Black Panther (dir: Ryan Coogler)
You may or may not have heard that Marvel has a new movie out this month. Black Panther is out, promising to break February box office records and, perhaps, change the film industry. The theory is that this movie—a gargantuan blockbuster directed by a black man, starring an all-black principal cast—will make Hollywood more open to black voices. That remains to be seen; I see it as just as likely that entrenched Hollywood producers will conclude from this movie that Marvel can sell anything, not that black heroes sell.
Reviews are glowing, praising director Ryan Coogler and the expansive cast, none more so than Coogler’s frequently collaborator Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed), who plays the film’s villain. Critics are citing his character, who bears the unlikely name of Erik Killmonger, as perhaps the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a charismatic man with complex motivations. At RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson compares the Coogler/Jordan pairing to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, predicting we’ll one day be talking about them with the same aura of awe.
Coogler, for his part, generally isn’t praised for the film’s spectacle or action sequences, but for making the characters feel grounded, their interactions real. This, critics point out, makes Black Panther stand out among the quippy Marvel movies. The film has an authenticity—despite being set in an invented fantasy land—that the other Marvel films lack, David Ehrlich of Indiewire writes:
'Black Panther' is different. It’s the first one of these films that flows with a genuine sense of culture and identity, memory and musicality. It’s the first one of these films that doesn’t merely reckon with power and subjugation in the abstract, but also gives those ideas actual weight by grafting them onto specific bodies and confronting the historical ways in which they’ve shaped our universe. Last, but certainly not least, it’s also the first black superhero movie since the dawn of the genre’s seemingly endless golden age (or at least since that one where Will Smith hurled a giant whale at a bunch of innocent sailors).
Another thing that sets this film apart from the Marvel rabble is that, for once in the last decade, it’s a standalone movie: it doesn’t crossover in any serious way with the ongoing drama of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, allowing it to establish its own identity. David Edelstein at Vulture is thankful it isolates itself from the “tiring” franchise.
Ehrlich believes decisively that Black Panther is the best superhero movie yet; Henderson calls it one of the best of the year; Edelstein calls it the “most original” superhero film. Slightly more reserved is the AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who gives the film a B+.
Nevertheless, the reviews are encouraging. I thought last year’s Wonder Woman was a stiff, cheap-looking, badly written superhero origin story—and also a potential step forward for women in the industry. With these reviews I have renewed hope that Black Panther, which looks to break similar ground in terms of representation in front of and behind the camera, will be both Good and good.
Tehran Taboo (dir: Ali Soozandeh)
This new drama about sexual hypocrisy in Tehran distinguishes itself by the fact that it’s rotoscoped, meaning that it was filmed in live action and then traced over and accentuated with—well, with computers, no longer with hand-held tools—thus turning it into an animated movie. As many reviews recount—no doubt, this information was in the film’s press packet—director Ali Soozandeh did this because, an expatriot living in Germany, he was not able to make the film in Tehran, and did not want to use a substitute.
Rotoscoping the film made it possible to capture some authentic Tehran atmosphere, which Geoffrey Cheshire, apparently a frequent visitor to the city, confirms in his review for RogerEbert.com. Cheshire appreciates the film’s complexity in its handling of its subject matter, the double standards applied to men’s and women’s behavior in Iran:
Although the primary female characters here—and to a lesser extent, some of the men—are trapped in the strictures of a traditional patriarchal society that’s enforced by a theocratic government, the film wisely doesn’t come across as a two-dimensional polemic. That’s largely because Soozandeh’s storytelling is so engaging and nuanced.
J.R. Jones at the Chicago Reader is on board, citing the film’s revelation of religious hypocrisy. But Film Journal is much more ambivalent, much more concerned that Soozandeh may have chosen an easy route of attack: “While certainly insightful about life governed by Islamic Revolutionary law, Soozandeh’s script traffics in a seedy sort of suspense.”
Cheshire, who likes the film, even points out that it’s probably outdated: his friends in Iran assure him that the morality police (a thing) aren’t so bad anymore. And in the end, my suspicion is that, despite generally positive tone of the reviews, this film is not very good. The praise is a bit too tepid, and the constant citation of the same fact about why Soonzandeh chose rotoscoping makes it seem like critics were reaching for something to say about it.
Early Man (dir: Nick Park)
The most fun recurring comment between reviews for this latested clay-mated film from the makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run is that Hognob, the main character Dug’s pet warthog, should have been the main character. Unfortunately, for critics, that’s just a way of voicing their disappointment in the failure of Aardman Animation to produce another mild hit/critical darling.
First: Anthony Lane, whose one-two punch review of Black Panther and Early Man reviews at The New Yorker is further evidence of his disinterest in popular film. His short review finds time to get lost in its own meandering tangents more than once. Here’s one perambulation he makes while trying to tell us what he thinks about Black Panther:
There have been black superheroes before, and Will Smith’s character in 'Hancock' (2008) was an unusual blend of potency and dysfunction, but none have been given dominion over a blockbuster. (The one who merits it best is Frozone, from 'The Incredibles,' who has to miss dinner to save the world. “We are talking about the greater good!” he cries. Back comes the reply: “Greater good? I am your wife. I’m the greatest good you are ever going to get.”)
He does manage to catch up to Early Man, though, according with the general consensus that the film is not up to Aardman’s usual quality:
If 'Early Man' slips below the studio’s highest standards, that may be due to its length. In 'A Grand Day Out' (1989), Park managed to rocket Wallace and Gromit—one man and his dog—to the moon and back in twenty-three minutes, whereas the new movie takes more than an hour longer to tell a plainer tale, topped with a lighter scattering of laughs.
The reserved praise of critics like Sam Adams at Slate assures us that, 16 years from now, we will not be reflecting fondly on the fun time that was Early Man, as we all do periodically on Chicken Run (right?).
There’s something especially captivating about the miniaturist backgrounds in stop-motion animation. Even characters as ingratiating as Wallace and Gromit were sometimes in danger of being upstaged by their wallpaper, and Dug, who’s little more than a generic good guy, doesn’t stand much of a chance. (His pet warthog Hognob, who’s voiced, or more accurately snorted, by [Director Nick] Park, would have made a more interesting lead.) If you’ve already devoured the Wallace and Gromit canon, as well as 'Chicken Run' and 'Shaun the Sheep,' 'Early Man' is a wonderful way of extending their giddy glow, even if it feels like a small step backward.
Most obviously disappointed is Stephanie Merry at The Washington Post:
In the grand scheme of movies for kids, the stop-motion comedy is hardly a stinker. But it’s also less fun and inventive than you’d expect, given the company’s stellar, Oscar-winning track record.
Merry’s review helped me settle something that had been bugging me since the first trailers for the movie. Many of the jokes from the trailer, which involved cave-people doing modern things with primitive implements—e.g., using tiny alligators as clothespins—seemed terribly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them, or didn’t want to expend enough energy to do so. Merry makes the connection: they’re Flintstones jokes!
The upshot, this week, it seems, is go see Black Panther.