Black Panther

Superheroes are a salve for children—traditionally boys—who struggle to integrate into their childhood societies. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that superhero movies have become increasingly central to the plastic cathedral of American pop culture during the same years that American boyhood has consumed much of what was once, by the lights of biology, considered to be manhood. Nor does it seem a coincidence that, in those same years, men’s feeling of enfranchisement in adult society has decayed.

Disenfranchisement is, of course, a wound of literal rather than figurative consequence in this country for women, black people, and both. The appeal of Black Panther is in watching the metronome ticking between revolution and inclusion rustle the wrappers of a Happy Meal. It asks questions at the bottom of political distinctions through the sleek music of African accents, which dignify the stiff lines only half as well as Daniel Kaluuya withdraws the wings of his devotion. His eyelashes, like stage-curtain tassels, brush Chadwick Boseman aside. Boseman wears his pride in his bones.

On occasion, Ryan Coogler finds set pieces that live up to the power of his ideas: Michael B. Jordan, as the warrior-king Killmonger, returning to his childhood home in an Oakland project, at the exact moment his younger self discovered his father dead, has a doleful magic. There’s an essential unprofanity to Jordan which makes him impossible to not take seriously, even if Killmonger’s grievances are too notional. Boseman, the superhero king, on his own vision quest, pieces together the tragedy on Killmonger’s behalf; his outrage over a displaced father figure abandoning a son seems pointed. The Black Panther himself is probably the only one whose motives aren’t telegraphed. In a Marvel movie, profundity is only cape-deep.

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Oscar Hangover: 2018

As the Motion Picture Academy’s pick for Best Picture of 2017, The Shape of Water is a perfect compromise: it’s a movie by a prominent Latin American director about the liberation of characters of all backgrounds—from gay to invertebrate. My own favorite nominee was that perverted Pygmalion and ballet of midinettes, Phantom Thread; Get Out was a solid runner-up, and deserved its win for Best Original Screenplay. However, Water being fluid, it was naturally the most intersectional choice: watching Guillermo del Toro brandish his trophy was even a triumph for nerds and weirdos.

Winners and losers notwithstanding, permit me to leak a few thoughts.

As a human being, I strongly support equality of opportunity. As a critic, I do not—and should not—support equality of outcome. And I use “critic” in place of a mindset, not to mean someone who diddles about movies on the Antarctica of the Internet. I’m not persuaded that any work of art is good simply on the grounds that it was made by or about a minority group.

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Academy Rewards: 2018

The Academy Awards have always straddled the awkward space between creativity and competition. When the institution was formed, 90 years ago, the “creatives” were basically race horses; it was their breeders—the studio heads—who coveted the trophies. Even as the studio system crumbled, and talent found empowerment through agents and became managers of their personal brands, the breeders’ vision won out: the thoroughbreds crave the carrots, but those who feed them now crave—and covet—their respect.

There’s a lot riding on those carrots. To some degree, the left carps about the legitimacy of the Oscars until those statues reflect their agenda in the same way that Donald Trump gloats about his role in the booming market until stock prices go bust. But his office serves to illustrate the grim reality of our moment: the entertainment industry represents American thought more accurately than our elected officials do. Just as the state of California is a bellwether for political trends, Hollywood is the driver of our culture.

It’s a peculiarly American tragicomedy that the places where our laws get written lag far behind the city where our screenplays do. But I hesitate to escalate that condition to tragic because many of the people writing those screenplays regard this as a problem, too. There are exceptions, of course. Tarantino’s revenge fantasies rewrite the past for the sake of enacting his fantasies in the same way that cable news and the Web warp the present. Winking at alternative facts is a complacency that becomes a black eye in light of the challenges that liberal democracies are now facing.

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The Shape of Water

Although set in Baltimore, in 1962, The Shape of Water has a Continental feel. It has that specifically French sensibility that Up had, embracing the absurd with a spring in its step, savoring the abyss like a nice pâté. In my opinion, the director, Guillermo del Toro, spreads it on a little thick; some of the elements don’t mix well. But, by and large, it’s engrossing. The film rides out its flaws on a wave of whimsy. It runs on the goofball charm that only a kid who grew up shipping Fay Wray from the original King Kong with the creature from the black lagoon would ever dare to muster.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) gets by in a demimonde of lost souls, a menagerie of otherness that consists of Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay artist neighbor; Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her protective and opinionated black co-worker at a research institute, where they work the night shift as housekeepers; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy. As an infant, Elisa’s voice box was torn out in an act of abuse; she acquires outcast status by being a mute. They’re all repressed, but only in the outside world: Elisa includes in her daily routine a little “self-care” in the tub. (As a period piece, Shape isn’t too credible, as this omen of sexual liberation adduces.) When the outside world barges in, it’s in the person of Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon). He delivers a captive to the institute: a merman played by Doug Jones.

Intellectually, it’s a clever idea to merge monster movies with fairy tales. In a sense, it was there all along: as early as King Kong’s obituary. But I think del Toro is juking social commentary out of drive-in pictures from the Nuclear Age, movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). (These films channeled anxieties so bluntly that it was less like subtext and more like propaganda.) It doesn’t take any media-studies courses to glean that del Toro’s intention is to show that Strickland is the real monster, and the baddest monster of them all is America’s obsession with conformism and upward mobility. This, more than the film’s influences or poetic distance, justifies the retrograde timeframe: upward mobility, identity, and income inequality are rather sore subjects in the America of 2018.

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This one’s a stretch. It’s been a year since I saw Moonlight, so this is less a review than a remembrance. And yet its impressions flooded back to me this morning, clear as the moon’s pull on the tides. In overarching terms, I think it’s slightly less consistent than my other favorite movie from 2016, Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan’s film was wrong for the political moment—far enough removed from contention that even Warren Beatty’s interns wouldn’t have slipped its name in the envelope. Honestly, though, the comparison is unfair: Manchester is a work of naturalism, operating under the established rules of tragedy; Moonlight is a tone poem. While the former sustains a mood, the latter resonates in an array of chords.

Let me first dispense with my criticisms. The arc of the screenplay, written by the director, Barry Jenkins, but originating from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical material—both artists are black and openly gay—rests a little heavily on certain liberal assumptions. We are shown Chiron through three successive phases of his young life. In each he’s played by a different actor (who was not given access to his colleagues’ performances).

What’s missing is the transition between Act II, when the tender teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) gets betrayed and takes vengeance on his bullies, and Act III, where he’s a thug (Trevante Rhodes) packing heat in Hotlanta. This is normally the connective tissue that tragedies serve as the meat: the space between Michael Corleone bumping off Sollozzo and decapitating all of his rivals. While it may not have been the filmmakers’ intention for us to view this rupture as a lacuna, it takes too long to locate the scrawny kid tucked between Rhodes’s triceps. Maybe the reference points I’m missing are meant to be filled in by black experience—by a logic I’m not privy to. That would be artistically questionable, if politically ambitious.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a deeply flawed, at times idiotic, movie, and I can appreciate the backlash against it. And yet, hidden beneath all the mistakes and poor judgment calls is an aspirational, romantic fantasy about America, which I respected, as much as I can understand why others might reject it. I don’t think one can carve Frances McDormand’s blistering performance, which has been universally praised, out of the framework the director has put her in. Those who have responded positively to her Mildred Hayes are probably also responding to McDonagh’s idealized America, at least on some level.

At heart, this is a story of grief. You can lash out at its proxies but never quite land a punch on your target. That is what Mildred is doing with the billboards she rents, which bait the local police—the cancer-ridden Chief Willougby (Woody Harrelson) in particular—for never finding and bringing to justice the man who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

The backstory is muddy, as it gets tangled up in allegations that hayseed deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) beat up a black suspect in custody, and never suffered any consequences for it. However, despite it casting a pall over the police department, this incident seems to have nothing to do with their finding no leads in the Hayes case. The town’s sympathies are torn; people feel for Mildred because of her loss, but reproach her for casting aspersions on a dying, virtuous man. Harrelson, going back to territory he explored in The Messenger, is robust and reflective and unlikable-proof—though not to the degree that Willougby is an even remotely plausible husband for Abbie Cornish. Not only is she 20 years his junior, but we’re given no evidence that Ebbing would be a magnet for ravishing Welsh immigrants.

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While I’m dusting off memories of movie viewings past, let’s not forget Dunkirk, which I saw over the summer. Normally, I’m a Christopher Nolan skeptic. He likes the idea of ideas, which gives him a leg up on the Michael Bays of the world, but it’s as if he pastes passages from Wikipedia articles into his scripts; everything else is overridden, and, to me, overwritten. His structures are ornate: rat mazes with no cheese in the middle.

The framework of Dunkirk, with its expansions and compressions of time that vary from section to section, didn’t bother me, though, because they serve the drama. Altogether, it’s a logistically impressive rendering of a logistical nightmare: the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Though little-known here, it’s a touchstone in Great Britain. Their soldiers were rescued by intrepid civilians in fishing boats. This part of the story is represented by Mark Rylance, who seems too old to be the father of Tom Glynn-Carney (a sweater-clad thirst-trap), and by Cillian Murphy, whose shell shock implies horrors off-screen.

There are other subplots, one involving the unnerved senior brass of the Navy (embodied by Kenneth Branagh), and another featuring Harry Styles as one of the soldiers caught up in the evacuation. (For reasons that seem historically inaccurate, his visage does not exceed the mean cheekbone height among the grunts.) If these scenes evoke the sense of chaos, those featuring Tom Hardy as a fighter pilot—which are the most absorbing in the film—have an almost abstract clarity. The elements seem as daunting as the Nazi aviators, with whom he’s locked in a battle of nerves.

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