“This isn’t just our first concert. This is our first step into womanhood.”
Recently, Pixar’s strongest films have been those that draw inspiration from wider cultural backgrounds like Coco and Soul. Turning Red is the first to feature an ethnically Asian lead, and Domee Shi’s story about adolescence conflicting with familial duty and traditional expectations will likely be familiar to most of the Asian diaspora. This is a coming-of-age tale with the turmoil of Meilin’s adolescent hormones depicted by her literal transformation into a large red panda whenever she cannot control her emotions. I was aware of the “controversy” over the film’s direct references to menstruation, so was surprised to discover they were so limited — the title is unrelated, and there is simply a misunderstanding by Meilin’s mother who proffers a stack of sanitary pads; it does nothing more than normalise part of puberty in passing and in a healthy way. Rather, Turning Red’s focus is on Meilin’s strained relationship with her controlling mother and the fact it is her friends’ support that provides a calming influence. The sumptuous detail in food is noteworthy, recognising its cultural significance (Shi also wrote and directed Pixar’s Oscar-winning Bao short), but largely the engagement with Chinese heritage feels superficial despite the family running a temple. It is perhaps an unfair criticism since little is central to the story beyond lunar mysticism — like To All The Boysthis is ultimately about the teenage experience and simply happens to be Asian American led (which is a key part of improving representation). A greater issue is that Turning Red rapidly runs out of steam in its second half, with a conclusion that feels outsized for its personal story.
“I am Queen of the most powerful nation in the world! And my entire family is gone! Have I not given everything?”
The shadow of Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death loomed over Black Panther‘s sequel, but Ryan Coogler chooses to embrace it in an elegiac rumination on grief. Shuri has the fullest arc, as her rationality leads to a rejection of her mother’s traditions and an inability to process her grief, but Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda is the film’s greatest asset with a devastatingly powerful performance. Unfortunately, the nuanced exploration of these themes is diverted by the needs of a blockbuster franchise film to introduce new characters and hooks. Wakanda Forever opens on the world stage, as Ramonda refuses to share her nation’s vibranium resources, calling out the US military in contrast to other areas of the MCU. War nevertheless comes from beneath the waves in the form of Namor, reinvented here as the ruler of an underwater kingdom created due to colonial incursion into the Yucatán. Namor is a personification of indigenous rage, his cultural grief mirroring Shuri’s personal anger. Beyond that parallel, he lacks the depth that made Erik Killmonger such a fascinating villain — Namor is simply driven by an obsession that war with the surface world is an inevitability. Meanwhile engineering savant Riri’s introduction feels perfunctory in setting up an Ironheart TV show, whilst providing a fleeting Black American perspective — “to be young, gifted and black,” she quotes Lorraine Hansberry, before realising that means nothing to a Wakandan. The costuming remains exquisite in its detail, as does the Ludwig Göransson-produced soundtrack, though it is interesting to find that the film’s essential “blackness” is less immediately noticeable on this occasion, perhaps arriving so soon after The Woman King. The action, however, is the generic Marvel CG-fest with nothing memorable beyond a sequence in which the Wakandan men belay female warriors fighting over the vertical side of a ship. Coogler is to be praised that, with so much crammed into the bloated running time, its emotional core still feels heartfelt rather than hollow. Shuri’s interactions with those who knew her brother throughout the film explore aspects of grief, broadening her understanding, and particularly fascinating are her conversations with M’Baku who proves a surprising confidante. Nevertheless, Wakanda Forever feels hamstrung by its place within the franchise rather than elevated by it.
“What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of fate in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
Leaving aside Christopher Nolan’s misguided messianic desire to be the saviour of cinemas in the midst of a pandemic, Tenet is an ambitiously crafted, big budget disappointment. Relative perception of time has a been a consistent theme throughout most of Nolan’s filmmaking, manifesting here in the form of “inversion” whereby people and objects can be manipulated to move through time in reverse. This culminates in a couple of densely choreographed action sequences in the film’s final hour which operate with some characters moving forward through time and others in reverse. Unfortunately, the preceding hour and a half of less creative action and obtuse discussion by emotionally vacant characters will exhaust many viewers’ patience, worsened by Nolan’s oft-criticised sound mixing, frequently rendering dialogue incomprehensible as it is muffled by masks or overpowered by the soundtrack. Nolan’s past scripts demonstrate his capability at effectively communicating high concept ideas, be it the realistic time dilation of Interstellar or the multi-layered dreamworlds of Inception. By contrast, the rules by which Tenet operates only really come into focus as the film ends, rendering most of the action little more than pretty spectacle without clear stakes. Perhaps the intention is to force multiple viewings but nothing about Tenet is engaging enough to warrant the time investment.
“I don’t know what to do, man. All these sites have different shit. There’s not a lot of consensus in the bomb disarming community!”
Ruben Fleischer’s feature-length follow-up to the excellent Zombieland is neither as fresh nor as successful, though much of the blame lies with a “comedy” script in which I can barely identify a single actual joke. With a hapless pizza delivery driver forced to rob a bank when two incompetent criminals strap a bomb to his chest, 30 Minutes or Less has the sensibilities of a slacker/stoner movie, where a functionally coherent plot is generally considered sufficient. Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari commit to their roles but their talents are largely wasted here. Thankfully, the film is only one and a half hours long; preferably it would have been 30 minutes or less.
“You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.”
A triumphant take on the superhero movie that offers not just a new aesthetic (like Doctor Strange) but is steeped in black culture throughout. It bridges the divide between African and Black American culture but also pits them against one another, considering colonialism and interventionism from the perspective of the technologically advanced but isolated African nation of Wakanda, whilst recognising black anger that atrocities past and present are allowed to happen. It also does not shy away from ritualised displays of strength and violence, but they parallel the respect and empathy felt by T’Challa for his adversaries. Such nuance is unusual for a superhero, particularly one that is meanwhile challenging conventional Hollywood wisdom that a blockbuster with an overwhelmingly black cast would not be profitable.