BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER: 3 ½ STARS
This image released by Marvel Studios shows Angela Bassett as Ramonda in a scene from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
The world was shocked when Chadwick Boseman passed away in 2020 at the tender age of forty-four, just two years after finding superstardom as King T’Challa in “Black Panther.” His passing of him left the future of the “Black Panther” franchise in flux. Would it be possible to make a “Black Panther” movie without the Black Panther?
The second film in the series, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” answers the question. The new film has all the action you expect from a blockbuster Marvel movie, but also acts as a eulogy of a sort to the late actor and his most famous character from him.
“Wakanda Forever” begins on a sombre note, acknowledging the passing of T’Challa. “Your brother is with the ancestors,” Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) tells of her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright). After a grand funeral fit for a king, director Ryan Coogler moves the action forward for one year.
Queen Ramonda, still healing from the wound left by T’Challa’s passing, is forced to defend her kingdom from international poachers attempt on stealing their most valuable resource, a rare metallic ore with energy-manipulating properties called Vibranium. “We mourn the loss of our king,” she informs the United Nations, “but do n’t think for a moment that Wakanda has lost its ability to protect her resources from her.”
Meanwhile, the US military discovers a cache of Vibranium, previously thought to only exist in Wakanda, at the bottom of the ocean. But before you can say “Wakanda Forever,” the expedition is attacked by sea people, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), “feathered serpent god” of an ancient race of teal-skinned underwater people who look like they could have been extras in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
Namor’s kingdom of Talokan also has Vibranium, and now that Wakanda has made the ore’s awesome power public knowledge, his nation is under threat from people who want what they have. That puts Wakanda at odds with an enemy unlike any they’ve fought before, an army outfitted with Vibranium weapons.
With a 2-hour-and-41-minute runtime, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” takes on a lot. It’s a study in loss and grief mixed with big time Marvel action set pieces. In addition, Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole have woven an indictment of colonialism into both the history of Wakanda and the Mayan-influenced backstory of Talokan. It makes for rich subtext in the storytelling, even if the movie occasionally has a rough time balancing all its elements.
If those missteps can be forgiven, it’s simply because “Wakanda Forever” isn’t a typical Marvel film. It exists outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That means there is no connection to the other Avengers films, and it is better for it. Instead of feeling as if it is a puzzle piece of a larger picture, it is its own thing, a movie able to walk a different path and get away from the increasingly rigid structures of the late period MCU movies. The mix of the intimate and epic is what makes this movie work, both as a tribute to Boseman and as blockbuster entertainment.
The ensemble cast is very strong, but it is Bassett who leaves a mark. As Queen and T’Challa’s mother, she is majestic and melancholy, a woman attempting to balance duty with grief. “I am Queen of the most powerful nation in the world,” she says in anguish, “and my entire family is gone. Have I not given everything?” It’s a powerful moment and a poignant exploration of the weight that comes with loss coupled with obligation.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has a few draggy moments, but its determination to be its own thing makes for compelling viewing.
THE FABELMANS: 4 STARS
This image released by Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment shows Gabriel LaBelle, from left, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters and Sophia Kopera in a scene from “The Fabelmans.” (Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP)
Steven Spielberg has made personal films before but none are as intimate as the semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” now playing in theaters. In the film, the teenage Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) finds the power of movies and storytelling help him deal with a family crisis.
Set in the 1950s and 1960s, and loosely based on the director’s childhood, the story focuses on Sammy, played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child and LaBelle as a teen, oldest son of post-World War II era Arizona housewife Mitzi ( Michelle Williams) and engineer Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano).
On his first visit to the movie theater he sees “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a dazzler of a picture that leaves a lifelong impression. Soon, he is making his own short films, staging elaborate scenes with his toy trains, and later making live-action war movies with his pals. He figures out how to make special effects—like poking holes in the film to replicate gun flashes—and constantly has the camera pressed against his eye, even on family camping trips.
The world of make-believe is a comfort to the youngster whose home life is showing signs of strain. As Burt moves the family cross country for work, Mitzi, an artistic soul like her son de ella, becomes despondent, and even buys a pet monkey to keep her company in their new house de ella.
As Burt and Mitzi’s marriage crumbles, Sammy faces antisemitism and bullies at his new school, a father who calls his all-consuming interest in filmmaking “a hobby” and an over-the-top girlfriend (Chloe East), who has pin-ups of Jesus on her wall next to the pop stars of the day.
His journey ultimately leads him to a Hollywood legend who teaches him a valuable lesson in how to make movies—which is also the film’s best visual joke—just before the end credits roll.
Spielberg is often accused of sentimentalism, so it is curious that “The Fabelmans” is not a maudlin movie. It bristles with life, love, frustration and heartbreak, all blended together to bring the family, and especially Sammy, to vivid life. Sometimes life is messy—the cause of Mitzi’s “episodes” is difficult for Sammy to understand—and sometimes it is sublime—Sammy’s discovery of his pure, unadulterated love of film—but it never feels as if Spielberg is romanticizing the past.
The 1950s part of the film has a certain glow about it, as if it’s being recounted by a Sammy, just a boy at the time. As he grows up, and his understanding of his family dynamic grows, the film takes on a different personality. The rough edges are not smoothed over as Sammy retreats into the world of make believe as a remedy for the tensions at home. The storytelling is episodic, but never less than emotional.
As “The Fabelmans” unfolds, two scenes reveal the mix and match of the effect of Spielberg’s parents, one a technician, the other an artist, on young Sammy.
The first comes in the form of a visit from Sammy’s Uncle Boris, played by Judd Hirsch in what may well be an Oscar nominated performance. In his quick in-and-out scenes of him, he is the truth teller who explains what it means to make art; the pain, the constant need to express yourself. It is a burden, but a beautiful one, and these scenes lie at the heart of the film, the idea of what it takes to create something extraordinary.
The second scene, near the end of the movie, sees Sammy learn an important technical lesson from a legendary filmmaker played by David Lynch. Lynch chews the scenery, clearly enjoying himself, while Sammy drinks it in. Spielberg even throws in a visual joke to ensure that we understand how fundamental the lesson was to him.
Both are fun sequences that reveal the filmmaker’s twin brain, a mix of art and science, that also echo his upbringing.
“The Fabelmans” ends with a shot that will warm the heart of any movie lover, but this is not simply a film for fans of the director. It’s a contemplative, poignant look at how art, and how it is a balm that helps sooth us in troubled times.
LANCASTER: 4 STARS
“Lancaster,” a new World War II documentary, now playing in theaters, is not simply a tribute to the titular British heavy bomber plane. The veterans who flew them over enemy territory express admiration for the giant aircraft, and speak about the damage they delivered, but this is more an homage to the brave aircrews who flew the planes, and won the war.
Directors David Fairhead and Ant Palmer, whose documentary “Spitfire” established their bona fides as aeronautical historians, are encyclopedic in their detail, but serve up the data with a heaping helping of humanity. Interviews with the navigators, gunners, radio-men and bombardiers, called “bomb aimers” by the Brits, reveal a sense of regret and the need to reconcile for the destruction the Lancaster bombing raids over Germany conducted by RAF Bomber Command caused, while at the same time acknowledging that without the aerial combat the war may have been lost.
“There’s no second prize in war,” one pilot says. “You either win or you lose.”
Through gravitas dipped narration courtesy of Charles Dance, we learn how the Rolls Royce-powered Lancaster could take the largest bombs used by the RAF and why it was crucial in the “taking the war to Germany” strategy. Through archival footage and scenes from the epic 1955 was film “The Dam Busters,” we get a sense of the massive scale of destruction that followed in the path of the Lancaster, but it really comes to life in the testimony of a German woman who survived the firebombing of Dresden.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the words of the people that were there, in the sky and on the ground, paint a vivid portrait of the destruction brought from above. With so few World War II vets left to tell the tale, “Lancaster” offers a valuable document. These firsthand recollections of the camaraderie, the fear—even when uttered through stiff upper “I was apprehensive” lips—and the human toll war took on them is eye-opening and important for future WWII scholars.
“Lancaster” isn’t a flashy documentary. It doesn’t need to be. Well-chosen archival material supports the story, but it is the human touch that brings more emotion than you may expect from a war documentary.