Fink hopes fervently (but more than a little pompously) to express the struggle of the common man through his writing, but the high-art and upper-crust critical attention swirling around his play draws the attention of a Hollywood studio, which offers him a handsome salary to come to California and write for the movies.

Tasked to write the screenplay for a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery by the brash, eccentric, but maddeningly vague big talkers at Capitol Pictures (Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub, and Coens favourite Jon Polito), Fink holes up in the ramshackle Hotel Earle (’90s Coens regular Steve Buscemi has a small role as the oddball bellman, Chet – or, more accurately, Chet!), hoping its run-down environs will inspire his latest paean to the struggles of the common people (the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, working on his first of 12 Coens films, shoots the empty film-noir-ish lobby and its vanishing-point repetitious hallway to maximally emphasize Fink’s lonely solitude). Unfortunately, he becomes mired in persistent writer’s block, made all the worse by his lack of knowledge of wrestling (a trip to a studio screening room to familiarize himself with the B-movie genre is likewise unsuccessful, as he stares with anxious bafflement at endless, absurdist dailies of large sweaty men slamming each other into the mat).

Unable to progress beyond self-plagiarizing establishing images of Lower East Side tenements and fishmongers, Fink is bedevilled by a buzzing mosquito and cheap wallpaper peeling from the walls in the heat. Even a fortuitous encounter with the great Southern novelist W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, performing an eloquently prickly but tragically sad William Faulkner homage), also in Hollywood to write films, does little to get Fink’s artistic juices flowing. With Mayhew perpetually sunk in belligerent inebriation, Fink develops a romantic interest in the novelist’s “secretary” (actually his lover, caretaker, and secret ghostwriter) Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) instead.

Barton Fink’s more important relationship, however, is the casual but warm friendship he strikes up with his neighbour at the hotel, a talkative travelling insurance salesman named Charlies Meadows (John Goodman). They meet after Fink complains to Chet that Meadows is making too much noise next door, but the initial hint of hostility (which Fink would have proven wise to heed) dissolves into joviality and friendly drinks. Meadows’ acquaintance is ever poised tantalizingly close to lighting a fire under Fink’s guttering script. Indeed, it seems purpose-built to do so: Fink tells the salesman that he sees him as the embodiment of the noble, hard-working common man that stands at the centre of his aesthetic paradigm. But the Coens, typically, frustrates this expectation and thus traverse into the realm of dramatic irony. Fink blusters past Meadows’ offer of rich stories of everyday experience and even his potentially useful expertise as a former highschool wrestler (although Meadows obligingly pins Fink on the hotel room floor to demonstrate his acumen). He’s more interested in laying out the pretentious terms of his lofty mission to record working-class experience than listening and learning from a living embodiment of that experience.

Fink’s connection to Charlie Meadows proves to be of great utility when he becomes enmeshed in a messy murder scene, at least until that connection turns out to be the cause of the murder in the first place. The trauma of the experience jump-starts Fink’s script work, but it also culminates in a hellish, violent climax amidst the burning hotel. That it all proves for naught when the finished screenplay is rejected by the studio, who keep Fink trapped in his contract and unable to pursue any other writing work as a punishment for his failure, is a stinging closing irony entirely typical of the Coens.

Also entirely typical of the Coens is Barton Fink‘s moral and existential universe. Fink, to an extent, is punished for the arrogance of his artistic ideals, suffering through a literal crucible of fire at the hands of the unpredictable Meadows precisely because he brushed off the insight into real lived experience offered to him. Indeed, Fink’s path through the final act of the film takes on the metaphysical dimensions redolent of Dante’s Divine Comedy: emerging from the flames of the Earle, Fink is incarcerated in the purgatory of fruitless contractual servitude to Hollywood, but ends in the tempered paradise of a beach on the ocean with a beautiful woman (an image that hung above his writing desk in the decrepit hotel, offering him some tantalizing vision of bliss and escape, to say nothing of incipient sexual aspiration).

But the Coens’ moral spectrum is never so neat and just, even in twisted inversion. What Barton Fink – wide-eyed, puzzled, deluded observer of a mad world – encounters is not hard cosmic fairness but the life-shattering hammerstrokes of a dangerous and random universe, the absurd devastation of unfeeling coincidence. In his writing, he envisions a shining ideal of artistic balancing, the grinding despair of the forgotten proles (be they fishmongers or wrestlers) redeemed and elevated by the golden touch of the muses. This ambition of Fink’s is not only an ideal but a projection, too: producing great art, he can only hope, will also redeem the mundanity and lonesomeness of his own life. In Barton Fink, the quest for such redemption is not only frustrated but smashed to bits: by clashing literature (Mayhew’s novels, which if anything like his model Faulkner’s are likely Southern Gothic tragedies of a past of horrors twisted by the passage of time into horrid perversions), by the formulaic corporatized story factories of Hollywood, and ultimately most strenuously by the destructive, predatory chaos represented by Charlie Meadows (a.k.a. Karl “Madman” Mundt). In Barton Fink, art not only fails, it is foolish to even try to envision a world of truth.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Black Panther

February 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Black Panther (2018; Directed by Ryan Coogler)

In much the same way that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman overcame its in-built generic conventional weaknesses by summoning a highly of-the-moment thematic thrust of feminine agency and muscular empathy, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther surmounts the in-born challenges facing a Marvel Cinematic Universe action-adventure blockbuster to become an absolutely vital representational and artistic assertion of pan-African pride and black power (to summon a term that gives online white conservatives, who were suspiciously eager to pre-empt the film’s nascent impact, the nervous shakes). The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s also an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America.

This first Black Panther solo film follows the character’s MCU introduction in Captain America: Civil War, in which the young Wakandan prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in a performance of laudable possession and nuanced interiority) was drawn into the larger conflict in and around the fracturing Avengers after the murder of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), by a terrorist bomb at the UN in Vienna. Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War‘s events, as T’Challa returns to his home nation to assume the throne and the attendant role of Wakanda’s titular black-clad superheroic protector. After retrieving his former (and future?) flame and Wakandan secret agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from an undercover mission in Nigeria, the prodigal T’Challa is greeted by his grieving mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett, regal and spectacular but given little of consequence to do) and his sister Shuri (the luminous, scene-stealing Letitia Wright), a brilliant scientist at the forefront of Wakanda’s highly-advanced technology.

Wakanda is a magnificently-realized vision of Afrofuturism, a fantastical critique of the effects of colonialism on African social development, and a utopian extrapolation of the richness of pan-African culture. Struck by a meteor long ago containing a huge supply of vibranium, an alien metal alloy that is the strongest substance on Earth (Captain America’s iconic shield is made out of it, as of course is the Black Panther suit), Wakanda emerged united following a period of inter-tribal warfare under the leadership of the first King and Black Panther, who gains superhuman physical abilities through the ingestion of the glowing purple heart-shaped herb. Choosing to remain hidden and isolated in the centre of Africa under a Third-World disguise, Wakanda developed a complex political, social and cultural profile outside of the malign influence of European colonialism that warped the rest of the continent. Developing the most advanced technology on the planet with the use of its vibranium, Wakanda becomes a fantasy fulfillment of African potential, like a Congo that safeguarded its lucrative resources (rubber and coltan, most notably) and utilized them for its own development and advancement, rather than being strip-mined for resource-exploitation purposes by Western state powers and capitalist conglomerates (to say nothing of the related genocidal deprivations, let alone centuries of the destructive slave trade on the continent).

The unique utopian vision of Wakanda’s capital city – spindly skyscrapers with thatched-hut verandahs, richly-patterned neo-modern adobe-type houses, bustling market streets, and the twin towers of the royal palace, with its baked-mud-coloured skin studded with toron-like protrusions in imitation of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali – greets T’Challa as he returns (Hannah Beachler is the talented production designer), as does the cultural ritual that defines Wakandan royal succession. On a precipitous waterfall pool (inspired by the spectacular Victoria Falls) before the eyes and rhythmic chants of Wakanda’s monochromatically-dressed tribal leaders (if costume designer Ruth E. Carter doesn’t get an Oscar for her work here, the award has no meaning), T’Challa is stripped of his Black Panther powers and faces challenges to his presumed kingship. After triumphing over M’Baku (Winston Duke, hugely charismatic in a minor role), the head of the semi-exiled mountain tribe the Jabari, T’Challa becomes King and must begin grappling with Wakanda’s role in a changing world.

Initially, that grappling takes the form of some James Bond spy-movie sequences, first as T’Challa receives new gadgets from his Q-esque sister Shuri, then as he is joined by Nakia and Okoye (the wonderful Danai Gurira), the mega-badass general of the elite royal-guard the Dora Milaje and prolific bogarter of the film’s most kickass action beats, in a secret gambling club in South Korea to bust up a clandestine deal for a stolen vibranium artifact. The thief and seller is the despised miner, smuggler, and arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who stole a vibranium shipment at the Wakandan border years before and earned the emnity of Border Tribe leader W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), while the buyer is American CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who is injured in the struggles with Klaue and his cronies and becomes an unlikely ally of T’Challa and those around him when he is brought back to Wakanda to be healed (it’s a testament to the film that its only significant white roles, both seeded in past MCU releases, are played by actors as fine as Serkis and Freeman, who get to resurrect their too-brief chemistry from the first Hobbit movie in this stretch of the movie).

A lesser film would have kept the more traditionally-nasty white criminal Klaue (played with gleeful abandon by Serkis and given subtle notes of African-American cultural appropriation by screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) as its prime antagonist, but Black Panther has something more ambitious and difficult in mind as regards its villain. Klaue turns out to be little more than a mechanism for T’Challa’s true foil to get to him and to Wakanda. This is Erik Stevens, a.k.a. Killmonger (the impressive Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s Rocky franchise redeemer, Creed), displaced and forgotten son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who had the boy when he was undercover in Oakland, California, before betraying his country, king, and brother, who then killed him for the treason. Left rootless and angry like so many young African-American males, Killmonger gained the skills of a killer and infiltrator with U.S. military black ops, and seeks to reclaim his birthright and wrest Wakanda from its new king before turning the hidden nation’s weaponry against those who oppressed black people for centuries.

T’Challa must wrestle not only with the threat to his power and to Wakanda’s traditions that Killmonger represents, but also with the disillusionment and doubt that comes with the revelation of his beknighted father’s fratricide. T’Chaka fails to live up to the high ideals that he inculcated into his son, but his actions also break apart his own family in the way that the slave trade and colonial genocides did to innumerable African families, with similar generational blowback. More deeply, however, T’Challa and the movie around him wrestles impressively with the agonizing dichotomy represented by the not-completely-opposed views of T’Challa and Killmonger as regards Wakanda’s ideal role in the wider world and in correcting the injustices experienced over centuries by the African diaspora (which isolationist Wakanda has yet to attempt to ameliorate or reverse in any meaningful way).

Radicalized by his experiences in the American ghetto and as a clandestine agent of American empire around the world, Killmonger intends to foment revolution against the established, white-dominated capitalist order around the world, using the American model of military-technological hegemony to build a globe-spanning Wakandan empire that will redress the wrongs done to people of African descent by putting them in charge via forceful overthrow. The oppressed, in this vision, would become the oppressors, an inversion that Killmonger expresses in other terms in his first scene, confronting a British museum curator about the colonialist theft of African artifacts on display before stealing them back (a more comic inversion of this historical dynamic comes later, when Shuri chides Ross with the epithet “colonizer” when he startles her in her lab).

T’Challa, meanwhile, does not wholly disagree with Killmonger’s view of injustice, but balks at his cousin’s schemes of worldwide righteous revolution to solve it and eventually works with his cadre of allies to halt them (this leads to the moment, shockingly incongruous in this thoroughly progressive film when taken out of context, in which we are asked to root for a CIA agent trying to shoot down transports full of weapons destined for use in a global anti-capitalist revolution). The duality of perspective that divides these men is beautifully depicted in heart-shaped-herb-prompted ritual vision quests that they both undertake. T’Challa meets his father and other kingly ancestors in a gorgeous twilight savannah dreamscape with a ravishing violet-tinged sky to grapple with the difficulty of being both a good man and a just ruler, while Erik speaks with his dead father in the living room of their Oakland project, the same violet sky visible outside the window above the concrete-bound ghetto.

Both of these young men have lost their fathers, like too many African-Americans males, but this loss has galvanized them in different ways: T’Challa has allowed his father’s passing (not to mention the experience of internal outcasts the Jabari, who prove to be vital allies in the final conflict) to open him up to questioning Wakanda’s traditions and its role in the world, while Erik, denied genuine connection to not only his father but to his fatherland in a mirror of the post-slave-trade African-American experience, transmutes the pain into a resentful and extreme (but hardly unreasonable) projection of his hurt onto the global institutions that he sees oppressing him (and, to a less important extent, his people, but a smartly elided element to Killmonger’s character is how his own disavowed personal agony always comes well ahead of any wider political grievances).

These dualities reflect a panoply of black experience, of not only power-striving men but self-determining women (who surround T’Challa and often make more of an impression than he does), from the unbridgeable rift between America and Africa carved out by the horrors of the slave trade (which are referenced with stunning poetic power by Killmonger’s remarkable final line) to the ideological split as regards civil rights political action represented by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (or, alternately, Nelson Mandela as a radical young activist and as a distinguished elder statesman). Film Crit Hulk addresses these dualities and how their implications are drawn out far better than I (or perhaps anyone else) could in his recent tremendous essay on Black Panther; be sure to check it out.

But Black Panther concludes with T’Challa internalizing the lessons of his defeated foe and choosing a path of active, productive, peaceful engagement with the rest of the world (and especially with the enclaves of the African diaspora, in Oakland and beyond) for Wakanda. This hard-won choice of employing Wakanda’s advantages to advocate humanitarianism and social progress is a corollary of neoliberal democratic capitalist ideology, of course, and Killmonger would no doubt find it an insufficient half-measure (as would Malcolm X, in all likelihood). But Black Panther is firmly doubtful that the sort of armed revolutionary seizure of power favoured by its nuanced villain (not to mention by the black nationalist organization that shares its name and which the superhero pre-dates) would represent any material improvement for people of African descent, or anyone else for that matter.

But Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther feels revolutionary in other ways, which are no less powerful for their aesthetic focus. This is a film overflowing with love and pride for African culture, with many distinct touchstones from across the continent distilled into a pan-cultural celebration of vibrancy and endurance of traditions and families in spite of a history of being severed from those vital roots. The connective threads of that culture may have been cut long ago, but this film represents a spectacular attempt to stitch them back together (an effort clearly audible in its hybridized score, with composer Ludwig Göransson mixing orchestral elements with indigenous African music and American hip-hop curations from rap star Kendrick Lamar). It represents black people, male but especially female, as active personalities and purposeful agents in their own struggles for advancement and self-definition, itself a rarity in Hollywood history only now being slowly addressed and corrected, and whose importance to the black public this white critic can merely conjecture at. But it recognizes also the cleavages in black experience and dramatizes them in a compelling and penetrating fashion by embedding them in the core narrative and thematic conflict of the film.

In a time of cultural reaction and political revanchism in which the government of the most powerful nation on earth has been co-opted by cynical, bigoted proponents of racial animus, Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s). Wakanda may be no more real than, say, Gotham City, but its cultural utility and impact, as expressed through this superb mass-market movie, could be very real indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews