BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER
The first, pre-Marvel-logo minutes of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are, as they must be, deeply affecting. So are the last, pre-end-credits minutes, during which our chief heroine – and the audience itself – is finally allowed to breathe and reflect after almost two hours and 40 minutes of exposition, incident, and action. And all throughout writer/director Ryan Coogler's superhero sequel, there are lovely grace notes, particularly in the actors' readings, that both suggest and demonstrate the haunting loss of original Black Panther T'Challa and, by extension, his unmatchable portrayer Chadwick Boseman. Nearly everything directly concerning the character's and the star's absence is moving. It's nearly everything else, unfortunately, that goes wrong.
No one could possibly envy Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole for the titanic rescue mission they were asked to embark on following the unexpected death of Boseman, from colon cancer, in the summer of 2020. Money being money and Marvel being Marvel, a Black Panther followup was going to happen with or without Coogler, Cole, or Boseman, and it's to the credit of all involved – including the bean counters at the franchise-dependent Marvel Studios – that Wakanda Forever is, and was allowed to be, so suffused with mourning and grief. But those qualities don't necessarily play for the comic-book base that the studio continually appears indebted to.
Consequently, for every instance of legitimate, lovingly rendered emotion delivered, we're also given a dozen keep-the-fans-happy inclusions to make those instances feel immaterial: dumb gags that are wrong for the mood and make no narrative sense; endlessly protracted (and, for the most part, poorly shot and staged) battle sequences in which little of import occurs; meaningless returns for familiar or half-familiar figures, including a dead one; hints at future movie and TV offerings to keep the Marvel universe expanding like a black hole. There's too much that's genuine and good about Wakanda Forever for me to hate it. But I hate the missed opportunity of it. If any Marvel movie was going to truly bust the shackles of formula, this would have seemed to have been the one. Those shackles, though, prove awfully tight.
After the opening matter of T'Challa's funeral is attended to – a beautifully crafted prelude that expertly employs Coogler's humanistic gifts and Ruth E. Carter's dazzling costume designs – we scoot ahead one year, with the former Wakandan king's mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) having assumed the throne and his tech-scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) lamenting the delayed invention that might have saved her brother's life. But the world of Marvel is no place for hand-wringing.
Attentions, therefore, are quickly turned to more theoretically fun topics, among them: (1) the global hunt for Wakanda's priceless store of the ultimate metal vibranium through a device created by Dominique Thorne's precocious MIT brainiac Riri; (2) the discovery of the previously hidden underwater kingdom Talokan, the only non-Wakandan locale to possess vibranium; and (3) the arrival of Talokan's king Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), who wants, in no particular order, to see Riri dead, the above-ground nations destroyed, and Wakanda either allying with him or preparing for war against him. There are also subplots, or more accurately detours, for returning Wakandans Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and M'Baku (Winston Duke); a pair of abductions, one of them more of an accepted invitation; a preordained Act II tragedy that lands precisely when you expect it to; and some needless CIA business for Martin Freeman's Agent Everett K. Ross and his supervisor and ex-wife Valentina, who remains the only character on the performer's résumé that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is unable to make appealing. So much narrative in this thing! So too-much narrative!
Like a well-meaning father who attempts to distract his kids with games and jokes while their hospitalized mother undergoes emergency surgery, Coogler and Cole appear to be doing everything in their power to distract us from lingering on T'Challa/Boseman not being around anymore, and the film subsequently falls apart in ways big and small. The passing is hardly ignored; it factors heavily in many aspects of the story, and there are touching, tear-filled exchanges for Wright, Bassett, Nyong'o, and others as they seem to respond to the tragedy, and their feelings about it, in real time. Yet I hasten to add that nearly all of these moments were already effectively highlighted in the trailer, which was 159 minutes shorter than Wakanda Forever itself and delivered roughly the same amount of catharsis. (Coogler's movie also doesn't give us that glorious rendition of “No Woman No Cry” that underscored the preview.) What we're left with, then, when emotions aren't at the forefront is standard superhero-flick activity and noise – among it the noise of empty wisecracks – that passes the time but in no way matches, let alone improves upon, the admirable Black Panther standard set in 2018.
Though Coogler's underwater sequences boast a bit of majesty and are a nice contrast to the happenings on land, the largely iffy visuals, especially when characters are in flight, are a pointed reminder that while the original film earned deserved Oscars for Best Production Design and Costume Design, a Visual Effects nod wasn't in the offing. (When Namor rose from the sea here and fluttered to shore with his adorable little ankle wings, it took all my willpower not to giggle.) But the fuzzy CGI, while irritating, is only annoying in fits and spurts. The ill effects of the dialogue, particularly the endless exposition and dopey punchlines, last longer.
Coogler's and Cole's exposition is more forgivable considering the reams of backstory necessary to explain the history of Namor and his people, who are likely being groomed for Marvel-franchise reappearances or offshoots of their own. Yet as amusing as Thorne's sass occasionally is, did the genius techie who invented the vibranium detector really need to be fashioned as a sardonic smarty-pants of the TikTok generation, dispensing quips even when she should theoretically be scared for her life? (On that note, did the kid's superhero suit need to be quite so similar – by which I mean identical – to Iron Man's?) And what's with Namor telling Shuri that he'd show her the realm of Talokan if the surrounding water pressure wouldn't crush every bone in her body, with the ruler then chuckling and saying, in so many words, “Nah, it's okay – we have some body suits lying around.” That line got a laugh from fellow patrons, but afterward, did any of them also stop to ask why the Talokans had pressurized suits lying around at all? If the kingdom has been hidden from humanity since its centuries-ago inception, what's with the suits? Did they make 'em just in case an air-breather stumbled in and wanted a tour?
As long as I'm referencing Shuri and Namor (the latter of whom many comic-book hounds, including me back in the day, may more readily recall as the Sub-Mariner), I may as well mention two of Wakanda Forever's other significant problems, because they turn out to be Shuri and Namor. Letitia Wright is a talented young actor with a winning, delicate bearing and gift for comedy, and it makes narrative and emotional sense for T'Challa's sister to be the new inhabitant of Black Panther garb. Wright does not, though, possess the performance resources (yet) to adequately portray incensed, self-righteous determinism or murderous rage, and so Shuri's plot-dependent ventures into that emotional terrain don't really work.
I get that the character is meant to be a little at-sea following her brother's death, just as Wright seems a bit overwhelmed by having, through tragic circumstance, to be an acceptable replacement for Chadwick Boseman. But it's too massive a load, at present, for Wright to carry, and she doesn't (again – yet) have the instincts or inherent gravitas of Nyong'o or Gurira or Bassett had one of them been the film's main protagonist instead. As for Mejía, he has a good look, but because he evidently hasn't been told whether Namor is a loathsome villain or a misunderstood antihero – perhaps because the Marvel brigade is waiting to see how he plays for paying customers – he doesn't end up giving us much of anything. Despite Mejía's imposing frame as the king of Talokan, he's not scary, not intimidating, not funny, not charismatic, not especially interesting … . Like Namor himself, he's just all wet.
There's a scene more than halfway through the film in which a battleship topples to its side, threatening to plunge its inhabitants into the ocean, and it's impossible not to notice that the undersea denizens of Talokan, with their blue skin and friendly demeanor, look uncannily like the Na'vi of long-ago (and returning-next-month) Pandora. Were Coogler and the Marvel team purposefully bringing to mind Titanic and Avatar just to show that they could outdo James Cameron? If so, the hubristic experiment didn't take, and while the tributes to Boseman are welcome and poignant, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in the end, is just another disappointing Marvel sequel in a year that's already seen sub-par continuations for Doctor Strange and Thor. Remember when Ryan Coogler was the guy who made that tight, fiercely effective 2013 indie drama Fruitvale Station? Does Coogler himself even remember that guy? Between Creed and the Black Panthers, and despite their considerable success, he's been in IP purgatory for a long time now. Let's hope that, with this followup out of the way, the Coogler of now and the Coogler of nine years ago can be reintroduced. I'd love to see what they might come up with.
A young father, separated from his child's mother for an undisclosed number of years, takes his 11-year-old daughter on a week-long vacation to a semi-cheap Turkish resort. It takes a while to secure their room, and slightly longer for Dad to secure a roll-out cot for the two-bed room he was promised. They eventually get settled. They lounge by the swimming pool. They partake of the buffets. They play actual pool with fellow vacationers. They snorkel. They visit local tourist traps. They sit through banal dinner entertainment. The daughter enjoys a motorcycle-riding game at the arcade and experiences her first kiss. The father practices Tai chi and buys an expensive rug. They occasionally bicker. They more often bond. The girl gets on a plane and returns home. They record some of this on a camcorder.
That's Scottish writer/director Charlotte Wells' Aftersun. Not in a nutshell; in its entirety. (Well, almost.) And from its opening images to its semi-abstract climactic shot, this beguilingly intimate 100-minute debut feature – currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey – is also one of the most thunderously powerful, emotionally annihilating movies I've seen in all of 2022. I'm an admittedly easy crier, but I welled up, if not discreetly wept, on at least a dozen occasions in Wells' film, and nearly always at events that weren't even remotely sad. Hell, I welled up just typing that ridiculously remedial plot synopsis. That's the kind of screen magic we're dealing with here.
When reviewing, performance, narrative, and elements such as pacing and clarity of intent are relatively easy to describe – or can at least be described in a straightforward manner. Mood, at least for me, is infinitely harder to convey, and my biggest fear in raving about Aftersun the way I want to lies in knowing how badly I'll likely fail in the task. But Wells' movie is practically nothing but mood, and that mood, at its core, is centered on loss. On the surface, at least initially, everything seems hunky-dory with Calum (Paul Mescal), the 30-year-old father who will celebrate his 31st while vacationing with daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). The two obviously adore one another; they share a laugh over the 11-year-old not wanting to hang with the chaperoned resort guests who are “like, kids” and Calum not wanting to hang with the adults; they both love their frequent time spent lazily tanning and in the water. Yet with the amount of verbal exposition Wells provides easily able to fit into an acorn cap, we gradually become aware that Sophie is not only quickly growing up, but her dad – without Sophie's immediate awareness – is quickly falling apart.
We're witness to dream-like, oddly harrowing flashes of Calum dancing alone in a strobe-lit club with a woman of roughly his age occasionally watching him. We see, in an achingly unforced bit of staging, Calum order a third beer while having dinner with Sophie. We're privy to his quiet despondence when Sophie, interviewing her dad on the camcorder, innocently asks him what he thought he'd be as an adult when he was 11. And with Sophie out of the room, we focus on Calum's heaving torso as he sobs and sobs on the edge of his cot with his back turned toward us, experiencing a private, excruciating misery that is never explained or referred to again. Those of us who fell in love with Paul Mescal through his heart-wrenching work in the 2020 Hulu miniseries Normal People – particularly the sequence in which his character can't stop crying during his first therapy session – know how exquisitely, beautifully painful it is to watch the guy at his lowest. Turns out Mescal can also devastate us without us ever showing his face.
Yet Calum is only half of Wells' unimposing story – or maybe, as is revealed, less than half. Beginning with the grainy camcorder footage that opens the movie, and continuing through the conspicuous absence of cell phones and canny background song selections, it's evident that Aftersun is predominantly set in the late-1990s. What we're not aware of until later – and this isn't a spoiler – is that the unfolding central tale is part-video-testimony/part-memory/part-imagining of the now-grown Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), who is now a 31-year-old herself living with an infant and female partner. (In a brilliant stroke of cinematic fast-forwarding, the naked legs of the person we initially believe to be Calum are revealed to be those of the adult Sophie.) One brief camera pan shows this elder Sophie watching the camcorder footage taken from that week-long stay in Turkey, and suddenly – and based only on the prevailing mood – we understand a number of things that Wells' sharp, supremely elegant script doesn't feel it necessary to show. Calum, at some point after that vacation, has died. That camcorder footage is Sophie's last-remaining proof of his physical presence. And, above all, she misses her dad very, very much, and would very much like to have understood him better.
Again, these aren't observations based on visual or aural evidence. They're based on mood, on feeling, and Wells, in her first stab at a narrative feature, appears to already be a wizard at the evincing of feeling. Thanks to the writer/director's sensitive direction of the preternaturally gifted, remarkably unaffected Corio, you sense definitively what it felt like for Sophie to apologize for accidentally losing her expensive scuba mask, and to offhandedly chide her father for his financial instability, and to be forced to sing their traditional duet of R.E.M.'s “Losing My Religion” as a solo because Calum is too morose and/or drunk to participate. (I bawled like hell during Everything Everywhere All at Once and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On – both films, like Aftersun, released by those sadistic bastards at A24 – but nothing in 2022 movies has yet wrecked me quite like this karaoke sequence, with cinematographer Gregory Oke's camera unflinchingly positioned on Sophie's brave discomfort with reaction shots from Calum entirely absent.) Similarly, despite his cheery facade, you feel Calum's inexpressible insecurity and unhappiness when he ashamedly apologizes to Sophie for his negligence, and when he spreads his hands over the Turkish rug he certainly can't afford but buys anyway, and when, enjoying a late-night cigarette on the balcony, he sways to the music in his head while Sophie's deep-sleep breathing provides accompaniment for us but not him … .
Mescal's and Corio's are two of the year's most extraordinary naturalistic performances in a film that's one of the most confident, inventive, phenomenally moving feature-length debuts I've seen in ages. While a trip to Iowa City to experience it is certainly worth your time and gas money, I'm a little disappointed that Aftersun isn't playing locally. In truth, though, I'm also relieved. It would be hard to explain to my employers why I felt it necessary to return to Wells' movie at least once a day during the length of its booking.
THE GOOD NURSE
Because the last two months have been unusually jam-packed with family obligations and a local theatrical commitment, I haven't had many opportunities – or even much of a desire – to turn on my television, or even my computer, for anything beyond work obligations. (Barring, that is, episodes of TV series or movies I've seen a thousand times before that I routinely, absent-mindedly listen to as background noise.) Consequently, as opposed to the last two years in which debuting titles hit streaming services with the frequency that they hit cineplexes, I am wa-a-a-ay behind on recent releases that bypassed theaters. I still haven't caught up with Netflix's German-language All Quiet on the Western Front (very interested) or Apple+'s The Greatest Beer Run Ever (moderately interested) and the Ferrell/Reynolds holiday musical Spirited (if I must). At some point, I suppose I should also finish Andrew Dominik's Netflix provocation Blonde, although the 40 minutes I did make it through made me leery of spending another two hours watching Ana de Armas' Marilyn Monroe being serially, gruesomely employed as a victimized fetish object. But, you know, I guess I have time now.
Meanwhile, I did set aside two hours to watch Netflix's and director Tobias Lindholm's The Good Nurse, a Jessica Chastain vehicle that I heard was pretty good, and that apparently boasted a potential Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee in Eddie Redmayne. It's okay at best, and the Redmayne nomination isn't going to happen.
Based on a nonfiction by Charles Graeber, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns serving as adapter, Lindholm's dramatic thriller that's moderately dramatic and not-at-all thrilling is about a dedicated, financially strapped ICU attendant (Chastain's Amy Loughren) who begins to suspect that her new workplace bestie – Redmayne's seemingly solicitous and proficient Charles Cullen – is a serial killer who has been surreptitiously injecting patients' IV bags with insulin and other unprescribed drugs. The best parts of the film, as is often the case, involve Chastain, whose single mom Amy is also suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition that can't be treated until she's properly insured. Barring the weird third-act switch that finds the formerly nonthreatening Amy conspiring with the cops and making out-of-character exclamations such as “This is the smoking gun!”, Chastain is reliably terrific in her role, believably expressing her nurse's failing health, her love and fear for her children, her appreciation of Charles' attentions, and her unease and eventual terror about thinking the worst of someone she thought she knew. We should expect nothing less from the Academy's recently minted Best Actress winner.
We should absolutely expect more, though, from someone who won Best Actor a mere eight years ago. And while I'll readily cop to not caring for the performer in general, Redmayne proves hopelessly fraudulent here – as blithely, nakedly odious in his good-guy-who-turn-out-to-be-a-murderous-creep role as Hugh Grant was in his equally obvious and phony portrayal opposite Nicole Kidman in HBO's miniseries The Undoing, a performance also held in bizarrely high esteem by critics (and Emmy voters). Despite Chastain's smartly calibrated work and the inherent juiciness of the setup, most of The Good Nurse is a letdown: the predictable officiousness of the hospital heads (led by an ill-used Kim Dickens) who wish to sweep the deaths/murders under the rug; the blandly presented stalled efforts of a detective tag team (Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) trying to nab leads on their impossible case; the true-to-life but inherently unsatisfying resolution. Redmayne, though, turns an underwhelming movie, in its final half-hour, into a close-to-excruciating one, telegraphing Charles' villainy with a “subtlety” that's the opposite of sly when not rattling the speakers off whatever device you're watching this Netflix option on. The actor's big showstopper finds Charles in an interrogation room screaming “I CAN'T! I CAN'T! I CAN'T!” over and over for what feels like a full minute, and during that execrable time, I didn't feel like awarding Redmayne an Oscar. I felt like throwing a bucket of water at him and bitch-slapping that chronic hambone with an intensely Cher-like “Snap out of it!”