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Black Panther and Lesser Offerings in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Black Panther and Lesser Offerings in TheatersPhoto via IMDb.
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Black Panther is here! Go see it. Dude, I’m not even lying. There may be other movies out this weekend (I mean, there are—see below), but this is the one you want to see.

Black Panther

Ryan Coogler’s stunning first feature, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, proved his instincts as a storyteller. It also made apparent the force of nature that is Michael B. Jordan. That the two could go on just two years later to craft the fresh and vibrant Creed from the tired Rocky franchise showed that the blockbuster was as much in their mastery as the indie drama.

But a Marvel superhero action flagship? That’s Big. Big budgets. Big canvas. And with Black Panther, big expectations. Are Coogler and Jordan up to the challenge?

Hell yes.

Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Coogler, co-star Jordan and the stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger. And now, we need to re-think what these films are capable of.

The action—whether air battles, hand-to-hand or via car chase—is breathtaking.

Wielding a palette of colors and visuals unseen to this point inside the MCU—this set design is glorious, situating a SciFi tech metropolis easily within a world that still embraces ancient tradition, an isolated world that evolved in its own course rather than being led by the evolution of the world outside. Wakanda looks unlike anything we’ve seen in the Marvel Universe or any other.

Not a minute of the film is wasted. Coogler manages to pack each minute with enough backstory, breathless action, emotional heft and political weight to fill three films.

The cast shines from the top down, but there are some stand-outs.

Chadwick Boseman, all gravitas and elegance, offers the picture perfect king—one who’s respectful of tradition yet still ready to open his eyes to the plight of his brothers outside his hidden nation of Wakanda.

Side note: is there anyone more effortlessly badass than Danai Gurira? Trick question, there is no question—the answer is no. And though she has remarkable range (if you haven’t seen her 2013 indie Mother of George, give yourself that gift today), her General Okoye is here for the beat down.

Lupita Nyong’o is also characteristically excellent in the role of the conscience-driven liberal. In a scene where she expects Gurira’s general to commit what amounts to treason, Coogler expertly reinforces an amazingly well-crafted theme mirrored in other pairings: the friction between surviving by force or by conscience.

This theme is most clearly outlined by the conflict between Boseman’s King T’Challa and his new nemesis, Jordan’s Killmonger.

Michael B. Jordan, people.

Coogler hands this actor all of the most difficult lines. Why? Because it is material a lesser actor would choke on, and Jordan delivers like a perfectly placed gut punch. He sets the screen on fire, and though every single performance in this film is excellent, Jordan exposes the artifice. His castmates are in a Marvel superhero movie. Jordan is not. Instead, he is this rage-filled, broken, vengeful man and he is here to burn this world to the ground.

His scenes with Boseman provide a cunning twist on the battle between a struggling hero and his evil twin. Usually a tired staple of sequeldom, BP adds un undercurrent of Shakespearean drama to the inevitable showdown of two characters who could easily represent the dueling inner conflict of one.

Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.

Blistering social commentary, brilliant escapist fantasy, eye-popping visual wonder – Black Panther has it all.

Your move, every other superhero.

Grade: A

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Jamie Bell is a versatile, talented actor too often relegated to minor roles.

Annette Bening has always been a powerful performer.

Director Paul McGuigan—Victor Frankenstein, Lucky Number Slevin, Wicker Park—is, unfortunately, just not that good.

So, there you have it. In their collaboration, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Bening and Bell generate honest chemistry while imbuing their characters with relatable flaws and beauty. McGuigan surrounds them with flashy staging conceits and the single ugliest wallpaper the world has ever known.

It’s 1979 in Liverpool, and struggling young actor Peter Turner (Bell) makes the acquaintance of his quirky new neighbor, former silver screen siren Gloria Graham (Bening).

A one-time Oscar winner fallen on hard times, pretty, flirty and nearly 30-years his senior, Gloria is a mystery to Turner and, in turn, to us. Here is where the two leads rise above their script to develop something touching and lovely, something that mines the earth between starstruck and true love. It’s wonderful to behold.

Here’s how McGuigan wrecks it.

1) Bening cannot help but pique your interest in Gloria Graham’s life, and several courtship scenes expose something unique and quite worth an entire film. Unfortunately, the movie itself is a maudlin exercise in watching the decay of a once-vibrant woman, punctuated by flashes of that vibrancy.

2) He picks at themes of humanizing that which we objectify, even using fun visual nods to the seductive artifice of movies to slide between time spans, but he can’t truly abandon blandly by-the-numbers storytelling.

Which is a shame because, between the two stellar leads and a handful of amazing supporting turns (Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber leave marks) there was really something here.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:
Dread Central Presents: The Lodgers (R)
Detective Chinatown 2 (R)
Early Man (PG)
The Female Brain (R)
Have a Nice Day (NR)
The Intense Now (NR)
Monster Hunt 2 (NR)
The Monkey King 3 (NR)
Samson (PG13)

Reviews with help from George Wolf.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast THE SCREENING ROOM.


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