Capsule Reviews: Black Panther; Annihilation; Red Sparrow

Black Panther

Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. 134 minutes. ★★★½

Nothing—not even the Second Coming or a collaboration between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye and Kid A-era Radiohead—could live up to the hype Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was subjected to. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. While it has the standard MCU flaws (too long, overly familiar plot, hero boring in comparison to the villain), it’s an exhilarating superhero-action spectacle.

The two secrets to its success are its fictional setting of Wakanda and the performance of Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan, as antagonist N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The former is a vibrant Afrofuturist utopia so breathtaking that any scene not set there (such as a trip to Busan, South Korea, for a James Bond-ian caper) might as well be accompanied with a timer indicating how many more minutes we have to spend before we go back to Wakanda.

As for Jordan, a personality so charismatic he makes Tom Hiddleston look like Elmer Fudd, he brings extra dimension to a character already hailed as the MCU’s most complex and interesting villain. He owns this picture, which is nothing against this cast of thousands. A dream team like this is the only way Coogler could get away with relegating Daniel Kaluuya (Oscar nominee for Get Out), Sterling K. Brown (Emmy winner for This Is Us), and Danai “Fucking Michonne!!!!!!” Gurira to glorified bit roles. Let’s put it like this: when you have Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the same movie, and they’re the two actors you’re least excited to see in it, you’re in for something special.

Unfortunate, then, that the cast’s weak link is T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman—a decent actor in what I’ve seen him in, but here he finds himself outclassed by Jordan (no wonder “Killmonger Was Right” was such a popular meme in the week following Black Panther’s release) and Lupita Nyong’o. Then again, everyone seemed in awe of her CGI avatar in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, so maybe she’s always like that. One can hope.

Annihilation

Annihilation

Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong. 115 minutes. ★★★★½

Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland takes the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, mashes it up with Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” and produces the most psychedelically disturbing head-trip since Under the Skin. Natalie Portman plays a solider-turned-biologist who joins a four-woman expedition into “Area X,” a patch of land taken over by a supernatural “Shimmer” from which no one except Portman’s dying husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned. Inside the Shimmer they find a crocodile with the teeth of a shark, a hideous predator that howls with a heartbreakingly familiar voice, and all other manner of creepy imagery that would haunt my nightmares if I still possessed the ability to dream. Just don’t ask me to describe what’s in the swimming pool.

Garland has received a certain amount of flak for being less interested in the particulars of character and relationships than he is in the special effects. I don’t agree; I feel the dynamic between Portman and Isaac gets the exact amount of development it deserves. (Then again, I’m not entirely sure I accept the premise that one must necessarily be psychologically broken in order to want to take a potentially one-way trip to witness the unknown—but I freely admit I’m weird.) The supposed lack of character doesn’t hurt Portman, or Isaac, or Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the expedition leader in a career-best performance.

Awesome in the literal sense—as in, “it filled me with awe”—I can’t imagine it won’t have a high place on my “best of 2018” list at the end of the year.

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons. 139 minutes. ★★

Jennifer Lawrence reteams with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for Red Sparrow, a spy thriller that’s short on thrills or suspense but at least manages to be amusing in an over-the-top way…at least for a while. Sporting a tip-top Russian accent, Lawrence (Jen, not Francis) plays a prima ballerina who loses her livelihood in a fall but whose scummy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, cosplaying as the Mads Mikkelsen version of Hannibal Lecter) finds work for her as a secret-service seductress. This involves a term at what Lawrence euphemistically calls “whore school”—sadly, it’s located in Sibera, not on Mallory Archer’s Whore Island—because apparently in Russia, giving a dispassionate blow job is a trade skill you need training for. It’s the sort of place where, if one of your classmates attempted to rape you and you fought the bastard off, Charlotte Rampling would show up and chide you for prioritizing your fantasies of bourgeois virtue over the needs of the Great Russian State. (Rampling doesn’t actually say bourgeois but you can see her almost literally choking the word down.)

Unfortunately, things get a lot less interesting once the action shifts from Whore School to Belgrade, where Jen is tasked with seducing an American case officer—Joel Edgerton at his Joel Edgerton-iest—into revealing the name of his mole in the Russian government. While the second half of the film has its charm—particularly performances by Sergej Onopko as a particularly vicious cleaner and Mary-Louise Parker as a half-drunk McGuffin—most of it isn’t stuff you haven’t already seen before in Atomic Blonde, with better music, and Bill Camp instead of John Goodman. It’s the sort of movie where you can see every twist coming at least five minutes before it happens. Indeed, you should be able to figure out who Edgerton’s mole is about halfway through the film—just use the Law of Conservation of Character.

It’s not an entire waste of time, but it is the espionage-thriller equivalent of empty calories, if you catch my drift.

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