Movies I’ve Recently Seen: Black Panther, Phantom Thread, Marty, & Way Down South

Four more films, in order from best to worst. Two are about white people. The other two are mostly about black people.

Black Panther (2018), Grand Lake Theatre

Yes, it’s revolutionary. In the age of Trump, Hollywood gambled on making a huge-budget superhero movie with an almost entirely black cast, set largely in a fictional African country far ahead of the West technologically, with an army of strong, women warriors.

But Black Panther is more complex than a simple good vs. bad action flick with dark complexions. The main villain has a serious point. And the hero must face some ambiguously moral choices. But I wish the filmmakers had confronted the absurdity of monarchy.

Black Panther also works as an amazingly fun action movie. The fight scenes are exciting, character-driven, funny when appropriate, and don’t go on too long.

A- Phantom Thread (2017), California theater

It takes a long time to get emotionally involved in this story about a 1950s fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the woman who loves him (Vicky Krieps). But as you begin to realize just how egotistical and obsessive this man really is, you get drawn inevitably into the story. A woman would have to be insane to put up with him. And yet Krieps’ character not only puts up with him, she does so in ways that could kill him. Lesley Manville plays the designer’s sister, who oversees his life and work. Excellent acting, camerawork (by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson), and design (of course) by Mark Tildesley.

B+ Marty (1955), FilmStruck

This very simple story of two people falling in love won the Best Picture Oscar in 1956. Marty, a 34-year old butcher (Ernest Borgnine, in a rare leading role) is still living with his mother. He’s not good-looking, and women don’t seem interested in him. Then one Saturday night, he meets a girl that other men reject, and love begins to blossom. But suddenly, all the friends and family who’ve been telling him to find a girl change their mind. They want him to be what he’s always been. The story is set over the course of about 24 hours, and with the couple spending a good part of film walking and talking, it could be a predecessor to Before Sunrise. One problem: the film has some Italian American stereotypes.

A bit of trivia here: Up to and including Marty, all but three Best Picture winners were in black and white. After Marty, all but three have been in color.

Way Down South (1939), Dailymotion

One would expect that a 1939 film about antebellum slavery, co-written by Langston Hughes, might provide an antidote for Gone with the Wind’s nostalgic racism (Langston’s writing collaborator, Clarence Muse, was an African American actor with a major role in the film). In some ways, it does. This ultra-cheap RKO B picture catches some of the cruelty of slavery – especially the fear of being sold. But it also paints the peculiar institution as some sort of paradise if you were lucky enough to have a kind master. (I’ve read enough slave memoirs to know that slavery’s inevitable evil morally compromised the kindest masters.) Perhaps this was the best Langston and Muse could do at that time within the Hollywood system.

The movie suffers from cheap sets, a dumb plot, and the very bland, pre-pubescent Bobby Breen in the starring role. It also looks horrible on Dailymotion. It’s an extremely low-resolution transfer from a very bad print. Worse, this pre-widescreen movie is stretched horizontally to fit the wide screen, making everyone look fat.