Saturday, February 10, 2018


BLACK PANTHER comes to our screens freighted with the self-appointed weight of political history. It's as if action movies starring Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Wesley Snipes never happened. It's as if nuanced black action heroes like Lando Calrissian never happened.  This, we are told, is a watershed moment where a major franchise blockbuster not only stars a single male action hero, but a whole cast full of amazing black male and female talent.  I can't but agree - there's a qualitative leap when you have an entire film full of black actors, with African accents, with most of the action set in Africa.  This is all to the good, and it's great to see black representation go to that next stage, but I can't help but feel that that tide of goodwill toward the film - goodwill that I too shared - has clouded critical attitudes toward it.  I am hugely excited that such a project has come to our screens, but I think it would be patronising not to review it critically.  I sense in a lot of the excitement in the tweets since its preview screenings began, at best conflation between excitement that the project exists vs its content - and at worst virtue signalling.  Because let's be clear, this is an entirely disposable occasionally very funny, but often rather dull and overly complicated film.  And its titular character, as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (GET ON UP), is the least interesting thing about it.

The story has so many strands it's hard to know where to begin.  We have a thinly veiled version of Rwanda blessed with a rare metal called Vibranium which gives their king, Black Panther, extra-ordinary power, and the country futuristic technology.  The film takes from this premise the following concern:  

1) Should this tech be hidden to prevent its exploitation by others;
2) Shared with the world for good;
3) Or be used to get revenge and achieve domination over the rest of the world? 

Broadly speaking, Black Panther starts off believing the first, and this story is his coming of age story, a classical Greek tale of a son learning to confront his father's assumptions and become his own man.  His wariness is made credible by the existence of a nasty white South African thief called Ulysses Klaue, who's being chased down by a CIA agent called Everett Ross.   By contrast, and despite seeing all this, Black Panther's little sister Shuri, who is a tech genius, believes the tech should be shared, tradition thrown off, and modernity embraced.  Finally, Black Panther and Shuri have a cousin called Erik Killmonger, who as his name suggest with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is angry at being rejected by his family, the death of his father, and wants to overthrow Black Panther and use the Vibranium for evil.

Where the film works well is in its opening 45 minutes.  The prologue nicely sets up some of the mythology and origins of the Black Panther/T'Challa, and the emotional ties between father, uncle and son as well as the Panther and his love interest. The action is fast paced, we are introduced to the the man we think is the antagonist, and also the character who truly turns out to be the real threat.  And we get the surprise of two of the least well known members of the cast - Letitia Wright and Dalai Gurira - being by far the most charismatic and funny.  The problem is that after that we get a middle section that is extremely bogged down in all the intricacies of the cumbersome plot. And a final section that is your typical Marvel action set-piece with bad CGI.  Someone in the screening I attended, who evidently loved the film, shouted "Rewind!" as the credits rolled, and I just wanted to shout back "Edit!"  There's a decent 100 minute action movie struggling inside this over-blown 134 minute running time.

The problems for the film are worse than just a baggy script though. Chadwick Boseman is a charisma-less lead. Perhaps the most charisma-less lead since Henry Cavill's Superman.  And he plays the role not just with a South African accent, but with an almost pastiche version of a Nelson Mandela impression.  His entire acting range seems to be to bite his lip, and look concerned. He's acted off the screen by Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT) as W'Kabi, his fellow Wakandan, not to mention Michael B Jordan (CREED) as his troubled cousin Killmonger.  And that's before we even get to the women. Lupita N'yongo is anonymous as the love interest - an early attempt to rescue Boko Haram kidnapped women makes you think she's gonna be feisty, but no, she really is just there to look adoring and be supportive. And so she in turn is acted off the screen by Letitia Wright's smart, irreverent Shuri, and by the Black Panther's General Okoye (Danai Gurira). And to be honest - and I'm not gonna be popular for saying this, the entire bunch of them are outclassed by Andy Serkis cameo as the evil Klaue, and he seemed to be having far more fun on screen than I did in the cinema. 

The tragedy of this film is that having waited so long for a black-led ensemble action movie the result is so anodyne. Take a Bond-like villain here, a character that's like Q, your typical Marvel action scenes and tech, an indifferent score and special effects.... And then for no reason at all, chuck in a cataphract rhino and a cliche of tribal strife. The result is a film that isn't half as good as BLADE and middling by the standards of the MCU.

BLACK PANTHER has a running time of 134 minutes and is rated 12A for moderate violence, injury detail and a rude gesture. It goes on global release on Wednesday 14th February. 

Saturday, February 03, 2018


Where to begin with this strange slippery film?  It's genre, tone, dramatic tensions shift and evolve over its two hour running time until it becomes something quite hard to pin down? Is it a melodramatic period romance like THE BEGUILED? A Hitchcockian psychological thriller?  A generational ghost story? A fetishistic romance like THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY?  It's a film that certainly delights and repays the audience with a knowledge of film history. And yet it's something quite hermetically sealed and delicately balanced between difference style of film-making.  It's a film one can imagine quite hard to pull off without an absolute conviction in what one was creating. But in its exploration of intense emotional relationships in a tightly proscribed world, it reminded me most of all of Peter Strickland's dreamy romance.

Daniel Day-Lewis (LINCOLN), in his final role, plays Reynolds Woodcock, a 1950s fashion designer who lives and works in a grand London house, complete with royal clientele. As the film opens, he is presented as the kind of domineering, egomaniacal man surrounded by sycophantic enablers that has become vilified in the #metoo movement. He lives by strict rules all designed to give him, the self-appointed genius creator the peace he needs to create. He fears discombobulation.  And in a sense there's a delicious irony in the fact that the first of his dresses that we see is comically ugly - it's the fawning delight of his clientele  - here Gina McKee - that tells us all we need to know.

Reynolds' perfect world is curated by his devoted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville - veteran of Ken Loach films). She neatly dismisses the young girls he takes as his muses when they become tiresome, and manages the financial side of the business.  As the film opens we see her dispatch one girl only for him to speed to the country and pick up another, mostly on the grounds that she looks biddable and can remember his vast breakfast order. Both women seem at his service.  The young Alma (Vicky Krieps), takes orders from him, becomes little more than an inanimate model, and hangs on his every word.  And so the relationship might follow the typical pattern.  Alma - scraping her butter onto her toast so very loudly - might soon be dismissed.

The beauty of this story is that it subverts our expectations of who is truly in control and indeed who are the true protagonists of the film. This is the way in which it most profoundly reminded me of THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY. One thinks this is going to be a film about subservient women but actually they are firmly in control. As the film progresses we see that Cyril very much rules Reynolds - forcing him to attend a wedding to keep the House in business - daring him to pick an argument that he cannot win.  Even the seamstresses are more in control than Reynolds - he is dependent on them to bring his designs to life.  

And so the principal tension of the film is not really between Reynolds and Alma - as we shall see later - he is only feigning resistance to her. It's actually between Alma and Cyril.  The young girl knows her mind and politely but firmly brooks no objections to her plans.  She is vying with the Cyril to take control of Reynolds, and by a masterful piece of skulduggery, wins. The question is how Reynolds will take to this change in reign, and it leads to a superlative set piece at the end of the movie, where very little is said, but suspicions are noted, and accepted.  It's quite the marvel. 

The result is a film with very clear themes if subtly slippery means of getting there. Reynolds misses his dead mother terribly to the point of almost willing her ghost into existence. He craves a replacement - first Cyril and then Alma.  He is forever ravenously hungry for nourishment, and at the most basic level, Alma provides it, naming him in their opening meeting "hungry boy".  What she gets out of the relationship is the ability to express her side of the fetish.  It is no coincidence that the most passionate kiss between the two that we are allowed to see in this very coy and ambiguous film comes when the sado-masochistic relationship is finally acknowledged on both sides. 

Everything about this production is first class - from the costumes, to the interior design, to the evocation of the British sea-side and 1950s ballrooms. The acting is also superb. Daniel Day-Lewis may be getting the awards, but Manville and Krieps match him turn by turn with performances of such subtlety and brilliance. The script is also fascinating, and funnier than one often expects from Anderson. Genuinely brilliantly funny.  There was only one scene that struck a bum note - when Reynolds and Alma look through a client's deep distress and mock and punish her for her drunken escape.  This was cruel - meant to be cruel - but lessened my interest in the characters. And this is ultimately my only real criticism of the film.  All of Anderson, and his cast and crews talents, on such a self-involved, and ultimately slight story. There's something a little disappointing in that - something small - lesser than THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER

PHANTOM THREAD has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK for strong language. The film was released last year in the USA and earlier this year in Canada. It goes on release this weekend in Singapore, Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kuwait, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, the UK and Ireland, It goes on release on February 14th in France, Denmark and Russia; on February 22nd in Brazil, Italy, Malaysia, Finland, Portugal, Sweden, Taiwan and Vietnam; on March 1st in Netherlands; on March 8th in Hong Kong and Estonia; on March 15th in Argentina; on April 13th in Norway and Turkey and on May 26th in Japan.