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Review: Black Panther

There’s a narrative lopsidedness to Black Panther that sharply undercuts Killmonger’s emotional journey.

3.0

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Black Panther
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Superhero movies are no longer events. They’re routine, as expected as the sun rising and setting, and considerably less beguiling because their narrative and box-office formulas, unlike a literal force of nature, hold little room for surprise. There’s too much money at stake. There are too many on-screen personalities and off-screen demographics to placate. Prepare for sabotage by alt-right dudebros or death by woke think piece, and sink into the social media cacophony of shouts and murmurs, sound and fury—all of it, yes, signifying nothing. Leeched of much of anything challenging, and bled dry by a vampiric commentariat (though still breaking bank on opening weekend), the film itself is ultimately beside the point. Bury the exsanguinated corpse in the virtual Netflix graveyard. Then, move on to the next victim.

A conundrum though: What to do when there’s obvious artistry in one of these vacuous behemoths? Say, Loki getting Hulk-smashed in The Avengers, or Wonder Woman rising toward the camera in all her Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL-scored glory during the climactic battle of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Up to now, such moments have been diamonds in the rough, few and very far between. Let’s acknowledge, too, that they’re a low bar by which to judge real genius, cinematic or otherwise. Now we can take some small pleasure in what director Ryan Coogler achieves with Black Panther.

This is a Marvel Studios production first and foremost, and you’re never going to forget it in light of the pro forma plotting, CG sturm und drang, and gratuitous Stan Lee cameo. Yet the external pressures surrounding the film—chiefly its status as the superhero flick involving and revolving around people of color—have kept the bean counters somewhat at bay. That, plus the fact that Coogler, who penned the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, is able to give many things here that impassioned, obsessional tinge required of memorable, if not always masterful, art. This is apparent from scene one, a lovingly crafted animated prologue in which N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) narrates the history of the fictional, scientifically advanced African nation of Wakanda, in addition to explaining the origins of vibranium, the metal that has allowed his people to stay hidden in plain sight for generations. (It’s also, as comics fans know, the base element of Captain America’s whip-it-good! shield.)

Wakanda is an effective utopia, while the rest of the world is beset by war, famine, poverty, and other ills; the great sin of slavery is glancingly referenced by N’Jobu, yet its damning, deleterious effects linger and resonate in how the story plays out. It’s clear that Coogler is more in charge than most Marvel hirelings when he smash-cuts from this fantastical opening to a basketball court in Oakland, California circa 1992. The sudden verisimilitude doesn’t feel faux, but lived-in. (Coogler is himself Oakland born and raised.)

While a group of boys shoots some hoops, an otherworldly drama plays out in a nearby apartment complex. It turns out that N’Jobu is in self-exile because of his disgust at Wakanda’s non-interventionist policies. Why should they harbor state-of-the-art technology while others (those with dark skin, especially) suffer at the hands of myriad oppressors? T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), N’Jobu’s brother and Wakanda’s king, finds his alienated sibling, brands him a traitor, and, in a heated moment, kills him. In the present day, this sin of the father comes back to haunt both men’s children: T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the eponymous hero, who’s next in line to rule Wakanda, and N’Jobu’s offspring, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who’s out for vengeance and his own chance at sovereignty.

The first section of Black Panther traces T’Challa’s ascent to the throne after the death of his father (who was murdered in Captain America: Civil War), as well as Killmonger’s exploits in the company of the demented, mechanical-armed mercenary Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw” and played by a non-motion-captured Andy Serkis). Coogler immerses us in the arcadian sights and sounds of Wakanda, which counts characters portrayed by a dream cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Isaach de Bankolé among its many residents. And he has just as much fun with the James Bond-ian derring-do of the Klaue plotline, which culminates in a South Korea-set casino standoff/car chase. It’s an imaginatively visualized sequence, featuring a splendid sight gag involving the remnants of a wrecked vehicle screeching to a halt. And it’s a terrific showcase for two scene-stealers: the spear-wielding female bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and T’Challa’s smart-ass, tech-savvy sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).

“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” says Shuri to white C.I.A. operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), whose hilariously befuddled reaction just about encapsulates the centuries-long absurdities (and accompanying horrors) of subjugating others based on their skin color. It’s evident that Coogler is attempting to use Marvel’s galaxy-guarding template against itself, and not just to address the immoral disparities of race, but also the ruinous civil wars that can erupt within an exploited and persecuted community. The Wakandans’ decision to hide from the world rather than work to better it is ultimately an act of cowardice. Killmonger is the flesh-and-blood result, a take-no-prisoners antagonist with a more-than-justifiable grievance against the society that quietly disavowed him. And Jordan—Coogler’s muse between this, Creed, and Fruitvale Station—plays the character with such moving, occasionally gut-wrenching commitment, as in a scene in which he visits his deceased father on the ancestral plane, that it nearly mitigates the goofiness of his moniker and the superficiality of the film in toto.

Could any film that features lumbering CGI rhinos and two guys duking it out in skin-tight wildcat costumes really bear the thematic weight for which Coogler strains? Never say never, but in this case—almost not quite. For all its delights of performance, production and costume design, and cinematography, there’s a narrative lopsidedness to Black Panther, one that sharply undercuts Killmonger’s emotional journey. His villainy crests slowly and crashes much too quickly; this is a case where an entire TV season might have leant some poignant and provocative layers to his character, though given Marvel’s dismal small-screen output, it’s more likely it would be a botch of a different sort. And for all of Boseman’s quick-witted charisma as T’Challa, he’s ultimately more of an in-motion action figure than a shades-of-gray superhuman, which puts him in lackluster line with the rest of the Marvel stable—soon to team up in Avengers: Infinity War.

The tension between commerce and craftsmanship is a key facet of American pop cinema. But as the budgets for blockbuster tentpoles have gotten larger and the projects more risk-averse (with Marvel Studios and its parent company, Walt Disney Pictures, as Exhibit A overlords of the trend) it’s become much too easy to acclaim fleeting inspiration and shallow gesturing toward diversity and goodwill as some kind of apogee. There is no doubt that Coogler makes the most that he can out of this property. And it’s more than certain that Black Panther will give audiences, especially underrepresented ones, a vision of themselves that Hollywood historically denies. And still the film seems, even at its best, like an apex of lowered expectations.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Sydelle Noel, Isaach De Bankolé Director: Ryan Coogler Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 134 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2018 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child

The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.

1.5

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Paddleton
Photo: Netflix

Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.

Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.

Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.

Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.

Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Iron Orchard Punishingly Leans into Nostalgia

Director Ty Roberts’s film is unable to realize that its subject matter is that of a horror story.

1.5

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The Iron Orchard
Photo: Santa Rita Film Co.

Ty Roberts’s The Iron Orchard opens with—and often returns to—shots of the sun glinting behind rusty oil rigs on the dusty plains of West Texas. The film hallows the region’s mechanical “orchards,” collapsing the extraction of oil via industrialized labor into the agrarian notion of “working the land.” These montages of dormant rigs, used whenever the film otherwise lacks a coherent transition between scenes, fit into this representational schema: The rigs seem almost natural components of the landscape, as solid and eternal as trees. Though the film is set in the mid-20th century, its title-card preface proudly proclaims that the oil fields of West Texas’s Permian Basin “are still active today.”

If that phrase doesn’t fill you will utter dread, you’re either the mysterious target audience or one of the makers of The Iron Orchard, a film unable to realize its subject matter as that of a horror story. The simultaneously bland and detestable protagonist of Roberts’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story, Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison), is a poster boy for mid-century toxic masculinity, a macho oil tycoon who thrusts audiences into the Anthropocene epoch because a girl rejected him. In McNeely, the film honors the ambition of a “slave” (to which he compares himself) whose deepest desire is to become one of the brutal masters. It styles as heroic both his early brutal assault of a co-worker with a baseball bat and his later jovial projection to a business partner that “maybe someday I’ll need some good, cheap labor.”

Laying twangy plucked guitar chords beneath crane shots of McNeely cruising through Texas highways in vintage vehicles (too pristine to be anything but collectors’ items, circa 2018), The Iron Orchard leans into nostalgia, assuming we’ll mistake the world that McNeely’s building as belonging to anyone but him and his bros. He lands in West Texas in 1938 as a laborer for the Bison Oil Company, after the family of his well-to-do Fort Worth girlfriend, Mazie (Hassie Harrison), tells him to make something of himself. In the film’s first act, whenever a motivation for McNeely’s bald arrogance and arbitrary petulance is lacking, The Iron Orchard flashes back to overexposed images of this painful rejection. Later, when McNeely is happily married to Lee (Ali Cobrin) and managing his own oil fields, the flashbacks are suddenly of his being bullied in school, as the film scrambles to find new excuses for his autocratic behavior.

While still working Bison’s fields, McNeely seduces the married Lee, in a series of scenes that should—given that the film’s thin dramatic arc will concern the ups and downs in their marriage—firmly establish their chemistry and mutual attraction. Instead, their romance consists of car rides peppered with superficial small talk-isms, whose quiet moments feel less pregnant with bourgeoning affection and more like awkward silences between two actors waiting for their next line. Appropriately, the finale to this courtship is an uncomfortable scene in which McNeely makes a move on Lee in her car, only to be shoved away as Lee voices her discomfort. This discomfiting scene is the last featuring both characters before, a few minutes later, McNeely declares: “I did it. I married her.”

McNeely puts Lee through the emotional wringer in typical great-man fashion, encountering Mazie again in polite society just as he’s beginning to indulge in the excesses of oil-tycoon life. The film’s narrative trajectory from this point is obvious, but Roberts and co-screenwriter Gerry De Leon fail to establish any true stakes throughout: Lee and McNeely’s romance is unconvincing from the start so it’s hard to feel anything when she discovers his inevitable betrayal; the film treats his naked greed as a neutral trait, choosing neither to imbue it with consistent motivations or treat it with a distinctive angle; and the exclusive society to which he gains access with his wealth is so insipid as to make one ponder its attraction. Lee unknowingly articulates our feeling when, during the rift in her marriage, she confesses to her parents that McNeely is “just trying to be a part of something that…I just don’t care about.”

Cast: Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols, Lew Temple, Hassie Harrison Director: Ty Roberts Screenwriter: Gerry De Leon, Ty Roberts Distributor: Santa Rita Film Co. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Wrestle’s Triumph Is Its Unmistakable Humanity

The documentary shines a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget.

2.5

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Wrestle
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

In the wake of Hoop Dreams, documentaries following the travails of under-privileged teenage athletes have become a genre unto themselves. In these films, institutions are ambiguously critiqued as well as often implicitly endorsed, as we come to share in blossoming adults’ efforts to win by playing by rules that generally don’t serve them. In each such documentary, we hope that we’re watching one of the exceptions to the pattern of casualties beget by the racial, classist strictures of this country—a hope that embodies the insidiously self-negating pull of capitalism. And this form of suspense quietly drives director Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer’s Wrestle.

For Wrestle, Herbert and Belfer filmed hundreds of hours of footage of four teen wrestlers on the J.O. Johnson High School team in Huntsville, Alabama. We learn that Johnson is a failing high school with low test scores and graduation rates, and so the new wrestling team, headed by young social studies teacher Chris Scribner, is an attempt to offer students direction and to allow the school to achieve a measure of self-respect. This information is introduced too casually, as one craves more context as to how Scribner sold his hopeless superiors on this team, particularly in a school that’s in threat of being defunded.

Herbert and Belfer home in on four of Scribner’s athletes: Jailen, Jamario, Teague, and Jaquan. Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are African-American, and wrestle with issues of neglectful parents, teen pregnancy, drug use, and indifference to the rules that various white people insist they follow for their own good. It’s in dramatizing this last point that Wrestle proves to be most evocative, especially in terms of defining the athletes’ relationship with Scribner, who’s Caucasian. Scribner’s aware of his white privilege, though it often gets the better of him anyway, such as when he repeatedly calls Jamario “bro” as if he’s the young man’s peer.

In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Jamario and Scribner almost get into a fight on the school’s grounds. To his credit, Scribner maintains his cool and talks Jamario down, but this encounter illustrates the distinct gulf of experience between coach and pupil. And this gulf is reaffirmed when a cop harasses and threatens to jail Jailen for public urination. Aware of the camera, the cop seems most concerned with Jailen’s “disrespect,” which is admirably contained given the circumstances, because Jailen knows that manners are a matter of life and death between black men and the police. Meanwhile, Jamario and Jaquan’s mothers—heavy, tough, impervious to bullshit—try to help Scribner keep their children on the straight and narrow. This is another thread that Wrestle should’ve elaborated upon: What do black women think of allowing a white man to assume a pseudo-parental role in their sons’ lives?

Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are commanding and photogenic, stealing the filmmakers’ attention away from Teague, a white teenager who reflects the path that Scribner was in danger of treading. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Scribner empathizes all too well with Teague, who’s constantly lectured for getting high before school functions. Teague embodies the recessive-ness of substance abuse, which isn’t acknowledged much by pop culture. Even when on screen, he rarely seems present, as he appears to be lost in his anger and hungers—though these emotions drive him to achieve a few startling victories on the mat.

Wrestle has a lovely, scruffy, wandering quality, and individual anecdotes are vivid, such as when Jamario learns of his daughter being born during his high school graduation, for which he fought hard to achieve. But Wrestle doesn’t have the spellbinding flow of Minding the Gap or especially of Hoop Dreams, and it may make you wish that the strictures and challenges of J.O. Johnson itself had been more specifically established, especially in light of a potent bit of information that’s revealed in the text before the end credits. Herbert and Belfer, though, do shine a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget, justifying indifference with various infrastructural metrics designed to cloud the human cost involved. In Wrestle, that humanity comes roaring to the surface.

Director: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer Screenwriter: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer, Pablo Proenza

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