BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

watch the trailer:

 

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MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

watch the trailer:

 


LITTLE ACCIDENTS (2015)

January 17, 2015

little accidents Greetings again from the darkness. You know how we always hear that there are no secrets in a small town – how everyone knows your business? This first feature film from writer/director Sara Colangelo exposes the fallacy of that notion. It seems all residents of this small mining community are carrying secrets, and some are whoppers!

The story picks up about a year after a horrible coal mining accident killed ten local miners. The lone survivor was Amos (Boyd Holbrook) who is struggling with physical limitations resulting from the incident.  However, generating more pain for Amos than his withered arm and leg is the internal battle the ongoing investigation is causing him. Should he expose the known safety issues that caused his co-workers to die?  If he does, those 10 families probably get justice and a financial reward, but the mine likely shuts down – crippling the local economy and throwing much of the town out of work.  If keeps quiet, those families get nothing and it’s business as usual for everyone else.

Amos is joined in a daily conundrum of secrets by: Owen (Jacob Lofland), who is much too young to handle the situation an accident has placed him; Owen’s brother James (Beau Wright) who has Down Syndrome and is even less equipped to keep his secret; the mine’s supervisor Bill (Josh Lucas) who defends his poor decisions by saying he only did what the company forced him to do; and Diane (Elizabeth Banks) who is Bill’s wife and reacts to the disappearance of her son and lack of respect for her husband in a manner that can’t possibly end well.

As is common in poverty-stricken communities, there is even more to add. Owen’s father was one of the miners killed in the accident, and Owen was among the group who last saw Bill and Diane’s son alive. Also, Amos is living with his father who is paying the health price for a lifetime of coal mining. The film is bookended by Amos’ testimony regarding the accident, and in between we see these intertwined lives and much soul-suffering and personal stock-taking. It’s a reminder of how powerful grief can be, especially after such an instantaneous tragedy.

Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland deliver outstanding performances. Mr. Holbrook’s career is in skyrocket mode as he appeared in 8 projects during 2013-14 (including Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins), and has 5 more for 2015 (including Terrence Malick’s next film). Young Mr. Lofland was a standout in both Mud (2012) and his recent recurring role on TV’s “Justified“. Also of note is one of the few dramatic turns for Elizabeth Banks. We have come to expect comedy excellence from her (even as Effie in The Hunger Games), but we have rarely seen the emotional depth she portrays here.

The movie is beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, and the film stock provides the grainy look that adds to the realistic feel necessary for us to be absorbed into this isolated world. Comparisons to other mining movies are expected, and North Country (2005) and Matewan (1987) come to mind, however, those were centered on mistreatment in the workplace and labor issues, respectively. This movie is much more concerned with grief, and for some reason The Stone Boy (1984) comes to mind. Dealing with tragedy does not become easier with age, financial status or social standing. Ms. Colangelo’s film provides an intimate look at this.

watch the trailer: