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Here are short reviews of some, but not all, of the films I saw in February 2018.
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2018): Black Panther, likely to be this year’s biggest film, seems to have already created a cinematic icon in its villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Sadly, despite enjoying the film, I find it difficult to partake in this aspect of the phenomenon. Erik seems, to me, a typical Marvel Cinematic Universe villain in that he has complex dimensions that are ironed out to fit the franchise’s neat worldview of grouping most people and entities into heroes and villains. He is a dangerous man who we are made to find appealing because he has a righteous cause (fighting against the oppression of black people) before we are forced to reject him because his strategy to honor his motivation (terrorism) is ridiculously evil and poorly thought out.
Instead, the character who has stayed with me the most from the film is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the protagonist. His transformation, which starts with him thinking he can’t live up to the heroism of his father before realizing that he must be different from (even opposed to) his father in order to be a hero, is the franchise’s sincerest attempt since Iron Man at articulating what is required to do good. Black Panther, through T’Challa, argues that in order to do what is right, it is sometimes necessary to give up on your desire to do what you believed was right.
The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018): The post-credits scene in 15:17 to Paris shows Alex Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler, the three heroes who stopped a terror attack on a train to Paris in 2015, being applauded as they ride a parade float. On the side of that float read the words “Hometown Heroes of Sacramento.” The entirety of Eastwood’s picture prior to this scene revealed how nobody from the three men’s hometown or the larger world, not their teachers, their parents, their friends, their former military commanders, their fellow soldiers, or even themselves really, believed any of them would ever receive such an honor or find such belonging.
The Florida Project (Sean Baker, USA, 2017): In a time when most films seem desperate to present squeaky clean images of their main characters, often making even the weaknesses of such characters quirky or cute, Sean Baker’s cinema embraces depicting figures who are bitter, acerbic, and selfish. If that’s all he had to offer, his art would still be welcome and refreshing. However, as The Florida Project, his latest picture about a poor family that lives in a Florida motel, reveals, Baker’s most significant skill is how he juxtaposes his characters’ alienating qualities with more tender and heartwarming characteristics. In turn, he fashions emotionally complex movies in which it becomes difficult to pin down how you feel about the people in them and their desires. Baker is not just a different artist, then, but a vital one.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott, USA, 1982/2007): What struck me about Blade Runner was how much it packs in its production design: many images are filled with extras, trash, rain, flying cars, city lights, and dirty clothes. And yet, Scott makes each stuffed image a stunning and alluring composition, capable of not just dazzling the eye, but also evoking emotions. You feel amused and alive as you watch the different citizens of this futuristic Los Angeles go about their lives, dread as they get caught in the middle of a shootout chase, wonder and awe at the cars and lights, and shock that such sights exist alongside so much garbage and dirt.
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villenueve, USA, 2017): While Scott’s Blade Runner is a triumph of direction, Villenueve’s film, a sequel set three decades in the future, only looks like one. This film goes on an opposite route from Scott’s, choosing to empty its images of content instead of overstuffing them. The result is a film that visually entices in the way modern audiences appreciate the most: it features wide shots with lots of negative space, attention paid to providing detail to the few elements of each image, and obviously careful blocking of actors and props. However, by changing the look of Blade Runner’s world, Blade Runner 2049 also changes that world. A universe that felt like it was overflowing with life now feels drained of it.
Ultimately, the result is that the characters of this entry feel too important. The original is a unique picture because it emphasizes that its protagonist’s story is one of a million, and that he’s only been roped into a significant event in his world because he’s good at his job. However, Blade Runner 2049, due to its production design and cliché narrative gambits, turns its characters into larger-than-life figures that are extremely impactful on the world they inhabit. In short, Villenueve’s work can be characterized, in that condescending turn of phrase, as a replicant. But the film is not a replicant of Scott’s masterpiece; instead, it is a replicant of most carefully constructed, but lifeless Sci-Fi, blockbuster, and yes, even ambitious art-house films.
Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy, 2017): A story about an older teenager, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and an young man, Oliver (Armie Hammer), who fall in love over the course of one relaxing and gorgeous summer in Italy, Call Me by Your Name’s major conflicts exist not because characters want different things, but because they don’t express that they want the same thing.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, USA, 2017): The Golden Globe winner for Best Drama and the BAFTA winner for Best Picture, Three Billboards has provoked a lot of controversy for the supposed redemptive arc it gives to a racist and evil cop character named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The controversy strikes me as odd, not least of all because McDonagh’s film has another supposedly heroic character who commits horrifying acts in Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes and yet few seem to be offended at her characterization. My guess is that viewers are more comfortable with Mildred’s immoral acts, which involve assaulting high-school students, setting fire to a police station and a man, and choosing to murder another man even though limited evidence exists that he’s a rapist, because they are in the service of solving the stalled and under-investigated case of who raped her daughter. However, it is my belief that Billboards rightfully views Mildred’s actions as wrong even if they are for a just cause and that the film sees Dixon, whose quest for redemption leads him to support Mildred’s desire to murder someone, as having a long way to go before he can make up for his past. Instead of confirming these characters’ heroic visions of themselves, then, Billboards presents both figures as broken, examples of how even those who wish to do good (whether to avenge a wrong or to redeem themselves) can end up doing evil especially when they realize how unhelpful the governmental, legal, and social structures around them are in serving up justice.
However, as rich and nuanced as Three Billboards’ themes are, the experience of watching the film is dreadful. McDonagh’s chief failure is tonal; he admirably tries to mix comedy and drama so that his film can be a provocative and rough experience, inducing whiplash in an audience that is conditioned to expect smooth and serious approaches to brutal topics. Sadly, despite taking a risk conceptually, McDonagh’s execution is lazy and safe. He seems to think that constructing clever dialogue and inappropriate moments is the same thing as being funny and that presenting characters who look sad or remark on their sadness is the same thing as being sad. The result is that his film is a far and embarrassing cry away from the creations of good writers and directors who actually put in the work to make their audience laugh at intentionally funny moments and weep at intentionally sad moments, while being even further away from the masterpieces of great artists who can craft funny moments that are sad and sad moments that are funny.