Review: Black Panther

black_panther_film_posterPerhaps the pop-cultural event of 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther depicts an insular African paradise that has become a moral limbo simply trying to stave off the murderous, colonialist purgatory of the world around it. Insofar as it is aware of these paradoxes, of the contradictory nation of Wakanda – indeed, the paradoxes of colonialism, the contradictions of modernity, and the ambiguities of the world – Ryan Coogler’s film is pop culture par excellence, inquisitive and exquisite in equal measure, enveloped in a brashness of spirit and mind that animates it. But Black Panther is equally enveloped in its own hubris, and finally, its own containment, its own conscription to a vision of modernity (to paraphrase David Scott) that it pretends to dismantle or, at least, disrupt. By film’s conclusion, it seems that the very paradoxes which infect Wakanda – its simultaneity of liberation and domestication, liquefying emancipation and stiffening respectability – also contaminate the film itself. The film’s elegance is both its grandest achievement and its central problematic, the encrypting idiom for a film which is hugely and depressingly invested in laundering its rebellious core in an aura of self-righteous reputability.

The real question, then, is whether the film truly thinks it is an act of revolution or whether it knows exactly where its moderate heart lies, but in either case, Black Panther is a 250 million dollar sheep in wolf’s clothing, if you’re genuinely committed to worldwide liberation, and a sheep in wolf’s clothing if you support the film’s hopelessly liberal political viewpoint.  Which is actually more cinematically depressing than its political limits: the fact that the film neither stakes out a clear viewpoint nor argues with itself in a productive or truly challenging way. While the film’s sense of respectability is fine as a perspective or a counterpoint in a cinematic debate, the most important filmic quandaries and disagreements are always those internal to a given film, the ones which palpably infuse a cinematic project not only with a self-critical attitude but with a vexing personal ambivalence about its own mission, a sense of internal rupture and disruption that cascades through the film, if not threatening to topple it completely at least shrouding its achievements with awareness of their tenuousness. A truly great Black Panther would be committed not to pretending to explore its warring premises in service of superficially patting itself on its back but to admitting their unreconciled nature and excruciatingly reconciling them to the detriment of its own clarity.

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Twenty Years Hence: The Truman Show

mv5bmtvimjrhndytmzrmzi00mdm3ltg0njutnwrlnzazowyzyzfhl2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndaxotexntm-_v1_In a timid act of fear for my critical faculties, I’ll begin with what I do appreciate about Peter Weir’s generally fine The Truman Show as a display of good faith, and so that the rating at the end of this review makes a touch more sense. Weir’s much-adored pop-post-modernist thing is, for a solid hour minus change, an entirely convincing character study, genially endearing if mildly anonymous, about a man, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who wallows away his indifferent life in the hermetically-planned community of Seahaven without much more than passive positivism. Generally endeared to a low-humming belief that something, anything, must exist beyond his agreeably plum but criminally middle-class existence, Truman is a high-concept character at his best when he’s quietly emphasizing his humbler qualities, much like the film about his life, a life which also happens to be a planned television show Truman is unaware of but which the rest of the world is rapturously devoted to. Continue reading

Twenty (One) Years Hence: LA Confidential


A review I am embarrasingly posting six months late … because Grad School. 

LA Confidential is the rarest of neo-noirs, a film aware of and capable of rekindling not simply the intricacy of film noir but its intimacy. By an astonishing margin, director Curtis Hanson’s best film, it’s also the strangest of birds, a true anomaly, the kind of film extinct twenty years later: a genuinely great mid-tier major studio film, not a maxi-budgeted blockbuster nor an indie darling nor an insufferably choked prestige pic but an honest-to-god mature studio film that thrives not simply on the currency of its ideas but the inimitability of its craft. LA Confidential is a muscular film, all muscle and sinew, but it isn’t macho. This story of men, both trigger-happy and frequently confused about which triggers they are firing, is remarkably attuned to the way various men find their personal idioms of masculinity incapable of fulfilling the requirements of the cutthroat world around them, a world that is too polyphonic, too multifaceted, too complex for any personal masculine script to truly master. Continue reading

Progenitors: Mission Impossible

220px-missionimpossibleposterWith Mission Impossible: Fallout alighting the blockbuster sky with the best Hollywood action since Mad Max: Fury Road, I decided to visit the birthing pains of a franchise that began as something quite a bit different. 

Set against the doldrums of 21st century blockbuster cinema, it’s bracingly refreshing how obviously personal the quintessentially ‘90s Mission Impossible is to its director Brian De Palma. Refreshing, sometimes, because there’s little else about the film that truly interrupts the corporate cinematic impulse and casts it adrift in fascinatingly idiosyncratic directions. In other words, Mission Impossible is often more notable for how De Palma-esque it is, not because it is an especially thoughtful De Palma film, blockbuster film, or anything film. Still, it isn’t for lack of trying, and at its best, Mission Impossible is self-evidently marked as an attempt by De Palma to bend the blockbuster machine to his idiom. Or to test Hollywood’s tensile strength and mark it for deletion. Or simply for De Palma to retain what little of his personal and stylistic (in)sanity that he can while selling his soul to the powers that be. For the most part though, Mission Impossible unevenly splits its role as an acid-tongued attempt to draw-and-quarter the action genre, Verhoeven-style, and to more simplistically but not un-valuably spruce up a boilerplate action pic with sprinkles of consummately restless De Palma flavor. Continue reading

Review: Leave No Trace

leave-no-trace_myab_05-05_01607-1024x620Somehow both graver and more innocent than Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s follow-up to her career-making film (although, how it speaks to the treatment of female directors vs. actresses that we think of what that film did for Jennifer Lawrence relative to Granik) is at once more restful, compassionate even, and yet vastly more traumatic, locating major tragedy in the most minor-key of moments. Lacking that film’s bet-hedging semi-hicksploitation which feigned genuine dramatic ambiguity and equivocation while still gifting audiences the pacifying pleasures of a clearly-marked hero, Leave No Trace is a truly Herculean drama precisely because it resists any of the monolithic or totalizing compulsions the adjective “Herculean” might suggest, moral-mapping most of all. It is an extraordinarily gentle film, almost oneiric, albeit suffused with potent undertows of melancholy, like a dream-spun fable that mushrooms into a grave-like shroud. Continue reading

Review: Ready Player One

ready-player-one-2018-movie-posterReady Player One is hardly Steven Spielberg’s best feature film – heck, it isn’t even his best feature film of the past twelve months – but it might be the surest grasp of his talents, the most elegantly inelegant spiral he’s mounted in years. While his real masterpieces all work to some extent without him – Jaws boasts an astonishing full-throated and sharp-toothed screenplay, Raiders of the Lost Ark is deliriously sardonic with the question of its protagonist’s competence and narrative agency – Ready Player One, much like War of the Worlds, is good, to the extent that it is good, exclusively because of the Spielberg quotient. Boasting a screenplay which breaches questions of reality and authorship with an at-times mind-numbing obviousness, Ready Player One works as both a tornado of entertainment and a centrifuge of existential chaos only because Spielberg, seemingly singularly, knows not merely to mount this sort of production but to turn it against itself in ways which seem earned rather than cloyingly auto-critical. At its best, which is always when Spielberg exposes the inflection point between tornado of entertainment and centrifuge of chaos, between rocketing us to the apex of delirium and the abyss of purposeless, out-of-control motion, Ready Player One is not only testament to his directorial abilities, but to his thematic hunger.   Continue reading

Review: Isle of Dogs

21-isle-of-dogs-w710-h473For a director who lives, or at least dreams, in dollhouses and dioramas, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs fittingly, and not unproblematically, begs, and then totally decries, comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu for its cinematic fantasyland version of mid-century Japan. That plaintive master of the cinema – arguably the master of the cinema – exposed post-War tensions in Japanese life with potent undertows of generational compromise and interpersonal balance all illuminated by and exposed through his famously diorama-like aesthetic. But although Anderson’s film is also set in a facsimile of mid-century Japan and retains Anderson’s typically diorama-laden milieu as well, it is in many ways Ozu’s diametrical opposition. While Ozu cast a plaintive and empathetic eye on external society, Isle of Dogs is resolutely a vision of the internal. Or, at least, it is a resolutely internal gaze on a mindscape known as Andersonville. For better or worse, it is as personal as Ozu’s film, but it is far more hermetically the work of, and a work for, one artist. Continue reading