I've decided to stick with my lightning round review format for a while, especially since I don't see a lot of current movies in theaters during the first half of the year- so here are my thoughts on what I have managed to see:
BLACK PANTHER * * * 1/2 (Dir. Ryan Coogler)
Marvel’s best film is its best because it allows for the personal vision of its director (and co-writer) Ryan Coogler to shine through the studio’s occasionally oppressive creative control. For once, the constant snark is abandoned for a more serious tone, as Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa (first seen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War), goes home to the African country of Wakanda, hidden from the world because it sits on a host of vibranium, which allows the country to be one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, unbeknownst to outsiders. There he officially accepts the mantle of the Black Panther and rules over Wakanda’s varying tribes. Although T’Challa is the lead, this movie is less about Black Panther himself, and more about Wakanda as a whole, giving us a wide array of characters that include four fully developed, equally realized women who make up T’Challa’s supporters- the head of his all female special forces unit, Okoye (Danai Gurira), his teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), also the head of Wakanda’s tech lab, his mother the Queen (Angela Bassett), and his former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). The strength and importance of the women in this film is so rare to see in a Hollywood blockbuster that it stands out by sheer contrast to every other Marvel film alone. The movie draws on various themes of isolationist politics to domestic political crises in Wakanda’s (flawed) system of monarchical succession (have fun with the allegories there, which seem very intentional to me). But the most meaningful part of the film is in the character of Killmonger (the wildly charismatic Michael B. Jordan), easily Marvel’s best villain and an American whose tragic backstory reveals the yearning in a world of strife for African-Americans and people of color the world over. All superhero stories are wish fulfillment fantasies, ways to imagine yourselves as powerful, heroic, justified crusaders in a neverending triumph of good versus evil. Wakanda is an all powerful black nation in the heart of Africa that exists unplundered, unvarnished, unconquered and unstoppable. That hits home for everyone who wants to be included in the wish to see themselves as the ultimate ideal, from Superman and Batman to Wonder Woman…and now Black Panther. If it feels like a triumph, that’s the reason why.
ANNIHILATION * * * (Dir. Alex Garland)
Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina, has crafted his second feature film, which is one that includes elements of horror along with science fiction and mystery, yet also asks brainy, philosophical questions about human life and existence. Based on the first book in a trilogy of novels by Jeff VanderMeer, the film is about a group of military scientists who venture into “The Shimmer,” a kind of prism that’s overtaken an area of land outside of Washington, D.C. where unexplained and horrifying things keep happening to members of the various expeditions sent into it. The latest group is an all female unit led by Natalie Portman, whose husband (Oscar Isaac) was missing inside the phenomena for a year, only to return sick and not quite himself. She goes to find out what happened to him, and what does happen to the new crew is the surreal experience meant to be undertaken for yourself. The good news is that many of the events are unexpected and genuinely scary, and it’s reassuring to know that there are still things that can happen in horror movies that you haven’t seen yet, images that can still shock and unnerve you. The tone and pacing of the film create a mysterious atmosphere that leaves you unsettled and mostly intrigued as it meanders along to its puzzling conclusion. It is a deeply haunting, strange, at times uncomfortable experience that reaches to be many things at once, but ends in some kind of ambiguous resolution that leaves you pondering the messages and meaning of it all. For that I would recommend it, though be warned it’s certainly not for everyone.
THE DEATH OF STALIN * * * 1/2 (Dir. Armando Iannucci)
Armando Iannucci’s dark, satiric humor veers from UK and US politics into the heart of Russia, as he tackles the death of Joseph Stalin in the early 1950’s, and the infighting amongst the central committee to take over the Soviet Union. A story that was actually based on a French graphic novel called Le mort de Staline, it’s now run through the particulars of political satire, Iannucci-style, who is of course responsible for Veep, The Thick of It and the hilarious In the Loop. In only his second feature film, his kind of humor is an easy fit for the dark, murderous ways of the Soviet regime- amazingly the jokes land with savage precision and without pulling any punches. You’d think it’d be hard to make fun of the purges, killings and executions that were rampant in Russia at the time of Stalin’s reign, yet Iannucci takes none of the death and terror lightly. It’s the very blackest of black comedy, performed by a sharp and every ready cast, especially Steve Buscemi as Kruschev, whose role and dialogue fit him like a glove (he’s so good I could imagine him in a sequel about Kruschev’s own reign/downfall). Other standouts are Rupert Friend as Stalin’s ridiculous son, Jason Isaacs as head of the Red Army and the great Michael Palin as committee member Molotov (only fitting to have him appear in a historical farce that can sometimes recall the best of the Monty Python gang). I’ll admit that it can be a little tough to follow if you’re not up to speed with 20th century Russian history, but the intelligence of the script only makes for increased value in repeat viewings. A smart, hardhearted little gem.
LOVE, SIMON * * 1/2 (Dir. Greg Berlanti)
This is an earnest, well meaning, sensitively told coming out story about a teenage boy…but one that didn’t exactly pop off the screen. You almost hate to be hard on a movie so well meaning as this one, especially since it’s the first big studio movie aimed at a mainstream audience about a gay character since 1998’s In & Out (unbelievably, it really has been that long). And yet, as nice as it all is, there’s so little plot in this film that it feels overly long (at just an hour and forty-five minutes) and so little unexpected happens that it feels cliched and predictable to a tee. Simon (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior who has the perfect life (and I mean perfect- the opening few minutes of this movie had me fearing I was going down the rabbit hole of the insufferably rich, ala Eat Pray Love), with cool liberal parents, his own car, plenty of money, a perfectly diverse group of fellow rich friends who all grab lattes in the morning on their way to school…and then Simon reveals that he likes guys, a secret that he keeps from everyone because he isn’t ready for his life to change. The rest of the movie is a pleasant enough high school comedy about surviving the school year as Simon falls into a You’ve Got Mail relationship with an anonymous email pal who’s also a gay student at his school and wonders who he could be. And that’s about it, really. Until the reveal comes at the end, we spend our time hanging with Simon and his friends as he tries to navigate the perils of coming out. As I said, it’s nice enough, but what it isn’t is funny enough, or dramatic enough, or tragic enough…not enough of consequence really happens in the movie. Simon’s parents are supportive of his coming out, his friends are too, and it leads to a low key, completely unsurprising ending. The suspense regarding his mystery email man isn’t juiced for enough plot either. I suppose normalizing a coming out story for teenagers facing the same situation is plenty for the doubtless many who will identify with Simon, but even though the performances are appealing (Nick Robinson and Emmy Raver stand out from the young ensemble), the film didn’t quite reach the lift off point for me.
ISLE OF DOGS * * * 1/2 (Dir. Wes Anderson)
Set in a future Japan where an evil politician has ostracized all dogs contaminated with a mysterious dog-flu to Trash Island and suppressed the cure, a 12-year-old boy takes it upon himself to trek to the island to seek out his beloved guard dog Spotz, assisted by four outcast pets and one stray who help him make the journey. The dogs all speak English (in an array of celebrity voices) while the humans speak un-subtitled Japanese (aside from one foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig), and the dogs are the adorable stars of the show, especially the rebellious stray voiced by Bryan Cranston, who of course falls in love with the boy in classic Old Yeller fashion. There’s really no difference between this and a typical Wes Anderson film. When you think about it, there’s no more perfect medium for the heightened, storybook universe of his work than animation. What takes some settling in with live action works instantly in the world of stop-motion. The perfectly composed frames, textured characters and otherworldly feel has already transported you into the realm of non-reality and that’s mainly why this original story, which is part boy and his dog, part love letter to Japanese culture (filtered through Anderson’s consumption of it, which I leave to others to decide if it crosses into appropriation or not), is so utterly delightful and works so well. Yet in times like ours, politics can’t help but infiltrate even minds as insulated as Anderson’s, which is why the plot to unravel a government conspiracy and have student protestors and hackers take down an evil, authoritarian regime that suppresses science, democracy and the press, manages to strike a chord and stand up for the power of truth, resistance and man’s best friend.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR * * (Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo)
Well. A movie like this is very difficult to judge as a “movie,” because in many ways it’s not. No, what it is is the culmination of a decade long series involving nineteen movies, all of which have been building and connecting in ways small and big, depending on each separate film, leading up this first entry in a two-part Avengers event, the ultimate “crossover,” if you will. It is not for newbies. It is not for casual moviegoers. It is for those who’ve been paying attention. They expect you to have seen all the previous Marvel Studios entries and if you haven’t…there is nothing here for you. So, leaving that aside, as someone who has seen all the films and occasionally liked some of them, not all, I still found this to be a perfunctory, noisy, unsatisfactory mess that holds none of the life of the last few (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming all held enjoyable elements within the Marvel formula, enough to justify their own existences). I found everything to be rather mechanical here, with jumps from space to Earth and back again, a plot composed of 80% indistinguishable CGI fight scenes, strained one-liners inserted to keep the oppressive doom from becoming too heavy, and frankly, just plain boredom. It feels like this all had to happen, and the Russo brothers, who previously directed the Captain America films, were simply tasked with making it all come together as skillfully as possible, but with no room for creative inspiration in terms of story or characters. Just manage to get everybody onscreen, take turns showing them off, and we have to see them fighting. That’s it, those are the marching orders, and try to do it gracefully. I suppose in a sense they pull that much off, but I just wasn’t interested. The one daring moment involves a bold, dark cliffhanger bound to leave younger viewers upset, but if you know anything about upcoming sequels planned for the franchise, you have to know that there’s nothing to worry about there either, so where’s the suspense, really? I sit in the Avengers movies, passive to the experience, waiting for moments of cinematic inspiration or surprises that never come. I find it deadening.