Perhaps 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.
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
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
With 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