Simon Morris checks out Marvel Comics' latest superhero Black Panther, Oscar nominated comedy-drama Lady Bird and the animated feature Loving Vincent.
Black Panther is the latest blockbuster from Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s one-third ‘60s movies like Shaft and Superfly, and two-thirds antique boys’ stories like Tarzan and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.
Like them, it proposes a mystical, wealthy kingdom, Wakanda, in the middle of Africa.
The old king is dead, and his successor, T’Challa, also inherits the family gig of being superhero Black Panther.
Much of the infrastructure of Wakanda seems to be in the hands of women. The Queen Mother is Angela Bassett, the head of security is the Amazon Okoye, and there’s superspy Nakia, played by 12 Years A Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o.
More to the point, Nakia is an old girlfriend of His Majesty T’Challa, and he clearly still carries a torch.
T’Challa’s super-smart sister, played by Letitia Wright, is by far the best – or at least, most entertaining – thing in the film. She certainly lifts the mood when Black Panther looks like it’s in danger of taking itself too seriously.
The actual plot of Black Panther arrives from two directions.
There’s a vicious South African smuggler, played with all the stops out by Andy Serkis. He wants to steal the mysterious metal that’s the basis of Wakanda’s riches. You’ve heard of unobtanium and Valyrian steel? Now meet vibranium.
And from the left, comes a man with a grudge against T’Challa - Erik Killmonger, played by the usually heroic Michael B Jordan. Killmonger is an old-style Black Panther, out to start a revolution with vibranium weapons.
Like most superhero movies, Black Panther is entertaining to begin with, a bit of a slog in the middle, with an exhausting digital effects-driven battle at the end, followed by a teaser for the next film.
The one difference is that it’s mostly different people doing it – just about the entire cast and crew are Afro-American led by star Chadwick Boseman and writer-director Ryan Coogler.
Its premise is no sillier than that of Wonder Woman – swapping mythical Africa for mythical Ancient Greece – and it’s successful for the same reason.
Black Panther’s not campaigning, or making political points. Its significance is simply that that it exists, it’s a hit and it’s likely to lead to more.
Lady Bird is the spectacular directing debut for actor-writer Greta Gerwig and has earned five Oscar nominations.
It stars Irish prodigy Saoirse Ronan plays 17-year-old Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, and the equally good Laurie Metcalf as her longsuffering mother.
When Gerwig - who also wrote Lady Bird, clearly from her own experiences - was asked whether she ever jumped from a moving car to escape her own mother’s nagging, she replied “not a moving one”. But even if all the details of Lady Bird have been changed to protect her innocent family members, you suspect this is as much Gerwig’s story as Lady Bird’s.
But in fact it’s both Lady Bird’s and her mother’s story. This isn’t a traditional coming-of-age film, in which our heroine puts away childish things to strike out on her own.
Nor is it a pure “letting go” story in which Mom and Dad, nicely played by the self-effacing Tracy Letts, get used to the idea that the kids are gone and their job is done.
If Lady Bird is like anything, it’s more like a dysfunctional buddy movie, with mother and daughter emotionally handcuffed together and trying not to kill each other.
While the attention initially seems to be on Lady Bird, we find ourselves increasingly drawn to Mom, desperately trying to support the family on ever-dwindling resources. In 2002 – like now – it was far easier for kids to get low-paying McJobs than it was for parents to keep their better-paid real jobs.
The suburban background of Lady Bird is as confidently drawn as the lead characters - notably the nuns and priests who teach at Lady Bird’s Catholic school – despite her not actually being Catholic.
Yes, she has best friends whom she discards then resumes as the extreme mood fits, and a couple of first boyfriends who aren’t likely to be there for the long haul.
But the story is almost entirely the battle between mother and daughter – and it’s how accurately Lady Bird is drawn that has caused - I’m told - more people to ring their mothers than Forrest Gump.
It’s to Gerwig’s credit that we’re allowed to love both of them, even when they can’t seem to stand each other.
Whether the talented Gerwig will switch from her acting career to full-time film-making remains to be seen, of course. Like most spectacular debuts, the film tends towards the autobiographical. The test will be that difficult second film, but on the strength of Lady Bird, it will be worth the wait.
Another Oscar nominee, the extraordinary, hand painted Loving Vincent, tells the story of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh – or more accurately of the last few weeks of his life – almost entirely in animated versions of his paintings.
Not only do the 125 artists have to paint Loving Vincent by hand, but every frame has to essentially be a Van Gogh.
The plot is simple enough. A young postman – Roulin – is sent by his father to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother Theo.
There seems to be some mystery about Vincent’s death – did he shoot himself in a fit of despair, or is there more to it?
The blend of real-life actors – including Saoirse Ronan, Chis O’Dowd and Helen McCrory – with their painted portraits is surprisingly seamless.
The delivery of a letter may be the ostensible driver of the plot of Loving Vincent, but we are soon drawn into his life story – and not just the final few weeks before the fatal gunshot.
The story, frankly, isn’t the reason to watch this the Polish-British film. It’s the pictures – not just the original paintings by Van Gogh but the astonishing animation work by the dozens of artists drawn from around the world.
There are 60,000 paintings involved – all using the sort of thick oils Van Gogh used himself, and unsurprisingly the film took years to complete.
Serious students of Van Gogh and his work will appreciate what’s been done with these famous – and famously valuable – masterpieces. But even for tyros like me, the story behind the man who personified the cliché of the starving artist only discovered after his death is still fascinating.
For instance, I had no idea how short his working life was. Van Gogh started painting in his late 20s; eight years later, in 1891, he was dead. In that time he painted more than 800 pictures – and sold just one. These days any Van Gogh painting will go for tens of millions of dollars.
It’s to the credit of English co-writer and director Hugh Welchman, that, despite the detective-story structure, Loving Vincent is sympathetic rather than sensationalist film.
If all you know about Vincent Van Gogh is sunflowers and gloomy self-portraits – with or without both ears – then Loving Vincent is an eye-opener.
If you’re better informed, it’s still a technical wonder, and an immensely human story of a man beset by illness and of the few people who tried to help him
Will Loving Vincent open the flood-gates of more animated masterpieces by great painters? Judging by the eye-strain and hand-strain incurred by the film’s animators over the years, it’s highly unlikely.
No, like its subject this is an extraordinary one-off, and it deserves to be seen on a big screen.