If the Marvel Cinematic Universe were a network TV show, we’d be closing in on the season finale. By the time Avengers 4 comes out in the spring of 2019, that’s 22 feature length episodes in a series that acknowledges that TV is the medium with the more powerful cultural voice and therefore apes the format where possible. Sometimes there’s an overarching story that advances the larger plot, and sometimes there’s a bottle episode that reduces the scale and scope by focusing on one corner of the world. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of those MCU bottle episodes, shut off from the larger superhero world, and all the better for it. TV is for the living room and film is for the theater, and it’s refreshing when a studio can eschew the increasingly dominant model for a self-contained story. That Black Panther is also impeccably cast, richer than it needed to be, and a pleasure to take in doesn’t hurt either.
Under assault from declining readership, corporate consolidation, and ideological fragmentation, Steven Spielberg clearly thought journalism could use a pick-me-up. His latest adult drama, The Post, dramatizes one of the profession’s greatest hits as a clarion call for speaking truth to power while also finding of-the-moment hot-button topics like women in the boardroom. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight tread similar ground in 2015, and The Post shares a co-writer with Spotlight in Josh Singer, but that earlier film resisted the triumphalism that Spielberg cannot help but indulge in. As old-fashioned as it is contemporary, The Post makes the viewer wonder if more cynical times still have a place for optimists like Spielberg.
Forsaken is a prime example of great acting elevating subpar writing, though in this particular case, the acting is surely helped by circumstance. Donald and Kiefer Sutherland star as a father and son in Jon Cassar’s western, and while nothing should be taken away from their work here, it must be easier to fully inhabit roles that superficially mirror real ones. When footage of Kiefer drunkenly tackling that Christmas tree emerged, did he imagine Donald scolding him for his foolishness, not unlike what happens in Forsaken? If the familial relationship helps them in their performances, it also cannot help but impact the viewer, never forgetting that there is something real happening onscreen when they argue with each other over their life choices. Without that potent dynamic, Forsaken becomes a substandard frontier tale, complete with rapacious industrialists, cowed townsfolk, and a man with a bloody reputation trying and failing to put that life behind him.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film for me is The Master, and his latest, Phantom Thread, is masters all the way down. Masters on the way out, masters continuing their brilliance, and new masters emerging into the mainstream. Daniel Day Lewis stars in what he claims is his final performance, putting a restrained cap on an expressive and dominant career. PTA continues to make surprising idiosyncratic films finely tuned to his voice, distinct from the homage and imitation of his superlative early career but of a piece with a resume that marks him as the greatest director working in film today. Co-star Vicky Krieps, an unknown Luxembourgian actor, also emerges in one of the finest performances of PTA’s filmography, standing toe-to-toe with Day Lewis and forcing him to share the film with a person whose name on a poster could someday soon reap the Day-Lewis-ian levels of anticipation. A film about perfectionists by perfectionists, Phantom Thread lives up to the high standard that’s come to be expected from PTA.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.