Black Panther, the newest entry in the occasionally marvelous Marvel series of superhero films, is certainly not the first movie featuring a black superhero, but is certainly the most high-profile and the most successful.
Much of the credit belongs to writer/director Ryan Coogler, who has transferred some of the angst, ambivalence and humanity of his earlier Fruitvale Station and Creed into the Marvel Universe. Coogler has also brought along the star of these earlier films, Michael P. Jordan, and that is perhaps his best move of all.
For those who are still (!) unfamiliar with the basic set-up, Wakanda is this (fictional) remote country in Africa which sits on a bed of their most precious natural resource, vibranium, which allows Wakanda to be more technologically advanced than the rest of the world—even though, to the rest of the world, they’re just this “third-world” country. T’Challa (Chadwick Bozeman) is the new king of Wakanda—and also the superhero Black Panther when he deigns to don the attire which makes him pretty darn invincible. He presides over his kingdom (despite challenges both outer and inner) along with proud mother Angela Bassett, uncle and advisor Forest Whitaker, his sullen but somewhat supportive brother (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out), a very fierce, patriotic fighter Okoye (Danai Gurira—a veritable force of nature, not to be reckoned with), and an even more loyal (and loving) spy/activist/love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’O). Outside this technological paradise, all Hell is waiting to come in, courtesy of a murderous arms dealer (Andy Serkis) and an aggrieved, violent young man christened Killmonger (Michael P. Jordan) who has a particular ax to grind with Wakanda.
Without spilling too much more, Black Panther succeeds for a number of reasons. Many of the plot threads are cleverly drawn and well-developed, whether it’s the friction between various factions in Wakanda, T’Challa’s coming to terms with the responsibilities of being king (and Wakanda’s place in the world order), the ideological conflict between T’Chall and Nakia (who wants to Wakanda to be less “Wakanda First” and more “let’s use our strength to help others”) and especially, the clash between T’Challa and Killmonger (the sins of the father…). This is particularly compelling, in large part thanks to Jordan’s riveting, charismatic portrayal of a man who wants his due—for himself, and his entire race. The writing and Jordan’s flawless playing lend this Marvel villain a good deal of depth—something not readily apparent in these epics. Black Panther is far from perfect: the plot thread concerning T’Challa’s brother is not properly developed and the climactic action sequence is both a little too frenetic and a bit anti-climactic at that. Nevertheless, Black Panther is well worth seeing, and even provides some food for thought.
The Phantom Thread
Daniel Day-Lewis is calling The Phantom Thread his final film (at least as an actor), and at least, he’s going out on an interesting (if not totally plausible) note. In this “last” collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, Day-Lewis is haughty, fastidious fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who creates designs in the house he shares with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, who delivers the film’s best performance). Into their lives comes the waitress Alma (Vicky Kreps), who intrigues and enchants Woodcock, until she moves in—and brings with her enough charms and quirks to both beguile and irritate a man who lives for nothing except order. It’s a beautiful, sumptuous film to watch and to listen to, but the events and relationships begin to leave any semblance of plausibility in the dust. Yet the skill of the actors and the assured direction do keep one watching. However is it Best Picture worthy—let’s just say I’m dubious.
Speaking of Best Picture, you’ll notice that even though ten nominees are possible, the Academy has seen fit to bestow this nomination to only nine contenders, leaving one to ponder, if there had been a tenth, what would it be? One is perhaps The Big Sick, which received plenty of critical love, yet only received a screenplay nod; however the warmth of its love story, the humor, the depth of feeling among all concerned, seem to warrant more love from Oscar—ditto Wonder, with its honest sentiment and strong writing and performances, and Wind River, with its subdued but affecting work from Jeremy Renner, and its trenchant look at prejudice, justice and tolerance lurking underneath a murder mystery set in the frozen Wyoming wilderness. These are just a few—no doubt there are several others.