Category Archives: Commentary

Black Panther (2018): T’Challa’s Character Arc

Instead of writing a traditional review of Black Panther, I’m going to dive right into some analysis.  Before I get into spoilers, here’s a link to the trailer for the movie:

A good amount of pixels have been spent praising Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther.  Killmonger is one of the most interesting characters in any Marvel film, and Michael B. Jordan is one of the finest actors working today.  One of the things I like the most about Black Panther, however, is that the compelling antagonist doesn’t overshadow the protagonist like it does in numerous other superhero movies (e.g. The Dark Knight (2008); Spiderman: Homecoming (2017); Batman (1989); Superman II (1980)).  T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) journey is every bit as interesting as Killmonger’s.

On the surface, Wakanda is a utopia, but below the surface lies a troubling adherence to traditions that cause most of the problems in the movie.  To move forward, Wakanda needs a leader who will dispense with tradition when those traditions no longer make sense.  T’Challa becomes that leader by the end of the movie, but it takes some work to get there.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa dips his toes into breaking with tradition.  At the beginning of Civil War, he has already taken on the role of the Black Panther even though his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), is still alive.  He makes alliances with outsiders in Civil War, but notably, this is done to bring his father’s murderer to justice.  In other words, the alliances are meant to temporary at first.  The fact that T’Challa extends these relationships beyond their initial purpose shows that he has some flexibility as a character.

During the first part of Black Panther, we see T’Challa largely following in his father’s footsteps.  He performs in the same rituals as his father did, and fails to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice just like his father did before him.  This makes sense.  T’Challa has been raised to continue on a thousand-year old tradition.  Breaking with that tradition does not come easily to him.

What T’Challa learns, however, is that being flexible with tradition bears fruit, while following established protocol for no other reason than “this is how it’s done” leads to problems.  He spares M’Baku (Winston Duke) in trial by combat, which leads to an alliance later.  In contrast, when he fails to question whether trial by combat is such a great idea to begin with, he temporarily loses his throne to Killmonger.

The turning point for T’Challa is during his second visit to the ancestral plane.  While he is angry at his father for abandoning his nephew (Killmonger) on the streets of Oakland, when he tells the previous kings that they were “all wrong,” he isn’t doing so out of anger.  T’Challa realizes in that moment that following the old way, with its isolationism, trial by combat, and rejection of outsiders has failed in its essential purpose.  While these conventions were established to keep Wakanda safe, they have instead made it vulnerable.

Had Wakanda not kept the tradition of trial by combat alive, Killmonger would have not ascended to the throne.  If T’Chaka had just taken his nephew in as a child in the first place instead of rejecting him as an outsider, there would have been no Killmonger.  If Wakanda hadn’t kept itself isolated, and helped the peoples of the African diaspora throughout history, there would have not have been anyone like Killmonger.  T’Challa realizes all of this before the end of the movie, seeks to learn from the mistakes of the past, and plans to build a better future.

This is for the best.  An isolated Wakanda will do no one any good once Thanos comes around in May.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Full Analysis Part 2

Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things.  First, I saw the film a second time.  Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950).  This has sharpened my view of the movie.  While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some.  It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie.  But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.

None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present.  Most feel nit-picky to me.  One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements.  Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy.  Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.

The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker.  The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile.  The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?”  Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom.  But why?

I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me.  I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film.  The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.”  Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them.  If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw.  But how serious of a flaw is it?

Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon.  Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film.  Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more.  This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story.  For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.

The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.”  That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.

Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason.  The first two are bad movies, full stop.  The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II.  I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it.  A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too.  We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.

That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies.  The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books.  If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now.  The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.

If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games,  so be it – film has always been a commercial artform.  But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot.  If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

 

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Full Analysis Part One

I promised a full analysis of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and why I liked it so much. In order to really get into my thoughts, I’m going to have to delve into the details of the movie.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:

And here’s a “jump” so that you don’t accidentally see anything:

Continue reading Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Full Analysis Part One

Dispatches from the Frozen Land: What’s To Be Done?

Otto von Bismarck never actually said that oft-attributed phrase “laws are like sausages,” but I’m sure someone, at some point, said that about showbiz.  It doesn’t have to be that way, it shouldn’t be that way, plenty of us thought it wasn’t that way anymore, but here we are.  I feel like a vile, mocking voice out of the past is screaming, “See, look, for all your thoughts of progress my horrors are still with you.”

I’m not naive enough to think that harassment, exploitation, and abuse were exorcised from the makings of movies – there has been plenty of evidence to the contrary.  What strikes me this week is the prevalence, and the shrugging in the face of that prevalence, of grotesque behavior at the highest levels of Hollywood.   If one of the top producers in the business has been getting away with this filth for this long, what else is going on that hasn’t been reported yet?

It brings me to question what’s to be done, not just with the people responsible, that’s obvious (or at least should be obvious), but what’s to be done with the art?  We could gather a bunch of Miramax DVD’s and burn them in the town square for all to see.   We’d be creating one heck of a bonfire, to potentially no end except for momentary catharsis and permanent air pollution.  Besides, film is a collaborative artform.  Should the hundreds of people who worked on these films be punished for the actions of one of the lead producers?

I think we can separate art from its process by placing it in context.  Once we start censoring and boycotting any artistic expression, that’s the beginning of the end.  That seems easy, but it’s not.  Lauding the art and ignoring the process enables that process.  After all, that’s why Weinstein got away with it for so long.  If his movies had failed fewer people would have put up with his criminal behavior.

So what can be done? First, the industry needs to shine light on other abusers and scumbags.  Second, the industry needs to deny short-term rewards to these people.  This is easier said than done.

The first depends on people working in an industry where the most vulnerable are the least free to speak out.  “You’ll never work in this town again” is a real threat in Hollywood.  The second depends on audiences, critics, and awarding organizations knowing about the behavior and punishing it by staying away.  This is problematic because it potentially punishes a lot of hard-working cinematographers, makeup artists, set designers, etc. who may have had nothing to do with the actions of an actor/director/producer.  Action needs to be taken before these productions start, not long afterwards.

I’m encouraged by the voices that have been out there this past week, but the pressure needs to be kept up.  Things can change, but if we lose focus, that’s how the status quo resumes.  With that, I hope this past week is the start of something big, rather than a blip on the radar.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 150th Birthday, Canada!

As someone who grew up around Buffalo, New York, I’ve been long aware that July 1st is Canada Day, the day that Canadians celebrate the Constitution Act of 1867, which created the Dominion of Canada, a semi-autonomous colony of the British Empire.  While it would take a few more laws to create a fully independent Canada, the last being the Constitution Act of 1982, Canada Day is celebrated as the de-facto independence day of Canada.

Wait!  1867?  That was 150 years ago!  Happy sesquicentennial Canada!  To celebrate further, let’s point out some well-known, and not so well-known, Canadian pop culture facts.

Music

Well Known: Many popular musicians are Canadian.  In fact, by percentage of population, you are far more likely to become a famous musician if you are born north of the border than if you are born in the U.S.A. (pun intended).  Just ask Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Celine Dion, or for better or (mostly) worse, Justin Bieber.

Not So Well Known: 35% of all music played on Canadian radio stations must be Canadian Content, or “CanCon.”  For a primer on the bizarre world of CanCon, here’s an article from “the Ringer:” Strange Brew: The Weirdest Canadian Pop Music From the ’90s and ’00s.

Movies

Well Known: Dozens of popular American films have been shot in Canada, especially Toronto.  Recently I even caught a movie actually set in Toronto, “What If?” with Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, and Adam Driver:

Not So Well Known: There is a unique Canadian film industry that stands apart from Hollywood.  Every ten years, the Toronto International Film Festival makes an all time, top ten list of Canadian films.  The most recent list can be found on Wikipedia here.

Television

Well Known:  Well, Fargo is shot in Calgary, so there’s that.  And no, St. Cloud, Minnesota does not look anything like Calgary.  Think college town, not city-city.

Not So Well Known: When I was a kid there was a show I used to watch on CBC (we got CBC in Western New York) called “The Raccoons.”  It was set in Western Canada and followed the adventures of Bert Raccoon and his friends.  Here, it’s on YouTube:

Anyway that’s what I have on Canada.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

2017 Oscar Preview

Alas for the days when I could do an Oscar preview week.  Unfortunately, this year I haven’t been paying much attention.  This is probably due to the fact that I haven’t seen a single Best Picture nominee, so I’m really in no place to comment on the merits of the nominated films.  All I can really do for a “preview” is recap the guild awards and make guesses.

Visual Effects

“The Jungle Book” won the Visual Effects Society Award.  While this hasn’t always been the best predictor of the Visual Effects Oscar, I guess it’s the best I can do, since the only nominee I’ve seen was “Rogue One,” and, while its effects were great, they were also pretty standard-issue “Star Wars” effects, which are not very exciting at this point.

Screenwriting

I can’t read the tea leaves using the Guild awards here.  “Arrival” and “Moonlight” won the Writer’s Guild Awards, but for some reason the WGA thinks that “Moonlight” is an original screenplay and the Academy thinks it’s an adapted screenplay.  It’s safe to say that one of them will win for Adapted Screenplay.  As for Original Screenplay, I’ll just go with this year’s “probably will win a bunch of awards” movie – “La La Land.”

Supporting Actor/Actress

You usually can’t go wrong with using the SAG Awards as a barometer for picking the Oscars.  Actors are the largest voting block after all, so their opinion carries the most weight.  This usually holds true more-so for supporting roles than lead roles I think. Although I could be wrong – I say that just because I can think of a few SAG/Oscar differences for lead roles off the top of my head but not for supporting roles.  You (probably) can expect Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viola Davis (finally, for “Fences”) to add Oscar-Winner to their resumes.

Lead Actor/Actress

Emma Stone has been consistently cleaning up for her role in “La La Land.”  The safe money is on her.  How does she lose?  Only if there is a significant hype-related backlash against “La La Land” (perhaps prompted by Aziz Ansari style criticism of the movie).

La-La Land Interrogation (SNL)

If Stone loses, the Best Actress race is wide open.

As for Lead Actor, the SAG Awards honored Denzel Washington for his performance in “Fences.”  This might be a matter of Casey Affleck (“Manchseter by the Sea”) and Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”) cancelling each other out.  A third Oscar for Washington would certainly be earned, however.

Best Director

Damien Chazelle will probably win if “La La Land” cleans up as expected.  If not, then I have no idea how to call this one.  No one is an established auteur this year like Spielberg or Scorsese, so there’s no default “if X doesn’t win, Y will win.”

Best Picture

“La La Land” will probably win.  First, it’s been winning a lot.  Second, it’s made a solid amount of money at the box office ($135M and counting).  Third, it’s a movie about experiences that Academy voters can relate to pretty easily (living in Los Angeles, making it in showbiz).

How does “La La Land” lose?  Well, “Hidden Figures” won the SAG award for best ensemble so it has a chance.  Also “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” got slightly better reviews than “La La Land” so that’s worth taking into account.

What to Watch Out for

How do you know there are cracks in the “La La Land” wall?  Check out Original Song.  If Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana,” beats out either “La La Land” song, we might be in store for a surprising night.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

 

Live Action Remakes of Animated Classics – A Discussion

Recently there has been a push by Disney and others to remake classic animated films as live action films.  With the upcoming live action versions of Ghost in the Shell and Beauty and the Beast, now is the perfect time to discuss if this is a good or completely unnecessary thing.  I would posit that it can be good, but is often unnecessary.  Let’s examine a few examples in alphabetical order:

Animal Farm (Animated 1954; Live Action 1999)

The British, animated version of Animal Farm still haunts my nightmares.  The live action, made for TV version does not.   That isn’t to say that the animated version didn’t deserve a live action update, it kind of does, but the version that they came up with just doesn’t work for me.

Verdict: Not a bad idea.

Beauty and the Beast (Animated 1991; Live Action 2017)

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a front-runner for greatest animated film of all time.  It is responsible for the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s, features great music, and stunning examples of the lost art of hand-drawn animation.

That isn’t to say a live action version is a bad idea.  This spring’s release is highly anticipated, solidly cast, and looks good on the trailers.  I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve actually seen it.

Verdict: Still an open question.

Charlotte’s Web (Animated 1973; Live Action 2006)

Charlotte’s Web is an undisputed classic of children’s literature.  With source material this good, movies were inevitable.  The first attempt was a 1973 Hanna/Barbera production notable for the fact that it is one of the few Hanna/Barbera projects based on a preexisting property.

The animated version remains a classic due to Debbie Reynolds’ voice-over work as Charlotte and a few catchy songs (some better than others).  It’s not a perfect film, but it certainly captures the joy and sadness of E.B. White’s iconic novel.

Meanwhile, the 2006 version has way too many celebrity voices and is kind of creepy.  It’s not a horrible film, just a waste of time given that the original, animated version still exists.

Verdict: Unnecessary.

Cinderella (Animated, 1950; Live Action 2015)

The original Cinderella is a classic of the Disney catalogue, so much so that its reputation at this point is beyond criticism.  Even so, the story of Cinderella isn’t so unique that it can’t do without an update or two.  Arguably, remaking Beauty and the Beast has a higher degree of difficulty because it came out more recently and has a more unique take on a classic tale.

The live action version is pretty good.  It’s not quite as good as the animated version but a solid film that stands on its own merits.

Verdict: There was no reason not to do this, and no reason to do this.

Ghost in the Shell (Animated 1995; Live Action 2017)

I’m tempted to reserve judgment on this one, but I’m not going to do that.  First of all, remaking Ghost in the Shell with an American actress in the lead role is obnoxious.  That should be enough to consider this a problem, but there’s actually another good reason why one shouldn’t remake this particular property.

While Ghost in the Shell is a landmark of anime, the original film suffers from some of the problems of anime – it’s somewhat opaque and has a lot of nudity and violence for the sake of there being nudity and violence.  However, whatever value a live action remake could have has been supplanted by an excellent television series. The Stand Alone Complex television series does a much better job with the characters already without as many anime-related problems.

Verdict: Pointless Hollywood cash-grab.

Lord of the Rings (Animated 1978, 1980; Live Action 2001, 2002, 2003)

Let’s see.  Mediocre animated adaptation versus one of the best films every made.  Hmmmm.

Verdict: An absolutely necessary and brilliant idea.

There’s a few other examples, like 101 Dalmatians, but I’ll stop there.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe